Dr. Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


The idea of anti-colonial resistance or nationalism has oftentimes generated a very simplified logic about liberation. In this context colonialism is understood to be oppressive and unjust, dominating the lives of native or displaced (through transmigration) peoples without their assent. Those seeking to redress this side of colonialism have tended to occupy a moral high ground, advocating that the most realistic solution was the removal of their colonial masters, hence the resort to self-determination, (at times) violent confrontations, and the creation of new national myths. Yet in the quest of reducing anti-colonial liberation to national independence, some of starkest ironies have often been inflicted. In many cases anti-colonial liberation not only preserved pre-existing colonial mindsets, it substituted a native ruling class for the former colonizers without necessarily emancipating the indigenous working classes.

The concepts of liberation and emancipation, therefore, paradoxically underscore the cycles of domination present in countless aspects of social life. What counts as oppression and domination? What makes issues like disease, hunger, poverty, and discrimination of race, sex, and sexual orientation a form of oppression through which liberation needs to be sought? Does the liberation of one group of people result in the domination of another? And why is it that the redress to these forms of domination is often expressed through the recognition of "rights"? (see for instance Leahy and Cohn-Sherbok.)

For postcolonialism liberation is a multifarious creature addressing a number of issues:

I will specifically examine the last point, leaving the discussion for the other issues to the individual lexias.

One of the most interesting features of the Western Enlightenment is the belief that reason has liberating effects. This is because what came before the Enlightenment -- medieval mindsets, feudalism, the all-encompassing embrace of the Christian worldview, mysticism, the inseparability of myth and reality-- came to be surpassed by profound transformations in the way the individual related to others in a society, how knowledge and information were organized, and how time and historical events were understood to be continuous rather than cyclical. The Enlightenment created the new sovereign subject, one who believed in the interminable nature of progress, the logocentricity of human thought, and empirical knowledge. Surrounding the new individual was the notion of rights; that in relation to the larger community the individual had as much responsibility for his or her actions in the community as the rights that were accorded to him or her. This is an important concept because it underscored the separation between individual and society and between church and state, and by so doing, proclaimed the fundamental autonomy and freedom of the individual. In many ways the Enlightenment's perspective on liberation is found in many dimensions: reason elevates the individual from the stifling and oppressive medieval worldview, the individual was believed to be the producer of knowledge, and the individual's liberties were protected by modern laws.

It is therefore not difficult to ascertain where the logic of anti-colonial liberation comes from. After the end of the second world war, as the former European empires gradually relinquished their colonies, the creation of new sovereign states did not signify an end to imperialism. Borrowing extensively from the Western models of state sovereignty, international law, and national governance, these states came to mimic those that were found at the European metropolitan centre. In principle this reaffirmed the Enlightenment notion of progress -- that these colonial vestiges have moved from their native, tribal modes to flourishing modern states. The type of liberation reflected in statehood and national independence was understood in two senses. First it literally meant the removal of direct administrative control by the former colonial power, which was afforded through legal conventions. In other words the new state was "free" insofar as international law recognized it to be, leaving the gray areas of indirect control and neocolonialism undecided as they fall outside of what could legally be defined as intervention. Second liberation also carried with it the implications of colonial tutelage; that statehood is the culmination of the effects of the Enlightenment on the colonized. In this case statehood meant the liberation of people from primitive forms of governance.

Whether or not these grandiose notions of Enlightenment liberation did occur with the newly independent states is, of course, subject to debate. Political scientists like Robert Jackson are inclined to disagree, examining Third World countries in Africa as some deformed or distorted "quasi-states" that do not live to their Western archetypes. Yet anti-colonial liberation precisely presents a very complex case for postcolonial studies, underlining an attitude that is caught between the all-powerful pull of modernization and the horrendous inability/refusal by postcolonial subjects to assimilate modernity on the one hand, and the consciousness invoked to create non-Western postcolonial states. This attitude poses a number of challenges because it forces one to reassess the role of postcolonial intellectuals in liberation. In creating sovereign states were nationalist figures like Gandhi, Sukarno, Ho Chi Minh, and Nkrumah unable to escape the logic of Enlightenment liberation and were conditioned into modeling their states after the West? Were they pragmatists who accepted modern statehood as contingent to larger/future cultural objectives? While nationalist intellectuals can seldom be lumped together there is tremendous possibility in re-reading the postcolonial consciousness in these historical phases of nationalism (see Young, for example).

One example of such a re-reading can be found in Jan Nederveen Pieterse's Empire and Emancipation, one of the few works in the literature of postcolonial studies that focuses on liberation rather than domination. In this text Nederveen Pieterse locates liberation as something trapped within the Enlightenment and has subsequently produced counter-discourses that either react against it or to challenge the boundaries imposed by modern mindsets. Postmodernism is one such condition that challenges the applicability of liberation under modernity, in this case stressing on its totalizing nature and that it was a project that had come to an end. Nederveen Pieterse's use of "emancipation" has also resonance with a number of social critics, the Frankfurt School critical theorist Jürgen Habermas being a chief example. For Habermas, unlike the postmodern Lyotard, emancipation is possible. This is because the problems exerted by modernity (such as an absolutist notion of liberation) are not intrinsic, but rather caused by the Enlightenment as a project that is unfinished. As such Habermas proposes his notion of "communicative rationality" as a way of ordering language and communication, believing that rationality could be shared among different groups of people as long as a form of "noncoercive, rational communication" could be devised (49-50).

Whatever the dialogue on emancipation may be, Nederveen Pieterse finds that the Third World is omitted much to the detriment of a truly applicable theory of liberation:

A striking feature of the debate between modernism and postmodernism is that it is being conducted with the backs turned to the Third World. Third World issues are literally absent from the discussion. It is an all-Western debate, an Occidental quiz, with Western answers to Western questions. At the same time though it does hold 'universalizing' implications. With Lyotard the premise of postmodernism is the postindustrial stage, which leaves out the Third World; as postmodernism, coming after modernity, it does imply modernity as a prior stage. With Habermas the defense of modernism in relation to the Third World means, in effect, modernization theory, whichis the Enlightenment program extended and applied globally. Habermas' social philosophy involves a theory of social evolution which with its three main stages -- mythical, religious-metaphysical, and modern -- recalls the positivist schema of Comte. It involves a hierarchical perspective in which oral cultures are related to 'civilizations'. Thus, as part of Habermas' theory, all the luggage -- modernization theory and a type of evolutionism -- which had been put overboard already in Third World discussions, resurfaces within this Occidental discourse. (51-52)

Nederveen Pieterse does not propose a solution to this conundrum but prefers to view cycles of empire and emancipation as a longer term historical complex, both forces being unending dialectical processes.

Trapped within these strictures of modernity, the possibility of a liberated agency outside of the Enlightenment becomes difficult to envisage. This is why the image of liberation generates so much productive energy in the minds of postcolonial intellectuals. The possibility of "liberation" is something that becomes deferred or made contingent to larger productions of culture. For example the nostalgia of lost cultures and homelands, the celebration of the liminal subject -- hybrid literary heroes who are stuck between foreign and traditional cultures, the cunning nationalist trickster who outwits the colonial authorities, and the pain and displacement inflicted by "liberation's" aftermath (like the separation of India and Pakistan); all these are instances of postcolonial culture shaped by such problems of emancipation.

Works Cited

[Postcolonial Web Overview] [Postcolonial Discourse Overview] 

Last Modified: 14 May, 2002