Study Guide

Postcolonial Theory Critics

  • Edward Said

    One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away[….]Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made Orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied—indeed, made truly productive—the statements proliferating out from Orientalism into the general culture.

    We don't think we need to tell you what this is, but we will anyway: this is the definition of Orientalism. It's also the central concept that really made poco studies take off as a theoretical field. And by the way, it's a great quote for showing people what a smarty-pants you are.

    Here's basically what Said is saying: this whole thing called Orientalism isn't what you think it is. It's not about some fairy tale of the Far East with a bunch of flying carpets. It's hardcore. We're talking about Western professors, politicians, writers, thinkers—smart, powerful people—who go around molding minds and societies based on some wacked-out idea of what the "'Orient"' is.

    And not just that: everyone's implicated because everyone's part of the Orientalist system, even people who are natives to a country and are just working to get by in some colonial bureaucratic office. That's because Orientalism is a "'system of knowledge,"' aka it's what you accept already, believing you "'know"' it without realizing how that knowledge has been constructed.

    Call it bias, prejudice, stereotype, discrimination: they're all part of this "'system,"' and it's kind of inescapable. Unless you're someone like Edward Said, of course.

    What I am criticizing is two particular assumptions. There is first the almost unconsciously held ideological assumption that the Eurocentric model for the humanities actually represents a natural and proper subject matter for the humanistic scholar. Its authority comes not only from the orthodox canon of literary monuments handed down through the generations, but also from the way this continuity reproduces the filial continuity of the chain of biological procreation. What we then have is a substitution of one sort of order for another, in the process of which everything that is nonhumanistic and nonliterary and non-European is deposited outside the structure[….]Second is the assumption that the principal relationships in the study of literature—those I have identified as based on representation—ought to obliterate the traces of other relationships within literary structures that are based principally upon acquisition and appropriation.

    So here's the deal. Why are the humanities all about studying dead, white guys? That's pretty much what Said wants to know. He's pointing out that anything other than that stuff just doesn't get the same kind of play as these Euro dudes.

    What's more, all this respect these guys are getting comes from the fact that their ideas keep getting passed down from generation to generation, like some kind of precious family heirloom. Literary scholars don't help either because all they do is study this stuff as if it speaks for civilized Western culture, instead of looking at how these "'classics"' or the literary "'canon"' actually came about through a whole lot of imperial power and domination over other countries and cultures.

    Said's basically slapping all the literary bigwigs around and refocusing our attention on all the stuff that gets left out of the "'humanities"' and "'literary studies."' And that's way important because this (1983) is right around the time that everyone starts to question the whole point of studying those dead, white guys.

    After all, wouldn't it be more fair, more reflective of reality, if we started to read stuff written by "'Other"' people and hear their sides of the story? Or at least look at how these dead, white guys' ideas and books came about (mostly through the conquest of "'Other"' cultures)?

    For example, could you really imagine The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (or the one by Disney) without India? Oh wait—you can? See, that's why we need postcolonial theory!

  • Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin

    Language becomes the medium through which conceptions of "'truth"', "'order"', and "'reality"' become established. Such power is rejected in the emergence of an effective post-colonial voice. For this reason, the discussion of post-colonial writing by which the language, with its power, and the writing, with its signification of authority, has been wrested from the dominant European culture.

    The words you are reading right now are tools of the colonizer. Why? Because language creates meaning and meaning creates power. If you can understand, control and wield the language of the colonizer, then that kind of makes you a colonizer too (or at least a part of his gang).

    Whew! Harsh, right? Makes us kind of feel like we shouldn't be explaining anything to you all lest we become just another part of the imperial order. But we'll take a stab anyway because that's just what we do (plucky, aren't we?).

    So anyhoo, there are ways around being a total tool: you just have to say "'Screw you!"' to the way Language creates "'truth,"' "'order,"' and "'reality"' (because we all know, those things are totally relative and subjective—thanks Einstein!). In fact, if you're part of the poco field, you're already sticking it to the Man because you're talking about all sorts of ideas and books that totally don't follow the typical script. So see? Ashcroft and gang aren't too mean and tough—you just have to hang with them more and you're all good!

    What these guys and gal point out is something pretty basic to the field of poco lit: the language of the colonizer, because it was so often forced upon people of other cultures, is something to resist.

