Postcolonial Theory

 

Literally, postcolonialism refers to the period following the decline of colonialism, e.g., the end or lessening of domination by European empires. Although the term postcolonialismgenerallyrefers to the period after colonialism, the distinction is not always made. In its use as a critical approach, postcolonialism refers to "a collection of theoretical and critical strategies used to examine the culture (literature, politics, history, and so forth) of former colonies of the European empires, and their relation to the rest of the world" (Makaryk 155 - see General Resources below). Among the many challenges facing postcolonial writers are the attempt both to resurrect their culture and to combat preconceptions about their culture. Edward Said, for example, uses the word Orientalism to describe the discourse about the East constructed by the West. Major figures include Edward Said (sah-EED), Homi Bhabha (bah-bah), Frantz Fanon (fah-NAWN), GayatriSpivak, Chinua Achebe (ah-CHAY-bay) , Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid, and Buchi Emecheta.

 

Key Terms:

- Alterity - "lack of identification with some part of one's personality or one's community, differentness, otherness"

- Diaspora (dI-ASP-er-ah- "is used (without capitalization) to refer to any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave their traditional ethnic homelands, being dispersed throughout other parts of the world, and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture" (Wikipedia).

- Eurocentrism - "the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing emphasis on European (and, generally, Western) concerns, culture and values at the expense of those of other cultures. It is an instance of ethnocentrism, perhaps especially relevant because of its alignment with current and past real power structures in the world" (Dictionary.LaborLawTalk.com)

- Hybridity - "an important concept in post-colonial theory, referring to the integration (or, mingling) of cultural signs and practices from the colonizing and the colonized cultures ("integration" may be too orderly a word to represent the variety of stratagems, desperate or cunning or good-willed, by which people adapt themselves to the necessities and the opportunities of more or less oppressive or invasive cultural impositions, live into alien cultural patterns through their own structures of understanding, thus producing something familiar but new). The assimilation and adaptation of cultural practices, the cross-fertilization of cultures, can be seen as positive, enriching, and dynamic, as well as as oppressive" (from Dr. John Lye - see General Literary Theory Websites below).

- Imperialism - "the policy of extending the control or authority over foreign entities as a means of acquisition and/or maintenance of empires, either through direct territorial control or through indirect methods of exerting control on the politics and/or economy of other countries. The term is used by some to describe the policy of a country in maintaining colonies and dominance over distant lands, regardless of whether the country calls itself an empire" (Dictionary.LaborLawTalk.com).

 

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’sIn 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.

 

Further references:

- Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, and Tiffin, Helen. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures

- Ashcroft, Bill. Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader.

- Guneratne, Anthony R. The Virtual Spaces of Postcoloniality: Rushdie, Ondaatje, Naipaul, Bakhtin and the Others.

- Harding, Sandra and Uma Narayan, ed. Border Crossings: Multicultural and Postcolonial Feminist Challenges to Philosophy 2. Indiana University Press, 1998.

- Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin. White Masks. Trans. by Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto, 1986.

- Said, Edward. Orientalism.

- Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature, and the African World.

- Spivak, Gayatri ChakravortyIn Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. London: Routledge, 1988.

- Spivak, Gayatri ChakravortyThe Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. London: Routledge, 1990.

- Trinh, T. Minh-Ha, Woman. Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

 

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:

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

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

- 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.