Postcolonial Studies - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Postcolonial Studies
The Rise of Literary Theory

The emergence of Postcolonial Studies is tied to a number of factors, the most important of which is the relation of postcolonial nations to colonialism and the colonial era. Hence the prefix “post-” refers to a historical relation, to a period after colonialism. Strictly speaking, the postcolonial era begins with the American revolution in the late eighteenth century and the Haitian revolution of the early nineteenth century. However, the emergence of America as a leading industrial nation and colonizing power in the later nineteenth century and Haiti's neocolonial situation extending well into the twentieth century render them somewhat exceptional with respect to the current usage of the term postcolonial. As many theorists have noted, the historical relation alone is insufficient to describe the meaning of this “post-.” The title of Kwame Anthony Appi- ah’s influential essay - “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” (1991) - implies that the significance of the term postcolonial extends beyond the historical relation of colonialism to include other times, themes, and discourses. Adapting Jean-Frangois Lyotard's description of the Postmodern as that which cannot be “presented” in the modern, we might say that the postcolonial refers to the unpresentable in the colonial: racial difference, legal inequality, subalternity, all of the submerged or suppressed contradictions within the colonial social order itself. In this sense, the postcolonial presents itself in the colonial epoch, especially during periods of DECOLONIZATION, when social contradictions are expressed in intensified nationalist organization and anticolonial struggle. The processes of decolonization often continue well past the official establishment of a postcolonial state in the form of NEOCOLONIAL (or neo-imperialist) relations of economic and political dependence on the former colonizer. Entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund often play a part in neocolonial relations, while the United Kingdom retains something of its old colonial structure in the Commonwealth of Nations, which consists mostly of former British colonies.

Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi, the leading figures of the first generation of Postcolonial theorists, wrote their most important works in the 1950s and early '60s and were strongly influenced by the dialectical and materialist traditions of Hegel and Marx. Both were interested

in understanding the psychology of colonialism, specifically of the absolute sense of difference that characterized colonial relations. Fanon began his short career with Black Skin, White Masks, a study of racial difference in colonial and postcolonial societies. Fanon’s ideas about the nation, nationalism, and national consciousness have been especially influential. He rejected the Western conception of the nation as a “universal standpoint” that subsumes all particulars (i.e., individual human lives) in the fulfillment of its own abstract freedom. Universality instead belongs to the people who comprehend themselves as a nation. The people’s struggle is largely the struggle “to make the totality of the nation a reality to each citizen” (Fanon 200). It inevitably entails the spontaneous violence of the masses, for only through violence can the native become human and enter into history as something other than a mere slave. violence and the “permanent dream to become the persecutor” (Fanon 52-53) constitute the tools of the anti-colonial revolutionary.

However, Fanon noted a deep chasm between the people in the countryside and the national bourgeoisie in the urban areas whose members fill the former colonial bureaucracies and enjoy the fruits of Westernstyle corruption. Little by little, accommodations are made with former colonial rulers in order to sustain the privileges of power. This stage of decolonization, when nationalist groups consciously and unconsciously mimic the political formations of the IMPERIAL state, inevitably reveals the complicity that tempts even the most progressive anti-colonial groups to build political parties and unions on METROPOLITAN models. Some theorists, in response to Fanon, have embraced the idea of “emancipatory complicity,” the idea that nationalist or postcolonial critique can sustain itself within a social and political environment shot through with neocolonial relationships and lingering colonialist habits, historical DETERMINATIONS that can, if not overcome, work against the creative, forward-looking power of postcolonial nationhood. As Fanon points out, nationalism is concerned not with inheriting power but with “the living expression of the nation” which “is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people; it is the coherent, enlightened action of men and women” (204). Only this form of national consciousness will enable solidarity movements with other emergent postcolonial nations. “National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension” (247).

