The arrival of cultural studies in the 1970s provoked a major discursive turn that extricated social theory from the clutches of disciplinary hegemony. Postcolonial theory emerged in the aftermath of this cognitive shift, and has quickly gained traction in Western academia. Since then, postcolonialism has spread its impact and significance in fields as varied as globalization, economics, sociology, and even ecology. Postcolonial discourse was crucial in the development of new discursive approaches better suited to address contemporary political and social transformations. The classical narratives of modernity, in which social theory relied heavily on dependency theory and center/periphery models, were unable to explain the multi-directional flow of global interactions; “a flow that was most noticeable in cultural exchanges” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin, 2000:vii).
In the last decade, postcolonialism has emerged as a major critical discourse in the humanities akin to theories such as poststructuralism and feminism. “As a consequence of its diverse and interdisciplinary usage, this body of thought has generated an enormous corpus of specialized writing” (Gandhi, 1998:viii). While much has been produced under its rubric, postcolonialism remains for the most part a nebulous term. “Unlike Marxism or deconstruction, for instance, it seems to lack an ‘originary moment’ or a coherent methodology” (Gandhi, 1998:viii). Despite the various successes of postcolonial studies in reshaping traditional disciplinary configurations and modes of cultural analysis, there are increasingly a growing number of attacks from not only outside the field but also from within.
The intellectual history of postcolonial theory is grounded in a dialectic between Marxism and poststructuralism/postmodernism. This theoretical contention shapes the academic content of postcolonial analysis, revealing itself in the ongoing debates “between the competing claims of nationalism and internationalism, strategic essentialism and hybridity, solidarity and dispersal, the politics of structure/totality and the politics of the fragment” (Gandhi, 1998:ix). Both sides of this divide present compelling arguments in the critique of their theoretical opponents. However, neither Marxism nor poststructuralism can truly explain the meanings and the ramifications of the colonial onslaught. Postcolonial critics must constantly work toward a position that implies a negotiation between these two modes of though. The postcolonial project is one that entails the integration of these conflicting theoretical and political denominations.
“While the poststructuralist critique of Western epistemology and theorization of cultural alterity/difference is indispensable to postcolonial theory, materialist philosophies, such as Marxism, seem to supply the most compelling basis for postcolonial politics” (Gandhi, 1998:ix).
Postcolonial discourse is primarily grounded in the historical phenomenon of colonialism. As a body of theoretical and empirical literature, it is built in large parts around the concepts of otherness and resistance. While some postcolonial thinkers explore these concepts through binary models of perception, others have opted instead to examine the colonial encounter through the possible mingling of colonizing and colonized cultures. The term postcolonial is said to be emblematic of a form of social criticism pertaining to the unequal systems of representation through which “the historical experience of the once-colonized Third World comes to be framed in the West” (Bhabha, 1998: 63). Operating in two different registers simultaneously, it is both a historical marker alluding to the period following the end of colonization, and a term indicating the changes in the intellectual approaches influenced by post-structuralism and deconstruction (Padmini, 1997: 2). The postcolonial is therefore understood as “a set of reading practices” concerned with analyzing the “cultural forms” which intercede, challenge, or reproduce the relationships of supremacy and subjugation between nations, races, and cultures (Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 12).
While postcolonial criticism officially reached the Western academy through Edward Said’s Orientalism in the late 1970’s, it actually predates the period where the term postcolonial started gaining traction. The work of figures as diverse as the African-American thinker W.E.B Du Bois, the Trinidadian C.L.R James, the Martinican revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon in Algeria, the African critics Chinua Achebe and Cheikh Anta Diop, and the Indian historiographer Ranajit Guha have all been instrumental in establishing the modes of cultural analysis identified with postcolonialism (Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 5). Despite its belated arrival in the Western academy, it nonetheless had a major impact on contemporary modes of cultural analysis, bringing to the forefront the importance and intersectionality of issues such as race, nation, empire, migration, and ethnicity in the process of cultural production.
