Pedagogies after the postcolonial

TANIA ROY

 

 

AS a professor of English Literature in Singapore, I have been tasked over the span of my career with devising and teaching courses according to my specialism on postcolonial theory and literature, across different stages of the four-year degree. How does one engage postcolonial intellectual traditions and archives when positioned – as I am with my students – in an erstwhile colonial city whose extraordinary modernizing success has apparently extinguished the ‘post-colonial’ dimensions of memory, including, especially, the stigma of economic and cultural ‘under-development’? How are the truth-claims of literature and art of decolonizing societies from the previous century impacted through their dissemination in an urban environment that confounds conventional categories of cultural location and difference?

Over the past forty years within the Anglo-American research university, a canon of conceptual thought and criticism attendant to those traditions and archives has been consolidated at the centre of the discipline of English Literature, under the rubric of the ‘postcolonial’. How are the political assumptions of the field tested within a context that effectively instrumentalizes its own contributions to global knowledge creation? Whether in arts-practice and the concerted production of cultural spaces in the city over the past fifteen years, or as a measure of expertise within the research-ranked university system in Singapore, the facility with postcolonial critique serves in effect, if not in content, as yet another index of the city-state’s advanced ‘creative economy’.

To rephrase anthropologist Michael Fischer on this last line of perplexity: How to conduct conversations on postcolonial artistic and literary traditions in a space that seems to have successfully stepped over the history of its postcolonial development, to emerge, from beyond the classroom window, as ‘so 21st century, so first-world, yet afloat in the deep exchange circuits of Asia’?

I foreground Fischer’s alignment of Singapore with a ‘future city’ of global infrastructural networks to test the wider position, that cultural and artistic production in such an urban environment might offer the world an especially ‘Asian’ interrogation of those same networks. Put differently, my own reflections on encountering the founding assumptions of post-colonial studies, as well as its limits in an especially ‘Asian’ location within the Singapore university system, implies the need for remaining vigilant about where, and through what institutional logics, the question of ‘intellectual imperialism’ is currently raised.

Having transfigured itself from a congested river-town with low levels of literacy and employment under British colonial rule into a centre of multinational capital, Singapore has, today, the highest standard of living in Asia. Its hyper-connected, ‘world-class’ urban environment is home to more than 7,000 multinational headquarters. Of a population of nearly 5.7 million, more than a fifth are non-residents, ranging from migrant workers to salaried expatriate professionals. Significantly, the city-state governs 60 per cent of ASEAN’s infrastructural financing through its oversight of landmark credit-management schemes (also extending to Australia and China).

 

 

Singapore’s leadership in financializing megaprojects across Asia capitalizes, in turn, the city’s constant geo-spatial reconstitution through land reclamation projects. Consider, as an acceleration of infrastructural capacities created by land reclamation, the re-engineering of seven natural islands into the continuous harbour-front of Jurong in 2009 (just one area of the city that currently serves as a global node in petrochemical production). The foundations of such radical spatial redevelopment around a precisely anticipated urban future might be returned to the state’s remarkable post-independent accomplishment of providing 85 per cent of its population with public housing (800,000 public housing units stand upon a landmass that was itself expanded by a staggering 20 per cent of its original size).

Along another vector, Singapore combines urban design and infrastructural investment with massive invisible deep sea engineering works (for embedding satellite cables, or, as in the Jurong Caves, the world’s first underground storage for crude oil, providing mega-facilities for the storage of unprocessed products before their transit to manufacturing locations elsewhere in the world, and also, for the very technology of extractive capital).