    How (especially if that language is your only language)? By getting creative and experimental with it so that new truths and new stories can come out. Think of this whole criticism about language as license to handle all that delicate glassware your parents always told you not to touch. Go ahead: touch it, pick it up, heck—toss it up in the air and let it break!

    That's one of the major points of poco lit: let's "'break"' the dominant language, hack it up, use it in a new way, view it with critical eyes. Maybe, just maybe, a new alternative meaning will come out and displace what was previously seen as "'truth."'

  • Gayatri Spivak

    Figures like the goddess Athena—"'father's daughters self-professedly uncontaminated by the womb"'—are useful for establishing women's ideological self-debasement, which is to be distinguished from a deconstructive attitude toward the essentialist subject. The story of the mythic Sati, reversing every narrateme of the rite, performs a similar function: the living husband avenges the wife's death, a transaction between great male gods fulfills the destruction of the female body and thus inscribes the earth as sacred geography. To see this as proof of the feminism of classical Hinduism or of Indian culture as goddess-centered and therefore feminist is as ideologically contaminated by nativism or reverse ethnocentrism as it was imperialist to erase the image of the luminous fighting Mother Durga and invest the proper noun Sati with no significance other than the ritual burning of the helpless widow as sacrificial offering who can then be saved. There is no space from which the sexed subaltern subject can speak.

    If the oppressed under socialized capital have no necessarily unmediated access to "'correct"' resistance, can the ideology of sati, coming from the history of the periphery, be sublated into any model of interventionist practice? [….] this essay operates on the notion that all such clear-cut nostalgias for lost origins are suspect, especially as grounds for counterhegemonic ideological production.

    Whoa. You still there?

    Okay, take a deep breath and let's start with a little context. There's this ritual in India (banned by the Brits since 1829) where a female widow is able to commit suicide as long as it's done on her dead husband's funeral pyre. We know—sounds bad, thank goodness the Brits banned it, etc. But hold on there. Before we start viewing the Brits as saviors of all these poor Indian women—victims of their own men who are cruel and backward—Spivak wants us to view the whole idea of sati in a more complex manner.

    First, sati actually comes from the myth of Sati, a major Hindu goddess who got so mad at her father for abusing her husband Siva (shay it Shiva) that she burned herself to death. Siva, in return, goes Armageddon on Sati's dad and dances this furious dance while holding Sati's burned body above himself. Pieces of her body scatter all over the earth, thereby making the earth as we know it today sacred. Nice story, right? Notice how the myth is totally opposite of the actual rite (there's no dead husband in the myth and Sati is anything but meek).

    Anyway, Spivak thinks this is a story that isn't told often enough when people talk about sati, the rite, which is why she's not into the whole "'Brits as saviors"' shtick. Why? Because the Brits—in their eagerness to "'civilize"' India and its "'backward"' rituals—totally erase any understanding of sati as Sati, the Hindu goddess. They commit the great blunder of eradicating a part of India's cultural history.

    But wait—Spivak's not done. She's also not totally a cheerleader for ancient Hindu rituals that feature goddesses—instead of your typical male god —at the center. Some people might call that feminism, but not Spivak. She sees it as a form of "'nativism"'—of being overly proud of one's culture to the point that you overlook the whole widow-burning thing.

    So where does this leave the "'sexed subaltern subject,"' i.e. the smart, political, postcolonial woman? How does she speak her own story when she's caught between a virtual rock (British imperialist white dude who totally doesn't get her culture) and a hard place (her own culture that once celebrated widows burning themselves for their husbands)?

    Spivak gives us a hint, even though she insists here and elsewhere that the "'subaltern cannot speak."' She points out that the myth of Sati can be used like the myth of Athena: as kind of a Ground Zero for women who willingly lower themselves for men. (Athena does this by more or less saying that she's super-cool for being born from her father and not her mother. Not a story you talk about on Mother's Day, mind you.) This is not—we repeat— is not Spivak saying women are naturally self-sacrificial beings or that self-debasement is a plan of action for women.

    It's more like saying: "'Okay, this is where we postcolonial women are at. We've got this cool goddess Sati who burns herself to death while sticking up for her man. She's tough, smart, and clearly has some super-fireball power, so she definitely knows how to act for herself. On the other hand, is her husband that great that she has to die while protesting for him? Wouldn't it be better if she just—you know—stayed alive?"'

