Study Guide

Postcolonial Theory Basics

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  • Beginnings

    It's not like the dwellers of formerly colonized nations weren't pissed about it. But righteous anger gets so much more righteous when there's an academic theory to back it up, right? So luckily, in 1978 there popped up a game-changing book called Orientalism, which talked about the West's patronizing representation of the Middle East. The author, Edward Said (say it "saw-EEd"), knew plenty about that, since he was born in the British Mandate of Palestine and educated in British and American schools. The poco hocus pocus had begun!

    Why was Eddie's book such a big deal? Let's just say the book came at the right time, smack dab in the middle of an upswing in leftist radical politics at U.S. universities and during an increase in Middle East violence. It wasn't just for academics—the world desperately needed a fresh, critical way to think about the "Orient."

    That's the story of postcolonialism's start in the US, but if you really want to go global (and as budding poco-ists, how could you not?), you can go backward to the 1950s and '60s, when French-Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon—supporter of Algeria's war of independence from France and major combatant against racism—put out two major books: Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. (If you can't tell by the titles, the dude was pretty dramatic.)

    Those books really dissected—for the first time—the psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized and the need for decolonization. Sounds deep, right? That's what all the major thinkers back then thought too, and by "'major,"' we mean people like existentialist extraordinaire Jean-Paul Sartre. And let's be real, you know you've hit the big leagues when Jean-Paul Sartre writes the preface to your book, which is exactly what happened to Fanon.

    After these bigshots got the ball rolling, a whole bunch of other academics wanted to jump on the intellectual bandwagon. Hey! they said. Let's expand these ideas to try to destabilize the linguistic, social, and economic assumptions associated with Western thought. If we stop taking for granted that the way the imperialists see the world is the right way, we can make space for our own cultural discourses.

    It wasn't about saying that everyone from any country that had had a colony at any point ever was evil. It was saying that there were certain ways of seeing the world associated with the power of those countries. And poco's goal was to see it not that way.

    The big point? Postcolonialism—like lots of the big ideas of the 1960s—was born out of serious strife. No abstractions here. We're talking large-scale pain and suffering.

  • Big Players

    The Old Guard

    You can basically split the "'big players"' into two camps. There's the old guard— Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, and Edward Said—who came into the academic vanguard at a time when social and political upheaval were the norm.

    Like how? Fanon was active in the Algerian Revolutionary War. Achebe grew up in Nigeria under a colonial regime and later supported the Biafra's independence from Nigeria. Said, a Palestinian-American, wrote and published his first major work during the 1970s, when various nations in the Middle East were in political turmoil, including Palestine.

    Plus, in general, the 1960s and 1970s were all about countercultures and revolutions, not just in the US but in places like France as well. Civil Rights, feminism, gay and lesbian recognition, student demands, flower children, you name it.

    So, the guys from that era are like the daddies and granddaddies of postcolonialism and they definitely didn't go easy on the colonizers. Their books all share an "us" vs. "them" mentality and the idea that colonialism was definitely a racist thing against dark-skinned people.

    The New Guard

    And in truth, more recent postcolonial theorists like the writers of The Empire Writes Back (Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin) also recognize the racist underpinnings of imperial enterprises. What's the difference then?

    The new guard is a lot more diverse, both in terms of race and nationality (Ashcroft and his group are Australian, for example). What comes with those differences is a greater openness about who postcolonials are and what postcolonials can do.

    That leads us to Homi Bhabha, also of the new guard and super-famous for his convoluted theory-speak. Oh—and he actually has his very own theory too: hybridity. What's that, you say? Bhabha basically argues that even when the colonized "mimic" their colonizers through speech and whatnot, the effect is so weird and alienating for the colonizers that the whole "hybrid" persona of the colonized becomes a form of political resistance. Take that!

    In other words, the colonized can literally become a walking political statement by acting like the colonizer, especially if the colonized do their mimicking in a mocking or ironic way (more like mi-mock-ry). Think of it like the kid at the back of the classroom who mocks a teacher by acting like the teacher (by the way, we're not suggesting you do this in class).

    Is there animosity between the two camps? Eh. Sure, but not so much from the people themselves. They're kind of above all that (because they can be). Most of the mud-slinging comes from critics of these people, and most of the criticism is directed at the young folk for all their newfangled ideas about what counts as "political" and what or who counts as "postcolonial."

    The Queen Bee

    No, not the queen of England, though she's got her thoughts about colonialism too.