This formidable integration of urban master planning with massive infrastructural expansion creates an order of continuous urban mobility, in the seamless, open-ended overlaying of geopolitical constructs of nation, city and region. We might understand this as the capacity for the Singapore government to not only manage or govern space, but to effectively ‘produce’ it. As Jini Kim Watson proposes, space might thus be considered, along with the cultural theorist, Henri Lefebvre, as a ‘spatio-political tool’ of governance that followed the financialization of advanced industrial economies after the 1970s.1

Nevertheless, as Watson insists, the Singapore case is indicative of how, across the Global South, this process already had its precedents in colonial rule. The strategic control and reconceptualization of long-standing archipelagic connections for the ends of (imperial) profit were continued after independence, in the state’s extension of national space over the geographical coordinates of territory, as over the segmented, plural life worlds of colonized peoples.

 

 

To inhabit this exemplary space, which enfolds older logics of neo/colonial governance and territorialization into a fully financialized, ‘so 21st century’ landscape, is to ask whether ‘Singapore’ is available at all to historicization, comparatism, and the typical periodicities that direct accounts of the decolonizing nation – those modalities of analysis and scholarly dissemination that comprise the conventional methods of postcolonial studies. Is it possible to render legible the traces of a colonial port-city – historically primed to function as a centre of world trade within imperial networks of financial and informational exchange – as the city loops back into our current conjuncture, as the Asian future of advanced industrial capitalism given that both artistic production and professional scholarship have been incorporated into the neoliberal rubric of ‘creative economies’?

 

 

To begin to respond to this challenge, I remind my students that in the late colonial period, through the first wave of industrialization and nation-building, Singapore’s relation to its geographical location has ranged across the gamut of 20th century contentions that we study as part of the course; and which have historically inspirited movements of decolonization more widely across Asia and Africa.

These include inter-Asian federalism (the mid-century union of the Malayan Federation), Singapore’s delayed or belated identification with sovereign nationalism (in 1965, after its ejection from Malaysia), oceanic regionalisms (from the Sinophonic designation of the city as the ‘Nanyang’ confluence of Southern Chinese arts and culture in the early decades of the 20th century, to the mid-century reclamation of the Old Javanese ‘Nasuntara’, imagined by cultural practitioners as a circuit of pre-modern maritime connections between the Malay Peninsula, the Riau islands and the wider Indonesian archipelago); and finally, to a lesser extent, the position of ‘third-way’ geopolitical non-alignment within the rubric of Commonwealth nations (between 1971 and 1979, in the Singapore and Lusaka Declarations against Racism, respectively).

Nevertheless, if ‘Asia’, in the paradigmatic citation from Fischer, does function today as a coordinate of both difference and co-temporality with Europe and North America, Singapore’s own claim to such a ‘non-western’ contemporaneity presupposes that these cardinal points of geopolitical location from the last century have been fully redrawn under the sign of the ‘global’. What is more, the archive of imagined or contested locations sketched above finds a resurgent, second life in prolific engagements with artistic practice and art history writing out of Singapore over the past fifteen years.

 

 

Most students in the humanities are increasingly aware of Singapore’s assertive presence in globally established venues of artistic exhibition, from a dedicated pavilion at the Venice Biennale since 2015, to the visibility of its young artists and curators at the most significant art forums in the world (including its own biennale). There is, more recently, the leadership presence of Singapore based practitioners at some of the most important transnational artistic platforms (such as the Gwangju, Sharjah and Istanbul Biennales) – a development that suggests the increasing subsumption of the norms and vocation of artistic practice into a mode of intellectual-administrative expertise.

Perhaps most impressively, the invention/curation of the high-cultural location of Singapore might be identified with the only museum of regional modern art and its contemporary legacies in S.E. Asia, Singapore’s National Gallery. Costing 370 million dollars, the monumental National Gallery incorporates into its faćade and internal spaces, two large Victorian buildings that once served as the Supreme Court and the legislative City Hall. This spatial redevelopment of a colonial civic centre is culturally significant for enabling what is, in fact, an historically unprecedented assembly of regional archives within less than a decade.

