On Categorizing Postcolonial Theorists

Leong Yew


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 to imperialism.
  5. 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 of which.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 uspyewkl@nus.edu.sg.


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Last Modified: 12 March 2002