The Struggle of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism

Gilbert McInnis, Postgraduate Student, Laval University, Canada

This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.

As Britain's dominion began to wane, the exploited colonies began to map out a new identity for their own political futures and slowly began to seek their own voices. Two such postcolonial voices appdear in Caryl Phillips's Crossing the River, and Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.

Even though Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts in the eastern Caribbean, his parents soon after transported him to England at the age of 3 months. Ondaatje, on the other hand, who was born in Sri Lanka, at the age of nine moved to Britain, where, like Phillips, he received his education. Today, both enjoy a reputation as postcolonial writers. Phillip's novel delves into postcolonial themes, as does Ondaatje's. However, unlike earlier postcolonial writers, both Ondaatje and Caryl Phillips employ postmopdernist ideas. So, in this essay, I examine these two postcolonial novels with respect to their own postcolonial dilemmas, simultaneously exploring to what extent the two novels reflect the theories of postmodernism used in the cause of the postcolonialism.

First, why would a postcolonial novel reflect the ideas of postmodernism? Perhaps because the two different movements are not so different in their aims. Roger Berger also notices that a relationship exists between the two when he says:

postmodernism is simultaneously (or variously) a textual practice (often oppositional, sometimes not), a subcultural style or fashion, a definition of western, postindustrial cultureŠand the emergent or always already dominant global culture. At the same time, postcolonialism is simultaneously (or variously) a geographical site, an existential condition, a political reality, a textual practice, and the emergent or dominant global culture (or counter-culture).

In this passage, Berger mentions that postmodernism and postcolonialism converge in some respective purposes. First, both are a "textual practice." Second, the two movements examine an "emergent or dominant global culture." However, they do differ in that postcolonial novels usually have a geographical nature to them, while expressing an existential condition. Also, both explore the idea of authority or as Berger says, a "dominant global culture," and perhaps this is why there is yet no definite "boundary" drawn between the two movements. However, Richards does attempt to draw a clearer line between the two with respect to the idea of authority. He says that postcolonial writers attempt to "unmask European authority" while postmodernists attempt to unmask authority in general. So it seems that both movements investigate the ideas of "control" in different settings.

One theory of postmodernism stipulates that language is one vehicle by which authority obtains control. And since postcolonial novels explore the implications of European authority on "postcolonials," wasn"t it inevitable that postcolonial writers would have been faced with the problem of how language can be manipulated for the purpose of European control. Tiffin recognizes that colonizers use language to control the colonized. She says that the "dialectic of self and other, indigene and exile, language and place, slave and free, which is the matrix of post-European literatureŠis also an essential part of an inherited understanding of the way in which language and power operate in the world" (171). Perhaps Tiffin's idea that "language and power operate in the world" together also implies that "power" remains in power by its ability to control public and private language. If so, then an attempt for linguistic control might explain why one postcolonial writer, Salman Rushdie, would write to "conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free" (17).

It is to no surprise that postcolonial writers would use language to deconstruct European identity. This is in fact one method chosen by postcolonial writers to reestablish their own unique identity. Tiffin has also noted that postcolonial writers attempt to deconstruct European identity:

The dis/mantling, de/mystification and unmasking of European authority that has been an essential political and cultural strategy towards decolonisation and the retrieval of creation of an independent identity from the beginning persists as a prime impuse [sic] in all postcolonial literatures. [171]

Tiffin also argues that one struggle the postcolonial writers face in particular is the struggle over the "word." This not only includes non-fiction, but all written language. Her reason is as follows: "the history of postcolonial territories, was, until recently, largely a narrative constructed by the colonizers, its functions, and language(s) in which they are written, operate as a means to cultural control" (173). When the two movements accept the idea that a relationship exists between power and language, for the sake of control, a type of symbiotic relationship develops simultaneously between them. However, one wishes to deconstruct the "center" of authority in general while the other is concerned with the European component.

Even Rushdie admits to the postcolonial writer's desire to reconstruct history through language. He says, "What seems to me to be happening is that those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking itŠthey are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers" (64). And by remaking the language, the postcolonial writers have associated themselves to one particular theory of postmodernism. That theory, expressed by postmodernism, is the reconstruction of language, and because both non-fiction and fiction are constructed by language, an attempt to reconstruct all literature is in the making too.

Tiffin argues that both postmodernism and postcolonialism share strategies but have different motives:

A number of strategies, such as the move away from realist representation, the refusal of closure, the exposure of the politics of metaphor, the interrogation of forms, the rehabilitation of allegory and the attach on binary structuration of concept and language, are characteristics of both the generally postcolonial and the European postmodern, but they are energised by different theoretical assumptions and by vastly different political motivations. [172]

Tiffin makes an excellent distinction here again between the theories of postcolonialism and postmodernism when she says, "they are energised by different theoretical assumptions (postmodernism) and by vastly different political (postcolonialism) motivations." A postmodernists focuses on aesthetics, and perhaps authority in general, but a postcolonial writer's explores the implications of European authority. If so, then this might explain why postcolonialism is more of a political movement in contrast to a cultural movement, i.e. postmodernism.

Another "intersection" happens between postcolonialism and postmodernism when they both desire to bring the "marginal" to the "center." The "marginal" are those who have been left out of literature in the past or history in general. In Post Modern Times Gene Edward Veith claims that postmodernists bring the marginal into the center "by rewriting history in favor of those who have been excluded from power -- women, homosexuals, blacks, Native Americans, and other victims of oppression" (57). And Tiffin suggests the same about postcolonial writers. She says, the postcolonial "writer adopts the positions of those already written out of, or marginalised by, the western record of historical materialism ­ oppressed or annihilated peoples, [and] women" (176). Cameron Richards recognizes this "intersection" when he says, "Put another way, postcolonialism like postmodernism (and modernism) functions inŠterms of sexual, racial, class, economic and even stylistic differences, [and are] reducible to the spatial metaphor of a centre-margins opposition" (3). And if we consider Caryl Phillips" Crossing the River, the characters in his novel are women, blacks, and are those who are oppressed and marginalised. Furthermore, if we examine the stylistic devices Phillips uses to "bring the marginal to the center" the postmodernist ideas discussed above become evident in his novel too. They are there in fact to reinforce his ideas of postcolonialism, one of them is his attempt to deconstruct the European "traditional" identity.


Berger, Roger "Book Review of : Past the Last Post," Postmodern Culture, 2, 2, 1992.

Richards, Cameron "Postmodernism or Postcolonialism Tomorrow: the relevance of a diaological framework for postcolonial criticism," Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studes (SPAN), 36, 1993.

Rusdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. Granta Books, 1991.

Tiffin, Helen. "Post-Colonism, postmodernism and the Rehabilitation of PostColonial History," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, XXX, 2, 1993.

Veith, Gene E. Postmodern Times. Wheaton Illinois: Crossway

Waugh, Patrica. Postmodernism: A Reader. New York: Edward Arnold, 1992.

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Last Modified: 18 March, 2002