Postcolonial (Cultural) Studies

Postcolonial (cultural) studies (PCS) constitutes a major intervention in the widespread revisionist project that has impacted academia since the 1960s—together with such other counterdiscourses that are gaining academic and disciplinary recognition as cultural studies, women’s studies, Chicano studies, African-American studies, gender studies, and ethnic studies. Postcolonial (mostly literary) studies is one of the latest “tempests” in a postist world replacing Prospero’s Books (the title of Peter Greenaway’s 1991 film) with a Calibanic viewpoint. The beginning of this new project can be approximately located in the year 1952, when the academy was still more attendant to works such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and in anticipation of Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero (1953). In other words, the project of validating modernism, a project so heavily indebted to “primitive” (other) cultures and, directly or indirectly, to colonialism, was on the verge of being institutionalized. In the meantime, the connection between colonialism, modernism, and structuralism has been fairly well established and has provoked a similar awareness of the considerably more problematic correlation between the postmodern, poststructural, and postcolonial.

It was precisely during this decade of the 1950s that a great shift occurred. This was the period of the end of France’s involvement in Indochina (Dien Bien Phu), the Algerian war, the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya, the dethroning of King Farouk in Egypt. It was the time when Jean-Paul Sartre broke with Albert Camus for reasons intrinsic to colonial studies, namely, opposing attitudes toward Algeria. In 1950 Aimé Césaire’s pamphlet on colonialism, Discours sur le colonialisme, appeared. Two years later, Fidel Castro gave his speech “History Shall Absolve Me,” and Frantz Fanon published Black Skin, White Masks. In London the Faber and Faber publishing house, for which T. S. Eliot was a reader at the time, issued Nigerian Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinker, which led to “curiosity” about Anglo-African writing. It was the year the French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term “Third World,” a term scrutinized ever since. Some see this term as derogative (mainly in the Englishspeaking world), while the term has become a staple in the French-, German-, and Spanish-speaking worlds.

Also in the 1950s, the founders of colonialist discourse, Fanon, Césaire, and Albert Memmi, published their works, which became foundational texts of colonialist discourse some decades later. In 1958 the Western narrative paradigm in which an author-anthropologist fabricates the other was seriously questioned in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which clearly illustrates the sensationalism and inaccuracy of Western anthropology and history. The 1960s then saw major developments in the critical formulation of the problematic, with the appearance of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), including Sartre’s preface, which legitimized for many the issues raised and postulated the Western “Manichean delirium” (good versus bad, black versus white, etc.). In Fanon’s book Western racism is seen as a form of scapegoating that permits the West to cling to its power and leads to violent reaction by the colonized. A year before, the Caribbean novelist George Lamming had given us his Calibanic reading of a classical text, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in The Pleasures of Exile (1960). The 1970s then saw further increases in colonialist studies with Roberto Fernández Retamar’s “Caliban” essays (1971 and 1986) and Edward Said ‘s Orientalism (1978), which most likely is the central text in the establishment of PCS. While Said could still deplore that the literary establishment had declared the serious study of imperialism off limits, the 1980s established the centrality of the colonialist debate with its focus on how imperialism affected the colonies and how the former colonies then wrote back in an attempt to correct Western views.

“To be colonized,” according to Walter Rodney, “is to be removed from history.” And Memmi, defining the situation of the colonized, claims that “the most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history” (Colonizer 91). Postcolonial writing, then, is the slow, painful, and highly complex means of fighting one’s way into European-made history, in other words, a process of dialogue and necessary correction. That this writing back into history becomes institutionalized precisely at the moment when postmodernism questions the category of history should make us think about the implications of postmodernism in relation to the postcolonial.

