Jennifer Wenzel

Faculty / Academic Staff
Postcolonial Literature and Theory
Intellectual Biography: 

I have taught African and South Asian literature and postcolonial theory at the University of Michigan since 2003. I completed my Ph.D. in English in 1998 at the University of Texas at Austin, with a specialization in Ethnic and Third World Literatures (ETW). Begun in the late 1980s, ETW took as its purview both U.S. ethnic literatures as well as literatures from what we might now call the Global South. This "resistance literature" approach (to quote my dissertation advisor Barbara Harlow) posed a radical alternative to the celebratory, culturalist strains of postcolonial studies (or worse, Literature of Empire as an offshoot of British modernism) then on the ascendancy. I did not identify strongly as a postcolonialist until after 9/11 and the rise of neoliberal globalization (and its cultural wing, World Literature), when shifts in public and academic discourse made newly and urgently relevant the historical understanding of imperialism that postcolonialism could offer by comparison – particularly its geneaology in the anticolonial national liberation theory/praxis of figures like Frantz Fanon (and later Steve Biko), Aimé Césaire, and Amílcar Cabral.

Examining the contradictions and continuities among these categories – Third World, postcolonial, Global South – in terms of their implications for both geopolitics and academic departmental politics was the task of my article, "Remembering the Past’s Future: Anti-Imperialist Nostalgia and Some Versions of the Third World" (Cultural Critique 2006). This essay posits the Congo (and particularly the dashed hopes associated with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba) as the epicenter of competing imaginative and material investments in Africa, which I situate within a geneaology of the mid-20th century Third Worldist project. I coined the term "anti-imperialist nostalgia" to confront and work against the depoliticizing disavowal of the ideals and history of national liberation in contemporary postcolonial studies. In the terms of the Mellon workshop, what I tease out in this essay is how national liberation theory/praxis from the South intersects with academic postcolonial studies, whose institutional center of gravity has been in the North.

My first book, Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond (Chicago and KwaZulu-Natal, 2009), is a study of the cultural and political afterlives of the 1856-57 Xhosa cattle killing; I posit its "failed" prophecy as a repository of aspirations for later liberation movements. Bulletproof extends the thinking on time and memory that I began with my work on Patrice Lumumba, but I also posit the cattle killing – and similar millenarian movements around the globe in the 19th and early 20th centuries – as earlier instances of anti-imperialist theory/praxis in the colonized world. There was, of course, no Bandung conference for primary resistance; nonetheless, there is much work to be done to deprovincialize postcolonial studies and remap anti-imperialism in terms of connections among colonized peoples, rather than merely tracing unidirectional lines of influence be¬tween Europe and its colonies. To that end, I consider aspects of the cattle killing prophecy and movement that imagine Xhosa experience within a global frame. I examine how its transnational anti-imperialist solidarity imagin¬es a “black race” united against British incursions in Africa, as well as in the Crimea, India, and China -- an imaginary, even magical map in which black becomes the color of resistance to empire. Bulletproof also considers the early 20th century revival of millenarianism in the eastern Cape, with Garveyite expectations of deliverance by African-Americans in "aeroplanes." No matter how idiosyncratic or illogical these historical and geographic (mis)readings may seem, I argue in Bulletproof that if we dismiss them out of hand, we risk our own misread¬ing of the possibilities for transnational imagining in the Global South.

My current book projects take up related questions in an environmental vein. The first, "Reading for the Planet: World Literature and Environmental Crisis," argues for the necessity of postcolonial critique in both World Literature studies and ecocriticism. The second, "Contrapuntal Environmentalism," adapts Edward Said's notion of contrapuntal reading in order to tease out the relationships between mainstream EuroAmerican environmentalism/ecocriticism and environmentalisms in the Global South, e.g. the "environmentalism of the poor" and "Environmental Justice" frameworks. I juxtapose seminal figures like Rachel Carson with Frantz Fanon, Aldo Leopold with Gayatri Spivak and Vandana Shiva, and Wendell Berry with Ramachandra Guha, with an eye toward commonalities, contradictions, and co-optations in their thinking, their historical situation, and their place within the multiple traditions of environmental theory and practice. As with my work on anti-imperialist resistance, I'm particularly interested in the transnational citationality at work in environmental movements, where ideas, practices, and tactics travel from one struggle to another; at the same time, I'm attuned to the unequal relations of power/knowledge that have fundamentally shaped what "counts" as nature, environment, or environmentalism, generally to the detriment of the poor and powerless and/in the Global South.

I have no attachment to a geographical cordon sanitaire that would keep all ideas from elsewhere out of theory from the South; it's precisely the "stretching" (even to the point of breaking or creating something new) that interests me when Fanon writes that "Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem" – and, with regard to his own work, he might have said Freudian and Hegelian analysis too (The Wretched of the Earth, 40). At the same time, my current work on environmentalism has led me to confront the deeply entrenched Eurocentric habits of mind (and structures of institutional power) that confuse thinking from the North with, well, just plain thinking: by which I mean the received, hegemonic, diffusionist progress narrative which holds that environmental concern originated in the US and Europe and is only slowly and belatedly being disseminated from the West to the rest of the world. Although questions of race, class, and geography certainly complicate the "environmentalism of the poor" and Environmental Justice rubrics, they serve as a powerful counternarrative to this new green gospel that, all over again, imagines the West (or the North) as the font from which all blessings flow.

Presentation Title: 
"Contrapuntal Environmentalisms"
Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez Alier. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. Routledge, 1997. "The Fourth World War Has Begun" and "Marcos on Memory and Reality" in The Zapatista Reader, ed. Tom Hayden. New York: Nation Books, 2002, 270-296. [would be happy to supply more if desired; say, Patrick Bond on Environmental Justice...]
So far as accommodation is concerned, I will share a double room with Joseph Slaughter if he is a participant.