    So the whole Sati/ sati business is a starting point for a feminist postcolonial politics. Where can it go from here? That's what Spivak wants to know too.

    This passage basically gives you an idea of what Spivak means when she asks "'Can the subaltern speak?"' And it's a good question too because where, indeed, does the postcolonial woman belong among these men from all sides? What stories and histories does she tell that validate her position? Is there room for a woman at the postcolonial table? (Hint: Duh there is, if Spivak has anything to do with it.)

    Reading the work of Subaltern Studies from within but against the grain, I would suggest that elements in their text would warrant a reading of the project to retrieve the subaltern consciousness as the attempt to undo a massive historiographic metalepsis and "'situate"' the effect of the subject as subaltern. I would read it, then, as a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest.

    Gayatri, Gayatri, you've done it again.

    Let's tackle this piece by piece. First, you need to know that Spivak is talking about an actual group, called "'Subaltern Studies,"' of which she's a member. That's why she talks about their work "'from within."'

    But she also has a different, even opposing view (hence, she's reading "'against the grain"'). She looks at their work as a way of correcting historical records so that the "'subject"' (aka, person with political agency) gets identified as the "'subaltern"' (aka, the oppressed).

    Now, normally, saying that your typical "'subaltern"' identity is a certain way would be considered "'essentialist"'—a big no-no for theorists since it's a kind of huge generalization about the "'essence"' of a type of person. It's like creating a stereotype, even if it's a "'good"' one.

    But Spivak's saying that sometimes it might be necessary to take an "'essentialist"' position in order to advance a political agenda. As long as you're aware of what you're doing, of course, and you know when to stop. Spivak's idea has been totally influential, and not just for postcolonialists. Pick a minority group and, we guarantee you, that group probably toyed with Spivak's "'strategy"' (it's not a "'theory"' if it's meant for political action, according to Spivak).

    And this is why: every group is diverse—for example, your typical student government. Every person has his or her own agenda: maybe one person wants to bring In 'N Out onto campus; maybe someone else wants more money to go to the softball team. Then school administrators step in and say that they're raising tuition on all the students by 20%, without your input. Even though you all are totally different (jocks, geeks, princesses, nerds, etc.), you're all "'students,"' and so you band together under that label and rise up against the school administrators. Once you're done fighting for your rights as students at your school, you go back to your different interests and friends and burger preferences.

    True, people have been revolting like this for ages, but Spivak actually gave it a theoretical name. That goes pretty far in the world of academics.

  • Chinua Achebe

    Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

    We're pretty sure you probably don't need us to translate this one. Achebe's not exactly holding back his feelings and thoughts on Conrad's novella and his "'racism"' (a word Achebe uses more than once to describe Conrad).

    We'll just point out that—yeah—it's probably not all that respectful to Africans for Conrad to turn a large diverse place like Africa and its people into props for some white dude's story of mental breakdown. Looking to love Conrad? Not if Achebe has a say.

    Even before Said (this essay's from 1975), Achebe showed the world how postcolonial lit crit could sound: clear and biting (take that, Bhabha!). Poco theory today doesn't have the same clarity as Achebe's writing, and possibly not even his original fighting spirit. Case in point: you probably won't hear anyone just say that some work is "'racist"' (these days, that just may be too "'reductive."')

    That's why Achebe's essay is so key. It doesn't seek to pander; it seeks a villain and finds it in Conrad. Agree or disagree with him: at least you know where he stands and what he thinks postcolonial studies should do.

  • Homi Bhabha

    The effect of mimicry on authority of colonial discourse is profound and disturbing. For in "'normalizing"' the colonial state or subject, the dream of post-Enlightenment civility alienates its own language of liberty and produces another knowledge of its norms [….] It is from this area between mimicry and mockery, where the reforming, civilizing mission is threatened by the displacing gaze of its disciplinary double, that my instances of colonial imitation come. What they all share is a discursive process by which the excess or slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) does not merely "'rupture"' the discourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixed the colonial subject as a "'partial"' presence. By "'partial"' I mean both "'incomplete"' and "'virtual"'. It is as if the very emergence of the "'colonial"' is dependent for its representation upon some strategic limitation or prohibition within the authoritative discourse itself. The success of colonial appropriation depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace.