    The poco queen is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—a category unto herself. The lone female of the early days of poco, she's kind of beyond everyone. Heck, she's even kind of beyond the deconstruction demon himself, Derrida, whom she translated into English (take a look at Of Grammatology). If you've read Derrida or know anything about deconstruction, then you know just how much of a crazy genius you have to be to understand and then translate him to the English-speaking masses (okay, the masses of graduate students and theory nerds).

    What is Spivak known for, besides making Derrida comprehensible (well, readable) in English? She's known for fusing poststructuralist ideas with postcolonial ideas while critiquing both at the same time. On top of originating a lot of the ideas at the very foundation of postcolonial theory, she stays politically active and has founded a non-profit organization that provides primary education to poor kids around the world. Not bad for an academic!

    The Queen Bee's Buzz

    And like the other heavy-hitters, Spivak's got plenty of her own theories out there—like strategic essentialism, which takes a big theoretical no-no ("essentialism," or the tendency to view things in terms of some stereotypical "essence") and turns it into a politically viable and necessary thing for colonized people ("strategic"). And that's just scratching the surface.

    Her landmark essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" talked about how imperialist ways of thinking traditionally don't let colonized folks have their own say. So how can they say stuff? Through postcolonialism, of course.

    Another key thing about Spivak's work, especially the stuff on subalternity, is how she keeps the subaltern woman front and center in all these conversations about the "colonized." The fact that women around the globe are often the most victimized, but also the most politically active in the fight against imperial and neo-colonial values (which are often patriarchal), is an idea that can sometimes get lost with all the testosterone flying around in the field.

  • Key Debates

    "Who is post-colonial?"

    That's a direct quote, straight from one of the points of controversy—the 1989 book The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures. The three authors of the book—Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin—dared to suggest that postcolonialism should expand its scope from a study of the oppositional relationship between the black colonized and the white colonizer to a study of "all those in settler colonies."

    What did they mean by "settler colonies"? Basically, they were arguing that postcolonialists should include all people who had once been colonized, even "white" people such as the Irish and the Australians, who they felt were part of the original ex-British colony gang. Basically, it lets even white academics earn pity points for living in the right formerly settled spot.

    Before this book, postcolonialism was pretty much how Fanon and Said had defined it: a theory by and for racial minorities to use against their foreign white oppressors. So when these new (white) kids on the block swooped in and changed the terms of the game, things got a little rocky in poco land.

    But let's be honest: "rocky in poco land" isn't exactly like the LA Riots. These days, everyone pretty much accepts that places as different as Taiwan and Ireland have as much claim to the postcolonial label and its ideas as India or the West Indies. After all, we're talking about people who are generally against exclusion.

    So count this debate as—practically speaking—a dead issue (although you still need to know about it).

    White people suck

    Okay, if you find this one offensive, we get you. It's definitely not a saying you'd find in a Hallmark card. Plus, it isn't even really a debate, since no poco theorist would really just come out and say "'white people suck."' That would be—you know—racist. And simplistic (an even worse thing to say about a theorist).

    What you will hear poco academics say is how old-school racism (the kind that's usually run by light-skinned people against dark-skinned people) has historically been part of the whole colonizing enterprise. Which, of course, more or less means that—yep—white people suck.

    But here's an important point: "white people suck" doesn't really mean all white people suck. In fact, it has less to do with actual white people and a lot more to do with the position of privilege light-skinned people have historically been able to maintain based on the exploitation of dark-skinned labor.

    If all that black/white stuff is seeming a little grey, you might take a gander at critical race theory, which was (and still is) a major source of inspiration for poco theory.

    Are you a revolutionary or not?

    This debate really centers on that one guy Homi Bhabha and his theory of "hybridity"—a new postcolonial identity made from the "tools" of the colonialist but fused with the politics of the colonized.

    "Wait, say what?" Yeah, we know. Bhabha's ideas aren't the easiest to pin down, mostly because he writes in some seriously difficult prose. In fact, he's even been a prize winner for "bad writing" in the annual Bad Writing Competition. Now that's an accomplishment to (incomprehensibly) write home about!

    So stop, rewind, think of it this way: "hybridity" is kind of like Frankenstein. It's composed of parts taken from the colonizer (like the colonizer's language, such as—ahem—English) but used against the colonizer.

    Okay… so what's wrong with that? Well… nothing really, unless you think that true resistance ought to come from your own traditions and end in some kind of revolution or confrontation. That's what some of Bhabha's critics argue, at least.

    Their gripes sound something like this: "What good is an identity in the fight against political and social injustice? Especially one made from the stuff of the enemy? Where's your political activism? Where are your cultural roots? Why aren't you fighting?"

    A lot of these gripes have to do with the larger anxiety of the academic theorist: How does a scholar remain politically connected and active when a scholar's work is so abstract and…theoretical?

