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date: 30 September 2023

Postcolonial Theoryfree

Postcolonial Theoryfree

  • Vijay MishraVijay MishraDepartment of English, Murdoch University


Postcolonial discourse is the critical underside of imperialism, the latter a hegemonic form going back to the beginnings of empire building. In the languages of the colonized—those of the ruling class as well as its subjects—a critical discourse of displacement, enslavement, and exploitation co-existed with what Conrad called the redemptive power of an “idea.” Postcolonial theory took shape in response to this discourse as a way of explaining this complex colonial encounter. But the discourse itself required a consciousness of the colonial experience in its diverse articulations and a corresponding legitimation of the lives of those colonized. This shift in consciousness only began to take critical shape in the mid-20th century with the gradual dismantling of the non-settler European empires. In Africa anti-colonial agitation congealed, as a theoretical problematic, around the idea of négritude, a nativist “thinking” that was built around alternative and self-empowering readings of African civilizations. In the writings of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Amilcar Cabral, and Aimé Césaire, négritude affirmed difference as it foregrounded an oppositional discourse against a “sovereign” European teleological historiography. The African writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o pushed this further by insisting that, where possible, postcolonial writing should be in the vernacular. But even as difference was affirmed, with the emergence of the psychoanalytic–Hegelian writings of Frantz Fanon , the discourse ceased to be defiantly oppositional and moved towards an engagement with the larger principles of Western humanism, including a critique of the instrumental uses of the project of the Enlightenment. Out of this grew a language of a postcolonial theory which could then trace the colonial experience in its entirety, in all its complex modes and manifestations, to uncover the genesis of a critical postcolonial discourse, a discourse shaped in the shadow of the imperialist encounter. However, for the theory to take shape as an analytic it needed something more than a binary exposition or a simple historical genealogy; it required an understanding of those power structures that governed the representation of colonized peoples. The text that gave a language and a methodology for the latter was Edward W. Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism. Although Said did not use the term “postcolonial theory” in the first edition of his work, his argument (after Foucault) of the links between discourse and power provided a framework within which a postcolonial theory could be given shape. Works by two key theorists followed in quick succession: Homi K. Bhabha on complicit postcolonialism and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on the subaltern and postcolonial reason. The three—Said, Bhabha, and Spivak—regularly invoked as a triumvirate or a trinity provided solid plinths for the scaffolding of innumerable studies of postcolonialism. Of these studies, in the Anglophone context a few may be cited here. These are: Robert J. C. Young and Bart Moore-Gilbert on critical Western historiography and colonial desire, Aijaz Ahmad, Neil Lazarus, and Benita Parry on the globality of capitalism and the need to historicize scholarship, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam on Eurocentrism, Dipesh Chakrabarty on provincializing Europe, Gauri Viswanathan on the role of premodern thought in postcolonial activism, and Harish Trivedi on postcolonial vernaculars. In all these studies the specters of Marx emerge as ghostly flares, which is why postcolonial theory is not so much an established paradigm with identifiable limits but an idea, a debate which in existential parlance carries a sense of exhaustion, ennui, that has no closure but is always an opening delimited only by a given theorist’s disciplinary boundaries.


  • Literary Theory

Designing, Defining, Declaring an Idea

Colony comes from a rich and important Latin root colo—“to abide, dwell, stay (in a place), to inhabit it”—which is etymologically linked to the Sanskrit root kshi, “to dwell, inhabit.1” From this meaning it developed a set of related meanings: to work (the earth), to cultivate it, and hence metaphorically to work the mind or soul; and to worship the gods. These are diverse meanings for a modern mindset, but in the premodern world in which these terms were formed there is an intrinsic connection between living in a place, working the land, and honoring its gods, the spirits of the land. The subject of the col (colony) was thus an inhabitant or a farmer. From this usage it drifted to refer to a settler in a foreign place, a “colonist” in the modern sense. Yet this drift was not innocent, and in the Latin the other meanings remained active, part of the ideological work it did to justify and legitimate different modalities of invasion: living in (and dominating) a new land, “improving” it by work, and bringing new gods—all strategies that European powers employed in the 500 years of European colonization, beginning with 1492 when Columbus set sail for the “New” World and when Boabdil lost al-Andalus to Isabella and Ferdinand.2

This contradictory legacy over 500 years then underwent an amnesiac shift in the stock of words of modern European languages. “Colony” came to refer primarily to invasive settlements, not to a neutral “dwelling.” It also lost its deep roots in premodern ways of life, especially religion. All these elements are still present in contemporary forms of colonization, in both its classic, colonial, and postmodern/ postcolonial forms. The realities have not changed, but meaning has slowly seeped out of the term. The word “postcolonialism,” emerging as it did from this complex history, is a neologism (created through affixes added to the headword “colony”) that grew out of older elements to capture a seemingly unique moment in world history, a configuration of experiences and insights, hopes, and dreams arising from a hitherto silenced part of the world, taking advantage of new conditions to “search for alternatives to the discourses of the colonial era,” “not [as] the end of colonization [but] … a certain kind of colonialism,” creating an altogether different vantage point with “locomotive, portmanteau” qualities from which to review the past and the future.3 If we accept postcolonial theory as an intentional discourse in a changing and variable historical context (a context whose genesis may be variously located in 1492 when Columbus set sail for the new world, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian revolution which began in 1791, merely two years after the French Revolution, the Barbados slave uprising of April 1816, or 1947, when India gained its independence) then the question of what shape this critical stance or attitude took begins to acquire variable centers.4

In Anglophone postcolonial theory (our brief here) one returns to two “moments” as being critical, if not foundational. The first is what may be broadly called the triumph of the “monolingualism” of the conqueror, which had its symbolic origin in a Minute—Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, dated 2 February 1835—aimed principally at creating a citizen who would view reality as the colonizer did. The Minute has been so extensively rehearsed that parts of it made their way even into Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh.5 What Rushdie did not include was Macaulay’s reading of the primacy of English as a civilizing and cleansing principle.

[These people will form a] class who may be interpreters between us and millions whom we govern,—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from Western nomenclature.6

This is imperialist Macaulay, but there is a second “moment” worth remembering. A little under twenty years after Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Indian Education, on 25 June 1853, Marx’s essay on “The British Rule in India” was published in the New York Tribune.7 Marx gives a dismal picture of India as a nation prone to invaders from outside, but also mystified from within through “a religion of sensualist exuberance, … of self-torturing asceticism,” a religion which, as Kevin B Anderson notes, Marx felt was marred by “Hinduism’s deep-seated antihumanism.”8 Against this less than endearing historical account (which he clearly borrowed from Hegel) Marx argued British imperialism was of a very different kind: “the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before.”9 Quoting Sir Stamford Raffles on the capitalist ethos of the Dutch East India Company, Marx notes that the British East India Company treated people as property from whom labor could be extracted for the “monopolizing selfishness of traders.”10 This capitalist enterprise, altogether new for India, “separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all the ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.”11 The end of cottage industries, the products of the handloom and the spinning wheel (later admired by Gandhi), through the transformation of agriculture, notably to produce cotton for the mills of Lancashire, had the effect of “blowing up their economical basis” thereby producing the “only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.”12 It is at this point, a point of reversal one may say, that Marx turns to the closed world of Indian communities held together by a barbaric “Oriental despotism” (a function in fact of the social structure of the Indian village itself) not of the colonial kind but one that restrained the human mind itself and isolated it from its natural historical development. Bound to quietism (as Nehru himself acknowledged) the Indian subject lost its sovereignty as a figure of history and subjected itself to a brutalizing worship of nature and religious deities.13 Marx then observes in a passage cited by Edward Said as an example, even in a great thinker, of the power of the formidable censor of “Romantic Orientalism,”14

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.15

The Indian liberationists, notably Gandhi and Nehru, understood Marx’s argument that capitalist incursion in itself leads to an uprising by the proletariat because the contradictions of capitalism are far too obvious. And yet both Nehru and Gandhi failed to successfully create a genuine revolution of the proletariat because, against Marx, as Aijaz Ahmad has argued, Gandhi celebrated a static, changeless India whose superior wisdom opted for a moral vision contained within a primitive system of production.16 Marx’s reading of British colonialism is the hidden subtext of postcolonial theory: colonization may have been brutal, dehumanizing, racist, exploitative and the rest, but in the narrative of Marx it should have produced a postcolonial insurgency the product of which would have been the right kind of postcolonial nation. The specter of Marx haunts postcolonial theory and continues to do so to this day.

