Basu Thakur, Gautam. 2021. Postcolonial Lack: Identity, Culture, Surplus. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. pp. 276.

Under neoliberalism, Basu Thakur finds, postcolonial theory has become a race for victimhood, “a brand of culturalism…” (p. xxiii). Following Gayatri Spivak’s specification that subalternity is a position and not an identity, Basu Thakur argues that postcolonialism has drifted into conceiving subalternity as an identity in practice. That explains why it has become anti-emancipatory. Relying on insights from psychoanalysis, Basu Thakur finds that postcolonial writers have to conceive identity as an ontological lack to be truly empowering. Indeed, it does not behove contemporary Indians or Algerians to merely reinstate the Other, the colonial master, by some postcolonial acolytes-disguised-as-authors. This is so because the Other remains rooted in fantasy, functioning as a governing structure that lacks substance. This explains why the best policy for decolonised peoples is neither to disavow nor take the European worldview seriously. Instead of addressing the lack on which postcolonial subjectivity sits as a frightening void, the book encourages readers to view it as a call toward universalism, a step toward revoking both the coloniser and the colonised.   

Basu Thakur proceeds by reconciling what are considered irreconcilable disciplines: postcolonialism and psychoanalysis. He finds that the two fields share common ground more than what each avows. The book is divided into two sections: the first contains three chapters and the second two plus a conclusion. The chapters in the first explain why postcolonial writers cannot counter the ontological challenge posed by the big Other. The second section teases how neoliberal modes of expression perpetuate the colonial/oriental project, thereby testifying to how the colonised/decolonised remains crippled with the same ontological fixation.

Chapter One: “The Subaltern Act of Freedom” distinguishes between acting out, ‘the passage to the act’ and act in Lacan’s theory of the Act in the sense that the first two never challenge the Other because they maintain the fantasy, whereas ‘to act’ is to decimate both the big Other and the imagination. Basu Thakur illustrates this point with one subaltern character, Draupadi, in Mahasweta Devi’s story with the same title, wherein the subaltern abolishes politics by putting the signifier’s symbolic order under duress. The revolutionary dimension in Draupadi’s act is specifically that one that does not solicit recognition; its spontaneous and eruptive unfolding breaks the monopoly over the symbolic framework because the master signifier through the show is deeply shaken. Indirectly Basu Thakur is telling readers that postcolonial texts fall below this bar set by Mahasweta. 

Chapter Two: “Postcolonial. Animal. Limit” revises postcolonial to criticism by claiming that the real animal is the one whose capacities escape humans’ imaginary: it shocks and destabilises the seemingly ever-strong symbolic order. (p. 36) only to learn that all extended orders remain rooted in lack. Only fantasy exhibits the Other’s apparent invisibility. Through a reading of Mahasweta Devi’s story, the postcolonial animal interpreted through a pterodactyl underlies less and less the occasional failures of language by zooming on the expressive shortcomings of language. Encountering the flying demon uncovers the impossibility of representing the condition of subalternity. In as much as it is real, not a symbol, the radical alterity in the pterodactyl remains an insult to subjectivity; it disrupts facile renderings and certainly cancels the capacity of representation to render any experience translucent. The animal’s death drive can be effectively countered through “explosive love” (p. 44), never through desire, allowing readers to confront universally traumatic nothingness.

Chapter Three: “Hysterization of Postcolonial Studies; or, Beyond Cross-Cultural Communication” builds on the Lacanian principle wherein people “…desire to remain in desire without satisfaction…” (p. 68). The author finds that the colonial archiving of knowledge is fundamentally rooted in nuisance or that excessive enjoyment from the dream of controlling the colonised. But this orientalist project wherein knowledge is sought less for its own sake and more for domination remains paradoxically an expression of lack and non-being besetting the master signifier. The evidence from reading Leila Aboulela’s “The Museum” and Tony Gatlif’s film, Gradjo Dilo (The Crazy Stranger, 1997), shows that the archive amassed to qualify for cross-cultural communication miserably fails. Hence, how postcolonial theory, when restricted to answering back, is destined to remain a self-defeating endeavour. Only the willing blind refuses to note that the archive cannot be exhaustive. By extension, a counter archive similarly expresses hysteria that craves acknowledgement from the Other’s symbolic order.