Fanon's investments in Western philosophy and social theory, particularly Marxist thought, make for a very AMBIVALENT relationship with colonialism. The very nature of the relationship - the unequal binary struggle of master and slave, dramatized famously by Hegel as a parable of self-consciousness - appears to the colonized as predetermined and merciless. It is a classic example of MANICHAEANISM in a modern social context: the civilized West (“good”) conquers, tames, and civilizes the barbarous East (“evil”). Fanon was, like Memmi, limited by the Marxian or at least Hegelian terms of his intellectual response to the Algerian struggle. The second wave of Postcolonial Studies had to surmount the intellectual legacy of the Marxian anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and '60s, shed the habit of dialectical, “us and them” thinking. Edward Said threw down the gauntlet in 1978 with Orientalism, a foundational work that has exerted extraordinary influence. Drawing on Michel Foucault's theories of DISCURSIVE FORMATIONS and Althusser's idea of the PROBLEMATIC (a system of problems and questions that constitute the “unconscious” of a text), Said studied the discursive relationship between the West (the occident) and the East (the orient) and pioneered a form of colonial DISCOURSE ANALYSIS. He maps the complex relations of power in a long tradition of philological and scholarly writing about the East in an attempt to “unlearn” “the inherent dominative mode” (28) of imperialism. Orientalism is a form of “executive” knowledge that can be used to gain information on native peoples in order better to control them. It is also archival in nature, for its ambitions are to gain total knowledge about these peoples and their cultures. These ambitions have their roots partly in a long tradition of anthropological intervention in colonial territories that contributed not only to authoritative academic discourses on PRIMITIVISM but also to official colonial actions to pacify or eradicate those cultures. Finally, it is a form of knowledge that circumscribes and delimits, constructing the East as an OTHER in relation to the West. orientalism is thus a form of Manichaeanism, which posits an absolute difference “between the familiar (Europe, the West, ’us') and the strange (the Orient, the East, ’them')” (43). Discourses about the East, like the massive Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte, bear no “natural” or MIMETIC relation to the geographical and social realities of eastern nations. said notes a distinction between latent Orientalism, what a traveler or a native might experience in a specific geographical space, and manifest orientalism, the discourses produced by Western intellectuals. New knowledge gained by direct experience at the latent level (e.g., E. M. Forster traveling in india) flows into the manifest level in the form of a novel representing India, Passage to India. The parallel with Freudian dream-work suggests that orientalist discourse represses a good deal more than it represents.

Though widely read and well received, Said's Orientalism attracted criticism. Aijaz Ahmad, for example, took Said to task for his Nietzschean and Foucauldian anti-humanism, his unwillingness to critique the idea of “third world” authenticity, and his reluctance to include COUNTER- HEGEMONIC alternatives. Said addresses many of these criticisms in later work, though the issues at hand are addressed more forcefully by a new generation of theorists that emerged in the 1980s, including Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. For these theorists, the main issues are the SUBJECT and SUBJECTIVITY, nationalism, and COLONIAL DISCOURSE. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” for example, Spivak uncovers the dynamics of a SUBALTERN subjectivity silenced by Western theory which, despite its “radical” stance, remains committed to an Enlightenment vision of a universal and sovereign subject. She addresses the possibility of the subaltern finding a voice “inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education” (“Subaltern” 283). Spivak's analysis of power relations in colonial and postcolonial india reveals dramatic and persistent gender inequalities. “Both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” (“Subaltern” 287). Her example of sati (widow sacrifice) illustrates the ways that imperialism codified and redefined a native practice as a crime, transforming a realm of free choice and power into one of juridical repression. Because the female subaltern disappears into a violent shuttling between tradition and modernization, she cannot speak.

As Fanon points out, one of the most pressing problems facing postcolonial states after independence is the continuance of the struggle in the form of a resistance to NEOCOLONIAL relations that keep new states economically and politically (in some cases, culturally) dependent on former colonial powers. The commitment to continue the struggle against neocolonialism has led Said to develop a conception of secular criticism that would offer a “contrapuntal” perspective on a divisive and