Origins of a Theory: Negritude and Liberation

In spite of Marx’s historical teleology, it could be said that postcolonial theory began not as an ideology but as an “aesthetic” aimed at empowering Caliban with the “power to see.”17 In the hands of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Amilcar Cabral, and Aimé Césaire (who coined the word “négritude”) an aesthetic was transformed into an ideology of liberation which, although located within a Manichaean binary of the colonizer and the colonized, did not part company from the language of European humanism. For Senghor, negritude was “an instrument of liberation … a contribution to the humanism of the 20th century,” encompassing as it does “the sum of the cultural values of the black world.”18 To understand what these cultural values are one has to “feel” that the African “body” is akin to “spirit-matter” where the body itself is an energizing spirit, a source of knowledge, transcending the Western dualism of spirit and matter as distinct categories. Borrowing from the affective theories of Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin (both with strong mystical tendencies) the African body projects the world as part of a larger synthesis of which it itself is a part. Wolof, the language of Senegal, writes Senghor, has at least three words for spirit—xel, sago, or degal—because matter, which is never dead, itself is an embodied spirit.19 The sign “Man” is a sign of a collective responsibility—to one’s fellow-men, to nature, to the spirit that inheres in all life forms—and not one of self-definition and individuality. What colonization obfuscates, occludes and finally trivializes is the historical force of the ideas of negritude in Western thinking itself. From St. Augustine to Rimbaud, Picasso, and Braque the interplay of forces and the non-mimetic modes of African art (which for the African always combined social activity with aesthetic judgment) influenced, humanistically, the Western mind. Negritude was the first of the politics of recognition later theorized by Charles Taylor as a system, an idea, that contributed to the civilizing project of humanity.20 African harmony, its unity of form and movement, its mystical sense of oneness with the earth, with climate, with all life forms, anticipates postcolonial theory’s intervention into areas such as climate change and ecocriticism.21 More than anything else this was the first unified postcolonial theory to emerge, and one that brought the affective, the body, into the ideas of recognition and liberation together. Lamming had anticipated this, and much of British black grime music (a genre that draws on ragga, hip hop, rap, and the Rastarfari ideology of Bob Marley) continues to reflect this. But, to quote Bart Moore-Gilbert, “the negritudinists’ … essentialist myth of black identity, social or psychic, across the diverse spectrum of black cultures and histories” foreclosed critical discussion; a more historically grounded postcolonial discourse was needed.22 That discourse came from the pens of Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon.

Memmi and Fanon

In his classic work, The Colonizer and the Colonized (in French 1957; English translation 1965) Albert Memmi had argued that the colonized were the product of a specific period of colonization out of which grew an anti-colonial discourse.23 Since the “post-” was not available to Memmi as an epistemic category, the “postcolonial” was emphatically oppositional.24 Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the Introduction to the first edition of the book (in French), read Memmi’s oppositional (liberationist) rhetoric in the context of a system “born towards the middle of the last (that is nineteenth) century, that will manufacture its own destruction of itself.”25 In this argument Sartre also reminded the reader of Marx’s observation that the proletariat “bears within it the destruction of bourgeois society.”26 Memmi’s early study lends itself to this reading even if, 35 years on, Nadine Gordimer in her Introduction to the later edition of the work argued that as a programmatic statement about postcolonial struggle, the application of Memmi’s work is limited because it deals with the Maghrib, not Africa south of the Sahara, where the colonial situation was more dramatically played out. What is true, though, is Memmi’s reading of racism as not “an accidental detail, but … a consubstantial part of colonialism … the highest expression of that colonial system.”27

Writers on negritude and Memmi had provided a theoretical framework with which to rethink, and indeed to rewrite, the colonial encounter. It was left to Frantz Fanon to give that framework a more powerful philosophical grounding by exploring the psyche of the colonizer through an examination of the dark side of the Hegelian master–slave dialectic. Two books of Fanon are pivotal and quite possibly more influential than other works cited by postcolonial theorists. These two books—The Wretched of the Earth (in French 1961) and Black Skin, White Masks (in French 1952)—may be “entered” into more productively through their prefaces written, respectively, by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi Bhabha.28 The two prefaces, separated by some 25 years, demonstrate two key features of postcolonial theory, both arising out of Fanon’s works. The first, by Sartre, reads Fanon as a revolutionary for whom the anti-colonial struggle never comes to an end, and would require more than an affirmation of one’s past, more than an unqualified insistence on one’s national culture (Fanon calls it “Negro-ism”); the second, by Bhabha, sees in Fanon modes of resistance built into the lives of the colonized, and reads colonization itself as a two-way trauma. We need to make these positions clear because they remain, to this day, the two principal tenets of postcolonial theory: to oppose and by opposing end them, or to theorize a process that has built into it life-worlds that no longer offer non-ambiguous solutions.

In his Preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth Sartre explores, after Fanon, violence as an existential imperative produced by the colonial condition. Throughout the Preface Sartre appropriates the voice of Fanon, who in turn had appropriated the voice of Aimé Césaire. In the opening pages of his Discours sur le colonialisme (1955) Césaire had begun with the devastating words: “Une civilisation qui s’avère incapable de résoudre les problèmes que suscite son fonctionnement est une civilisation décadente … L’Europe est indéfendable” [“A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization … Europe is indefensible”]. Sartre captures something of the spirit of Césaire’s polemic as he quotes approvingly Fanon’s own diagnosis of Europe: “Europe … is running headlong into the abyss; we should do well to keep away from it.”29 Against the “simulacrum of phony independence,” which Europe gives his ex-colonies—because the mother country keeps some of its own spitting images in play and in power even after independence—what is needed is a struggle, a fight, among the colonized themselves, led by a unified revolutionary class. The struggle is neither a retreat into a mythic African past, a romantic turn and a withdrawal, nor one around the figure of the Western ideal of the world-historical individual who projects the Law of Reason, the kind, without naming him, one discovers in Gandhi with his cult of suffering and non-violence. What the colonized have inherited from the colonizer is something pernicious, something inhuman, something degrading—the cult of violence, the power of brute force, and brutality itself. Whereas for the negritude theorists black Africa offered an alternative romanticism that may redeem Europe itself, Fanon’s Hegel offered an existential crisis of being; one in which violence—an anti-colonial struggle—would play a role because violence itself was a profoundly colonial legacy. But this reading, incisive as it was, faced a more powerful and pervasive postmodern reading which came from someone who would become a foundational theorist of postcolonialism.

