Sunday, October 17, 2010

An introduction to the Postcolonial Theory

Postcolonial Literature refers to writing by people from formerly colonized countries. As institutionalized during the past decade in English departments, the term most commonly suggests writing from former parts of the British Empire (e.g. India, Nigeria, Jamaica, Australia), but it often extends to works from places colonized by France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. "Postcolonial Literature" rarely covers texts from countries colonized by non-European nations (e.g. Korea under Japanese occupation); the reasons for this limitation are most probably ‘practical’ ones involving language skills and publication patterns as well as the Eurocentric biases of Western academia.

According to Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin’s influential formulation in The Empire Writes Back (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), the word ‘post-colonial’ encompasses "all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day. This is because there is a continuity of preoccupations throughout the historical process initiated by European imperial aggression". Many scholars, however, distinguish between "colonial discourse studies" -- analysis of texts produced mainly by colonists, sometimes by the colonized, during the actual period of colonization or imperial rule -- and "postcolonial studies" -- analysis of texts produced by the formerly colonized either after their nations gained independence or, if the countries remain ‘dependent’ (e.g. Martinique, or Native American nations), after the dissolution of the modern European empires, which happened roughly between 1950 and 1980.
Postcolonial Literary Theory emerges from the inability of EuroAmerican theory to escape false notions of "the universal." EuroAmerican historiography, philosophy, and literary study assume that many values and value-assigning practices, epistemologies, characteristics of language, genres, psychological and social models, and the like apply across time and place. Postcolonial theory attempts to decenter such assumptions not only through contesting them but also through developing (or rediscovering) indigenous theories of value, language, etc. Foundational texts in postcolonial theory are Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1960), Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and, in general, works by Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, and to some extent Derrida. For convenience, we can divide postcolonial theoretical approaches into five main models:

National or regional models
 These emphasize distinctive features of national or regional history and culture; examples are the Subaltern Studies group (India), which reinscribes history from the position of previously silenced indigenous peoples, and many types of Caribbean studies, which look at shared features — namely, the legacy of plantation slavery — that have shaped literary culture in neighboring islands. Although almost by definition "theory" is impossible if research and interpretation remain focused on local particulars, scholars using ‘national or regional models’ believe that comparative studies and that ‘theoritizing’ can proceed most responsibly from area-specificity.
Racial/Ethnic models
These are not necessarily tied to an essentialist view of race but rather to the notion that "the idea of race" has been a major feature of EuroAmerican economic, political, and cultural practice. The most familiar of these models concerns writing by African and African-Diaspora authors. Somewhat essentialist are the Negritude movement and earlier expressions of Pan-Africanism; work by African American scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr. highlights a ‘black consciousness’ grounded in specific African linguistic, social, and religious practices. More constructivist is the "Black Atlantic" concept put forth by Paul Gilroy, one of many coming from "Black British" writers (the term sometimes includes Pakistanis, Fijians, and other non-white British subjects).
Comparative models
These usually stress stylistic and thematic concerns that traverse nation and region. A major concern is language: not only how English (or other European languages) supplanted indigenous languages , but also how English (or other European languages) changed into a ‘nation-language’ (to use the Barbadian/Jamaican poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s phrase) . . . that is, the process of linguistic creolization and its creative use in literature . Another major concern is the struggle against oppression; indeed, as Fredrick Jameson has claimed, "all third-world literature . . . is necessarily a national allegory". Comparative thematic studies focus on concepts such as exile, education, and treatment of women.
"Colonizer/colonized models" concentrate on the imperial-colonial dialectic; Abdul JanMohamed’s Manichean Aesthetics is a good example of this model. One interesting question such theorists ask is whether de-colonization is ever possible. Although Fanon is the ‘founding father’ of this sort of postcolonial theory (as well of other sorts . . .), even he wondered whether "the native intellectual" could escape the hegemony of colonizing (and/or neo-colonizing) culture. More recently, writers like Gayatri Spivak have turned this question toward ‘positionality’ . . . if ‘third-world intellectuals’ are educated in (and often teach and write in) ‘first-world’ countries, are they not complicitous with and co-opted by ‘first-world’ assumptions, values, prejudices, and exploitative practices?
Hybridity / Syncreticity models
These are the ones most influenced by post-structuralist theories (and thus are syncretic in a First/Third-World way); they often deconstruct the binary oppositions of center/periphery, master/slave, colonizer/colonized, civilization/savagery, etc. Not only do these models examine how colonial contact ‘hybridizes’ culture and its representations, but they also explore the ricocheting effects of alterity. Because the "Other" is so important in this sort of postcolonial theory, I will here quote from the Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin handbook, Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies):
In general terms, the ‘other’ is anyone who is separate from one’s self. The existence of others is crucial in defining what is ‘normal’ and in locating one’s own place in the world. The colonized subject is characterized as ‘other’ through discourses such as primitivism and cannibalism, as a means of establishing the binary separation of the colonizer and colonized and asserting the naturalness and primacy of the colonizing culture and world view.
Although the term is used extensively in existential philosophy the definition of the term as used in current post-colonial theory is rooted in the Freudian and post-Freudian analysis of the formation of subjectivity, most specifically in the work of Lacan. Lacan’s use of the term involves distinction between the ‘Other’ and the ‘other’ . . . the [small o] other designates the other who resembles the self, which the child discovers when it looks in the mirror [and the ‘anticipation of mastery’ promised by this mirror-other] will become the basis of the ego. In post-colonial theory, [the other] can refer to the colonized others who are marginalized by the imperial discourse, identified by their difference from the centre and, perhaps crucially, become the focus of anticipated mastery by the imperial ‘ego.’
The [capital O] Other has been called the grande-autre by Lacan, the great Other, in whose gaze the subject gains identity. The Symbolic Other is not a real interlocuter but can be embodied in other subjects such as the mother or father that may represent it. [. . .] Thus the Other can refer to the mother whose separation from the subject locates her as the first focus of desire; it can refer to the father whose Otherness locates the subject in the Symbolic order; it can refer to the unconscious itself because the unconscious is structured like a language that is separate from the language of the subject. This Other can be compared to the imperial centre, imperial discourse, or the empire itself, in two ways: firstly, it provides the terms in which the colonized subject gains a sense of his or her identity as somehow ‘other,’ dependent; secondly, it becomes the ‘absolute pole of address,’ the ideological framework in which the colonized subject may come to understand the world. In colonial discourse, the subjectivity of the colonized is continually located in the gaze of the imperial Other, the ‘grande-autre.’ Subjects may be interpellated by the ideology of the maternal and nurturing function of the colonizing power, concurring with descriptions such as ‘mother England’ and ‘Home.’
On the other hand, the Symbolic Other may be represented in the Father. The significance and enforced dominance of the imperial language into which colonial subjects are inducted may give them a clear sense of power being located in the colonizer, a situation corresponding metaphorically to the subject’s entrance into the Symbolic order and the discovery of the Law of the Father. The ambivalence of colonial discourse lies in the fact that both these processes of ‘othering’ occur at the same time, the colonial subject being both a ‘child’ of empire and a primitive and degraded subject of imperial discourse.

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