Central European Culture in Search of a Theory, or:
the Lure of “Post/colonial Studies”

Markus Reisenleitner

German-speaking scholarship has recently seen an extended and – in some cases quite heated – discussion about how (what is being described as) “post/colonial studies” could provide viable theoretical models and an explanatory framework for approaching cultural processes and developments in the Habsburg lands during the nineteenth century (cf. Kakanien Revisited). These discussions seem particularly relevant to the major concerns of spacesofidentity.net because they are driven by, and share with our journal, a desire to make a political intervention against appropriations of the idea of Central Europe as an essentialized space with a common heritage and a common culture for contemporary political claims of hegemony and nostalgia through glorified imaginings of the Habsburg past. By drawing out the parallels between the English and French empires and the Habsburg lands, the term empire is used strategically to draw attention to cultural processes which establish hierarchies and motivate oppression and centralization on the basis of locality, history and language.

The debate seems to have been mostly sparked by a desire to formulate new approaches to the literature of the Habsburg lands, understood as the leading genre (“Leitkultur, Ruthner 4). My impression is that this proposed turn to “postcolonial studies” is motivated by two separate yet related considerations: On an historical level, it tries to explore and highlight parallels between the situation of colonized parts of the French and English empires during the nineteenth century on one hand, and the imposition of Habsburg rule in Central and Eastern Europe, understood as internal colonization, on the other – a potent political intervention against reactionary images of Habsburg rule which paint a rosy picture of a federation of lands united by the benevolent multiculturalism of the dynasty, doomed to vanish through the irruptions of unfortunate and unmotivated nationalisms; and on a methodological level postcolonial studies are regarded as a more or less homogeneous set of methods that can be added to an already potent mix of idealist philosophy and systems theory, in the name of interdisciplinarity. The expectations in this cocktail are by no means understated:

Das Ziel wäre nichts weniger als eine kritische Revision der Darstellungsformen der k.(u.)k. Monarchie, in jeder Bedeutung dieses Genitivs. Eine neue Sichtweise, die ebenso nationalismuskritisch operiert wie sie auch das nostalgische Klischee vom ‘k.u.k.-Multikulturalismus’ kritisch hinterfragt. Dies könnte vielleicht sogar einen Paradigmenwechsel bedeuten, in jedem Fall aber einen Beitrag zu einer sinnvollen kulturwissenschaftlichen ‘Globalisierung’ der Philologien, die auf diese Weise ihre engen, d.h. willkürlich aufgezogenen nationalstaatlichen und -literarischen Grenzen überdenken könnten – und sich zugleich einen alten Traum erfüllen, nämlich einen ersten Schritt hin zu einer übernationalen Literaturgeschichte der k.(u.)k. Monarchie zu setzen... (Ruthner 4)

[The goal would be nothing less than a critical revision of the representational forms of the k&k monarchy, with an emphasis on the multiple meanings of the final ‘of.’ A new way of seeing, which scrutinizes nationalism as critically as it interrogates the nostalgic cliché of ‘k&k multiculturalism.’ This could possibly even mean a paradigm shift, but it is in any case a contribution to a meaningful cultural research approach to the ‘globalization’ of philologies, which in this way could reconsider its narrow, arbitrary national borders – and at the same time fulfill an old dream, namely in taking a first step in the direction of a supranational literary history of the k&k monarchy... ]

While such an imperative may strike readers familiar with tossings of this particular methodological gauntlet into the Central European fray as outdated (see Tötösy), this is not my concern here. More than in its reiterations, I am interested in the reasons, processes and consequences of the methodological decisions that continue to inform this move.

I want to leave aside for the moment the historical question of parallels between the Habsburg lands and the French and English empires in regard to patterns of cultural domination. I do not think there is any merit or usefulness in establishing a beauty parade of geographical areas vying for the top spot of ‘most oppressed in the past.’ The question has been discussed widely in regard to the inner colonization of Wales and Ireland, the positions are staked out quite clearly, and twenty years of debate have made it clear that vectors of (cultural) oppression and domination are manifold and run along multiple axes. It seems to me that the question of race, so central in Frantz Fanon’s work, is hard to circumnavigate when tackling postcolonial theory, but these questions have been dealt with extensively elsewhere, and have accompanied postcolonial theory from its earliest stages.

