Innovative scholarship is forwarding a new postcolonial model of transcultural intertexuality that I call discursive possession.[1]

A problem in postcolonial studies has been an obsession with Europe’s reconstitution of other places and peoples—or those peoples’ resistance to that reconstitution—without an equivalent focus on the power of those peoples to constitute Europe. In literary criticism, for example, British authors are seen as remaining the same while changing others, remaining the same while others resist or imitate them, or changing themselves in response to others. British authors are never described as passive, as experiencing unwilling or unknowing change. Yet, unknowing change is the norm. As one small example, British authors who uses words that came into English because of England’s colonial activities—for instance, the West African words “cola,” “gorilla,” or “palaver”—are not making a conscious choice, are not deliberately appropriating foreign discourse. Previously, we had no named model for this agency-less change, however, for seeing British authors who write about the other as something less than masters deliberately selecting delicacies from the smorgasbord of the exotic.

How do we go about recognizing that Europe’s others were not merely an ingredient of European representations, not merely the exploited subjects of the European gaze, but also the producers of discourse that has co-constituted European representations? Inspired by recent innovations in postcolonial studies, I suggest that we imagine European texts and authors as experiencing discursive possession by the other. Such a model helps us to see how, for instance, African discourse can animate British texts. In many cultures, spiritual possession is a useful way of thinking about asymmetrical relationships between subjectivities. In this folk paradigm, spiritual possession is a loss of control that results in an openness to difference, a penetrability, which in turn results in the dissolution of subjectivity and the formation of an indeterminate hybridity. If we asked literary critics to understand the term “spirit” as another way of thinking about “discourse,” the paradigm of spirit possession can aid us in comprehending how an author might be taken over by the other. By decentering models of the author as rational, unitary, and autonomous—operating independently of external forces—spirit possession is a valuable metaphor that can help us to think about how discourses and identities circulate across boundaries and through authors. It enables us to read British texts ordinarily classified as orientalist (i.e., as examples of appropriation) as also exhibiting aspects of African thought, as culturally heterogeneous texts constructed through the mediated agency of their British authors. Several scholars have begun this work[2]—including my own research describing the fiction of that most English of authors, Samuel Johnson, as energumens animated by Ethiopian thought—and others should be urged to follow

To conclude, discursive possession is a process of transcultural intertextuality in the context of asymmetrical power relationships during which foreign discourse mediates authorial agency such that an author is taken over by the representations of the other and is compelled to engage in acts of mimesis related to that possession, producing texts, or energumens, animated by that alterity. The powerful metaphor of spirit possession reminds us that any text contains the residue of the encounters that formed it. The Western literary canon is a vast graveyard haunted by self-representing others, whose voices animate the very text that constitutes them as an object of knowledge.


[1] Wendy Laura Belcher, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (Oxford, 2012).

[2] Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987); Keith Cartwright, Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002); Françoise Lionnet, “Reframing Baudelaire: Literary History, Biography, Postcolonial Theory, and Vernacular Languages,” Diacritics 28, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 63–85; Sterling Stuckey, African Culture and Melville’s Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).