Postcolonial Gothic after the Millennium: Imagining Violence and Empire from the Global South

Current writing from the global south clearly demonstrates that gothic continues to be summoned at the cutting edge of new postcolonial literary production. And yet a shift in aesthetic and tone is also discernible in recent fictions, which sets them apart from that body of late twentieth-century works most often cited as exemplary of the “postcolonial gothic” mode. Addressing this corpus, critics have largely drawn on post-structuralist postcolonial theory to suggest that in the gothic, postcolonial authors find a literary language (of haunting returns, phantoms and restless remains) via which to excavate legacies of colonial violence, and in which such histories– and those subjects “othered” within colonial ideology – might also be afforded a form of ethical representation (Punter 2003; Wisker 2007; Khair 2009).

More recent fiction, however, has taken a less spectral – indeed far meatier – turn, and in this way has outstripped the critical paradigms within which postcoloniality and gothic have been brought into contact. Over the last two decades, gothic has been mined increasingly by authors from the global south – not for a symbology of haunting pasts –but for tropes of immediate and excessive violence. It is no coincidence that this development corresponds to the turn of the millennium: that moment (of crescendoing neoliberalism, of 9/11 and its ensuing geopolitical upheaval) widely cited as confirming the active imperialism of the present (Harvey 2003).  Contemporary writers, drawing on the directly violent aesthetics of ‘body gothic’ (Aldana Reyes 2014), deploy this vivid lexicon (sometimes self-consciously) to engage with and articulate real, located experiences of an imperial formation that is alive and currently unfolding (WReC 2013; Botting and Edwards 2013). 

Undergirding the transition from haunting to horror is thus a shifting apprehension of empire. Where postcolonial gothic has previously been shown to engage with imperialism as the violent ideology of an oppressive (sometimes revenant) past, recent fictions take it to be a material condition, which does not come back uncannily from the grave, but never died in the first place. Concomitantly, these texts demand a different interpretative framework, one that – unlike that post-structuralist paradigm – is interested not primarily in vitiated imperial ideologies, but also in empire as the continuing production, at sites of earlier colonial violence, of states of lived precarity (Lazarus 2011; Stoler 2013; Butler 2008).

This research project locates itself at the crux of these shifts – both aesthetic and theoretical. It seeks to map the characteristics and concerns of post-millennial, postcolonial gothic, and also to develop an approach fully able to account for these distinctive features. Taking methodological cues from materialist and world-systemic turns currently underway in postcolonial studies and world-literature respectively (Lazarus, 2011; WReC 2015), the project considers new postcolonial gothic– in the first instance – as the fictional imprint of  certain structures of feeling,  produced as the effects of empires past are overlaid by new vulnerabilities of the neoliberal present (Duncan, 2018). Analysis of the corpus is organised around gothic preoccupations rucerrent across its texts: with bodies and bodily experience; with non-human nature as environment and as resource; with food and eating; with violent crime (and the crime novel); and with indigenous, and especially animist, cosmologies. As it maps these interests and gothic aesthetics in fictions from the global south, exploring the phenomenological truths to which they direct readers’ attention, the project also seeks to examine the (sometimes explicit) strategic mobilisation of gothic to critical, even resistant ends.

Rebecca Duncan is lecturer at Stirling University and the author of South African Gothic: Anxiety and Creative Dissent in the Post-apartheid Imagination and Beyond. She is guest researcher at LNUC Concurrences during December.

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