Postcolonial criticism did not simply expand the traditional field of English literature, or put the emphasis on certain areas of analysis previously overlooked; it also irrevocably modified the major modes of analysis that epitomized the period from 1945 to 1980 (Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 8). Colonial discourse analysis rejects the idea of studying literature in solation, and insists on taking into account the multiple materials, contexts, and academic fields (politics, sociology, history, etc.…) that shape and determine its production and reception. Postcolonial criticism questions notions pertaining to “the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere” by suggesting that culture can actually facilitate relationships of power as efficiently as any of the “more visible forms of oppression” (Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 8).
For some the hyphenated form post-colonialism serves primarily as a temporal marker of the process of decolonization. Others however reiterate that the postcolonial condition is not the result of the end of colonial occupation, but rather begins with the very advent of colonialism itself. The hyphenated form insinuates, according to them, a disconnect between colonialism and its ramifications. They argue that the “unbroken term ‘postcolonial’ is more sensitive to the long history of colonial consequences” (Gandhi, 1998:3). Other theorists have instead expressed a preference for the term postcoloniality, which they believe to be devoid of the academic dogma linked to the notion of postcolonialism. “In postcoloniality, every metropolitan definition is dislodged. The general mode for the postcolonial is citation, reinscription, rerouting the historical” (Spivak, 1993:217). Although Spivak perceives positive aspects to postcoloniality, others remain far from convinced. Ella Shohat believes that the globalizing nature of postcoloniality erases the complexity inherent to the postcolonial condition. According to her, it “downplays multiplicities of location and temporality (…) between post-colonial theories and contemporary anti-colonial, or anti-neocolonial struggles and discourses” (Shohat, 1992: 104).
Anne McClintock agrees with this assessment and reaffirms that the “absence of the necessary multiplicity” is indeed problematic (Childs and Williams, 1997:16). The singularity implied by the idea of an all encompassing postcolonialism re-centers global history around the chronicles of European history, and in doing so invalidates the “decentering of history in hybridity, syncretism, multi-dimensional time, and so forth (…). Colonialism returns at the moment of its disappearance” (McClintock, 1992:293). Arif Dirlik presents yet another perspective of postcoloniality that suggest a form of amnesia. According to him, this term is not applicable to the entire postcolonial period, “but only to that period after colonialism when among other things, a forgetting of its effects has begun to set in” (Dirlik, 1994:339). In this outlook, postcoloniality becomes a sort of pathology, “a disease of the times” (Childs and Williams, 1997:17). Anthony Appiah shares a similarly pessimistic view of postcoloniality. He refers to it as a “meretricious form of intellectual activity” (Childs and Williams, 1997:18). His criticism implies a willing complicity on the part of postcolonial intellectuals with the very imperialist and postcolonial structures they are meant to oppose.
“Postcoloniality is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: a relatively small, Western-style, Western trained group of writers and thinkers who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery. In the West they are known through the Africa they offer; their compatriots know them both through the West they present to Africa and through an Africa they have invented for the world, for each other, and for Africa” (Appiah, 1991:348).
The idea that some types of postcolonial production may strengthen the dynamics of control and exploitation, while weakening any efforts made to resist these forces, raises an interesting question. Is postcolonial production homogenous? Some writers insist on dividing postcolonialism into two distinct branches: one oppositional, and the other complicit. The former appears mostly in post-independence societies, while the latter is “an always present underside within colonization itself” (Mishra and Hodge, 1991:284). This model provides a necessary remedial to those critics who often perceive postcolonialism as either “(all too easily) resistant” or as an uneven phenomenon (Childs and Williams, 1997:19).
“Postcolonialism, we have stressed, is not a homogeneous category, either across all postcolonial societies or even within a single one. Rather, it refers to a typical configuration which is always in the process of change, never consistent with itself” (Mishra and Hodge, 1991:289).
