On Categorizing Postcolonial Theorists
In a recent interview, Edward Said denied that he belonged to postcolonial
studies and also suggested that "postcolonialism" was a misnomer ("Interview":82).
This is curious considering that Said's work on the politics of representation
in orientalism, the relationship between culture and imperialism, and the notion
of the intellectual has been used so extensively by those who claim to work
under the rubric of "postcolonial studies." Said was in this instance
contextualizing "colonialism" as a material aspect of history -- one
that endures to this day in the form of dependency, poverty, and international
organizations like the IMF and the World Bank. So in this instance, "post"
seems to be a temporal marker, not the "space clearing gesture" as
articulated by scholars like Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Notwithstanding these semantic differences Said's refusal to be situated in
postcolonial studies raises the issue that classifying intellectuals within
different categories can be fraught with complexities. Is Homi Bhabha postcolonial
or is he a colonial discourse theorist? What about the use of Marxism, feminism,
or poststructuralism in postcolonial studies? How would one handle these categories?
And do the use of these categories end up essentializing the disciplinary boundaries
of postcolonial studies? Does one have to practically write about theory in
order to be considered a theorist, or can anyone engaging in more aesthetic
modes of postcolonial expression be a theorist as well? The latter suggests
that art or imaginative fiction carry within them (although not always explicitly
stated) theoretical contributions expressed in forms outside of academic convention.
It is with these constraints that the categorization of theorists takes place
in the Postcolonial Web. All theorists mentioned here will have considerable
impact on the debates surrounding postcolonialism, postcolonial studies, and
colonial discourse analysis and will have also informed many other writings
loosely identified as "postcolonial studies". Visitors to the Postcolonial
Web are warmly welcome to suggest additional
theorists and to contribute to the discussion about why the theorists should
or should not placed within these categories.
For now, I have divided the "postcolonial" theorists according to
seven groups. Each group is by no means mutually exclusive and theorists may
find themselves within different categories:
- Anti-Colonial Revolutionaries. These are individuals who wrote mostly
during the fight for national independence following the break up of European
empires at the end of the second world war. The term "anti-colonial"
refers more specifically to the era in which they wrote, and under the shadow
of nationalist movements, they were also not revolutionaries in the physical
sense of the term. In many cases these individuals were affected by the violence
and bloodshed marked by the attempt to gain independence, as in the case of
Frantz Fanon and Gandhi. These "revolutionaries"
have also been subjected to differing modes of interpretation in accordance
to different theoretical needs; for example, the new critical Fanonism is
recognized as a recent re-reading in Fanon, sparked by increasing academic
interest in Postcolonial studies.
- The Subaltern Studies Group. Also known as the Subaltern Studies
Collective, the group was formed in 1982 to establish new ways of thinking
about colonialism and nationalism, especially on issues of history and historiography.
History, as it has come to be known, is tied to Western modes of narrative.
Hence any act to talk about the past of colonized places becomes unproductively
linked to reproducing these narratives. The group sought ways of navigating
through these concerns emphasizing initially on peasant movements and revolt
before branching to issues about domination and modernity.
- Feminist Postcolonial Critics. While postcolonialism may provide
interesting ways of examining as well as responding to Western-centred discourses,
emphasizing particularly on the notion of the postcolonial subject, there
are questions about how inclusive this project might be. "Women"
as a category has been treated ambivalently especially in Western feminism.
While earlier waves of feminism presumed that theirs was a struggle against
the universal phenomenon of androcentricity, these have come to be criticized
colloqually as "white women saving coloured women from coloured men."
The combination of feminism and postcolonialism attempts to circumvent these
by addressing a number of parallel but sometimes intersecting issues; for
example it looks at subjectivities created through gender, the role of women
in native tradition and the location of male discourses in it, and problems
surrounding the category of the postcolonial woman.
- Colonial Discourse Theorists. There is sometimes an uneasy relationship
between postcolonialism and colonial discourse analysis. In some cases colonial
discourse theory is identified as a subset of postcolonialism, while in other
cases they are separate but mutually dependent on each other to mobilize postcolonial
politics. This second sense sees postcolonialism as a form of consciousness
articulated by the colonized, the exiled, and the displaced as a counter discourse
against that created through empire. Colonial discourse is (through Michel
Foucault's understanding of "discourse") a linguistic regime that
enforces, conditions, and regulates what can be said with respect to empire.
For example, "scientific" disciplines like 19th century anthropology
was an instance of colonial discourse because it sought to represent the "native"
as barbaric, primitive, and uncivilized, consequently justifying the legitimacy
of colonialism. Attempts to expose the strategies, the mentalities, and workings
of colonial discourse are important because they produce consciousness about
empire that are oftentimes not so overt. One of the most significant works
to be restrospectively labelled as colonial discourse analysis is Edward
Said's Orientalism in which he
examines a wide variety of literary, historical, and anthropological texts
and demonstrates how they collectively represent the orient in ways amenable
- Marxist Critics. The following three categories are more difficult
to locate within postcolonial studies as they either resist more specific
classification or don't fit neatly into the postcolonial debate. The latter
concern reflects that of Marxist critics, who, although in some cases find
fault with postcolonialism, have engaged this inordinately well. Critics like
Arif Dirlik have preferred to locate the context of postcolonialism within
the luxuries of global capitalism, the Western academia being one manifestation
- Major Postcolonial Theorists. This is a contentious category because
of the adjective "major." When does a postcolonial theorist become
major? I suggest that there are a number of individuals who have been generally
identified as having played a big role in providing postcolonial studies with
some of its bearings. For instance, Robert Young calls Said, Bhabha, and Spivak
the "Holy Trinity" in postcolonial studies (quoted by Moore-Gilbert:
1) and subsequently lavishes substantial attention on them in White Mythologies.
Whether or not this constitutes canonicity in postcolonial studies is
open to debate. Perhaps a category like this is precisely to draw attention
to such issues.
- General Postcolonial Theorists. This is the miscellaneous category
for writers in postcolonial theory that don't fit the above. A large number
of the individual in this category haved played a substantial role in defining
the terrains of postcolonial theory, such as Robert Young, Arjun Appadurai,
Abdul JanMohamed, Bill Ashcroft, etc.
If you would like to respond to these categories, please send your comments
to me at email@example.com.
- Appiah, Kwame Athony. "Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?"
Critical Inquiry 17.2 (1991). 336-57.
- Dirlik, Arif. The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age
of Global Capitalism. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.
- Moore-Gilbert, Bart. Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics.
London: Verso, 1997.
- Said, Edward W. "Interview: Edward Said , in Conversation with Neeladri
Bhattacharya, Suvir Kaul and Ania Loomba, New Delhi." Interventions:
International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. 1.1 (1998/9). 81-96.
- Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London:
- Williams, Patrick and Laura Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial
Theory: A Reader. Hemel Hampstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
- Young, Robert. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race.
London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
- Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London
and New York: Routledge, 1990.
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