Verbal Jousting : Postcolonialism

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There were probably fewer theories about the sex of angels than there are versions and interpretations of postcolonialism in the Anglophone world. The origins of the term are, however, clear. It was originally used to denote an historical period and derived primarily from the study of African and Commonwealth literature.
What followed colonial literature ? Writing of the Independence period. But what followed that as disillusionment and scepticism set in ? ‘Post-independence’ in English suggests no longer independent. So another term was needed. The Fanonian ‘Neo-colonial’ might apply to parts of Africa, but the obvious term was ‘post-colonial’ used at first to indicate an historical era. Soon, however, ‘postcolonial’ became a useful catch-all term to compare and contrast literatures, cultures and societies that had a history of colonialism. This was initially useful to bring the literature of the United States and its former colonies into comparison with African and British Commonwealth literatures, but rapidly was seen as applicable to Latin America and any society or culture using a Europhone language. By now ‘Post-colonial’ had changed from a specific historical period following on from decolonization after the Second World War to a universal notion of analyzing the lasting effects of colonialism on the cultures of the colonized.
As the fashion for postcolonialism has caught on it has taken many amazing and unexpected directions. In one version, which has become common to the academic world, postcolonial analysis and theory can be applied to any society past or present, which has experienced any form of conquest, imperialism, or alien domination. Thus, without meaning to be amusing or ironic, professors of English speak of Chaucer and postcolonialism, or medieval culture and postcolonialism. As modern European nations are the products of conquests, nation building, and other cultural, boundary and linguistic changes, they offer opportunities for many ingenious postcolonial interpretations.
The main thrust of postcolonial studies, however, is a criticism of European expansion and imperialism on the non-European world whether in the modern world or the past. It has increasingly become a way of analyzing and criticizing the presence of the West outside the West. In such analysis the effects of Europeanization are assumed to be bad in contrast to some original ‘authenticity’. This is paradoxical as it re-institutes an older nativist anti-colonialism, a nativist nostalgia for an authentic past, a movement which postcolonialism at first branded as neocolonialist, backward looking, reactionary, feudalistic. Any analysis in terms of opposing polarities simplifies realities and recreates the very essentialisms that post-modern and post-colonial thought is supposed to oppose.
Another version of postcolonialism begins with criticism of notions of nation and nationalism as recent historical ideas which promote the domination of white male authority through an ideology of cultural traditions and national unity. In contrast to the nation are its minorities and marginalized people, notably women, gays, lesbians, and non-Europeans. This is a version of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and has been a very influential basis of Post-Marxist progressive politics. The mixture changes from time to time, according what is thought dominant. The Irish, for example, were formerly regarded as ‘black’ in relationship to British dominance, while the Irish are obviously ‘white’ as Europeans in relation to the Third World. At the core of such an approach is the analysis of society in terms of race, gender, class, and sexualities especially in relation to power and dominance. The analysis of ‘positionality’ derives directly from Foucault and is one of the many ways that European post-structuralist thought has been incorporated into postcolonialism. In this version women, minorities, and others outside the white male elite are ‘internal colonies’ of the nation. Seen in this way postcolonialism includes multiculturalism, cultural pluralism, and other terms for recognizing and promoting social equality, cultural difference, relativism, and separatism in contrast to acculturation and assimilation to dominant national values.
Postcolonialism can be thought a further, more inclusive development of the critical and oppositional tendencies found in deconstruction and post-structuralism. But whereas the European philosophers seemed mostly concerned with theory in the abstract, the Anglophones rapidly moved on to the specific political content of discourse. The model was Foucault’s concern with how epistemes operate as forms of power. Postcolonialists assume that in previous and most existing power relationships those in authority are white Western heterosexual males and their victims are blacks, non-westerners, women, gays, etc. Within the hierarchy of power relationships it is assumed that while white women are victims of their men they themselves are oppressors of black men who are in turn oppressors of black women. The white working class has improved its position in the world by its share in the profits of imperialism as have white women. The movement of decolonization is treated in terms of race. Instead of the United States, Canada, New Zealand or Australia being regarded as revolutionary new starts as they freed themselves from European imperialism, they are instead seen as part of white Western expansionism and imperialism in non-European parts of the world, as is Israel with its white European and American Jews.
