By “decolonizing” I mean that we are identifying, interrogating and deconstructing central, primary Eurocentric assumptions which have served to privilege certain approaches and their partisans, and disguise or misrepresent the interest and ideas of others. It is a liberating, insurgent form of scholarship, one especially well-suited for redressing imbalances of power. As in any study of power, this requires reference to theory – in this cases postcolonial theory.
It is important before proceeding to acknowledge that the key terminology to which I am referring must be employed with caution. As Quayson points out, Postcoloniality in its various permutations can refer to a body of theory, a condition following liberation from a colonial power, or the processes whereby groups of people are thus liberated. It is also essential that we do not read too much into — nor take any comfort from — the prefix “post” in postcolonial, as if to assume that, since the imperial powers of Europe have for the most part divested themselves of their claims to other nations, that the processes, institutions and exploitative structures and relationships created to support, maintain and extend colonial enterprises are confined solely to history. On the contrary, as McClintock suggests, not only did the colonial projects of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portgual and Belgium result in global cultural and linguistic hybridity — encouraged to this day through forms of governance and international cooperation in the form of the Commonwealth and the Francophonie — but the globalized economy and neoliberal trade policies have assumed a mantle of neo-colonialism, in which economic and cultural domination, exploitation, extraction and appropriation have continued in new forms. Even more problematic is that the use of term “postcolonial” perpetuates the very ideology it seeks to critique, by framing the multiple ancient and complex histories of all nations once dominated by European nations solely in terms of their relationship to those powers, rather than on their own terms.
Given the broad geographic, cultural, national, linguistic, literary and political implications of the postcolonial lens — concerning as it does both the material and ideological — we are of necessity dependent on interdisciplinary approaches. This in itself can make postcolonialism threatening to an entrenched and jealously guarded academic field, quite apart from its substantive content, which shares interests with other bodies of critical theory concerning race, class, gender, sexuality and economic inequality. While these interconnections have the tendency of threatening the theoretical coherence of the term “postcolonial” they are quite inescapable.
At the same time, postcolonial theorists stress that the object of such study is primarily textual, oriented to close interrogations of discourses to glean from them the foundational ideologies, belief systems, values and assumptions which made the colonial encounter possible. Postcolonial studies are often, as a result, either historiographic or literary. In the case of the latter, there is an expansive literature concerned with colonial tropes, metaphors and discourses in fiction, plays and poems — many of which, it must be emphasized, comprised the curricula imposed on colonized in order to impress them with the presumed superiority of Western culture. This presumption, Homi Bhabha argues, actually arose from the deep-seated anxiety underlying the colonial enterprise — hiding the unconscious recognition that
this supposed difference [was] undermined by the real sameness of the colonized population. This unconscious knowledge is disavowed: sameness is simultaneously recognized and repudiated…for Bhabha colonial power is anxious, and never get what it wants — a stable, final distinction between the colonizer and the colonized (p. 5-6).
Inherent in any postcolonial discourses then, are questions of power, not just between onetime occupiers and those upon whom they imposed forms of governance and worldviews, but between various subaltern constituencies within those countries, all of whom were affected in their own ways as a result of this dominance. And as Bhabha stresses, colonized peoples were not simply passive but had and exercised agency. We are concerned then with encounters: the psycho-socio and literary transactions between politically and militarily powerful minorities and diverse cultural majority populations across the globe. There cannot, therefore, be “a” postcolonial state, process or theory, but many, as the nature of these encounters varied dramatically both regionally and nationally, not just in terms of their historic events but in the ideologies that underlay these encounters.
I will endeavour then in future posts to refer to postcolonialities — and with all appropriate caution.
Huddart, David. Homi K. Bhabha (Routledge Critical Thinkers). London: Routledge, 2006.
Diana Bryden, ed. Postcolonialism: Critical Concepts. London: Routledge, 2000.
McClintock, Ann. “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term “Post-Colonialism.” Social Text 31/32: 84-98.
Quayson, Ato. Postcolonialism : Theory, Practice, or Process? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000.