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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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Bayart’s Broken Kettle

Robert J. C. Young

It is always a depressing moment when a respected scholar launches into a blanket denunciation of a new field that appears to him or her to be in some way threatening. In the humanities and social sciences, it is typically the appearance of new forms of theory that touches the raw nerve of the status quo in this way. The distinguishing mark of such rituals comes with the use of the epithet “fashionable,” an imagined put-down that is duly attached to the offending work whose crime is to have aroused a wider interest among the academic community and the general public than the work of the accuser has.

For Jean-François Bayart, for example, the problem is that postcolonial studies has generated huge interest all around the world, while its belated appearance in France has contributed, as he puts it, to “the image of a France marginalized on the international scene.”1 Portraying France as the innocent target of postcolonial accusations means that it manages to end up taking over the place of suffering formerly occupied by its colonial victims.2 His invective, “Postcolonial Studies: A Political Invention of Tradition?” forms an extension of his earlier polemic, L’illusion identitaire, for his fundamental target beyond postcolonial studies is the perceived “cultural turn” in the humanities and social sciences.3 Insofar as Bayart deems postcolonial studies guilty of espousing cultural arguments on the basis of identity politics, then for him it represents a symptom of a larger evil. If he cared to look more closely at the writings of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, or Paul Gilroy, however, he would discover that postcolonial theory comprises a critique of identity politics, not its espousal, just as it critiques nationalism. Bayart’s rejection of theory from the English-speaking world — whether from the United States or India — and defense of the honor of France by espousing an indigenous French tradition that has no need for it could be seen as simply nationalist or xenophobic or both. Does France have to be always perfect, intellectually self-sufficient like a preglobalized economy, with no interest in forms of intellectual exchange with anything that comes written in English or other languages? Or is that only a defensive post – Second World War phenomenon, itself a symptom of its postcolonial melancholia?

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  1. Jean-François Bayart, “Postcolonial Studies: A Political Invention of Tradition?” in this issue, 55.
  2. The historian Linda Colley also employs this strategy. See Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (London: Routledge, 2004), 103.
  3. Jean-François Bayart, L’illusion identitaire (Paris: Fayard, 1996).


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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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