This is a radical rewriting of history although much of it is implicit in Fanonian psychology. The idea of history progressing towards modernity and rationalism is said to be a form of Western imperialism over other peoples. The European ‘discovery’ of other parts of the world is seen as an undesirable expansionism and imperialism. All of Europe’s role in the history of others is viewed as bad. Art is seen as ideologically formed for the benefit of elites and a product of the repression of others ; its appreciation is replaced by analysis of how it incorporates the ideology of its patrons. In practice this means that Calaban becomes the main interest of Shakespeare’s The Tempestplain ; rather than a source of disorder and immorality he is the rightful native owner of the island. The ordered good life idealized in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Parkplain is seen, as in the recent film by Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Parkplain, 1999), to be based on a hidden economy in African slavery and Europe’s new world plantations.
One question now usually asked is how is the Other represented ? Can a white write with genuine knowledge of black experience ? Is not such writing, or painting, or filming, or any use of Others, a form of exploitation ? It therefore follows that only members of a victim class can speak for that group. A major result of this revisioning of history is that Western history becomes little more than a record of invading and exploiting Others, and the canons of Western art, whether in literature or architecture, are mythifications to be deconstructed to reveal their ideological biases in their historical contexts. It follows that it is more progressive to read ‘texts’ by immigrants, working class women, sexual minorities, Native Peoples, and non-Westerners than, say, Homer, Dante, Virgil, Shakespeare.
A major objection to postcolonialism is that many creative artists reject such a categorization as imposing a meaning on their work and as making them separate but unequal. Rather than ‘writing back’ many artists feel that they are telling the history of or celebrating the new place of multiracialism and their theme is more likely to be hybridity or the necessity to get beyond simplistic racial consciousness than a celebration of Otherness. The artists are probably correct as recent studies of youth have shown that they are seldom conscious of race even while having sex. Postcolonialism risks becoming a dinosaur of the 1968s which still lives in the academy and among supposedly progressive politicians. 
Perhaps the most influential book on postcolonialism was Edward Saïd, Orientalismplain (London : Routledge, 1978), which claimed that for many centuries Western ideas of the non-Western world consist of a racist imperializing episteme. Orientalismplain can be seen as a version of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesisplain, which criticizes Western representations of Eastern thought as part of a long history of colonialism traceable from the Greeks onwards. Saïd directly influenced Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest : Literary Study and British Rule in Indiaplain (New York : Columbia University Press, 1989) which argued that all British study of India, especially the teaching of British literature and Western culture, was part of imperialism, as any British knowledge mapped the continent for forms of imperialism while the introduction of modern Western culture alienated Indians from their own world.
While Saïd recognized that such an analysis risks becoming nostalgia for a mythic past and origins, his later writings show little familiarity with the rich body of creative literature and other arts that has resulted from the meeting of the world’s cultures with the West. An influential attempt to argue how such hybridization produced an oppositional culture within colonialism is Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back : Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literaturesplain (London : Routledge, 1989). Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin claim resistance starts among those who learn the way of the master, as Calaban learns Prospero’s language in order to curse him. Their account is shaped by a desire to show that the white settler colonials, such as those in Australia, are part of the movement of decolonization and are not just branches of European expansion. While they see the white dominated colonies as rebelling against the white metropolitan culture, many postcolonialists argue that all whites have oppressed native peoples, the original inhabitants of the colonies.
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Cultureplain (London : Routledge, 1994) is both concerned with how the newly decolonized nations were taking to limited forms of nativism and with the paradox the new modern culture was partly a product of hybridity in which the colonized learned and adapted the ways of the colonizer. Unlike Saïd he has a good knowledge of postcolonial culture and understands its vitality, but he writes very obscurely whereas Saïd writes with elegance and acknowledges objections to his claims.
Another of the influences on postcolonialism is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds : Essays in Cultural Politicsplain, (New York : Methuen, 1987). Spivak, who studied with and translated Derrida, has argued that the real voices of the colonized are the subalterns, those who do not know the tongue of the colonial masters, and others outside the power relationships between the imperialist and the nationalist. She has recognized the paradoxes of nationalism and brought to attention writing by women in Indian languages. But much of her writing consists of fragmentary comments, inconsistencies, and obscurities. Students often argue over what she means. Her work, even more than that of Bhabha and Saïd, leads from literary to cultural studies in which aspects of politics, society, and non-elite forms of cultural production are the focus of attention rather than high art forms. A simple introduction to the work of Saïd, Spivak and Homi Bhabha is Postcolonial Theory, Contexts, Practices, Politicsplain by Bart Moore-Gilbert (London and New York : Verso, 1997).