    Shaking in your shoes? Don't. This passage is a lot simpler than it seems. Bhabha is basically saying this: when a colonial state forces its subjects to adopt a new culture and way of life (new laws, new languages, cricket), the colonized person or "'subject"' imitates the colonizer in such a way as to be almost identical to the colonizer. That almost is extremely important because that's where Bhabha's whole theory of resistance lies.

    Think of the colonizer kind of like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers; he thinks he's created a perfect "'Mini-me"' but, in reality, "'Mini-me's"' presence just makes Dr. Evil look silly. "'Mini-me"' is almost, but clearly not Dr. Evil (especially since "'Mini-me"' is literally a "'partial presence,"' being half of Dr. Evil's height) so everything he does just amplifies the already-ridiculous nature of Dr. Evil, thereby showing how Dr. Evil is the original "'partial presence"'—an incomplete guy who needs a "'Mini-me"' in order to appear dominant. Just like a colonizer.

    The effect that "'Mini-me's"' imitation of Dr. Evil has on us is an example of that "'excess"' or "'slippage"' Bhabha mentions. Colonial domination no longer appears perfect or seamless because it's full of these unintended effects, like snorting milk out of your nose while laughing at "'Mini-me"' and Dr. Evil. And how effective is Dr. Evil in his quest for world domination? Yep. Not very. So that's why Bhabha sees mimicry as a potential form of political resistance.

    So what's the big deal about all this mimicry stuff? This passage and the pages around it lay the foundation for Bhabha's theory of the hybrid subject: that person who can imitate the colonizer but in a way that can disrupt the colonizer's power rather than reinforce it.

    Is it a 100-billion dollar theory? Probs not. If you're thinking "'Eh…not buying it,"' then you wouldn't be alone. Bhabha's theory is definitely controversial in some circles because it's not exactly the typical way political protests have been done (he's no Gandhi). But that doesn't mean that he's not onto something either.

  • Chandra Talpade Mohanty

    Universal images of "'the third-world woman"' (the veiled woman, chaste virgin, etc.), images constructed from adding the "'third-world difference"' to "'sexual difference"', are predicated on (and hence obviously bring into sharper focus) assumptions about western women as secular, liberated and having control over their own lives. This is not to suggest that western women are secular and liberated and have control over their own lives. I am referring to a discursive self-presentation, not necessarily to material reality. If this were a material reality there would be no need for feminist political struggle in the west. Similarly, only from the vantage point of the west is it possible to define the "'third world"' as underdeveloped and economically dependent. Without the overdetermined discourse that creates the third world, there would be no (singular and privileged) first world. Without the "'third-world woman"', the particular self-presentation of western women mentioned above would be problematical. I am suggesting, in effect, that the one enables and sustains the other.

    Here's the deal: all those images you think of or see when you hear "'Muslim woman"' or "'Middle Eastern woman"' or "'Arab woman"' (you get what we mean) come about because we have these (Western) assumptions of who the "'third-world woman"' is.

    These assumptions come from the not-so-PC idea that western women are somehow more free—of religion, of "'backward"' laws, of veils—and, thus, are smarter, stronger, more independent…more feminist. Even if it's not actually true. Otherwise, why are western women and men still fighting over things like Roe v. Wade?

    Point is, stereotypes and misconceptions of the "'third-world woman"' support the way western women view themselves. The only reason we think this way about "'third-world"' women (poor, unenlightened, unliberated) is because that's how the West "'constructs"' or re-creates images of the "'third-world"'—to the benefit of the West. By creating a "'villain"' (like, the Muslim man or "'non-feminist"' cultural traditions) and a "'victim"' to save (the "'third-world woman"'), the Western woman comes off looking so much better. Sound familiar? Totally Said, but with a feminist twist. 

    If you thought before that Gayatri Spivak is the lone significant woman in postcolonial studies, think again. Chandra Mohanty's just one example of all the rich, feminist postcolonial work out there. This essay, in particular, was groundbreaking in both feminist and postcolonial studies because of the way she critiqued Western feminism, as a—you guessed it—colonizing way of addressing "'Third World"' women.

  • Frantz Fanon

    The nation is not only the condition of culture, its fruitfulness, its continuous renewal, and its deepening. It is also a necessity. It is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and framework necessary to culture. The nation gathers together the various indispensable elements necessary for the creation of a culture, those elements which alone can give it credibility, validity, life and creative power. In the same way it is its national character that will make such a culture open to other cultures and will enable it to influence and permeate other cultures. A non-existent culture can hardly be expected to have bearing on reality, or to influence reality. The first necessity is the re-establishment of the nation in order to give life to national culture in the strictly biological sense of the phrase.

