Appropriation in Post-colonialism

A term used to describe the ways in which post-colonial societies take over those aspects of the imperial culture – language, forms of writing, film, theatre, even modes of thought and argument such as rationalism, logic and analysis – that may be of use to them in articulating their own social and cultural identities. This process is sometimes used to describe the strategy by which the dominant imperial power incorporates as its own the territory or culture that it surveys and invades (Spurr 1993:28). However, post-colonial theory focuses instead on an exploration of the ways in which the dominated or colonized culture can use the tools of the dominant discourse to resist its political or cultural control.

Appropriation may describe acts of usurpation in various cultural domains,but the most potent are the domains of language and textuality. In these areas, the dominant language and its discursive forms are appropriated to express widely differing cultural experiences, and to interpolate these experiences into the dominant modes of representation to reach the widest possible audience. Chinua Achebe (quoting James Baldwin), noted that the language so used can ‘bear the burden of another experience’, and this has become one of the most famous declarations of the power of appropriation in post-colonial discourse. However, the very use of the colonial language has been opposed by writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Ngugi 1981a), who, after a successful career as a writer in English, has renounced the language of the former colonizer to write his novel and plays in Gikuyu. Nevertheless, Ngugi continues to appropriate the novel form itself, and it has been argued that the very success of his political tactic of renouncing English has relied on his reputation as a writer in that tongue.

Many other non-English speaking writers who have chosen to write in English do so not because their mother tongue is regarded by them as inadequate, but because the colonial language has become a useful means of expression,and one that reaches the widest possible audience. On the other hand, writers such as Ngugi argue that since access to English in the post-colonial societies themselves is often restricted to an educated élite, this ‘wider’ audience is largely outside the country, or restricted to the comprador class within the society. The debate has been a persistent and unresolved one.

These arguments based on the political effect of choosing English as a medium of expression are frequently contested by the alternative claim that language itself somehow embodies a culture in a way that is inaccessible to speakers of another language. Those critics and writers who appropriate ex-colonial languages to their own use argue that although language may create powerful emotive contexts through which local identities are formed, and whilst the use of non-indigenous languages may, as a result,appear to such communities to be less authentic than texts in indigenous languages,such languages do not,in themselves, constitute an irrecoverably alien form, and they may be appropriated to render views that are just as powerful in constructing anti-colonial texts. They may also effect further results that texts in the indigenous languages cannot do so easily, offering a different mode of post-colonial resistance to cultural hegemony.

By appropriating the imperial language, its discursive forms and its modes of representation, post-colonial societies are able, as things stand, to intervene more readily in the dominant discourse,to interpolate their own cultural realities, or use that dominant language to describe those realities to a wide audience of readers. Many writers feel, however, that as well as encouraging translation between all the languages used in the various post-colonial societies (including translations of indigenous languages into English and into other indigenous languages), it is equally important to insist on the need for metropolitan institutions and cultural practices to open themselves up to indigenous texts by encouraging the learning and use of these languages by metropolitan scholars.

Further reading: Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 2002; Butler 1997; Fuchs 2000; Hart 1997; Pennycook 2002; Ziff and Rao 1997.
Source: Ashcroft, Bill. Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies. London: Routledge, 1998.

Categories: Postcolonialism

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1 reply

  1. Very useful. Thank you! Could you kindly direct me to the origin of the term “appropriation”, as in where it was first used to describe this phenomenon?

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