    Alas, we don't have the answers to this one since we don't take sides here. You know, we're just the messenger.

  • State of the Theory

    Postcolonial theory is currently kind of in its prime. It's no longer that hip, avant-garde outfit that just rocked the runway at Paris, but it's also not an old, fuddy-duddy cardigan from the back of your dad's closet.

    Postcolonial theory is more like a Michelle Obama outfit: it mixes basics from Target with a splash of super-cool designer stuff that you've never seen before. In other words, it's both accessible and totally inaccessible.

    What does that mean for grad students and professors? Or your typical undergrad? It means that if you intend to stay in the humanities, you'll need to know about postcolonialism because parts of the field have become basic to the humanities (like Edward Said and Orientalism—if you don't know that bare-bootied cover at a glance, your oriental peacock is cooked).

    The other parts that aren't so basic? They're like the "deep cuts" on an iTunes album; you'll deal with those ideas eventually once you get past the basics.

    Either way, the stuff has become part of the mainstream of academic thought. We should add too that this is one field where the connection between theory and literature is super-strong. Writers like Salman Rushdie (sentenced to death for his depiction of Iran), Arundhati Roy (who challenges caste and class in India), J.M. Coetzee (take that, South Africa under apartheid), and, most recently, Zadie Smith (a Jamaican-British novelist who focuses on multiculturalism) have really made the whole idea of postcolonialism a part of literary (and popular) culture.

    These writers are famous with a big fat "'F"' for spinning stories with poco themes. They (and others like them) both inspire and are inspired by postcolonial theory. Now there's some legit scholarship in action, yo.

    So, hey, you don't feel like reading that super-heavy theory book by the most recent postcolonial academic? You can just as well grab Zadie Smith's newest book NW and get poco ideas through fiction. In fact, that might be even cooler than toting around a tattered copy of The Location of Culture.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    For pocos, literature can be anything as long as it has a link to some colonial or neo-colonial empire. In fact, poco theorists live for things like a shopping list from a remote 1840s village, or a receipt from some London tobacconist. Or a movie about an embezzling tea merchant. Or a rusty Shell gas sign in the middle of an Arabian desert. You get the point—pretty much anything can be a study-able text.

    Literature can also include your typical range of classics: Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy…stuff from your typical novelists and authors of the English-speaking empire (or other empires, for that matter—Spain used to have one too, as did Portugal, France, the Netherlands…the list goes on).

    Lit that's up for grabs can also be the fiction that writes against those empires or former empires, like your most recent "'high literature"' from hotshots like Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith.

    In other words, chances are, if you've got something with words on it produced in some country with a history of some sort of imperial presence, a postcolonialist can probably do something with it.

    What is an author?

    So if literature can pretty much be anything, then an author…? You've guessed it. An author can pretty much be anyone who's able to produce the written word. That is, if you're writing is something that's being used for research about formerly colonial cultures, you're pretty much fair game.

    Is there such a thing as an author with a capital "'A"'? In general, you probably won't find a self-respecting theorist saying that Authors are such a big deal because holding writers up on some gold-plated pedestal isn't really the focus hierarchy-skeptical folks like the poco theorists. These guys are just more into pointing out how colonialism or neo-colonialism works.

    But there definitely are some writers currently putting pen to paper (or finger to computer key), who are serious Authors—widely-respected and prize-winning. They're your "'superstars"' of the field because they don't just capture the way colonialism works, they push the whole field of poco studies forward.

    So sure, who writes stuff is worth knowing, but digging up individual biographies—less important than seeing how their work fits into larger cultural issues.

    What is a reader?

    You are the reader. Cop-out? Nope. Being the reader means that you're involved in the way knowledge is being passed around. That means you're already part of the problem because knowledge is the problem.

    "'Wait what?!"' you're thinking. "'How did I get to be part of the problem?"' If you've ever watched a kung fu movie (even if it was just Kung Fu Panda and it didn't involve reading a thing), you're a "'reader"' and, therefore, part of the problem. If you've ever watched Dora the Explorer, you're part of the problem.

    It's not really your fault, exactly. It's just that since you're part of a larger way of thinking called "'Orientalism,"' you can't help but be part of the system.

    Here's the bright side: "'problem"' isn't necessarily a bad thing. Kung Fu Panda and Dora the Explorer could very well in fact be part of a good "'problem"'—the kind where the "'reader"' is much savvier and smarter and, therefore, can understand how Kung Fu Panda and Dora the Explorer actually try to work against colonialist stereotypes.

    So that means if you're part of the problem, you may very well already be part of the solution too. And that can be pretty cool.

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