Postcolonial Theory

Commonwealth Literature emerged as a field of study in the 1950's and 1960's, grouping "English" literatures from countries with a history of British Rule (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Caribbean, India, Africa and South Asia. The emphasis is on the "universal" qualities this literature has in common with the great European literary canon. It not politically involved and complicit with imperialist discourse.


Postcolonial criticism “undermine[s] the universalist claims once made on behalf of literature by liberal humanist critics …; whenever a universal signification is claimed for a work, then, white, Eurocentric norms and practices are being promoted by a sleight on hand to this elevated status, and all others correspondingly relegated to subsidiary, marginalized roles.” (Peter Barry, Beginning Theory 192-3)


Books that influenced postcolonial criticism:

1961: Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth argues that the first term for colonized to find voice is to reclaim their own past that has long been devalued by European colonizers.

1978: Edward Said’s Orientalism argues that the West identifies the East as its ‘Other’ and as such it is exotic, seductive, and feminine.


Further voices that launched the school of theory in the 1990s:

1987: Gayatri Spivak’s In Other Worlds

Indian, post-structuralist, Marxist, influenced by Derrida.

"Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1983). Her answer is: NO

According to Gramsci, the term subaltern describes a person rendered without agency by her/his social status, and this influenced Spivak.

The subaltern has no history and cannot speak, and as a female is even more deeply in shadow.

Is it possible to recover voices of those who have been made subjects of colonial representation (esp. women) and read them as potentially subversive and disruptive?


1990: Homi Bhabha’s Nation and Narration

Indian, post-structuralist, psychoanalyst

'Hybridity'; "what is new, neither the one nor the other, but something else besides, which contests the terms and territories of both"

Reading colonialist literature as ambivalent (double vision), split and unstable, unable to install the colonial values they uphold.


Characteristics of postcolonialism:

An awareness of representations of the non-European as exotic or immoral 'Other'.

An awareness of the tainted nature of the colonizers' language (thus using it involves acquiescing to colonial structures).

An awareness of the double nature of identity of both colonizer and colonized.

An awareness of cross-cultural interactions as demonstrated in the three stages:

1.      Adopt European form and subject matter (similar to the feminine stage in feminism)

2.      Adapt European form to African subject matter (similar to the feminist stage in feminism)

3.      Adept or independent form and subject matter (similar to the female stage in feminism)


What postcolonial critics do:

Reject claims to universalism and seek to show its general inability to empathize across boundaries of cultural and ethnic differences.

Examine representation of other cultures in literature.

Show how such literature is silent on matters concerned with colonization and imperialism.

Foreground questions of cultural difference and diversity.

Celebrate hybridity whereby individuals and groups belong simultaneously to more than one culture.

See states of marginality, plurality and perceived 'Otherness" as sources of energy and potential change.