Rather, I would like to concentrate on the level of methodology and rephrase that question in the following way: is it legitimate – and helpful – to synthesize such a wide and varied body of work as the writings of, e.g., Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, into a single theoretical framework in order to “apply” it to a different geographical frame of reference? I would like to discuss here why such an approach, while doubtless opening up some interesting discussions, is inherently problematic.

“Applying” or testing a theory against a body of material seems to suggest that theories exist independently of their context. As a matter of fact this is in a way precisely what Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said (the thinkers most often quoted in the debate as paradigmatic for the concept of “postcolonial studies”) seem to be doing themselves – and what constitutes the common ground of three highly interdisciplinary, highly diverse and highly theoretical approaches to literature; as well as the ground on which they have been repeatedly challenged and taken to task. What their work has in common is the attempt to bring continental ‘high’ theory – the work of, among others, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Lacan – to the reading practices of a highbrow canon of literary texts while paying special attention to issues of race, empire, nation, migration and ethnicity. They set out to prove that the colonial world system is omnipresent in those texts, and they draw on what could loosely be labeled poststructuralist theory to make their points.

This form of scholarship has manifest merits, as anyone who does not ascribe to a politically neutral form of cultural analysis will readily admit. Being informed by postcolonial theory (a term I would prefer over “postcolonial studies” for describing the work of Spivak, Bhabha and Said, as it draws attention to the contradistinction between the focus of their work and postcolonial criticism) implies that the subset of cultural analysis that deals with literature can approach the cultural realm as a terrain of power struggle, can insist on the discursive construction of identities and spaces, and can draw attention to the global network of an international division of labor within which these power struggles take place and within which questions of oppression, resistance, solidarity and belonging are constantly negotiated. More specifically, such a framework necessarily has to address the question of the adequacy of Western models of social analysis for these issues. What provides a brace for postcolonial theory is thus a framework that is by no means unique to it, but can rather be seen as an interdisciplinary set of reading practices eclectically grounded in a variety of deconstructionist, Marxist, poststructuralist and Foucauldian theoretical approaches. These basic assumptions, which I cannot do justice to here and have perforce outlined far too superficially, are shared by a number of hyphenated or inter-disciplines and intellectual practices, cultural studies being one of them (and it is remarkable how often a slippage toward notions of ‘cultural studies’ occurs in the debate.)

All this would seem to mitigate a critique of using postcolonial theory in a Habsburg context, suggesting that it is merely a circuitous route for the re-importation of, say, Derrida via India or Foucault via the Middle East. Yet I would like to suggest here that there are more fundamental problems involved in such a ‘translation’ project.

Being based on an artificially homogenized body of readings, such a project also implies a re-importation of the problems that have been minutely dissected during the last twenty years: postcolonial theory’s alleged blind spots in regard to questions of class and gender, its privileging of literature over other forms of cultural production, its aestheticization of resistance, its reliance on literary canons, and its own hegemonic position within the (Western, English-speaking) academy. Without recognizing these limitations (which become more apparent in a homogenized and watered-down pop version of what are, after all, highly complex theories) can only lead to a repetition of well-rehearsed arguments (postcolonial theory is not interdisciplinary enough, does not pay enough attention to political and economic structures, does not pay enough attention to indigenous cultural production, produces theory in the West for the rest etc.) in a different setting.

