Postcolonialism and the Modernist Nightmare

Gregory Gipson, English 27, Autumn 1997

The term postcolonial is as complicated as any attempt to contain an idea by letters must be. The word is semantically uncomplicated, reducible to after colonialism, but the contextual accretions surrounding it leave that neatness fractured and distorted. Before proceeding, then, an attempt at definition is in order. So what does "postcolonial" mean and why does it matter? The second question may turn out simpler to answer than the first, and therefore it is to the first that we shall turn.

To begin with, postcolonialism is not the same thing as anticolonialism, that is, reductive, implying "that there was only one struggle to be waged, and it was a negative one: a struggle against colonialism, not a struggle for anything specific" (Neil Lazarus). Certainly anticolonialism is not absent from it but if nothing else, postcolonialism is not a directionless phenomenon -- rather it is multi-faceted and heterogeneous. The quality of being postcolonial is one intrinsically linked to notions of culture and synthesis: it is not merely a response to or refutation of colonialism and its various legacies, it is new creation, one informed by those factors but not wholly limited to them. Thus when Chinua Achebe says, in a discussion about the necessity of warding off "his people's growing inferiority complex and his leaders’ disregard for the truth," that "a writer has a responsibility to try and stop [these damaging trends] because unless our culture begins to take itself seriously it will never. . . get off the ground" (source) he is speaking from the standpoint of a postcolonial writer, and not simply as a novelist.

A postcolonial endeavor, then, is a positive one, in the sense that it is not wholly concerned with destruction of colonial ideology and influence, but in moving beyond them. It is a consciously taken route, and one deeply rooted in history and locale. So it is that "all aspects of contemporary African cultural life. . . have been influenced -- often powerfully -- by the transition of African societies through colonialism, but they are not all. . . postcolonial" (Appiah, 119). What exactly does make a particular work postcolonial, then? Must it be left to the artist to decide whether or not a piece fits under that rubric? And just because he or she says so, is it so? Perhaps, indeed, it is safest to say that "the post in postcolonial, like the post in postmodern, is the post of the space-clearing gesture," understanding along with that statement that every work from a former colony need not be "concerned with transcending -- with going beyond -- coloniality" ([both] Appiah, 119). The postcolonial half of a phrase like "postcolonial literature," for instance, therefore imparts three qualities to the work immediately: a conscious effort by the author to address within the work any of a variety of cultural and political concerns of life in a decolonized nation, a complex grounding in the cultural and political contexts of the country in which the book is set, and, because of the first two, a basis "in the ‘historical fact’ of European colonialism, and the diverse material effects to which this phenomenon gave rise" (General Introduction to the Post-colonial Studies Reader, 2). Each of these components is necessary and inter-dependent: to choose to create a postcolonial text, one must be conscious of what it means to live in a decolonized nation; to understand that, one must understand how colonialism affected the area and people which the text describes; and to understand that, one must know not only how colonialism affected native peoples, but how political and social changes since colonial rule have affected those same peoples.


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, New York NY, 1995.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern," in The Post- colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ascroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, eds. Routledge, New York NY, 1995.

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