The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures

Bill Ashcroft, School of English, University of New South Wales; Gareth Griffiths, Department of English, University of Western Australia; Helen Tiffin, Department of English, University of Queensland


Post-colonial literatures and English Studies

The study of English has always been a densely political and cultural phenomenon, a practice in which language and literature have both been called into the service of a profound and embracing nationalism. The development of English as a privileged academic subject in nineteenth-century Britain -- finally confirmed by its inclusion in the syllabuses of Oxford and Cambridge, and re-affirmed in the 1921 Newbolt Report -- came about as part of an attempt to replace the Classics at the heart of the intellectual enterprise of nineteenth-century humanistic studies. From the beginning, proponents of English as a discipline linked its methodology to that of the Classics, with its emphasis on scholarship, philology, and historical study -- the fixing of texts in historical time and the perpetual search for the determinants of a single, unified, and agreed meaning.

The historical moment which saw the emergence of 'English' as an academic discipline also produced the nineteenth-century colonial form of imperialism (Batsleer et al. 1985: 14, 19-25). Gauri Viswanathan has presented strong arguments for relating the 'institutionalisation and subsequent valorisation of English literary study [to] a shape and an ideological content developed in the colonial context', and specifically as it developed in India, where:

British colonial administrators, provoked by missionaries on the one hand and fears of native insubordination on the other, discovered an ally in English literature to support them in maintaining control of the natives under the guise of a liberal education.

(Viswanathan 1987: 17)

It can be argued that the study of English and the growth of Empire proceeded from a single ideological climate and that the development of the one is intrinsically bound up with the development of the other, both at the level of simple utility (as propaganda for instance) and at the unconscious level, where it leads to the naturalizing of constructed values (e.g. civilization, humanity, etc.) which, conversely, established 'savagery', 'native', 'primitive', as their antitheses and as the object of a reforming zeal.[1]

A 'privileging norm' was enthroned at the heart of the formation of English Studies as a template for the denial of the value of the 'peripheral', the 'marginal', the 'uncanonized'. Literature was made as central to the cultural enterprise of Empire as the monarchy was to its political formation. So when elements of the periphery and margin threatened the exclusive claims of the centre they were rapidly incorporated. This was a process, in Edward Said's terms of conscious affiliation proceeding under the guise of fililation (Said 1984), that is, a mimicry of the centre from a desire not only to be accepted but also to be adopted and absorbed. It caused those from the periphery to immerse themselves in the imported culture, denying their origins in an attempt to become 'more English than the English'. We see examples of this in such writers as Henry James and T.S. Eliot.

As post-colonial societies sought to establish their difference from Britain, the response of those who recognized this complicity between language, education, and cultural incorporation was to break the link between language and literary study by dividing 'English' departments in universities into separate schools of Linguistics and of Literature, both of which tended to view their project within a national or international context. Ngugi's essay 'On the abolition of the English department' (Ngugi 1972) is an illuminating account of the particular arguments involved in Africa. John Docker's essay, 'The neocolonial assumption in the university teaching of English' (Tiffin 1978: 26-31), addresses similar problems in the settler colony context, describing a situation in which, in contrast to Kenya, little genuine decolonization is yet in sight. As Docker's critique makes clear, in most post-colonial nations (including the West Indies and India) the nexus of power involving literature, language, and a dominant British culture has strongly resisted attempts to dismantle it. Even after such attempts began to succeed, the canonical nature and unquestioned status of the works of the English literary tradition and the values they incorporated remained potent in the cultural formation and the ideological institutions of education and literature. Nevertheless, the development of the post-colonial literatures has necessitated a questioning of many of the assumptions on which the study of 'English' was based.

© 1989 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. Reprinted from Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London and New York: Routledge, 1989) 2-12. ISBN: 0-415-01209-0 (print version); 0-203-40262-6 (electronic version). Orders for the book can be placed via the web on: or [email protected]. The book is also available in electronic format, for details please contact or This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of Taylor & Francis.

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Last Modified: 9 July, 2002