Postcolonial theory was borne out of a very specific moment when, within the English-speaking academy, continental poststructuralist theory met the emergent redefinition of the literary canon in departments of English, Commonwealth Studies and Comparative Literature during the heady days of the culture wars. This does not diminish its intellectual and political potential, but it draws attention to the fact that reading practices such as those of postcolonial theory arise not only in circumstances very specific to their object of investigation, but also, and maybe even more so, in a specific academic environment informed by wider political as well as theoretical discourses. This seems to me precisely the danger of trying to ‘apply’ a framework: while drawing out the parallels and differences of the objects under investigation, such an approach leaves unexamined the very specific circumstances in which this framework emerged, as well as those in which it has reemerged, while presenting a very awkward picture of the role of theory in cultural investigations. To appropriate postcolonial theory as a tool chest, following the line of reasoning that ‘that is what its practitioners so effectively did so why not follow in their footsteps?’, is to fall into precisely the same traps, to simply retrace a well-traveled route instead of venturing out into new terrain. It is not only that not all cultural practitioners can wield a hammer with, say, Spivak’s virtuosity; rather, it is the issue that if postcolonial theory is mistaken for a tool like, say, a hammer, then every cultural question will start to look like a nail.

Rather, the need for theory arises from very specific questions asked in relation to the interest and context of the scholar or the academic project. These questions should doubtless be informed by comparable academic investigations as well as a high degree of self-reflexivity. In this respect it is certainly helpful to look to the diverse projects in the vicinity of postcolonial studies and learn from them, but, more importantly, it seems necessary to explore and recover the basis of postcolonial theory – i.e., the writings of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan etc. – to confront the complex hierarchies of cultural power in Central Europe.

Yet I do not believe that recovering Foucault for Central Europe in Said’s footsteps (rather than imposing Said on Central Europe) can be the ultimate rationale per se. I would rather propose to conceptualize a serious engagement with postcolonial theory not so much in terms of an ‘application’ but rather as a project of juxtaposition that re-shuffles the deck and thus provides a platform for tangential and guerilla readings that do not fall prey to oversimplifications and remain stuck in legitimizing binaries of dominance and oppression. Engaging with the terms and reading practices of postcolonial theory could very well help to displace the terms of opposition in which the question of ‘applicability’ is couched (e.g. center and periphery, dominant vs. suppressed ethnicities, but also the concept of a Leitkultur), terms which a tool chest concept is ultimately bound to maintain, and reinforce.

In this context I would like to see the following matters addressed:

Did the Habsburg lands have something comparable to the essentializing and morally loaded concept of ‘Englishness,’ so strongly tied to the British empire, its language and its literary canon? This question was raised by Edward Said when he explains why he specifically does not talk about some parts of the world, including the Habsburg monarchy:

What I am saying about the British, French and American imperial experience is that it has a unique coherence and a special cultural centrality. ... Since narrative plays such a remarkable part in the imperial quest, it is therefore not surprising that France and (especially) England have an unbroken tradition of novel-writing, unparalleled elsewhere. . . . There are . . . additional reasons for focusing as I do on these three. One is that the idea of overseas rule—jumping beyond adjacent territories to very distant lands—has a privileged status in these three cultures. This idea has a lot to do with projections, whether in fiction or geography or art, and it acquires a continuous presence through actual expansion, administration, investment, and commitment. There is something systematic about imperial culture therefore that is not as evident in any other empire as it is in Britain’s or France’s and, in a different way, the United States.’ (xxii)

Said is, of course, dangerously parallel to proponents of Habsburg multiculturalism in these assertions, while delineating what constitutes the culture of an empire. It is a very limited section of cultural production – narrative, the novel – that he singles out, and this leads him to speculate that the Habsburg monarchy as a political and cultural construct was not an ‘empire’ in the sense of postcolonial theory. This nexus between nation and narration could usefully be unpacked and unhinged in a critique of hegemonic cultural practices in the Habsburg lands.

While much of postcolonial theory grapples with the problem of how to give the subaltern a voice (and how to imagine this ‘unspeakable other’), an Other that has supposedly been denied a voice and a history in a long tradition of colonial domination, discussions in the Central European context seem to be led over appropriations and readings of the past. Rather than denying these regions their (multiple) histories, scholars must confront the plethora of histories that converge there, which should not be taken as in any way reflecting on models of subalternity constructed in/for entirely different contexts. There can be no doubt that even the most marginalized and oppressed ethnicities in the Habsburg monarchy had access to relatively good printing and publishing resources, but this does not imply that they were not subaltern, or that the concept of subalternity cannot be fruitful in considering the situation there; it does imply, however, that the concept of voice has to be even more refined than it has already been in the context of India and the Subaltern Studies Group.