Homi Bhabha’s reading of Fanon’s second book, Black Skin, White Masks, “the only serious competitor to Said’s (1978) Orientalism as the foundational text of modern Postcolonial Studies,” is so different. Between the two readings of Fanon—Sartre’s and Bhabha’s—the battleground or the direction of postcolonial theory is laid out: one steadfastly oppositional; the other almost accommodating and complicit.30 Before turning to Bhabha’s critique, we must capture Fanon’s own voice about colonialism by referring to a passage each from The Wretched of the Earth and from Black Skin, White Masks. From the first:

Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.31

And from the second:

I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, “At bottom you are a white man.”32

In his reading Bhabha must shift Fanon away from the writer of the “seamless narrative” to the “purveyor of the transgressive and transitional truth.”33 The latter—“transitional truth”—Bhabha argues, surfaces so dramatically in the “silence of a sudden rupture” in Fanon’s enigmatic pronouncement: “The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.”34 Bhabha’s reflection on this utterance captures what may be called a key postcolonial “turn” in as much as the theoretical point of view took on a definitive stance in postcolonial theory. Bhabha continues,

That familiar alignment of colonial subjects – Black/ White, Self/ Other – is disturbed with one brief pause and the traditional grounds of racial identity are dispersed, whenever they are found to rest on the narcissistic myths of Negritude or White cultural supremacy. It is this palpable pressure of division and displacement that pushes Fanon’s writing to the edge of things; the cutting edge that reveals no ultimate radiance but, in his words, “exposes an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born”.35

In the hands of Memmi, Fanon, Sartre, and the writers on negritude, colonial history was one of brutal subjugation which required at the cultural level a clear statement of ethnographic equality within difference and at the political level a total dismantling of imperialist structures. To Bhabha, who refers to negritude and White supremacy as myths, the colonial transaction (as “translation”) had fractured the colonized subject to such an extent that the “post-colonial” colonized could never function within an absolute Self–Other binary. The language that Bhabha deploys, seen even in the short passage quoted, is one that would create out of the painful experience of colonization a world view that would forever put to rest systems of absolute difference. The theory that defines this approach, in broad terms, is deconstruction encased at times within a metonymic rendition of the signifier, as found in Lacan’s reading of Freud and deployed by Fanon himself:

It would indeed be interesting, on the basis of Lacan’s theory of the mirror period [stage], to investigate the extent to which the imago of his fellow built up in the young white at the usual age would undergo an imaginary aggression with the appearance of the Negro. … one can have no further doubt that the real Other for the white man is and will continue to be the black man.36

Homi Bhabha and Cultural “Hybridity”

It is a broad claim to make but it must be made: there is no postcolonial theory without Homi Bhabha, disagreements with him, however intense, notwithstanding. As noted already in Bhabha’s reading of Fanon, he rejects foundationalist historiographies on the grounds that the postcolonial present (with its global flows and hybrid identity politics) finds them attenuating. In the alternative historiography fashioned by Bhabha, anti-colonial nationalist practice repeats, with a difference, an original metropolitan nationalism. Theorists of bourgeois anti-colonial struggle would agree this often happens. For Bhabha, it seems this is the only model of nationalist struggle in the domain of anti-colonialism: a metropolitan nationalism repeated with a difference (an ambivalence) but within a space that is semiotically the same since it is invested with the same bureaucratic and juridical systems. This is a little uncanny, as Bhabha says, because it is a kind of return of the repressed, a compulsive repetition but one to which one desires to return to participate in the (il)logic of having been there before. The colonized subject is thus bound to mimic (the narrative of the struggle presupposes a prior metropolitan grand narrative) and can only exist in a condition of ambivalent hybridity.37 But in doing so the move, the theory, the premise, undermines, in Neil Lazarus’s words, the “colonialist script” itself.38

The theory took shape in an early published essay—“Signs Taken for Wonders” (1985)—also included as the sixth chapter in Bhabha’s highly influential The Location of Culture.39 As Bill Bell says in an historical recontextualization of this essay, “[the essay] constitutes a discourse whose coinages – ‘hybridity,’ ‘sly civility,’ ‘mimicry’ – have passed into such common usage in the past twenty-five years that they have come to colonize the postcolonial imagination with an imaginative power rare within the rarefied world of cultural theory.”40 The value of the essay, which may be used as representing the entire volume of collected pieces, is that, apart from the postcolonial coinages noted by Bell, it represents for many the special ways in which a postcolonial theorist reads an archive.

The essay begins with a conversation recounted in the January 1818 issue of The Missionary Register between one Anund Messeh, a prized early Brahmin convert to Christianity and now a catechist, and 500 men and women “seated under the shade of the trees” just outside Delhi in May 1817 who were reading, according to Anund Messeh (“Masih,” in Hindi a messenger, a Messiah, is a common surname for Indian converts) “the Gospel of our Lord, translated into the Hindoostanee Tongue.”41 When told by Anund that the Gospels teach the religion of the “European Sahibs” and the book is in fact theirs, the elder of the group replies, “Ah! No, that cannot be, for they eat flesh,” suggesting that meat eaters cannot be recipients of revelation of what is presumed to be a “Hindu” text. It seems they remain unconvinced even when Anund insists that it is the European Sahibs who were the original recipients of the book and it is they who gave it to them. When asked why they wore white they answer “The people of God should wear white raiment” as a sign of their purity. Anund reads this as a sign of their submission to the God of the Book (Jesus) and asks them to come to Meerut where a missionary priest would baptize them “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” They don’t take this offer and excuse themselves because there is harvesting to be done. But since they meet once a year, the next meeting may well be in Meerut. Anund then explains to them the nature of the Sacrament and Baptism. They are happy to undergo Baptism but baulk at the thought of participating in the holy Sacrament, where wine or sweetened water is shared, because the “Europeans eat cow’s flesh, and this will never do for us.” One wonders how Anund had explained the Christian Sacrament and if indeed he had explained it with reference to communal eating (commensalism) in the Last Supper. To the elder’s retort that the Sacrament would not “do for us” because “the Europeans eat cow’s flesh” Anund seems to suggest that when the Word of God enters the mind of men, real understanding (of the Sacrament) would follow. Anund’s account ends as follows:

They replied, “If all our country will receive this Sacrament, then will we.” I then observed, “The time is at hand, when all the countries will receive this WORD!” They replied, “True!”42

For Bhabha the incident, as recounted by Anund, is metonymic in the sense that it repeats the moment of the arrival of the Book in colonized societies. The printed book (which can be mechanically reproduced without any variants) had a mystical power in and of itself. The power is then linked to its original owners, the English Sahibs, who with the Book brought a new religion as well as a new polity. To Bhabha the episode is symptomatic of the sly games played by the subaltern, the levels of mimicry and under-cutting in their responses all the more remarkable because these subalterns themselves were Sadhs, a rebellious group like the Kabir Panthis and the Nath Yogis who emphasized oneness of being and wore white. Whereas Anund Messeh was complicit as an instrument of evangelical imperialism, the subalterns recognizing his complicity played along with him.

