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The postcolonial sublime: The politics of excess from Kant to Rushdie

Nicholls, Brett (1999) The postcolonial sublime: The politics of excess from Kant to Rushdie. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis shows how the discourse of the postcolonial disrupts the processes of Enlightenment Reason. In attempting to establish the authority and the dynamism of reason, the Idealism of Kant and Hegel sets forth the notion that reason, as a faculty of mind, is forged in and through its mastery over the conscious excesses that characterise the sublime. The necessity of the sublime in the process that established the authority of reason, signals that reason is at once the master of its conscious domain, and yet vulnerable, since its mastery is established in the face of the possibility of its collapse. The possibility of reason’s collapse is a crucial moment in the discourse of the postcolonial. I would wish to employ the term, ‘the postcolonial sublime’, to account for the political nuances of this moment.

I argue that the discourse of the postcolonial cannot be understood in terms of the postmodern sublime, as read by Lyotard. In reading Kant, Lyotard utilises the sublime as a site of radical indetenninacy that opens up the “possibility of possibility” in itself. His work, as a consequence, fails to account for the authority of reason. In the discourse of the postcolonial, the sublime (which is utilised to establish reason’s authority) is taken up as a conservative form. The adoption of the sublime in its conservative form is in response to a colonial desire for a global authority based upon the principles of reason. For the discourse of the postcolonial, the sublime thus emerges as a critical site upon which the authority of reason is written. To disrupt this authority it is necessary, therefore, to unleash the sublime, its unpresentable excesses, from the shackles of reason’s processes. This strategy of disruption is what is at stake in the postcolonial sublime.

I will examine reason’s processes by taking up the Kantian sublime, and situating it in relation to key postcolonial figures such as Fanon, Bhabha, and Rushdie. The politics of these figures is marked in its insistence upon occupying structures of conservative authority in order to exploit reason’s vulnerable moments, to disrupt, to transform the terms of such structures. The ‘postcolonial sublime’ thus emerges as a critical term that marks this process of occupation as one in which the sublime is wrested from its conservative trajectory, and utilised to disrupt colonial desire. The postcolonial sublime interrupts a postmodern politics that fails to adequately account for reason’s processes, and proposes that a more effective political strategy can begin when reason is taken up in terms of the dynamic processes that are crucial for its authoritative construction. In connecting the sublime to the postcolonial, the thesis contributes to critical discussions concerning the postcolonial object (the hegemony of Western reason), and provides a useful frame for understanding the strategies that the discourse of the postcolonial employs in order to exploit the instability that lies at the core of reason’s processes.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to author: if you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library’s Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Mishra, Vijay and Ruthrof, Horst
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