The obvious point of departure—when trying to establish who, what, and where is the postcolonial—remains those populations previously colonized by the West. Nevertheless, such a grouping might only offer us a very limited picture of the phenomenon in question. The fact that the process of decolonization is uneven and incomplete remains a significant issue in that: “if territories cannot be considered post-colonial (in the sense of being free from colonial control), can their inhabitants?” (Childs and Williams, 1997:12). Another level of complexity is added when one takes into account the conditions singular to internal colonization. While a certain territory can be deemed decolonized and referred to as postcolonial, some of the ethnic and cultural groups that inhabit it could still be living as colonized entities. “That is particularly true of the situation of First Peoples, of the condition of internal colonization, and is one of the factors which unsettles the claims of white settlers colonies to post-colonial status” (Childs and Williams, 1997:12). The advent of the major diasporic movements, as temporal markers of the colonial and postcolonial periods, complicates even more the connection of peoples and territories to postcolonialism. The African and Asian Diasporas found in Europe and North America are examples of migratory movements created by the onslaught of Western imperialism in the Global South.
“For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of post-colonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasants and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees ” (Bhabha, 1994:5).
The arrival of these substantial populations from former colonies in the imperial metropoles created unique conditions under which these areas could now be labeled as postcolonial spaces. However, these diasporas are far from constituting what the Caribbean poet Louise Bennett referred to as instances of “colonization in reverse” (Childs and Williams, 1997:13). As Homi Bhabha states: “The Western metropole must confront its postcolonial history, told by its influx of postwar migrants and refugees, as an indigenous or native narrative internal to its national identity (…)” (Bhabha, 1994:6). The question of identity has always been central to postcolonial thinking, from Senghor’s Negritude to Spivak’s complex theorizing (Childs and Williams, 1997:13). Said’s insight on the colonial period in Orientalism introduces a new outlook on the identities of diasporic communities. He states that their histories, far from being alien to Western identities, are in fact an integral part of them. Western colonial incursions have irrevocably disrupted and altered the cultures and the identities of indigenous cultures. “Today it is not merely “primitive cultures” that are shattered by more powerful “civilizations”: all societies (…) are being destroyed (…) by the forces that were unleashed by European imperialism and industrial capitalism” (Asad, 1992:333). Therefore, it is understandable that the issue of unsettled identities remains an important discussion at the very heart of postcolonialism.
Another important aspect of the postcolonial is its relationship with history itself, “and the ways in which it is theorized, categorized, narrated, and written about” (Childs and Williams, 1997:8). Since the West has a long history of denying the presence of any meaningful pasts in areas it colonized while simultaneously destroying the very cultures embodying these histories, a significant aspect of postcolonial work entails the retrieval or the reassessment of indigenous histories. A typical example is the description of Haiti’s slave rebellion by C.L.R. James. The telling of such history is of particular importance “in its depiction of black people making their own history, rather than being passive participants in history made by others” (Childs and Williams, 1997:8). The Western-ness of history in origin, location, or ideology is a topic that postcolonial critics continue to debate.
“The significance of history for post-colonial discourse lies in the modern origins of historical study itself, and the circumstances by which “History” took upon itself the mantle of a discipline. For the emergence of history in European thought is coterminous with the rise of modern colonialism, which in its radical othering and violent annexation of the non-European world, found in history a prominent, if not the prominent, instrument for the control of subject peoples” (Ashcroft et al. 1995:355).
Over time, the term postcolonial has come to refer to what was previously known as Third World or Commonwealth literature. The perspectives and methods associated with postcolonial criticism are also increasingly being used to address the singular histories and predicaments of “internally colonized cultures within the nation states in the developed world” (Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 8). The Canadian context offers a perfect example of how complex and multifaceted the tem postcolonial has become. There are in this case at least five distinct contexts to which the term might apply.