For the postcolonial theorist Anund is the perfect candidate for the ways in which the self-interest of the local, the indigenous, combined with the global interest of the conqueror. But was Anund Messeh himself both complicit and at the same time a sly mimic who simply gave the master what they, evangelists like Henry Fisher, John Chamberlain and Bishop Wilson, wanted, offering an ironic disturbance even if irony totally bypassed him?43 In Bhabha’s reading of the event in the Delhi grove, the mimics were the unknown Sadhs and the voice of authority the compliant and baptized Brahmin, now an excitable Christian catechist. In Bell’s reading the mimic is the loquacious and stereotypical sly Indian catechist who plays the game. In this reading Anund’s gloss on the Gospels (“These books teach the religion of the European Sahibs. It is THEIR book”) is not an affirmation of the master text of the masters but one characterized by the theoretical device of bathos, undercutting. Anund then is the sly stereotypical Indian playing a game that Hindus have always played, demonstrating as they always did characteristics of mimicry, sly civility, and hybridity avant la lettre. In the end, as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 rages, Anund leaves Christianity, returns to the religion of his wife who had never converted and comes to a tragic end as he is killed by a Muslim, quite possibly for abandoning his faith in the first place.44 Either way, Bhabha’s reading has theoretical value and signifies a larger historical context in that it is part of an enunciatory process that goes back to Wilson Harris’s contention that even when a presumed assimilation of contraries has taken place a certain “void” remains and it is through an entry into this “void” (Bhabha’s “Third Space”) that participation in an alien discourse begins to take shape.45 When, later, Bhabha returns to a “vernacular cosmopolitanism,” the specters of Harris remain.46

The Ghost of Conrad

V. S. Naipaul once observed: “And I found that Conrad … had been everywhere before me.”47 This is true of postcolonial theory because, recalling Dostoevsky on Gogol, it, too, has come out of Conrad’s coattails. A recurring starting point of postcolonial theory is related to the project of the Enlightenment, where the subject is fashioned around personal autonomy and the Law of Reason.48 Individualism, in this regard, is prized as a valuable thing in itself. Other subjects—those who had not been “cooked” by the Enlightenment (or European civilization more generally)—could (and should) strive towards this goal of autonomy. This is how imperialism was structured—Europe went out to “cook” other subjectivities into its own rational design and the process of civilization was connected to how well the native could be like “us.” The turn of the 20th century, however, began to show signs of a “new ethnographic conception of culture” where other ways of speaking about cultural subjects were shown to be equally valid as the new breed of ethnographers advanced a theory of critical cultural relativity against the older cultural essentialism. James Clifford, to whose work I now turn, develops his reading of cultural relativity through a comparison between Conrad and the anthropologist Malinowski, founder of what is now termed ethnography or the study of cultures.49

The argument hinges on the very straightforward idea that ethnography has yet to find its Conrad. What does Clifford mean by this? Reading through Clifford’s juxtaposition of Malinowski’s Diary and Conrad’s Darkness we immediately note that Malinowski cannot free himself from Eurocentric discourses of self and identity. Malinowski is thus faced with a dilemma—how indeed to represent the truth of “discrepant worlds” even as one works within the discipline of ethnography. So Malinowski goes, in a sense, to Conrad, representing his life in Conradian terms, and rewriting themes from Heart of Darkness.

Both Heart of Darkness and the Diary portray “a crisis of identity” at the limits of Western civilization. But since the crisis, in the case of Kurtz (leading as the crisis does to moral and spiritual disintegration) is far too great, and is beyond representation, it has to be transformed either into a “horror” or a lie. The latter is what Marlow does when he is asked to tell the truth about Kurtz to his betrothed. He offers a more palatable version of the character, not the mystery of the horror, but the circumspection of reassurance. The betrothed feels relieved, the life of Kurtz is not wasted but put to good use. Honor triumphs, although this honor is possible because Marlow lies. Truth is known only to the small group of listeners on the Nellie. In the world beyond it is the lie that will persist. One is tempted to say that James Clifford—and Malinowski before him—is actually seeing in Conrad’s narrative a parable of ethnography and by extension the postcolonial. The white anthropologist working in liminal societies (but located in a complex linguistic/ cultural formation) constructs cultural differences against the European push to slot cultures into a binary (civilized/ barbaric; raw/ cooked, etc.). This “anthropologist,” however, composes a text beneath which lies a host of other texts, notes of conflicting kinds, that he/she had produced during field work. Marlow’s tale is similarly constructed; it is a fiction, a lie, behind which are truths that exist within contradictory discourses and genres. If one has to find truth one has to locate it through contrapuntal readings of Marlow’s discoveries such as his encounter with the book by one Towsor or Towson “lovingly stitched” (as we discover later by a Russian sailor in harlequin whom Marlow meets), found in a shack by the riverbank. The “dead” and useless book is placed against the vibrant river as the sign of civilization, a commodity which makes more sense to Marlow than the tenebrous river itself. A contrapuntal reading—in fact a postcolonial reading following on Edward Said’s description of a new postcolonial hermeneutic—discloses the triumph of the novel as dialogic form, for it does what ethnography cannot do.50 There is, of course, the matter of structure itself: in Heart of Darkness, even Marlow’s monological narrative can be undercut through the “ironic” structure of the mediated frame narration. What Clifford is saying is that Conrad provides us with a model of writing about cultures, and the novel form does precisely what a critical ethnography has not been able to do. Conrad’s work is the model for both postcolonial theory and practice.

Chinua Achebe, author of the foundational postcolonial/ African novel Things Fall Apart (1958), does not buy this reading of Conrad. In a lecture delivered at the University of Massachusetts in 1975 and later revised in 1987 Achebe writes how Conrad sets up Africa as a “foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own spiritual grace will be manifest … [an] ‘other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization.”51 The uncited subtext here is F. R. Leavis’s reading of Heart of Darkness in his influential The Great Tradition (1948). Deploying the language of high literary criticism and English sensibility, Leavis read Heart of Darkness as an exemplary text that achieved “its overpowering evocation of atmosphere by means of ‘objective correlatives’.”52

Against Leavis’s emphasis on the work’s sinister and fantastic “atmosphere” and Towser or Towson’s book on seamanship as a “symbol of tradition, sanity, and the moral idea … in the dark heart of Africa,” that gave the right language to an emotion, Achebe isolates phrases such as “ugly,” “the savage,” and contrasts Conrad’s treatment of black men and what seems like Kurtz’s African mistress with Kurtz’s betrothed, the European woman.53 Denied the full force of language, the black man in the novel speaks twice: once as a cannibal, a second time voicing the famous line “Mistah Kurtz – he dead,” which is mispronounced and incorrectly syntaxed.54 For Leavis, representing as he does the canonical literary critic/ ideal reader, the latter is a statement about death without “adjectival qualification” or the use of a copula (a sign of predication with the verb to be); for a black critic this is sheer parody of the black man’s failure to master language: “Language is too grand for these chaps; let’s give them dialect,” writes Achebe.55 As to the argument that it is not Africa but the European mind which is being dismantled and Conrad is in fact even less charitable to the Europeans, Achebe remains unconvinced: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?” he writes. The damnation is straightforward and alarming: “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.”56

To Achebe, whose own training in literary criticism in colonial Nigeria was heavily influenced by Leavis, the pertinent question is whether such a novel can be called a great work of art? Achebe’s answer is an emphatic “No.” He suggests that Conrad has a problem with “niggers” as there is too much in common between Marlow and Conrad’s biographies to deny this identification. For Achebe Heart of Darkness is an offensive and deplorable book because (1) the humanity of black people is questioned, and (2) the illusion is given that this is somehow the truth. Achebe’s reading of Conrad anticipates Said’s argument: the West needs its dark Other. In Achebe’s words, “the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa.”57