Chapter Four: “Fictions of Katherine Boo’s Creative Non-Fiction, or, The Unbearable Alterity of the Other” reads an American journalist’s Behind the Beautiful Forever: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012). Basu Thakur finds that neoliberal accounts have remained consistent with colonial narratives regarding how oriental spaces remain marred in poverty. Instead of chastising capitalism for the proletarization of India’s undercity, the report underlines postcolonial mismanagement and the elites’ corruption. White supremacists remain incapable of noting that the impoverished multitudes in Calcutta and other cities are essential to the prosperity of residents of upscale neighbourhoods in Mumbai or New Delhi in the sense that the two antagonistic sights go together. Narrative accounts wherein poverty is humanised, such as in Boo’s, risk “gutturalising the politics of globalisation by strategically redrawing the phantasmatic screen of third world abjection over the real conditions of global inequality suffered in the third world.” (p. 108). The argument wherein only in India (or other decolonised spaces) where corruption explains sights of depravation fortifies the idea that the West cannot tolerate despicable depravities because only the West/Other knows how to address gross economic inequalities systematically.

Chapter Five: “Political Correctness Is Phallic: Idaho Politics, Black Panther, and Gran Torino”, considers how representational politics, as shown in these films, facilitates disengagement from reality and remains complicit with neoliberalism. As displayed in these films, the conflict between communities is geared less toward provoking audiences to register the injustice of political choices but is precisely directed toward culturising injustice. The films serve as an ideological apparatus obfuscating the precariat’s chances of reversing their misfortunes by feeding them the illusion that solid opportunities are waiting for them just around the corner if they only stay patient. Meanwhile, the neoliberal order remains untouched. Instead of highlighting institutionalised segregation or the ensuing discrimination that followed the formal abolishment of slavery, Black Panther reverses the typical image by showing the imaginary African republic of “Wakanda as a site of pure plenitude.” (p. 148) But the technologically advanced Africa and Africans are nowhere nearly helpful or emancipatory as ‘Africa-as-the-heart-of-darkness’ since it is still through fantasy that the West mediates Africa. Readers reach this understanding that whoever seeks an acknowledgement from the master signifier is counterrevolutionary.

The Conclusion: “Particular Universal” underlines how postcolonial writers’ penchant for competing representations of misery and victimhood subscribes to the logic of illogic wherein gratification is expected and generated from the Other’s acknowledgement. Besides illustrating how this logic is sick, the conclusion claims how this logic enforces the other’s phallic image and justifies postcolonial oppression. Differently put, no matter how exhaustive the native informants’ knowledge of the subaltern will be, that knowledge stays rooted in lack and has to be mediated through fantasy. The subaltern cannot be reduced to any set of archives or manuals. The particularity of the urban precariat stands for the new universal. Following Žižek, Basu Thakur credits Malcolm X for accurately seizing on the radical understanding wherein “…the only possibility of moving forward lies through embracing the negation, claiming it as part of one’s identity, hence the ‘X’ in his name.” (p. 192)

When reading Basu Thakur’s volume, the reader cannot avoid the question, why would one seek to fix a theory by invigorating it with another one? But lest one precipitates, what seems like a fixation on the palliative is found out to be indeed revolutionary. Similarly, there are several instances of convoluted writing like in: “This is not freedom in the sense of Liberty as a metaphysical attribute. But, rather, freedom here is action illuminating the lack of freedom.” (p. 28), where they attempt to follow through the prose becomes a challenge. But soon, Basu Thakur’s discussion of his selected fiction comes to the reader’s rescue, convincing us to remain glued to the book. Indeed, Basu Thakur’s reading of Mahasweta’s Draupadi reads to me (at least) like the Tunisian Bouazizi, the man who inflamed himself in December 2010: an act that deposed several dictators. I could not overlook this quote: “By erasing their bodies to correspond with their already erased speech, that is, unravelling the body as an object of speech, the subaltern shocks the big Other. Their wanton disregard for the body delivers a traumatic truth. Namely, there’s a difference between having and being a body.” (p. 7). Insights such as these underline the author’s insistence on historical totality and the class dimension in the precariat’s misfortune with which he reinvents communism from the debris of postcolonialism and neoliberalism. How can readers afford to bypass Basu Thakur’s insights as to the latter recall Marx and Engels’ underscoring of the class struggle? Only that Postcolonial Lack deploys a different approach to solve the same theorem.

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)


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