Postcolonial Premises:Refusing to Wipe the Slate Clean

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

I do not dare embark on a dicussion about so nebulous a term as postcoloniality without offering some kind of definition. And yet its very nebulousness works against attempts at anything which reaches beyond the purely descriptive phrase "dealing with the peoples and nations that were previously colonized by European powers." Therefore, I will presume to provide only some provisional notes towards a definition. Protected by that gargantuan qualification, I now feel safe enough to make an offering: postcolonial thought refuses utopian thinking. Actually, that's an overstatement (but a helpful one), and not quite accurate. More like: postcolonial thought refuses to wipe the slate clean. It acknowledges that history marks; that history inscribes; that history festers. It takes contemporary political, economic, and cultural conditions as its proper starting point. It refuses to wallow in narratives of colonial pillage or to daydream about the lost majesty of the precolonial past. Instead, postcoloniality maintains a relentless pragmatism. Ideal futures do get conjured up; however, these futures always emerge from the cauldron of history. To repeat: in postcolonial writing, the historical record never gets wiped clean. Instead, historical and contemporary conditions in all their necessary messiness become premises for change.

The notion of premise is important here. Basically, by premise I mean starting place. Or maybe even launching pad. Or perhaps inflection point. The spatial implications of the term add some useful pieces to the puzzle: a premise is a place. A premise can imply cultural as well as physical locations, but it always implies a geography. Which leaves yet another term to define: by geography, I mean a mappable terrain of land with variable elevations, or a terrain of cultural concepts with variable forces. But to return to the first part of my definition, a premise is not just any place on any map, but a kind of place that gets you somewhere. Premises are the concepts and places that you use to get going, the principles from which journeys begin.

I argue that the postcolonial works I examine hein this set of interlinked essays take as their premises the really existing and intensely complicated cultural and material conditions of postcolonial nations and peoples. And perhaps more importantly, they take these conditions as premises for change. I would imagine that the words "really existing" in the first sentence of the paragraph set off all sorts of reality-effect alarms. And rightfully so, because I do not really mean "really existing." I mean something more like "plausibly existing." After all, I am talking about fictions here, and Shame, for one, could hardly be deemed a realistic work. But no doubt it sure is complicated. And that, in the end, is essentially what I do mean: the cultural and material conditions taken up as premises by postcolonial works function in overdetermined social structures. Partly because these premises are overdetermined, their meaning can be negotiated, pushed, and even shifted. In other words, the postcolonial condition can become a premise for change.

This promise of what I term premise-shift relates to other important postcolonial concepts, oneof which is ranslation; a premise-shift is a kind of translation, an effort to adjust complicated conditions to fit a new structure -- a new language, if you will -- of change and triumph. Furthermore, consider it in relation to border-crossing: the premise-shift suggests not the fluidity of permeable boundaries but the discontinuity of revolutionary change. Once Were Warriors, In Custody, and Shame share a consistent focus on premises, at the same time as they use premises in instructively different ways. And here as everywhere, differences matter, and here, as should be everywhere, differences are embraced. The concept of the premise-shift serves not as a litmus test of postcolonial authenticity but simply as a useful lens through which to read postcolonial texts. Or even -- to bring my argument full circle -- I suggest that the concept of premise shift can help construct a premise for new readings.

Overview New
Zealand Once Were

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002