The Metaphorical Use of Colonialism and Related Terms

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

As the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear, the word colonialism has fairly recently acquired the meaning of "alleged policy of exploitation of backward or weak peoples by a large power." The contemporary use of the this term and related ones, such as colonize, colonized, and colonialist, obvious has far different basic meanings, political implications, and emotional resonances for us than it did for many in both the nineteenth century and in the classical ages, when it originated.

In fact, the term now has such power that it provides easy, economical way for critics, particularly those involved in cultural studies and postcolonial texts, to convey their politico-moral judgments of particular phenomena while simultaneously establishing themselves as morally and politically correct. For example, one now encounters these terms applied to classes within an Imperial power ("internal colonialism") or to the relations between men and women. As the authors of The Empire Writes Back and Gaytrai Spivak use this trope, "Women in many societies have been relegated to the position of 'Other,' marginalized and, in a metaphorical sense, 'colonized,' forced to pursue guerrilla warfare against imperial domination from positions deeply embedded in, yet fundamentally alienated from that imperium (Spivak 1987)."

Colonialism and colonize, in other words, have become codewords for any relation involving exploitation. Although authors who use them thus acquire certain rhetorical advantages typical of using politically correct and politically fashionable terms, they also create serious problems as well. In particular, as Sara Suleri and Chandra Talpade Mohanty point out, such rhetorical and metaphorical uses of terms involved with colonization unfortunately (1) turn away from the specific historical realities of colonialism and postcolonism, and (2) thereby falsely imply that we know all there is to know about these realities, particularly (3) that all colonialism and colonization was pretty much the same. Finally, (4) when applied to women, such terminology implies that all women, particularly all so-called Third World women, had the same experience and that it has to be judged by the standards and experiences of American and European feminist assumptions.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

Last Modified: 6 June, 2002