The designation “postcolonial” has been used to describe writing and reading practices grounded in colonial experience occurring outside of Europe but as a consequence of European expansion and exploitation of “other” worlds. Postcolonial literature is constituted in counterdiscoursive practices. Postcolonial writing is also related to other concepts that have resulted from internal colonialization, such as the repression of minority groups: Chicanos in the United States, Gastarbeiter in Germany, Beurs in France, and so on. It is similarly related to women voicing concern and frustration over colonialization by men, or a “double” colonialization when women of color are concerned. Among the large nomenclature, which includes so-called Third World literature, minority discourse, resistance literature, response literature (writing back or rewriting the Western “classics”), subaltern studies, othering discourse, colonialist discourse, and so on, the term “postcolonial” (sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not) has gained notoriety in recent years and clearly has replaced “Commonwealth literature” or “Commonwealth studies.” It may even be on its way toward replacing “Third World literature” or “studies.”

PCS is not a discipline but a distinctive problematic that can be described as an abstract combination of all the problems inherent in such newly emerging fields as minority discourse, Latin American studies, African studies, Caribbean studies, Third World studies (as the comparative umbrella term), Gastarbeiterliteratur, Chicano studies, and so on, all of which participated in the significant and overdue recognition that “minority” cultures are actually “majority” cultures and that hegemonized Western (Euro-American) studies have been unduly overprivileged for political reasons. The Australians Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin in their influential The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1989) define “postcolonial” “to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day” (2). This undoubtedly makes PCS an enormously large field, particularly since these critics see literature as offering one of the most important ways to express these new perceptions. In other words, PCS is the study of the totality of “texts” (in the largest sense of “text”) that participate in hegemonizing other cultures and the study of texts that write back to correct or undo Western hegemony, or what Gayatri Spivak has called “our ideological acceptance of error as truth” (In Other 109). The emphasis, therefore, is bound to be on the political and ideological rather than the aesthetic. By no means, however, does this exclude the aesthetic, but it links definitions of aesthetics with the ideology of the aesthetic, with hegemony, with what Louis Althusser has termed the Ideological State Apparatus, and connected with these issues, it obviously has to question the genesis of the Western canon. In other words, PCS is instrumental in curricular debates and demands a multicultural curriculum. It also perceives the former disciplines as participating in the colonizing process and is therefore bound to cross borders and be interdisciplinary. We cannot disconnect postcolonial studies from previous disciplines, nor can we attribute a definable core to such a “field.” Cultural and postcolonial studies are deliberately not disciplinary but rather inquisitive activities that question the inherent problems of disciplinary studies; they “discipline the disciplines,” as Patrick Brantlinger said about cultural studies.

In a way, cultural and postcolonial studies are what comparative literature always wanted or claimed to be but in reality never was, due to a deliberate and almost desperate clinging to Eurocentric values, canons, cultures, and languages. The closest parallels in the many debates within the field of comparative literature from the 1950s and 1960s are those involving the French comparatist René Etiemble, who pleaded for an open and planetary comparativism that would address questions of coloniality and examine literatures outside the EuroAmerican center. No discipline is unaffected by the colonialist paradigm, and every discipline, from anthropology to cartography, needs to be decolonized.

Frantz Fanon/New Frame

The word “postcolonial” shows up in a variety of journal titles since the mid-1980s but is used as a full title in a collection of interviews with a leading Indo-American critic, Gayatri Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic (1990), as a subtitle to the book by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1989), and again in a subtitle by the Canadian and Australian critics Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin, Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism (1990), thus showing clearly the preoccupation with the term in discourse from British Commonwealth countries. Benita Parry, one of the leading critics of the various attempts to come to terms with the colonialist formation, still speaks of colonial discourse. The term was probably used for the first time by Australian Simon During in his 1985 Landfall essay. Max Dorsinville had used “post-European” already in 1974, while Helen Tiffin used “commonwealth literature” still in 1984 but switched to the new term by 1987. By now, and largely due to Australian efforts, the terms “postcolonial literature” and “postcolonial culture” are well established.