The period of decolonization succeeding the end of World War II made “the nation-state the universally normal form of the modern state”(Chatterjee, 2011:11). Concepts inspired by the European Enlightenment such as citizenship, civil society, the state, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, and social justice became the basis of political modernity (Chakrabarty, 2000:4). Canada represents in many ways a postcolonial state still dealing with profound dynamics of internal colonization. The cultural and political dependency of Canada toward Britain continues to shape Canadian identity. For those Canadians of European ancestry, this dependent relationship has serious consequences on not only the way they perceive themselves, but also how they conceptualize their Canadianess. Furthermore, “a parallel process of subordination has been detected in the cultural domain especially as a consequence of US domination of the continent’s mass media (…)”(Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 10). As a result of this, it is not unusual to find many Canadians who see themselves as having succumbed to the economic and political influence of the United States. This regularly generates discussions centered on the importance of safeguarding Canada’s political sovereignty vis-à-vis the US, and ensuring an authentically Canadian process of cultural production. Another issue of importance is the topic of Quebec’s independence, which is often framed along postcolonial frameworks and perspectives as an oppressed culture, and a nation within Canada (Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 10). The treatment of minorities from immigrant communities is another matter that raises questions about Canada’s claims of being a genuinely multicultural and tolerant society. Writers such as Austin Clarke and Bharati Mukherjee often explore these questions through postcolonial lenses (Moore-Gilbert, 1997: 10). The predicament of the indigenous peoples of Canada is however the most important and obvious Canadian context where postcolonial criticism offers the necessary framework to establish a narrative of resistance.
“If Onkwehonwe movements are to force settler societies to transcend colonialism, we need to understand clearly who and what constitutes our enemy. The “problem” or “challenge” we face has been explained in many ways, but to move our discussion forward I will state it in a blunt and forcefully true way: the problem we face is Euroamerican arrogance, the institutional and attitudinal expressions of the prejudicial biases inherent in Europe and Euroamerican cultures” (Alfred, 2005:101)
Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that postcolonialism should not simply be understood as the latest iteration of critical analysis in social thought (Bhambra, 2007: 15). The post must instead be conceived of as a pivotal moment where the prevailing theoretical understanding of the world is transcended. Postcolonial approaches aim to improve categories of analysis by establishing, as a measure of adequacy, an increased inclusivity (Bhambra, 2007: 15). By giving prominence to the voiceless, postcolonialism is attempting to address issues of inclusion and exclusion, while simultaneously elucidating the reciprocal relationship linking knowledge to politics. According to Edward Said, “each humanistic investigation must formulate the nature of that connection in the specific context of the study, the subject matter, and its historical circumstances” (Said, 1978: 15). Therefore, postcolonialism not only tackles current inequalities, but also their historical roots and their modes of production (Bhabha, 1992: 440).
Although the study of colonial systems of representation and cultural production predates Said’s involvement in the field, what he introduced is an analytical approach grounded in contemporary European cultural theories. Postcolonial theory has since emerged as a junction for a variety of disciplines and theories; it has also become somewhat of a battleground. “While it has enabled a complex interdisciplinary dialogue within the humanities, its uneasy incorporation of mutually antagonistic theories—such as Marxism and poststructuralism—confounds any uniformity of approach” (Gandhi, 1998:3). This explains the lack of consensus when it comes to what should be the appropriate content, scope, and relevance of Postcolonial studies. In essence, postcolonialism can be defined as a project devoted to the “academic task of revisiting, remembering, and crucially interrogating the colonial past” (Gandhi, 1998:4). It is meant to divulge the reciprocal and antagonistic relationship between colonizer and colonized, and in doing so unearth the concealed roots of the postcolonial condition.
“The colonial past is not simply a reservoir of ‘raw’ political experiences and practices to be theorized from the detached and enlightened perspective of the present. It is also the scene of intense discursive and conceptual activity, characterized by a profusion of thought and writing about the cultural and political identities of colonized subjects. Thus, in its therapeutic retrieval of the colonial past, postcolonialism needs to define itself as an area of study which is willing not only to make, but also to gain, theoretical sense out of that past” (Gandhi, 1998:5)
The ongoing expansion of the term postcolonial is such that some fear the possible collapse of postcoloniality as an analytical construct. The diversity of historical contexts, geographical regions, cultural identities, and political predicaments puts a strain on its scope and relevance. Some even argue that it has been appropriated by “an essentially complicit mode of political (dis)engagement from the coercive realities of colonial history and the current neo-colonial era” (Moore-Gilbert, 1997:11). There have also been some polarizing discussions as to whether the focus of postcolonial analysis should be on postcolonial culture alone, or whether it should also include the culture of the colonizer.