Postcolonial defense of Conrad’s work has come from all quarters. Following the lead of Jim Clifford who saw Conrad’s novel as a model for ethnography because of its dialogic form, postcolonial critics have mounted a similar defense. A couple of examples will be sufficient. According to Wilson Harris, Conrad’s work showed that the homogeneous cultural order (upon which the novel form was based) contained a hideous bias, expressed by “horror.”58 It is this homogeneity, the bias, that produced imperialism, and Conrad deconstructs the form to expose the bias built into the form. Others, including Nico Israel and Edward Said, have turned to the metaphor of the halo in Heart of Darkness: truth is not a kernel (as Achebe finds it) but a series of complex centers depending on how we read the central images of the haze and the light in Conrad.59 Said himself would return to Conrad (and Flaubert) in Culture and Imperialism (1993) under the sub-heading “The Native Under Control.”60 Although later in the section Said would acknowledge “Chinua Achebe’s well-known criticism of Conrad (that he was a racist who totally dehumanized Africa’s native population)” he would add that in his later novels, notably Nostromo and Victory, Conrad treats both the local Indians and the ruling-class Spaniards with the “same pitying contempt and exoticism he reserves for African Blacks.”61 Conrad, of course, has a European readership to address, and Said notes this, but Said does not read Conrad directly as a spokesperson for imperialism. The person who does so is the narrator Marlow, who “confirms Kurtz’s action: restoring Africa to European hegemony by historicizing and narrating its strangeness” and whose voice Achebe unproblematically identifies with Conrad. Said, however, notes that in James Ngugi’s [Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s] The River Between, Conrad’s dark river at the heart of the continent, is full of life, has a name, and is redemptive.62

Edward W Said

The reference to Conrad in Said, whose first major publication was on Conrad, takes one to the work that is considered foundational in the history of postcolonial theory.63 The work in question is Orientalism (1978), for which he wrote an Afterword in 1994. One turns to the Afterword to map out the connections between Said’s magisterial work and the advent of postcolonialism, as it is here that postcolonial theory is addressed. Although Said’s own position remains a lot more ambiguous and he does not, in any impartial reading, make a direct, derivational connection between his book and postcolonial theory, the book, as he concedes in the Afterword, has become “several different books” with each theory (postcolonial, multicultural, subaltern, to name three obvious ones) in different ways claiming direct lineage to it as the source text.64

Orientalism, Said argued, was a system like many others from which liberation was necessary. As Bart Moore-Gilbert glosses, “Western domination of the non-Western world is not some arbitrary phenomenon but a conscious and purposive process governed by the will and intention of individuals as well as by institutional imperatives.”65 It was for this reason that Said

wanted readers to make use of [his] work so they might then produce new studies of their own that would illuminate the historical experience of Arabs and others in a generous, enabling mode … The invigorated study of Africanist and Indological discourses; the analyses of subaltern history; the reconfiguration of post-colonial anthropology, political science, art history, literary criticism, musicology, in addition to the vast new developments in feminist and minority discourses – to all these … I am pleased and flattered that Orientalism often makes a difference.66

The modern version of Orientalism—and postcolonial theory addresses this—manifests itself in those binary discourses of difference that relegate minorities and people of color to fixed identities, treating them as racial enclaves, breeds, ethnicities outside of the humanistic ethos of the West. The erstwhile category of the Third World and the present category of the Global South, even as the latter is read as an alternative economic bloc, perpetuate the orientalist discourse of fixed identities and binary absolutisms.

In spite of Achebe’s devastating critique of Conrad, Said’s work—which was not a wholesale denial of the achievements of Western civilization—led, in postcolonial studies, to a “re-reading of the canonical cultural works, not to demote or somehow dish dirt on them, but to re-investigate some of their assumptions, going beyond the stifling hold on them of some version of the master–slave binary dialectic.”67 He went on to suggest that postcolonial writers such as C. L. R. James, Césaire, Rushdie, and Walcott show how their daring formal achievements “are in effect a re-appropriation of the historical experience of colonialism, revitalized and transformed into a new aesthetic of sharing and often transcendent re-formulation.”68 Although Said himself speaks about how his classic work was an inspiration rather than a direct influence, the impact of his work has been so extensive that the anthropologist Stanley Kurtz in a testimony on Said to the US House Subcommiitee on Select Education (June 19, 2003) could say, distorting Said’s complex book,

The ruling academic paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle Eastern studies) is called “post-colonial theory.” Post-colonial theory was founded by Columbia University professor of comparative literature, Edward Said. Said gained fame in 1978, with the publication of his book, Orientalism. In that book, Said equated professors who support American foreign policy with 19th century intellectuals who propped up racist colonial empires. The core premise of post-colonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power.69

The Subaltern School

In his Afterword Said had singled out the work of the Subaltern School for special attention. He wrote,

Perhaps the most brilliant revisionist work was done not in Middle East Studies, but in the field of Indology with the advent of Subaltern Studies, a group of remarkable scholars and researchers led by Ranajit Guha. Their aim was nothing less than a revolution in historiography, their immediate goal being to rescue the writing of Indian history from the domination of the nationalist elite and restore to it the important role of the urban poor and the rural masses.70

Frantz Fanon had remarked on phony independence against which a proper revolutionary movement was necessary. The inspirational leader of the Subaltern Studies Group, Ranajit Guha, embraced a similar point of view. There was nothing particularly altruistic in the motives of the Indian nationalist leaders as the subsequent historiography of the nationalist struggle, filtered as it was through the visage of a privileged class, did not and could not (because it had no theoretical apparatus with which to do so) explain, interpret or even acknowledge “the contribution made by the people on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this nationalism.”71 This unhistorical historiography, a product of a particular class with its privileged class outlook, had no way of handling the contribution of the subaltern classes, whose resistance and modus operandi had little to do with the dominant and privileged indigenous society whose resistance remained principally legalistic and constitutional against the more radical, unorganized, violent, and immediate one of the subaltern. The indebtedness to Antonio Gramsci is clear. In his “History of the Subaltern Classes: Methodological Criteria” Gramsci had made the point that the State, representing in its “unity” the interests of the ruling class, is to be seen in terms of its excluded opposite, the subaltern classes, who lack unity and cannot be unified within the structural definition of a state (which expresses the ideology of a unified class).72

Excluded from a “vertically” defined politics, the Indian bourgeoisie never spoke for them; their removal from history was complete. Yet their presence should have been self-evident; their silent interactions with the elite obvious. Vivek Chibber, who has written most persuasively on the subject, makes the following perceptive observation on the Guha passages already cited.

Thus, Guha concludes, whereas the European bourgeoisie had come to power by forging a hegemonic coalition with workers and peasants, there would be no parallel experience in the colonial world. The bourgeoisie would exercise dominance, but not hegemony.73

For postcolonial theory, the subaltern thesis had a larger universal appeal in that the same process was underway elsewhere too: a process of complicity and, by extension, the continuing power of Western, Great Man historiography, where the subaltern is no more than a cypher. And it may well be that the failure to adequately incorporate and acknowledge the subaltern in the narrative of struggle accounts for the failure of independence leaders to create a more inclusive idea of state and civic society.

In subaltern theory, as in postcolonial theory, the “heroic” figure was the silent or silenced marginalized figure of the peasant as revolutionary. This notion of a composite subject in need of redemption (but whose presence was nevertheless real) changed with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s epochal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”74 Whether “sovereign” or a “cypher” the subaltern—in Spivak’s deconstructive thinking—challenged the idea of the human itself because the autonomous [subaltern] subject can only be envisaged as the subject excluded from the Law of Reason. In Spivak’s later work—A Critique of Postcolonial Reason—the figure is conceptualized as the native woman informant foreclosed by/in history.75 Defined as “that mark of expulsion from the name of Man – a mark crossing out the impossibility of the ethical relation” in Kant she has no “autonomy of the reflexive judgement which allows freedom for the rational will.”76 This excluded native informant is the man in the raw [dem rohen Menschen] who comes into his own in the figure of the woman. What Spivak does so astutely is locate the “foreclosed (woman) native informant” in the master texts of Europe (Kant, Hegel, and Marx) and, by extension, in colonial discourses. Hence, insofar as the native informant is foreclosed (used in the Lacanian sense of the forthright rejection of an incompatible idea by the ego on the basis that the idea had never occurred at all) he/she remains the undertheorized subject of postcolonial theory. The project of postcolonialism will be “misinformed” and lacking in the “ethical relation” without this subaltern subject. But there remains the overriding proviso: such an undertaking requires paying close attention to those material conditions that produce (reproduce) the idea of a just society. Postcolonial reason requires the moment of the subaltern woman to check the excess of (muscular) reason, and gender it too. A valuable work of fiction here is Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) the central theme of which is the loss of humanity’s moral fiber, its belief in the ethical relation. Roy goes to the absolute Other of Indian life—the eunuch, the Hijra, seen by many as a gender apart, neither transgender nor bisexual, as if nature had created something unnatural, grotesque and then mechanically reproduced it—to rework Spivak’s foreclosed native informant into postcolonial life worlds.