This shift in terminology clearly is due to a wave of various postist constructions, such as “postindustrial,” “poststructuralism,” “postmodernism,” “post-Marxism,” and even “postfeminism.” However, it hardly can make sense to speak of, say, South African literature as postcolonial, even though it has many or most of the characteristics we associate with postcolonial literature. Needless to say, the term has a jargonizing quality and lacks precision. Postist terminology in general is to be understood as a signpost for new emphases in literary and cultural studies, indicative of the long-felt move from the margin (minorities) to the center that is also the major contribution of Derridean Deconstruction . Both came into being in the wake of developments since Charles de Gaulle’s referendum and the new emphasis on countries that had gained flag-independence in the 1960s. Robert Young points out that it is significant that Sartre, Althusser, Derrida, Lyotard, and Hélène Cixous were all either born in Algeria or personally involved with the events of the war (1).

Though seldom identical with the other “post”— postmodernism—PCS is nevertheless involved in a broad network of conflicting attempts at intervention into the master narrative of Western discourse. It is part of postal politics and a series of inventions and interventions that the Western post(al) network suddenly seems to be assimilating. The urge of postmodernism is to incorporate or coopt almost everything, including its oppositional other. Even the postcolonial paradigm is not free of such absorption, so that one can already speak of the postmodern colonialization of the postcolonial. To preserve in this multifarious network some unitary sense without falling prey to homogenizing tendencies that underlie most theories, one may assume that the postcolonial critics and writers basically claim that the term “postcolonial” covers the cultures affected by the imperial process; in other words, postcolonial critics inevitably homogenize as “imperialist” critics did before them. The difference is that they typically profess an awareness of the problematics to a degree the others did not.

We can single out various schools of postcolonial criticism, those who homogenize and see postcolonial writing as resistance (Said, Barbara Harlow, Abdul Jan- Mohamed, Spivak) and those who point out that there is no unitary quality to postcolonial writing (Homi Bhabha, Arun P. Mukherjee, Parry). Among the key terms and main figures associated with postcolonial discourse one often finds the following: “Orientalism” (Said); “minority discourse” (JanMohamed); “subaltern studies” (Spivak and Ranajit Guha); “resistance literature” (Harlow); “The Empire Writes Back” (Tiffin, Ashcroft, Stephen Slemon, During); “Third World literature” (Peter Nazareth, Fredric Jameson, Georg M. Gugelberger); “hybridity,” “mimicry,” and “civility” (Bhabha). Generally speaking, the term “postcolonial” is used when texts in various forms of English are explored and when Canada and Australia are brought into the debate, while “Third World literature” is used more by those who approach the problem from a comparative point of view. Marxists also tend to use the term “Third World,” while nonMarxists often accuse them of using pejorative language.

Diana Bryden (Past the Last Post 193) distinguishes postcolonial criticism by such writers as Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (Empire Writes Back) from that developed by the U.S.-based Jameson, Henry Louis Gates, and Spivak. The main dividing line at present appears to be a postcolonial discourse by those who come from a EuroAmerican literary and critical background (Jameson, Harlow, Gugelberger), those who come originally from so-called Third World places but reside in the West (Spivak, Said, JanMohamed, Bhabha, Nazareth), and those from Third World countries adamantly opposed to the homogenizing tendencies of some of these critics (Mukherjee, Aijaz Ahmad).

Another way of ordering this manifold discourse could be via reference to the foundational texts: Fanonists such as JanMohamed, Said, Bhabha, and Parry; Calibanic critics such as Retamar and José David Saldivar founding their discursive practices on José Marti’s concept of “Our America”; empire-ists such as Tiffin and Ashcroft; and Marxist deconstructionists such as Spivak.