    Thus we have followed the break-up of the old strata of culture, a shattering which becomes increasingly fundamental; and we have noticed, on the eve of the decisive conflict for national freedom, the renewing of forms of expression and the rebirth of the imagination.

    You know that whole "'American as apple pie"' idea? That's pretty much what Fanon's talking about. Basically, the nation makes culture. The idea of "'America"' as a nation leads to all the stuff that's considered "'American"' in its culture: its literature, its movies, its pies, malls, McDonald's.

    To Fanon, creating a nation is a creative act, an act full of inspiration. In fact, it's not just a nation that you need; you need to break up "'the old strata of culture"'—the stuff that came before the creation of a new nation. And by "'break up,"' we mean overthrowing—violently, if necessary—the old (colonial) order in favor of a new, freer, nation.

    Okay, sure, culture may exist without a nation; it just won't have any meaning or bearing on "'real"' life and its struggles. Case in point: Shepard Fairey's poster for Obama in the 2008 Presidential election. That poster was relevant because of the nation's historical moment of electing its first black president and the "'hope"' that was needed by all its citizens. Same story (more or less) with Honey Boo Boo Child: what other nation could produce the phenomenon of Honey Boo Boo?

    This quotation is fundamental to postcolonialism's beginnings. It's kind of like asking the chicken-and-egg question and having someone say, "'I know what comes first!"' Here, it's the nation that's the "'material"' basis for culture. These days, postcolonialists might complicate that relationship between nation and culture a tad more, but what Fanon says here is still pretty central to their arguments.

  • Stuart Hall

    There is, however, a second, related but different view of cultural identity. This second position recognizes that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute "'what we really are"'; or rather—since history has intervened—"'what we have become"'. We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about "'one experience, one identity"', without acknowledging its other side—the ruptures and discontinuities which constitute, precisely, the Caribbean's "'uniqueness"'. Cultural identity, in this second sense, is a matter of "'becoming"' as well as "'being"'. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous "'play"' of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere "'recovery"' of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

    It is only from this second position that we can properly understand the traumatic character of "'the colonial experience"'. The ways in which black people, black experiences, were positioned and subject-ed in the dominant regimes of representation were the effects of a critical exercise of cultural power and normalization. Not only, in Said's "'Orientalist"' sense, were we constructed as different and other within the categories of knowledge of the West by those regimes. They had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as "'Other"'.

    We definitely can't be as eloquent as Stuart Hall, but we'll try to be briefer. He's got three major points here. First, "'identity"' isn't something that you're just born with or that's static throughout life; it's constantly in flux because society is constantly changing (and thus, so are the people in it).

    Second, "'identities"' show more about where we are in our historical moment (i.e., our "'positions"'), whether the "'identity"' was chosen by us or given to us by those in power. Your identity now is different from your identity when you listened to Carrie Underwood and Bush was president and there was no such thing as Real Housewives of Orange County.

    Third, the fact that "'identity"' isn't something "'essential"' or innate is the way to understand why colonialism was so traumatic for Caribbean people. Why is this last point so major? Because the identity of the Caribbean (or "'black"') person was something created out of colonial oppression. When you're oppressed, it's not like your oppressor makes you feel all good about yourself; they make you feel different, inferior, less than human—in Hall's words, the oppressor makes you "'see and experience [yourselves] as 'Other'."'

    Stuart Hall is like the Edward Said of postcolonial critics in the UK. But that's not the only reason why you should read his stuff—he's pretty eloquent at putting together all these highfalutin theories into emotional, accessible ideas, just like in the passage above.

    We'll also point out that this passage in particular shows how powerful the idea of a fluctuating identity can be. Sure, maybe your identity—especially if you're "'black"' (which, in the UK, refers to anyone with dark skin, including Arab immigrants and Caribbeans)—isn't something you necessarily chose. But that also means that you have the potential to change how you and others think of yourself, because it's a "'matter of 'becoming' as well as 'being'."' It's something that can (and probably will) exist differently in the future.

    Anyway, Hall doesn't go so far as to say all of this up above, but the logical extension of all this fluctuating identity stuff is the whole reason postcolonialists can be so critical of everything—they're fighting for control over who they are and can be.