polarized terrain. Bhabha's work is similarly committed to what he calls “vernacular cosmopolitanism,” a sense of what Said calls worldliness that is grounded in local knowledge of local needs. These modes of engagement take place within a “temporality of continuance,” a local historical process with international implications. However, as recent history has shown, anti-colonial resistance succeeded in ousting colonial governors and establishing native states, but the international dimension of the struggle was set aside because of the pressing needs of nation-building. of special interest in this context is the prominence of nationalism and national identity in the work of theorists in Ireland, South Asia, and the Caribbean. Myriad possibilities for HYBRID IDENTITY formation spring from the very ethnic, racial, and religious differences that delimit and destabilize colony and postcolony alike. Bhabha's highly influential Location of Culture defined COLONIAL MIMICRY as “the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ’appropriates' the other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which coheres the dominant strategic function of colonial power, intensifies surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both ’normalized' knowledges and disciplinary powers” (86). Mimicry is double-edged; it is the sign of a colonial discourse that desires a “reformed, recognizable Other” but it is also the means by which the colonized subject challenges that discourse. in the latter sense, mimicry reverses the process of disavowal inherent in “colonial representation and individuation” and permits “ ’ denied' knowledges” the opportunity to “enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority - its rules of recognition” (114, 120). The HYBRID subject is the subject of a discourse of mimicry, forced to speak from multiple, typically antagonistic locations.

Linked to this concept of hybridity is Stuart Hall's theory of DIASPORIC IDENTITIES. Hall claims that Caribbean peoples experience cultural identity “as an enigma, as a problem, as an open question” (286):

everybody [in the Caribbean] comes from somewhere else… . That is to say, their true cultures, the places they really come from, the traditions that really formed them, are somewhere else. The Caribbean is the first, the original and the purest diaspora… . [I]n the histories of the migration, forced or free, of peoples who now compose the populations of these societies, whose cultural traces are everywhere intermingled with one another, there is always the stamp of historical violence and rupture. (283-84)

African, European, indian, Chinese, and indigenous peoples have been dispersed throughout a system of islands bound together, in the modern era at least, primarily by colonial commerce, which had its roots in the slave trade. Aime Cesaire, a poet and dramatist from Martinique, used Shakespeare's The Tempest as a point of departure for a critique of Western IMPERIALISM and its notions of racial difference. His Une Tempete (1969) tells Caliban's story from the native's point of view. Peter Hulme's Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (1986) was one of the first major studies to analyze the phenomenon of cultural contact from a postcolonial perspective. in order to recover the full discursive context of the “discovery” of America, Hulme explores the DISCURSIVE FORMATION constituted by the letters, journals, ship log entries, and other documents associated with the voyages of Columbus, but he also includes the discourse of the Carib people, a discourse that was frequently misunderstood and, for that very reason, had a profound impact on colonial discourse about “primitive” peoples.

Despite general agreement concerning the objects of postcolonial critique - colonial discourse and IDEOLOGY, nationalism, gender relations, religious sectarianism - divergences can be found whenever we look closely at specific colonial and postcolonial contexts. The most important distinction within COLONIALISM is between settler and administrative colonies. Administrative colonies are those which supervise exports (rubber, ivory, spices and, until the early nineteenth century, slaves), participate in world markets, guarantee freedom of movement for religious missions and for sociological and anthropological inquiry. Settler colonies were developed by the colonial powers to absorb populations from the home country. in some cases, as in Rhodesia and French Algeria, these new populations were working- and middle-class settlers seeking land and a fresh start; many in the middle classes regarded the colonies as a way to find advancement that would otherwise be out of their reach. In Australia and New Zealand, through the nineteenth century, the new populations were primarily impoverished irish, Scottish, and English families and transported convicts. in ireland, the Anglo-Irish had a long history of occupation and many considered them

selves culturally irish. Northern ireland has emerged as an extremely complicated special case in that it no longer fulfills the requirements of a settler or an administrative colony; England's rule in the region is largely a police action, designed to maintain order and, until recently, to shore up Protestant “home rule.” Since the peace talks of the late 1990s, however, England's role has been ambiguous, for it continues to maintain its role as a police force but is also joined with the Republic of ireland in ongoing efforts to transfer power to a joint Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern ireland. As with the situation in the Palestinian occupied Territories, the Northern irish problem points up the difficulties of negotiating settlements without due attention to the question “who has the right to settle where?”

