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Postcolonial theory

November 29, 2012

In a book I rather like, Mary Klages gives a broad introduction to ‘literary theory’ and writes the following on postcolonialism…

“Postcolonial theory takes on the politics of the study of ‘English’ literature and culture from the perspective of those who were colonized by it. Postcolonial theory would ask whether an ‘English department’ necessarily reinforces the hegemony of Western cultural practices and thus supports the political and economic forces which have subordinated what we have come to call the ‘third world.’
Postcolonial theorists and scholars argue a lot about when a ‘postcolonial’ theory or literature begins to merge. Does the ‘post’ of postcolonial begin with national independence? With economic independence from the colonizing country? With cultural independence? … So when does a colony become postcolonial? For this book, we’ll take the easy definition: postcolonial designates the time after official colonial rule. For most former British colonies, postcoloniality begins in the mid- to late twentieth century, when most of the British [-p.153] colonies, such as India, fought for their independence from the British Empire, and became separate nations. Postcolonial theories begin to arise in the 1960s as thinkers from the former colonies began to create their own forms of knowledge, their own discourses, to counter the discourses of colonialism: these postcolonial discourses articulated the experience of the colonized, rather than the colonizer, giving what’s called the ‘subaltern’ – the subordinated non-white, non-Western subject of colonial rule – a voice. Postcolonial theorists examine also how subaltern cultures both participated in and worked to resist colonization, through various overt or covert, direct or subversive, means.
Postcolonial theory is thus centrally concerned with examining the mechanisms through which the colonizing powers persuaded the colonized people to accept a foreign culture as ‘better’ than their own indigenous methods of government and social organization. Among the most important kinds of power/knowledge brought by the colonizers was the construction of the concept of ‘race’, and more specifically the racial binary opposition of ‘white’ and ‘other’ – be that other ‘black,’ ‘yellow,’ ‘brown,’ ‘red,’ or whatever other color became the signifier for the ‘otherness’ of the colonized people.” (pp.152-153) “Race and postcolonial theorists are interested in studying how distinctions based on race are made, circulated, and enforced.” (p.153)

“Postcolonial literary studies, and postcolonial theory in general, focus on what happens when the formerly colonized culture starts to, or insists on, producing its own knowledge about itself. What happens when ‘the empire writes back’ to the dominant culture, when the silenced subjects of knowledge insist on becoming the producers of knowledge? One way to think about this is via deconstruction. The discourses that create the colonizers as the knowers and the colonized as the subjects of knowledge all depend on our old friend, the structure of binary oppositions, including West/East, Occident/Orient, civilized/native, self/other, educated/ignorant, etc. When ‘the empire writes back,’ these binary oppositions are deconstructed; when a colonized subject insists on taking up the position of ‘elf,’ as the creator of knowledge about his or her own culture, rather than as the subject of that knowledge, these binary oppositions start to fall apart.” (p.156)

“One of the impetuses for colonization was, of course, the spread of capitalism: colonies offered sources of raw materials, cheap labor, and new markets for Western goods, and the history of colonialism is very much caught up in the economics of capitalism. But colonialism couldn’t be confined merely to the economic realm: when a nation like Britain colonized a non-Western region, it exported its own legal, religious, educational, military, political, and aesthetic ideas along with its economic regime – what Marx would call the superstructure, and Althusser would call the Ideological State Apparatus….” (p.148)

“[Homi] Bhaba points to capitalism as a ‘connective narrative,’ an economic practice that holds the idea of ‘nation’ together; you can see this every time you see a product stamped with the name of the country where it was made.” (p.160)

“The idea of a ‘nation’ is the idea of an entity which has its own history, its own narrative of progress and success….” (p.161)

“Postcolonial literature, literature by people who can’t be identified as belonging to one specific nation, challenges us to think about how we might organize our universities, and our systems of knowledge, so that we don’t reproduce the narratives of nationhood and thus silence or lose the voices which are excluded from those narratives.” (p.161)

“The history of imperialism is the history of discourses about colonized places, whether in the form of official government reports, personal travel narratives, or imaginative fiction set in ‘exotic’ foreign lands.” (p.156)

“…What is ‘ethnicity’? We often use the phrase ‘race and/or ethnicity’ – so what’s the difference? Ethnicity is a less definite category than race, in part because the signifiers of ethnicity are less fixed, less obvious, than those of race. But in some ways ethnicity is a more important category, in our contemporary world, than race. Think about the idea of ‘ethnic’ peoples globally: the wars in eastern Europe, particularly Bosnia and Serbia, over what ethnicity was the dominant one led to a practice labeled ‘ethnic cleansing’, which involved killing all the people belonging to the wrong ethnicity. Ethnic cleansing was a common practice in the twentieth century: the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, the Nazi genocide of the Jews as an ‘unclean’ ethnicity, the wars between Tutsi and Hutu in Africa, and the wars between Pashtus, Kurds, and Arabs in the area we in the West call the Middle East.
In most of these examples, the question of ethnicity seems to have something to do with national identity. What’s the relationship between race, ethnicity, and nationality? How can you tell what nationality someone is, and how is nationality connected to race and/or ethnicity? …How does anyone define any ‘national’ identity, or racial identity, or ethnic identity – and what are the consequences of those identifications?  / I’m asking this because this is a central question in postcolonial theory, and a central question for Homi Bhaba’s essay on ‘The Location of Culture.'” (p.157)

Ref: Mary Klages (2006) Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum: London, New York.


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