While many of the major postcolonial theorists are literary critics, other outside influences include the notion that perceptions of reality, especially ideas of history, tradition, and belonging, are socially constructed. The seminal book is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalismplain (London : Verso, 1983) which showed how the nineteenth-century novel had transformed older ideas of the State (the government as function and power) into the Nation (something organic based on the folk, a language, religion, and customs).
The essays collected in Homi K Bhabha (ed.) Nation and Narrationplain (London : Routledge, 1990), treat politics and history as forms of story making. They critically examine various ideas of the nation to show how they are ideological responses to specific historical situations. Another influential book was James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture : Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Artplain (Cambridge, Mass : Harvard University Press, 1988), which was part of the self-consciousness that had developed among anthropologists after the meditations of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Anthropologists no longer felt that they were objective observers ; rather they felt they were imposing Western values on what they described and their work was part of Western imperialism. Cultural anthropology replaced field work as anthropologists wrote books criticizing the history of the discipline.
This ever increasing expansion of postcolonialism is criticized in a collection of essays edited by Bruce King, New National and Post-Colonial Literatures : An Introductionplain, Oxford : Clarendon Press : 1996). Once a term starts meaning anything you want it to mean it becomes useless. For critics with a formation in literary studies, the increasing politicizing of postcolonialism for a criticism of the West seems like a replay of the Cold war by those who lost it. This book includes Stephen Slemon’s survey of the many ways postcolonalism has branched into such further concepts as postcoloniality, and essays by Tiffin and Griffith criticizing the Americanization of postcolonialism as part of America’s cultural wars and the lack of understanding of the processes of decolonization and hybridization shared by both white and black former colonies.
In response to the way postcolonialism conceptualizes in totalizing terms (such as epistemes, discourses, race, gender) lacking nuance and awareness of social, cultural and historical specificity, an opposing movement is concerned with a more detailed study of the complexities of identity. Bruce King studies the social and cultural networks in former colonies (Modern Indian Poetry in Englishplain, New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 1987), the economics of the production of art (Derek Walcott and West Indian Dramaplain, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1995) and the nature and conflicts of an career as an artist (Derek Walcott : A Caribbean Lifeplain, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000). The Literature, Culture, and identity series (London and New York : Continuum) is specifically concerned with examining multiple, conflicting, and changing identities in colonial and postcolonial cultures. Its first books have been Mineke Schipper’s Imagining Insiders : Africa and the Question of Belongingplain (1999), Gillian Whitlock’s The Intimate Empire : Reading Women’s Autobiographyplain (2000) and Nuruddin Farah’s Yesterday, Tomorrow : Voices from the Somali Diasporaplain (2000), a examination of the adaptation, and lack of adaptation, of Somali refugees in exile.
Aijaz Ahmed, In Theory : Classes, Nations, Literaturesplain. (London : Verso, 1992) is an important criticism of postcolonialism from the perspective of an Indian Marxist who is also an Urdu novelist. Ahmed sees postcolonial theory as a product of 1968 and its romanticization of the Third World as a revolutionary force assumed to replace the proletariat of classical Marxism. Ahmed claims such a view is sentimental nonsense which ignores the actual non-Western world and its many differences. He objects to Saïd’s totalization of the Third World and the failure to understand that Western knowledge and modernization is a necessary part of a struggle against a continuing feudalism. The Third World of Saïd or Salman Rushdie is a concept of a wealthy, well-educated, Westernized expatriate elite that tells a no longer revolutionary, supposedly progressive Western intelligentsia what it wants to hear. Ahmed criticizes Fredric Jameson (The Political Unconsciousplain, Ithaca : Cornell U Press, 1981) for interpreting the literature of the Third World as an allegory of the national liberation struggle. This imposes a single-minded vision on most of the world and denies the universal humanism and shared brotherhood which should be common to Marxists.
For many critics and writers within the former British empire the really important theorist is the Caribbean writer Wilson Harris, whose own version of Magic Realism rewrites history so that there are no longer victims and victors but a continuing process of intermingling, revisioning, and changing of roles. This is a new world vision without the burden of history, which contrasts with those academic debates which look for a difference between postcolonialism and post-colonialism.

///Article N° : 5448


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