The Death of a Theory

“Like most US feminism,” wrote Terry Eagleton, “post-colonialism is a way of being politically radical without necessarily being anti-capitalist, and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a ‘post-political’ world.”77 Embedded in Eagleton’s understated dismissal of postcolonial theory is what Aijaz Ahmad has referred to as an absence of historical specificity in the theory.78 Using Hamza Alavi’s 1972 New Left Review essay as his anchoring point, Ahmad critiques three fundamental simplifications in the theory.79 The first, a lazy habit of “posting” which has led to a “sort of inflation” that has expanded the common use of the postcolonial (Alavi, like many others, had limited the usage to “independent states that arose out of the near-complete dissolution of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa, during roughly the first fifteen years after the Second World War”) to “the American Revolution, the decolonization of Latin America, the founding of Australia.”80 The “frequent inflation of the term,” says Ahmad, deprives postcolonial theory of any real precision as it is applied to any nation that has undergone a colonial experience be it as imperialist power or colonized subject.81 The second is the failure to ground a concept in an historical process that would allow the concept, through self-criticism and realignment with new events, to generate new concepts. In other words, the concept itself should be subject to constant critique and reevaluation, but always with reference to its prior history. To make this clear, Ahmad adds, “Decolonization was such an event, and it required theoretical alignment in the very framework of the existing history of the state.”82The third, via a qualification of Alavi’s own definition, relates to the need to offer a theory of the state itself that would address both the “normal” and the “exceptional” state, the latter characterized by a “military–bureaucratic oligarchy” not uncommon in many postcolonial nations.83 Drawing on Marx, the postcolonial state must be defined through the coexistence within this state of multi-class structures and prior non-capitalist modes of production and life worlds, precisely the points made by Marx in his 1853 essay on “The British Rule in India.”

Failure to address the ongoing conflict between labor and capital in the contemporary “world-system” has led to a dominant postcolonial theorization that stresses, in the words of Neil Lazarus, heterogeneity and unevenness, “disavows nationalism as such and refuses an antagonistic or struggle based model of politics in favor of one that emphasizes ‘cultural difference’ [and] ‘ambivalence’.”84 These moves eclipse the powerful narrative of anti-colonial struggles that played such a key role in an earlier anti-imperialist understanding of “postcolonialism.” As a consequence, a class-based materialist critique based on Fanon’s notion of violent resistance is made irrelevant (because, if identities are always in flux, nations are purely imaginary with no memory as such) from which it follows that the celebrated texts are those that explore “in-betweeness,” “hybridity,” “migrancy,” “newness,” “a little of this, a little of that,” and related ideas. The postcolonial literary canon celebrates works that run with these ideas, the exemplary text being Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). For Lazarus, two modes of critical inquiry become urgent: first a turn to the specters of Marx and a critical revaluation of class in postcolonial studies and, second, a turn to “minor” works and works in the vernacular. The historical triumph of capitalism—that “achievement” which was able to incorporate peasant, village, and even feudal economies of colonized peoples into a “capitalist world-system”—haunts the postcolonial and requires constant critique through an openness towards the “centrality of capitalism to colonialism.”85 Gramsci had noted it years before as the ground of an anti-colonial class struggle: “But today flames of revolt are being fanned throughout the colonial world. This is the class struggle of the coloured peoples against their white exploiters and murderers.”86

If alarm bells had begun to come from the Marxist quarter, they were not limited to only Marxist critiques. They came from liberal humanism too. In 2007 PMLA published the output of a colloquium on “The End of Postcolonial Theory” held at the University of Michigan in November 2006.87 The general consensus of the colloquium may be readily summarized. Postcolonial theory, ascendant between the end of the cold war (1989) and 9/11 (2001), when “Third world intellectuals … arrived in First world academe,” failed to redress neoconservative power in America.88 In speaking about the “post” as an epistemic and a temporal marker, one of the PMLA participants, Mamadou Diouf, argued that more attention should be paid to “(dis)connections among colonized societies, groups and Individuals.”89 Applied to Africa, postcoloniality, he had noted earlier, needs to address “concrete historical processes to pay attention to the violence, cultural and political domination, and economic exploitation of colonial and postcolonial rules.”90 In the absence of such a reading, postcoloniality, as the Ghananian writer Ama Ata Aidoo observed, is a “most pernicious fiction” of value only to theorization that emerges from white settler countries. Such theorization remains spectacularly unaware of the ethics of postcolonial theory, the point made so powerfully by Spivak in her discussion of the “sign” of the excluded native [woman] informant.

A Theory’s Afterdeath

The critical literature on postcolonial literary theory is vast and near-unmanageable. Indeed in his contribution to the PMLA colloquium Simon Gikandi remarked, “What postcolonial theory is and what work it does depend on one’s disciplinary formation.”91 Where the theory is at now may be framed with a close reading of essays published in two 2012 issues of New Literary History.92 The invited essays in volume 43, no. 1 were by Dipesh Chakrabarty and Robert J. C. Young, and one assumes that the then editor of New Literary History, herself a very astute theorist, invited them to write the “target” essays because she felt that they had something new and original to say on postcolonial theory. The respondents to their essays were also carefully chosen. Between the target essays and the careful responses we get a sense of where postcolonial theory is at, its pitfalls and its future displayed with equal vigor. The essays may be used to bring this retrospective on postcolonial theory to a close, with the proviso that when it comes to postcolonial theory both beginnings and ends are inconclusive, depending as they are on the theoretician’s own perspective and preferences.

I begin with the first essay by Dipesh Chakrabarty in which he turns to the definition of the historical subject as it enters the epoch of the Anthropocene, an epoch where humans have become geological agents, the latter explored at some length in his seminal essay published three years earlier.93 The procedure takes him to postcolonial thinkers and he confesses, “What I have learnt from postcolonial thinkers is the necessity to move through contradictory figures of the human, now through a collapsing of the person of the subject as in liberal Marxist thought, and now through a separation of the two.”94 And here Homi Bhabha’s account of the new subaltern classes—“the stateless,” “migrant workers, minorities, asylum seekers [and] refugees”—enters Chakrabarty’s thinking. Quoting Balibar, Bhabha says they are neither “outsiders nor insiders.” Bhabha’s point, as Chakrabarty reads it, is that these new subalterns challenge definitions of subjectivity embedded in the narratives of cosmopolitanism and globalization as they are “the human-human and the nonhuman-human.”95 They offer a contradictory mode of being, an incommensurable idea of subjecthood as they are denied full civic participation even when they exist within borders. They are classic survivors without any degree of recognition, representing as they do contradictory signifiers, neither normative (as the ideal subject in transition celebrated in diaspora theory) nor “onto-existential” as the human grounded in a recognizable and mutually understandable concept of the subject. Chakrabarty extends Bhabha’s incommensurable subjects to argue that the human in the age of the Anthropocene is now viewed “simultaneously on contradictory registers: as a geophysical force and as apolitical agent” belonging at once to geological time and historical time.96 This is something new and dramatic, a consciousness that should permeate all social theories including postcolonial theory. Concludes Chakrabarty, “All progressive political thought, including postcolonial criticism, will have to register this profound change in the human condition.”97 Our ethical responsibility was once to our fellow men because the Other was to be loved as oneself; now the consciousness of this responsibility is even more marked and urgent because collectively we are a force with no consciousness, just as geological time has no consciousness. The latter was true of the Holocene; it will be true of the Anthropocene as well.