Combining sweeping urban restoration and contemporary design, the National Gallery is also a concentrated epistemic space; a piece of the wider, infrastructural and architectural redevelopment of the Esplanade area and contiguous spaces into a global ‘hub’ of the arts and higher education under the third phase of the Renaissance City Plan from 2000. The most recent of Singapore’s formidable urban planning policies, and a dramatic expansion of the first arts management policy from 1989, the portentously titled plan has since completed its call for nearly USD 30 million in arts funding over only five years.2

 

 

All this attests to the rapid construction of ‘high culture’ through networks that connect international academic publishing (through Singapore’s university presses), museological archives and planned spaces of exhibition, to globally visible levels of artistic and cultural production. This, in a city-state long associated with manu-facturing and industrial processing, and therefore, a cultural imaginary coordinated by a commercial, manufactured, or use-oriented understanding of the arts.

Such a disciplined transformation of cultural value might be viewed as of a piece of a longer history of the island’s postcolonial economic development. But the shift is also significant for consolidating, in acute and unprecedented ways, the value of intellectual and cultural capital for the current conjuncture. Accomplished a few years into the new millennium, Singapore’s transformation into a capital of the ‘knowledge economy’ suggests the exceptional cultural superstructure required by its bid for dominance over regional financial markets. By the same token, such advanced industrial culturalism is a measure of the ‘creative economy’ in its global ascendancy under the force of financial and information capital in this period.

 

 

Thus, while manifesting in novel formations (in, say, the normalization of counter-cultural artistic practices
within the category of ‘contemporary visual art’ in routinized exhibitions in Singapore and overseas, in the informed production of a postcolonial art history
out of a discipline that is, foundationally, an imperial formation, or in  the rapid transformation of built environments
into contiguous architectural elaborations of planned ‘cultural space’), accelerated economic development has long been the foundation of Singapore’s national identity.

From early state-led industrialization and the consolidation of the city-state into a centre of manu-facturing and services in Asia, to Singapore’s decisive entry into the import substitution economies of the five Asian Tigers in the 1980s, propulsive, near comprehensive social transformation has created an affluent, relatively equal middle class society within the span of a single generation. This has, in effect, largely obviated the political significance of a properly ‘post-independent’ experience of unevenness and material struggle from living memory as it operates in other decolonizing societies (such as, for example, in the generation of so-called ‘Midnight’s Children’ on the subcontinent).

Singapore’s possibly discrepant relation to the postcolonial condition, however, must be located through its multiple histories of colonization, to a deferred, territorially uncertain route to full independence. After all, while escalated economic development is associated with Singapore’s exceptionalism (as in, say, the paradigmatic position outlined by Fischer), the island has long been imagined as the object of both ‘control’ and ‘contest’ by major powers because of its strategic location along world trade routes and their convergence along the equator.3

While historians (also within the past decade and a half) strive to return the city to its regional place within the Sri Vijaya Empire, or, after that, the Malacca Sultanate in the 14th C., Singapore’s self-narration still turns largely on the island’s continuities with Empire and its foundational ‘settlement’ into modernity as a British colony by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

 

 

In fact, the object of double, competing imperialisms, Singapore was temporarily ceded by a waning British Empire during the Second World War to Japanese imperial occupation. Merged with Malaysia in 1963, the island was constituted as a sovereign nation two years later following waves of civic violence between Chinese and Malay ethnic groups in 1964 (what on the subcontinent might be identified with the ‘communal riot’). Singapore would eventually claim its full geographical and political identity not as a matter of triumphalism or revolutionary assertion, but after being ejected from the short-lived experiment of the Federation of Malaya.

To read a figure like Robert Young with Franz Fanon or Dipesh Chakraborty (and their respective diagnoses of neo-colonialism in logics of complicity that tie middle class ‘native’ epistemologies to colonial institutions) is necessary in any postcolonial studies course. But it also runs the risk of reproducing, across levels of students’ exposure to the field, the scholarly commonplace that the postcolonial is, definitionally, a radical political and intellectual project.