“Indeed, despite abundant evidence of the successes of postcolonial criticism, it is arguable that these conflicts have attained sufficient weight and charge to raise the question of whether it is not now splintering into a series of competing, mutually incompatible or even antagonistic practices” (Moore-Gilbert, 1997:11).
The earlier anti-colonial critique spearheaded the effort to challenge Western constructions of notions such as colonizer and colonized, and probed the relationship connecting the center to the periphery. It also questioned the dichotomies that shaped the very concept of knowledge in fields such as literature and history. However, these texts remained, for the most part, dependent on the same structures they were attempting to dismantle. They tackled the structure of binary constructions—between master and slave for example—without however “questioning the reality of the dualism itself” (Mongia, 1997:5). As much as the narrative of nationalism posed a real challenge to colonialism, it nonetheless remained beholden to the narrative of modernity as a bearer of progress, while also acknowledging the universal value of Enlightenment.
In an attempt to dismantle the grand narrative making Europe the norm, nationalism proposed the modern nation-state as the new ideal (Mongia, 1997:5). In the wake of this new narrative pertaining to nationalism, postcolonialism took a keen interest in analyzing the “difficulty of conceiving the nation even as an imagined community” (Mongia, 1997:5). Postcolonialism rejects not only the “Western imperium but also the nationalist project”(Appiah, 1991:353). Instead, it takes as its objective, uncovering and critiquing the relationship connecting the various systems of knowledge to existing forms of oppression. Therefore, the responsibility of postcolonial theory resembles that of Western philosophy, a reimagining of the very concepts by which knowledge is conceived.
“The development of postcolonial theory also needs to be understood in terms of new socio-historic pressures”(Mongia, 1997:5). The traditional concepts such as democracy, the citizen, and nationalism that have so far explained human history seem to have lost the ability to cope with contemporary realities. Newer social movements focusing instead on issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity have demonstrated efficiently the shortcomings of the previous understandings of community, individual, and nations. Instabilities caused by complex changes “such as decolonization, the movements of peoples on a hitherto unmatched scale, and now distributions of global power” have shown that the old narratives of progress and reason are incapable of tackling current realities, and “the numerous fractures that attend them”(Mongia, 1997:5).
Postcolonial theory attempts to provide a response to the pressures created by contemporary issues, while also offering the means to talk about them. According to Gyan Prakash, postcolonialism’s ultimate project seeks to criticize “the historicism that projected the West as history” (Prakash, 1994:1475). He describes Subaltern studies as postcolonial criticism. They offer an “anti-foundationalist historiography” that reinstates the subaltern classes’ capacity for action by transcending the “foundationalist structures of colonial, nationalist, and Marxist historiography” (Prakash, 1990:397). He believes that postcolonial critique exists primarily as an aftermath of colonialism. Postcolonialism reiterates the important role played by the legacy of the Enlightenment and modernity in establishing the theoretical foundations of Western thought. It recognizes the continuous and enduring power of these ideas and values, and the necessity of addressing their lingering presence. “As a result, postcolonial theory offers not some ‘pure’ alternative but rather stresses that it is always after the empire of reason, always after having been worked over by colonialism” (Spivak, 1990:228). The debates of the 1980s pertaining to the broader societal issue of multiculturalism explain the rise of postcolonial theory in “metropolitan academies” (Mongia, 1997:6). The struggles led by Black Studies and Women’s Studies in the 1960s and 1970s leveled serious challenges against the traditional disciplines and their orthodox canons. Postcolonial theory benefits from the space created by these endeavors to establish itself as a new form of opposition. “Within this space, postcolonial theory finds a niche in the Western Academy” (Mongia, 1997:6).
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