This is, of course, the underlying question in so many postcolonial discourses. indeed, it is the same question that Native Americans have been asking since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. The situation in the US has been particularly intriguing because of the long history of oppression endured by native peoples and enslaved Africans. Such instances of domination and oppression redefine the very concept of colonialism. The segregation and resettlement of Native American Indian tribes on reservations is the most compelling example of “domestic colonization,” far-flung colonial practices brought to the imperial backyard. The work of Arnold Krupat and Gerald Vizenor has contributed much to expand the warrant of Postcolonial theory to include those social and cultural situations in which DOMINATION takes on specific characteristics of widespread lack of social services, chronic unemployment, relocation of populations, and suppression of native traditions, languages, and cultural practices.

Postcolonial Studies is profoundly involved in a project of historical revisionism that makes possible the representation of historical subjects and conditions of existence that had been ignored or suppressed by European historians. The Irish postcolonial experience, for example, has yielded a long tradition of revisionist historiography, beginning at the time of the Literary Revival in the 1890s and accelerating after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. The Subaltern Studies Group, a South Asian collective, similarly combats the representations of india and the indian peoples generated by orientalist and colonialist discourses. One result of this revisionist impulse is the displacement of the postcolonial as the primary category of theoretical reflection. For example,

Spivak has recently advocated the development of a “transnational cultural studies” that would supplant traditional modes of comparative study and encourage greater sensitivity to native languages and cultures. As for the term postcolonial, she argues that its original use was to designate “the inauguration of neo-colonialism in state contexts. Now it just means behaving as if colonialism didn't exist.” Moreover, the emphasis in Postcolonial Studies on the nation-state is no longer timely: “we can't think of post-coloniality in terms only of nation-state colonialism. We have to think of it in different ways. Otherwise, it becomes more and more a study of colonial discourse, of then rather than now. You can no longer whinge on about imperialism. We're looking at the failure of decolonization” (“Setting” 168).

it may be that Fanon's dialectical fusion of “national consciousness” and “an international dimension” is no longer possible. There appears to be little common ground between well-developed postcolonial states (e.g., Ireland, India, Egypt) and the new transient internationalism of migrants, refugees, exiles, emigres, and stateless peoples like the Kurds. This problem of transience illustrates from another perspective Bhabha's “temporality of continuance,” for it is the failure of nationalism and the triumph of neocolonial exploitation that have remained constant in the second half of the twentieth century. This is especially true of the Arab lands, which were carved up by the colonial powers and redistributed without regard for tribal, ethnic, and religious boundaries. This remapping of territories created and continues to create innumerable problems for national governments that are virtually powerless to remedy the lingering effects of colonial domination. Another factor in the ongoing development of postcolonial states is the neo-imperial project of GLOBALIZATION that links developed nations to the burgeoning labor forces and consumer markets in developing and undeveloped regions around the world. As a result, the postcolonial nation, often modeled on the nineteenth-century European nation-state, is left out of the “international dimension” because it has failed to develop sufficiently. The nullifying, destabilizing effects of theological and ideological absolutism so evident in the formerly colonized regions of the world may be the result of incomplete nation-building and thus of incomplete nationalism. Fanon charted an itinerary from subjugation to revolution, and along that itinerary was the difficult process of building a nation that represented the spirit of the people. In many cases, the nation-building process got stalled

in the early years of independence, and the national consciousness, or Bildung, that Fanon foresaw seems to have been arrested as well. As for the “international dimension,” it no longer seems possible to forge socialist alliances along traditional European lines. in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, we tend to regard the international dimension in different terms. We tend now to think of terrorism, of free-floating, stateless collectivities and networks of “sleeper cells” whose members are often marginalized or excluded by the nationalism of their home countries. Once international socialism fell with the Berlin wall, the Islamic world alone maintained any interest in a vision of an international community bound by religious and historical ties. in this new context, the question of neocolonialism continues to be urgent.


Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963.

Hall, Stuart. “Negotiating Caribbean Identities.” In Postcolonial Discourses: An Anthology. Ed. Gregory Castle. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 280-92.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1978. London: Penguin, 1985.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-313.

---- . “Setting to Work (Transnational Cultural Studies).” In A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals. Ed. Peter Osborne. London: Routledge, 1996. 163-77.