To borrow my colleagues’ Cheryl Naruse and Weihsin Gui’s incisive example, I cite Robert Young (whose work I also teach in a third-year seminar).4 In a recent response to the claim that postcolonial studies today constitutes yet another critical orthodoxy within a ‘French’ system of knowledge, or, on the other hand, a ‘North American’ university system increasingly organized by economistic drivers of intellectual production (including competitive publication concerns, the constant need to update syllabi or to include new technologies in the classroom, and the flexibilization of intellectual labour), Young asserts:

‘“Postcolonialism” is not just a disciplinary field, nor is it a theory which has or has not come to an end. Rather, its objectives have always involved a wide-ranging political project – to reconstruct western knowledge formations, reorient ethical norms, turn the power structures of the world upside down, refashion the world from below. The postcolonial has always been concerned with interrogating the interrelated histories of violence, domination, inequality, and injustice…’5

 

 

To return any organized survey class or intensive seminar in the field to its point of articulation, the space of Singapore, is to call attention to the discrepant, simultaneous cross-hatchings of the global, the national and the postcolonial. By this same measure – and against Young – it is to cue students to an everyday awareness that postcolonial national formations have long operated by continuing, or strategically rearticulating imported epistemic regimes. This can be achieved with surprising force in a classroom, once we remember that the neo-colonial problem of vigorous participation in imperial formations has found a contemporary, if especially ‘Asian’ specification in Singapore’s success story. I remind students that in 1997, on the cusp of India’s market liberalization, the central government funded a five megacities project, proposing to develop Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad according to an imagined urban future represented by Singapore.

Altogether, if the city-state today stands as a global reference point for other polities and metros, it is in its ability to deploy a utilitarian notion of modernity toward a remarkable (some would claim, relentless) expansion of national space over everyday life. That is, Singapore exists as a refractory image of the discontents of economic and political modernity in other societies from the turn of the millennium.

From the sprawling megacity of Mumbai, to increasingly unplanned growth that now outstrips the modernist spaces of Brasilia, ‘Singapore’ continues to function as a reference point for ‘mimetic desire’ in postcolonial societies, as much for urban planning experts as for a recently empowered new middle class that seeks to contain the uneven spaces of the third world metro within
the fantasy of the ‘world class city’.
6 As such, any gesture across the category of the postcolonial would have to reckon with the current iterability (at least in imagination) of the spatializing technologies deployed by Singapore within those ‘circuits of Asian exchange’ of which Fischer is so enamoured.

 

 

As a signifier of a futurity disburdened not only of postcolonial ‘lag’ but also of the weight of civil liberties (more especially, their articulation in public space as a constitutional right in most republics) the Singapore instance functions, today, across contexts as incommensurate as India, Rwanda, Brazil and the UAE, as the regulative ideal of the ‘liberalizing’ ‘smart’ city. Even further: To engage the field and archives of the postcolonial, in one’s capacity as an instructor and researcher, is to be obliquely caught within the trajectories of such refractive desire since the citational, indeed, spectacularized image of Singapore’s advancement into the Asian future of financial capital returns, through localized re-inscriptions, to the built environment of the university; to the professional scholar’s self-regulation according to measures of academic competence and productivity; as to everyday life in the city-state.

By way of conclusion, I refer to only one practical pedagogical exercise that I engage with students. These serve our purposes by resituating the question of epistemic imperialism, within the conjuncture and spaces of the neoliberal city, first, as a logic that must now be considered as internal to the constitution of an iterable ‘Asian’ (Fischer) or ‘non-western’ (Young) space. To rephrase Watson, as a reference point for urban futures elsewhere, Singapore is likely the ‘aspirational city’ of the Global South because it has been produced as a horizonal space.7 For developing societies that ‘quote’ themselves in the image of the island-city, modernity is understood instrumentally, as a mechanism for the continuous unfolding of a (homogenous) national future.

