November 14, 2011

Post–colonial Swings and Roundabouts

Blog #1, November 2011.

My reading over recent weeks has centred on what can broadly be thought of as the seminal texts of the theory of post-colonialism, texts that emerged in significant numbers during the late eighties and throughout the nineties. It was a time during which the potential and the limitations of the concept – and indeed the term itself – were zealously disputed by academics and cultural commentators alike. It was the limitations, however, that seemed to strike a chord most.

Criticisms of the concept of post-colonialism were numerous but, in many cases, took offence to the fact that the ‘post-’ prefix suggested colonialism was a thing of the past. This was a justifiable censure: the reality, indeed, was that much of the oppression colonialism inflicted upon the colonised populations remained in some shape or form. The material conditions for the vast majority of the populations in the former colonies did not improve after independence, even after direct and official colonial rule had ended.

The points of challenge made by a handful a critics identified several key flaws to the post-colonial project. On the one hand, it was thought that post-colonialism was an idea developed ultimately in and for the academic institutions of the West and could not therefore speak authoritatively of or for the once colonised peoples. And when it was taken up in the former colonies by the colonial subjects, it was only available to those who Kwame Anthony Appiah collectively termed ‘a comprador intelligentsia: a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained group of writers and thinkers, who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery’. The other fundamental shortcoming of post-colonialism was, according to Anne McClintock, ‘the risk of telescoping crucial geo-political distinctions into invisibility’. McClintock verified her claim by suggesting that ‘Argentina […] is not “post-colonial” in the same way as Hong Kong. Nor is Brazil “post-colonial” in the same way as Zimbabwe’.

Both McClintock and Appiah had a point – and still do incidentally. Nevertheless, those who considered post-colonialism in a more favourable light saw in it the capacity not simply to deny that colonialism ever happened in the first place, but to think beyond it. Significantly, in the process of doing so it could concurrently recognise and relay the damage it had done.

What one can observe in retrospect is that the occasionally scornful nature of post-colonialism’s opponents has been somewhat eclipsed by those writers, artists, and commentators from within and outside of the former colonies, who have taken up a multitude of various post-colonial projects. They have not necessarily embraced the term, taking it at face value and heralding the end of colonialism; rather, they have appropriated it, much in the same way that the language and culture of the colonizers were appropriated during imperial control.

Post-colonial cultural production in myriad forms has emerged over the last few decades which – if not able to proclaim in it the end of colonialism – has at least brought about a credible and counter-discursive depiction of the colonialism that continues to maintain an oppressive influence.

There is nothing to stop people oppressed by colonialism from thinking post-colonially, as it were; it may perhaps be that doing so in fact becomes a means to and end.

It is important that the words of academics such as McClintock and Appiah do not go unnoticed, even twenty years after they were first written, for to do so would certainly see post-colonialism become little more than a buzzword, and a quickly exhausted one at that.

Equally essential is that one recognises Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra’s conviction that ‘[post-colonialism] refers to a typical configuration which is always in the process of change, never consistent with itself’. It is crucial, furthermore, that what Hodge and Mishra assert is observed in a plural sense, so that one may consider a plethora of different, ever-transformative post-colonialisms, never consistent with one another.

Certainly, post-colonialism means something different to virtually every person, group, or space who encounters it and, as such, it has varying levels of influence in each instance. Partly due to the individual nature of each type of colonial experience, partly because of the infinitely different pre-colonial existences predating each of these experiences, and partly because of the varying levels of influence that post-coloniality offers in any particular post-colony, we are living through an era of post-colonialisms and post-colonialities.

No, post-colonial Brazil is not the same as post-colonial Zimbabwe. Equally, post-colonial Kenya is not the same as post-colonial Nigeria, despite the similarities of their respective colonial experiences and their geographical proximity, relatively speaking. Inasmuch, it is perhaps that we must make a distinction in the first place – making sure to talk of “post-colonial Kenya” and “post-colonial Nigeria” in those exact terms.

Of course, more important than all of this is to understand that, even by making the distinction between one post-colonialism and another, is still not enough. 

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Anne McClintock, 'The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term "Post-Colonialism" ', Social Text, 31/32 (1992), 84-98.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 'Is the Post- in Postmodern the Post- in Postcolonial?', Critical Inquiry, 17:2 (1991), 336-357.

Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge, 'What is Post(-)colonialism?', Textual Practice, 5:3 (1991), 399-414.


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