One phrase with such incredible purchase, even though it’s recycled over and over again (often annoyingly), reminds me of post-colonial literature: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Yup, roll your eyes. The expression is most commonly invoked in the collective disillusionment that follows wars or genocides. Deeper down, I feel that it also refers to the inevitable continuity of certain structures and conflicts – repeated, reproduced, maintained by the powers-that-be. Michael Kimmel humorously said, “The largest affirmative action program in the history of the world is…the history of the world.” And while this is true in some respects, any esteemed theorist in the social sciences accepts the assumption that humans will always tend toward social hierarchy. And hierarchies tend to be unjust, and those with privileged seats in the hierarchy-in-question don’t usually like to see it change. Or usurped from the bottom.
Colonialism was one such hierarchy. Or the outright exploitation of populations elsewhere for labor, for resources, for self-enrichment of European states. As Mukherjee wrote, the British “had not come to India in order to breed and colonize, or even to convert. They were here to plunder, to enrich themselves and pay their fees to the ruling nawabs…this commercial competition was something new, a kind of proto-Common Market.” This was the 1600s. And yet that last part seems attributable to what we think is so “new” in our trading networks today.
And what Bharati Mukherjee suggests in her book Holder of the World is not that the colonial structure was doomed to repeat itself, but that in the current globalized era, the horrific system’s skeleton is still firmly (if indirectly) in place. We still exploit the Third World for its resources and cheap labor reserves. If anything, there is not an end and a repeat of a system but sheer continuity.
Post-colonial theorists and writers seek to do two seemingly contradictory things: to show how “centers” grudgingly remain the centers (that is, the West) but also to de-center – to expose or celebrate the narratives and stories elsewhere, the non-Western accounts of history. And I think this project is a brilliant post-modern project and demonstration of Derrida’s concept of “play.”
By the way, the whole picture below can be accessed if you click on it. The reason why I didn’t downsize it is purely because I found this accidental cropping utterly freakish as Mukherjee’s book is commentary on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter while also a depiction of other nuances about Puritans (she explores the letter ‘I’ for Indian Lover). Crazy!