 

 

If the future has long been imagined as
a project within the postcolonial imaginary, it appears to have been accomplished with finality here, on
what is, for both master-planners and an aspirational class of cultural entrepreneurs, a wholly ‘instrumentalized
island space’. A ‘miniaturized’, integrated, governable totality, from the point of
view of such oblique desire, ‘Singapore’ emerges as the properly global aesthetic for an imitative postcolonial modernity – a space in which dominant epistemic formations (from academics to the arts) are, themselves, the essential infra-structure of networked global capital.
8 

To return to the analytical possibilities of comparison and historicization that might still repose within these loops of refracted mimetic urban desire, I invite students to consider the installation Trash, by Delhi based artist Vivan Sundaram (2005). By extension, this assigned ‘text’ is also a suggestion to students that the work of per-iodization and comparativism might reside, today, in artistic strategies that have long responded to the material conditions of production by appropriating, subverting or simply crac-king open the materialities that constitute the reception and value of objects in consumer oriented capitalism (from the ‘ready-mades’ of Dadaists, the spliced media frame that interrupts the repeatable spectacle for mid-century Situationists, or the detritus of contemporary consumption that informs environmental aesthetics).9

 

 

Across the installations comprising Trash, Sundaram amassed, organized
and rescaled garbage. He photographed their intricate arrangements in his studio to produce images that suggest a planned urban space, captured from different points of visualization and control. As
such, Trash inserts an element specificity into the intersections of the national,
urban and postcolonial we have discussed here. The found-materials of garbage, which Sundaram collected from sca-vengers of the collective, Chintan, suggest, first, the ‘differential’ of  poverty and the (abject) stigma of backwardness.

If such scavenged materials find aesthetic force in the installations – as ephemeral objects caught between disuse and the repurposing of urban habitats by the poor – they also suggest to students how cultures of the poor remain at once ubiquitous and invisibilised in the spectacular citation of ‘Singapore’ across the Global South, and, indeed, in the imagined urban future of cities like Delhi or Mumbai. Second, and in a departure from modernist artistic traditions cited parenthetically above, the elements of Sundaram’s trash indicate the contiguities between the neoliberal city and a postcolonial past in which the master plan of modernization (Nehru, Le Corbusier) sought (and failed) to construct a progressive self-hood for Indians through the disciplined reordering civic space.

 

 

Finally, the differential that emerges through the fissures of Sundaram’s obsessively organized suggestions of urban space is the gap between ‘radical social difference’ (caste, in its entanglement with class, in the scavenged city), and the politics of (national) representation.10 The artistic accumulation of dispossession and excess in Trash – the spectacular presentation of this logic, in turn, in the artwork – suggests, for my classroom as for this discussion, that capitalist modernity no longer pivots on an axis in the West, with postcolonial urban forms as the proverbial ‘derivative discourse’ of that centre. Indeed, both because of its colonial origins and  its perceived ability to have spectacularly transcended those origins, ‘Singapore’
is, from the position of Trash, the fin-ished object of postcolonial desire to the extent that it is a product of western capitalism even as this imagined space offers the seduction of  ‘non- or even  anti-western’ difference.

 

Footnotes:

1. Jini Kim Watson, ‘Aspirational City: Desiring Singapore and the Films of Tan Pin Pin’, Interventions 18(4), pp. 543-558.

2. Ong Teng Cheong, et al., Report on the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts. Singapore National Printers, 1989. See C.J. Wan Ling Wee, ‘Creating High Culture in the Globalized Cultural “Desert” of Singapore’, The Drama Review 47(4), Winter 2003.

3. Cheryl Naruse and Weihsin Gui, ‘Introduction: Singapore and the Intersections of Neoliberal Globalization and Postcolonial Development’, Interventions 18(4), 2003, pp. 473-482.

4. Naruse and Gui, p. 474.

5.  Robert Young, ‘Postcolonial Remains’, New Literary History 43, 2012, pp. 19-42.

6. Watson, p. 558.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Saloni Mathur, A Fragile Inheritance. Duke University Press, Durham, 2019.

10. Ibid.