As I have tried to emphasize, postcolonial theory has a very distinct place, a place of high prestige and well-paying positions, in the North American academy; it thus owes its existence to a situation of academic hegemony, in which a theory produced at the center was consequently taken to the periphery. This is a position for which it has been vigorously attacked but which has also motivated a constant need for self-reflexivity. While it is still true to a certain extent that its corpus as well as its complex theoretical basis fosters a form of academic elitism and a preponderance of aesthetic concerns over political and social engagement, these features have not remained unchallenged (particularly by postcolonial criticism). I would suggest that any attempts to appropriate postcolonial theory for the Central European context would be well advised to take these challenges into consideration and seriously critique (or at the very least, discuss) their own status within the academy as well as within – in this case particularly European – vectors of cultural, linguistic and academic hegemony. At a time when young Austrian academics are being sent “east” to teach German there (and educational administrators and politicians alike have been selling this as a form of academic developmental aid – is anybody else reminded of schoolteachers in khakis setting off to hearts/armpits of darkness?), turning to postcolonial theory to address the cultural legacy of Central Europe in the German-speaking academy seems to beg the question: how can it be avoided that such a movement promotes, intentionally or unintentionally, the same re-centralization and hegemony of knowledge production that it sets out to criticize? And maybe even more insidiously: Could it, if successful, have the same effect in the global academy by providing an appealing alternative to the stodgy traditional discourses that have fostered and promoted the Habsburg nostalgia and glorification in the North America? These are questions that bring into focus current issues of inequality in the academic system of knowledge production and cannot be left out.

Lastly, for me there remains the question of how to successfully integrate into these discussions the system that dare no longer speak its name, the heritage of Communist and orthodox Marxist scholarship in the countries whose organic intellectuals are now so often represented as jumping joyfully on the Central European bandwagon. Admittedly, mentioning pre-1989 Eastern European scholarship in the context of this debate feels a bit like burping at a polite dinner party, but there can be no denying that there is a 40-year long tradition of scholarship that raises quite similar concerns about the colonization of the East by the Habsburgs, albeit not in the rarefied sphere of literary theory but in more fundamental socioeconomic terms. I have yet to detect a trace of this in the current debates. Might this be a case similar to the often-alleged disregard of postcolonial criticism in the literature departments at Columbia and Harvard? Or do we see here the effective silencing of a tradition of scholarship with the actual complicity of a theory generally regarded as ‘left’? When postcolonial theory travels to Central Europe, where does it encounter the much-needed corrective to the smug self-contentedness of a political correctness made in Austria and Germany that postcolonial criticism provides for postcolonial theory? I do not have any answers, and I do not think looking to postcolonial theory provides them in any easy way. So this is where I would like to stop and open the net for discussion.


Kakanien revisited. Das Eigene und das Fremde (in) der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie. Eds. Müller-Funk, Wolfgang Peter Plener and Clemens Ruthner. Tübingen: Francke, 2001.

Müller-Funk, Wolfgang. “Über das Verhältnis von Herrschaft und Kultur.” Kakanien revisited.

Ruthner, Clemens. “’K.(U.)K. POSTCOLONIAL’? Für eine neue Lesart der österreichischen (und benachbarter) Literatur/en.” Kakanien revisited. Wiederabdruck in http://www.kakanien.ac.at/beitr/theorie/CRuthner1.pdf.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Totosy-de-Zepetnek, Steven. “Ethnizitat und Zentrum/Peripherie: Deutschland, (östliches) Mitteleuropa und das kanadische Modell.” Kultur, Identität, Europa: Über die Schwierigkeiten und Möglichkeiten einer Konstruktion. Eds. Viehoff, Reinhold and T. Segers-Rien. Frankfurt, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1999