In the second essay, Robert J. C. Young, author of the encyclopedic compendium Postcolonialism, insists, contrary to the disillusionment that marked the PMLA contributors, that “the twenty-first century is already the century of postcolonial empowerment,” because the latter’s political project is “to reconstruct Western knowledge formations, reorient ethical norms, turn the power structures upside down, refashion the world from below.”98 Young is able to make this bold assertion, offer an idealist definition of postcolonialism that echoes the words of the satirical poet Baal in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), because, for him, postcolonialism plays an active role in ensuring a fair and just society.99

To make the point, Young picks up three urgent themes with which postcolonial theory should be concerned: “indigenous struggles and their relation to settler colonialism, illegal migrants, and political Islam.”100 These are also cases where the politics of “invisibility” and “unreadability” have obstructed reasoned analysis and critique. Because it does not have a unified theory, postcolonialism must address matters foundational as well as antifoundational simultaneously. Hence the rights of indigenous or First Nation people to return to their sacred or ancestral lands should not stump, override or exclude a “celebration of delocalized hybrid identities.”101 If indigenous people, refugees and the like are invisible, then Islam, which should be on every postcolonial agenda, too is “unreadable.” The current “demonization” of Islam forgets that long before multiculturalism was invented in Canada it was alive and well in the Caliphate of Cordoba (929–1031).102 The various historical Islamic polities—from Moorish al-Andalus to Mughal India—are seen by Young as examples of tolerance as these ethically responsible polities acknowledged the necessity of a multicultural social order.

And so where is postcolonial theory now? For Young, one of postcolonial theory’s foundational binaries, the construction of an “Other,” is in need of deconstruction because there is no “Other” as such only “individuals or groups who have been, or feel that they have been, othered by society.”103 In other words, the principal contemporary Others, as the essay itself has demonstrated, are First Nation people, refugees, minorities within nation states, and Islam. But even as we recognize these “new” Others Young suggests, after Levinas’s move to “auto-heteronomy” that “the psyche is the other in the same.”104 Here the same defines itself against the Other but in the act unsettles the idea of the same itself and determines its limits. If the Other therefore is within the self, its function is one of making the self “self-aware” in an ethical order where “every other (one) is every (bit) other (the wholly other) [tout autre est tout autre].”105

The next issue of New Literary History (43, no. 2 (2012)) published responses by Simon During, Benita Parry, Ato Quayson, and Robert Stam and Ella Shohat. Marx remains a powerful force in postcolonial theory even if his presumed grand post-Hegelian Eurocentric bias jettisons minor narratives. Like Ahmad, Lazarus and others, Benita Parry is very clear about the prevailing sense of anxiety among postcolonial scholars about how to validate “its continued significance.”106 She views Chakrabarty’s and Young’s essays as texts motivated not by a presentation of new knowledge (as Bell did with reference to Bhabha) but as voices eager to capture whatever may be deemed to be under threat here and now. This threat has an insistent social imperative in Young, where it is argued that the current objects of “threat” are principally indigenous people and Islam, both consigned to the domain of “invisibility.” For Chakrabarty the threat is trans-human since humans, as “agents,” are now instruments of geological change. These are very big ideas, ideas that require specialist scholarship, something that no postcolonial theorist is particularly adept at, which is why, it is suggested, postcolonial theorists tend to transform these difficult ideas into an existential experience. And so whereas Marxist doctrine was driven by “redistribution,” the postcolonial is driven by “recognition,” the latter (after Charles Taylor) a central philosophical tenet of multiculturalism. For postcolonial theory the object of this existential angst is the “marginalized.” Without the kinds of knowledge a specialist may bring to the subject, the postcolonial, as in the case of Young, oversimplifies political Islam and applies to it all the badges common to postcolonial theory, badges such as heterogeneity, secularism, open-mindedness, multiculturalism, marginality, diaspora, and the like. In this idealism, marked by an accommodationist (complicit, reconciliatory) rhetoric, there is no theory of either revolutionary violence or class struggle. Instead a degree of humanist romanticism celebrates “premodern consciousness” and even “cultural obscurantism” as Young limits the subject of the postcolonial to varieties of diaspora, the indigenous and Islam even as he argues against positioning any of them as the “Other” of Western modernity.107 Parry concludes with words that echo those of the participants in the PMLA seminar:

What I have attempted to suggest is that postcolonial studies is in sore need of a different theoretical paradigm if it is to participate in the critique of globalization, and that this can be found in the very legacies of thought absent from these presentations.108

Young’s idealist or “romantic” reading of postcolonialism leads Ato Quayson to recall Ann Laura Stoler’s reference to a malaise, an exhaustion, a sense of ennui that characterizes postcolonial theory.109 Endorsing Stoler’s critique Quayson notes “the supreme confidence with which postcolonialism seems to have felt itself capable of mapping out the temporalities and cartographies of empire without a proper understanding of history.”110 It is the failure to ground postcolonial theory in proper historical contexts that leads to idealist readings of tolerance such as that noted by Young with reference to historical Islam. The latter’s golden age—Spain and the Baghdad Caliphate—is presented as exemplary instances of Islamic tolerance. This may have been true during discrete historical moments, but current Islam, from Boko Haram to ISIS, shows a “violent othering of nonbelievers” which sits uncomfortably with Young’s call for the end of the “other.” Notes Quayson:

It would appear, then, that Young’s argument on tolerance is sensitive to human-to-human relations but not the embedding of humans within the religio-social structures that fundamentally distort their sense of what it is to be human in the first place.111

Two themes in Chakrabarty and Young—the ecological and the indigenous—are read by Robert Stam and Ella Shohat as humanity’s greatest challenge and therefore postcolonial theory’s urgent concerns.112 After pointing out common criticisms of postcolonial theory—notably its elision of class, its ahistorical tendencies, its emphasis on old imperialist histories at the expense of neo-imperialism, its stress on hybridity, diaspora, and cosmopolitanism plus the elite standing of its theorists—Stam and Shohat offer their own “history” of postcolonialism. They mark its beginning in the cataclysmic moment of the “various 1492s.” Like Young they speak of al-Andalus as a “model of tolerant multiculturalism avant la lettre” destroyed by a “victorious Spain of the Reconquista” that immediately instituted ethnic cleansing by demonizing both Muslims and Jews alike.113 Stam and Shohat find Young’s reference to practices that have grown out of resistance to imperialism and colonialism heartening as they too believe that any study of coloniality/ postcoloniality “must go at least as far back as the Reconquista.”114 With the other 1492, of course, began Columbus and the conquest of the New World. What followed was the history of the West as overwhelmingly imperialist and exploitative. This history now requires a deconstructive reading through Young’s own foregrounding of indigeneity and a second look at the history of indigenous communities and their exclusion from the grand narratives of nation states. Their inclusion would also require a different understanding of life-worlds and especially, as one saw in the movement of negritude, the inseparability of man and nature.

