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date: 12 May 2021

Postcolonial Theorylocked

  • 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.

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