PCS is foremost a shift in emphasis, a strategy of reading, an attempt to point out what was missing in previous analyses, and an attempt to rewrite and to correct. Any account of PCS will have to come to terms with the (equally problematical) concept of postcoloniality. Kwame Anthony Appiah has said that “postcoloniality is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: a relatively small, Westernstyle, Western-trained group of writers and thinkers, who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery” (348). In other words, PCS is not really performed by those who have been colonized and gained problematical flag-independence, nor is it the discourse that pushes former marginalized subjects into the center, as is often assumed in the many canon debates. PCS is a dialogue leading to the significant insight that the Western paradigm (Manichean and binary) is highly problematical. In other words, PCS does not necessarily imply the change that Western and nonWestern intellectuals foresee but remains constituted in a particular class of well-educated people who should not confuse their theoretical insights with change. Though it is a correcting instrument that believes in facilitating change, no change is likely to occur with academic debates. Postcolonial discourse problematizes one face of the response to former Western hegemonic discourse paradigms, but it does not abolish anything; rather, it replaces one problematic with another. As Parry states, “The labour of producing a counter-discourse displacing imperialism’s dominative system of knowledge rests with those engaged in developing a critique from outside its cultural hegemony” (55).

While postmodern literature tends to postulate the death of history, postcolonial writing insists on the historical as the foundational and all-embracing. Similarly, postmodernism refuses any representational quality, though the representational mandate remains strong in postcolonial writing and at times even relies on the topological. Postcolonial critical activity is “the deimperialization of apparently monolithic European forms, ontologies, and epistemologies” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 153). If postmodernism is identified with the “cultural logic of late capitalism” (Jameson), postcolonialism can be conceptualized as the last bulwark against an encroaching total capitalism. In a sense it is the only true counterdiscourse we are left with, truly “past the last post.”

In conclusion, we must reemphasize that despite apparent similarities between postmodern and postcolonial modes of writing (particularly in cross-cultural texts by, for example, Salman Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, and Gabriel García Márquez), the postmodern aestheticization of politics only appears radical (a kind of radical chic-ism) but is essentially conservative and tends to prolong the imperial, while the postcolonial frequently appears conservative or is bound to use a conventional mimetic mode (related to realism and its many debates) but is essentially radical in the sense of demanding change.

Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin, eds., Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism (1990); Aija Ahmad, “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,”‘ Social Text 17 (1987); Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (1986); Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991); Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1989); Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (1984), “The Other Question,” Screen 24 (1983); Patrick Brantlinger, Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America (1990); Max Dorsinville, Caliban Without Prospero (1974); Simon During, “Postmodernism or Postcolonialism,” Landfall 39 (1985); Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (1990); Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (1961, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, 1968), Peau noire, masques blancs (1952, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, 1967); Roberto Fernández Retamar, “Caliban” and Other Essays (trans. Edward Baker, 1989); Henry Louis Gates, ed., Race, Writing, and Difference (1986); Georg M. Gugelberger, “Decolonizing the Canon: Considerations of Third World Literature,” New Literary History 22 (1991); Rana jit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Selected Subaltern Studies (1988); Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, The Africa That Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing about Africa (1970); Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature (1987); Fredric Jameson, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986); Abdul JanMohamed, “Humanism and Minority Literature: Toward a Definition of Counter-hegemonic Discourse,” Boundary 212-13 (1984), Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (1983); Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965); Arun R Mukherjee, “Whose PostColonialism and Whose Postmodernism?” World Literature Written in English 30 (1990); Peter Nazareth, The Third World Writer: His Social Responsibility (1978); Benita Parry, “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse,” Oxford Literary Review 9 (1987); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978), “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Cultural Critique 1 (1985), “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors,” Critical Inquiry 15 (1989); José David Saldivar, The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History (1991); Stephen Slemon and Helen Tiffin, eds., After Europe: Critical Theory and Post-Colonial Writing (1989); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987), The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (ed. Sarah Harasym, 1990); Helen Tiffin, “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse,” Critical Approaches to the New Literatures in English (ed. Dieter Riemenschneider, 1989); Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (1990).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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