Another postcolonial paradigm—and the foundations of this paradigm, epistemologically, is no different from Young’s or even negritude—may be used to make this clear. For this paradigm Stam and Shohat make the case for a post 1492 “Red Atlantic” modelled on Paul Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic.”115 The “subaltern” figure behind this version of the (Red) Atlantic is the Indian, whose presence, like that of the African remarked on by Senghor, “constructs” Europeans because they are constituted “in relation to the Indian.”116 From Montaigne to Lévi Strauss “the philosopher becomes Indian” because in an unremarked two-way traffic not only did the Indian go to Paris but the Parisian went to study the Indian. In this flow of historical ideas and people, Indians affected Jacobin and social revolutions; they influenced European ideas on gender, power, class, equality, and communal property. They are not banished and behind the times but prescient and prophetic, signifying yet another silenced subaltern whose historical role remains unaccented.

Conclusion: The Road Not Taken

As an urgent social theory, the message of postcolonial theory is clear. Fanon had noted the phony independence that “post-1947” brought to the colonies and declared that, post-independence, a revolution from within was necessary. In the long shadow of the specters of Marx, generating new concepts, realigning inequalities, and engaging in a social transformation of postcolonial countries from within, like a “glow that brings out a haze,” is critical to the postcolonial project. To transcend an almost universal sense of ennui or exhaustion that characterizes much postcolonial theory, attention to concrete historical processes acquires urgency. Such an awareness alone can lead to productive readings of texts as varied as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Nigerian study of patriarchy in Purple Hibiscus (2004), Patricia Grace’s negotiation of “Maoriness” within intergenerational conflict in Dogside (2001), Andrew McGahan’s study of settler guilt in The White Earth (2004) or diasporic consciousness in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003). The awareness would also produce intertextual readings of those “postcolonial counter texts” that challenge a prior, ur- or proto- text. Here, the twinning of Shakespeare and Césaire (via The Tempest and Une Tempête (1969)), of Shakespeare and Virahsawmy (via The Tempest and Toufann (2001)), of Charlotte Brönte and Jean Rhys (via Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)) and of Dickens and Peter Carey (via Great Expectations and Jack Maggs (1997)) would confirm the critical purchase that postcolonial theory brings. Only through self-criticism and radical realignments with historical processes and new events can postcolonial theory continue to generate new concepts, maintain its links with prior histories and act as an instrument of change.

Discussion of the Literature

The critical bibliography on Anglophone postcolonial theory is vast. Much of it affirms Emily Apter’s (1999) reading of postcolonialism as a mobile metaphor with “a locomotive, portmanteau quality.” Unlike other theories—Marxism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis or those like structuralism that grew out of the linguistic turn of the early 20th century —postcolonial theory cannot claim a specific mode of analysis or critical discourse. Instead it may be seen as an explanatory model or a procedure which examines the relationship between culture and imperialism from 1492 onwards. In this reading the “post-” of postcolonial theory is not a temporal or teleological marker suggesting something after an event but a signifier of the colonial encounter in both its “complicit” (that is the colonizer–colonized encounter within the dialectic of imperial power) and its “oppositional” (that is an anti-colonial or anti-imperialist struggle) moments. To do this, the “theory” needed ways of thinking that would subvert a powerful Hegelian historicism with its sovereign European subject. How can one then bypass an “historical narcissism” and engage with the Other with respect and understanding? A different kind of thinking was necessary and this “thinking” drawing on radical versions of European historicism such as Marxism (with its emphasis on class), psychoanalysis (with its emphasis on a non-transcendental subjectivity), creative ethnography (such as négritude), Manichean dichotomy in the colonizer–colonized situation (as in the works of Fanon), and poststructuralism (with its emphasis on the legitimation of minor narratives against a nation’s grand narrative) is now linked to the works of three influential scholars. These three—Edward W. Said, Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—referred to by the first major synthesizer of their works, Robert J. C. Young, as “the Holy Trinity” of postcolonial theory, provided approaches to a reading of colonial histories that have become the stock-in-trade of current postcolonial theory and discourse. Apart from Young whose early work (1990) emphasized the need for a new non-Marxist historicism with which to address postcolonialism but who later adopted a more accommodating position (1995, 2001), one of the most important surveys of the current state of postcolonial theory has come from Moore-Gilbert (1996). Daniel Carey and Lynn Festa’s edited volume (2013) indicates how postcolonial theory provincializes Europe by making the idea of empire itself central to 18th-century European history. To a number of principally Marxist readers, notably Aijaz Ahmad, Neil Lazarus, and Benita Parry, a criticism of postcolonial theory has been its seeming ahistoricity. Others such as Gikandi (1996) have examined the culture of Englishness, a thesis taken up later by Young too (2008) where he argues that “Englishness” developed as an idea in the making of Empire itself. Some of the more important studies have expanded key issues raised by Said, Bhabha and Spivak. Thus Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have rethought “Eurocentrism” (1994) and examined culture wars in the “postcolonial Atlantic” (2012) while in a study that has had a huge impact on history and lived experience (capital’s life processes) Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) has reexamined “Eurocentrism” by provincializing Europe itself. Works by Trivedi (1995), Viswanathan (1998), Erickson (1998) and Boehmer (2005) have examined colonial transactions from the point of view of the native “combatants” themselves. A valuable summary of debates may be found in PMLA (2007) and a useful survey of recent works on postcolonial theory in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature 50th anniversary edition (2015).

Further Reading

  • Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992.
  • Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the Margins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Apter, Emily. Continental Drift: From National Characters to Virtual Subjects. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman. The Odyssey of Indenture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • Bewes, Timothy. The Event of Postcolonial Shame. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Bonn, M. J. The Crumbling of Empire: The Disintegration of World Economy. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1938.
  • Brozgal, Lia N. Against Autobiography: Albert Memmi and the Production of Theory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
  • Brydon, Diana ed. Postcolonial Critical Concepts. 5 Volumes. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Bundy, Andrew ed. Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination. London: Routledge, 1999.
  • Carey, Daniel and Lynn Festa, eds. Postcolonial Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Chaturvedi, Vinayak, ed. Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. London: Verso, 2000.
  • Chibber, Vivek. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. London: Verso, 2013.
  • Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
  • Erickson, John. Islam and Postcolonial Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, preface Jean-Paul Sartre. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
  • Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
  • Gilroy, Paul. Postcolonial Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Harris, Wilson. Tradition, the Writer and Society. London and Port of Spain, Trinidad: New Beacon Publications, 1973.
  • Huggan, Graham ed. The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Israel, Nico. Outlandish: Writing Between Exile and Diaspora. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • James C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Diego Revolution. London: Allison & Busby, 1980.
  • Lazarus, Neil. Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Lazarus, Neil. The Postcolonial Unconscious. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2011.
  • Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized, trans. Howard Greenfeld, intr. Jean-Paul Sartre, new intr. Nadine Gordimer. London: Earthscan Publications, 2003.
  • Moore-Gilbert, Bart. Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics. London and New York: Verso, 1997.
  • Morris, Rosalind C. ed. Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
  • Mullaney, Julie. Postcolonial Literatures in Context. New York: Continuum, 2010.
  • Nehru, Jawaharlal. The Discovery of India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Olson, Gary A. and Lyn Worsham, eds .Race, Rhetoric, and the Postcolonial. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
  • Parry, Benita. Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Ramone, Jenni. Postcolonial Theories. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Rushdie, Salman. “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance.” The Times [Features] (July 3, 1982): 8.
  • Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
  • Said, Edward W. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Stam, Robert and Ella Shohat. Race in Translation: Culture Wars Around the Postcolonial Atlantic. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Stoler, Ann Laura. “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (2008): 191–219.
  • Trivedi, Harish. Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
  • Viswanathan, Gauri. Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Williams, Patrick and Laura Chrisman eds. Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Hassocks, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
  • Young, Robert J. C. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
  • Young, Robert J. C. The Idea of English Ethnicity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.