post-colonial theory

Posted: September 19, 2007 in Literary theory, Postcolonialism

Postcolonialism ( postcolonial theory, post-colonial theory) is a set of theories in philosophy, film, and literature that deal with the cultural legacy of colonial rule.

As a literary theory (or critical approach), it deals with literature produced in countries that once were colonies of other countries, especially of the European colonial powers Britain, France, and Spain; in some contexts, it includes countries still in colonial arrangements. It also deals with literature written in colonial countries and by their citizens that has colonised people(s) as its subject matter. Colonised people, especially of the British Empire, attended British universities; their access to education that still unavailable in the colonies created a new criticism, mostly literary, and especially in novels. Postcolonial theory became part of the critics resources in the 1970s; most take Edward Said’s book Orientalism as its foundation work.

Subject matters

Postcolonialism deals with the cultural identity matters of colonised societies: the dilemmas of developing a national identity after colonial rule; the ways in which writers articulate and celebrate cultural identity (often reclaiming it from and often maintaining strong connections with the coloniser); how a colonised people’s knowledge served the coloniser’s interests, and how the subordinate people’s knowledge is generated and used; and the ways in which the colonist’s literature justified colonialism via images of the colonised as a perpetually inferior person, society, and culture.

The creation of binary opposition structures the way we view others. In colonialism’s case, the Oriental and the Westerner were distinguished as different from each other (i.e. the emotional, decadent Orient vs. the principled, progessive Occident). This opposition justified the ‘white man’s burden’, the coloniser’s self-perceived “destiny to rule” naturally sub-ordinate peoples.

In Post-Colonial Drama: theory, practice, politics, Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins state: “the term postcolonialism — according to a too-rigid etymology — is frequently misunderstood as a temporal concept, meaning the time after colonialism has ceased, or the time following the politically determined Independence Day on which a country breaks away from its governance by another state, Not a naïve teleological sequence which supersedes colonialism, postcolonialism is, rather, an engagement with and contestation [sic] of colonialism’s discourses, power structures, and social hierarchies … A theory of postcolonialism must, then, respond to more than the merely chronological construction of post-independence, and to more than just the discursive experience of imperialism.”[1]

Colonised peoples reply to the colonial legacy by writing back to the center, when the indigenous peoples write their own histories and legacies using the coloniser’s language (i.e. English, French, Dutch, et cetera) for their own purposes.[2] “Indigenous decolonization” is the intellectual impact of postcolonialist theory upon communities of indigenous peoples, thereby, their generating postcolonial literature.

A single, definitive definition of postcolonial theory is controversial; writers have strongly criticised it as a concept embedded to identity politics. Ann Laura Stoler, in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power, argues that the simplistic oppositional binary concept of Coloniser and Colonised is more complicated than it seems, because it is a category that in reality is fluid and shifting; postcolonial works emphasise the re-analysation of categories assumed to be natural and immutable.

Postcolonial Theory, as metaphysics, ethics, and politics, addresses matters of identity, gendre, race, racism, and ethnicity with the challenges of developing a post-colonial national identity, of how a colonised people’s knowledge was used against them in service to the coloniser’s interests, and of how knowledge about the world is generated under specific relations between the powerful and the powerless, repetitively circulated and finally legitimated in service to certain imperial interests. Yet, postcolonial theory encourages thought about the colonised’s creative resistance to the coloniser, and how that resistance complicates and gives texture to European imperial colonial projects.

Postcolonial writers object to the colonised’s depiction as hollow “mimics” of Europeans or as passive recipients of power. Consequent to Foucauldian argument, postcolonial scholars, i.e. the Subaltern Studies collective, argue that anti-colonial resistance accompanies every deployment of power.

Middle East, Postcolonialism, and National identity

In the last decade, Middle Eastern studies and research produced works focusing upon the colonial past’s effects on the internal and external political, social, cultural, and economic circumstances of contemporary Middle Eastern countries; cf. Raphael Israeli’s “Is Jordan Palestine?” in Israel, Hashemites and the Palestinians: The Fateful Triangle, Efraim Karsh and P.R. Kumaraswamy (eds.)(London: Frank Cass, 2003), pp.49-66 and Nazih Ayubi’s Overstating the Arab State (Bodmin: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001) pp.86-123
A particular focus of study is the matter of Western discourses about the Middle East, and the existence or the lack of national identity formation:[3]

“… [M]ost countries of the Middle East, suffered from the fundamental problems over their national identity. More than three-quarters of a century after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, from which most of them emerged, these states have been unable to define, project, and maintain a national identity that is both inclusive and representative”.[4]

As the quotation notes, independence and the end of colonialism have not ended social fragmentation and war in the Middle East. As Larbi Sadiki understood and noted in The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (2004), because European colonial powers drew borders discounting peoples, ancient tribal boundaries, and local history, the Middle East’s contemporary national identity problem is traceable from imperialism and colonialism.

Indeed, ‘in places like Iraq and Jordan, leaders of the new state were brought in from the outside, [and] tailored to suit colonial interests and commitments. Likewise, most states in the Persian Gulf were handed over to those who could protect and safeguard imperial interests in the post-withdrawal phase’,[5]

Thus, the Middle East’s difficulties in defining national identity partly stem from state boundaries defined by colonial boundaries; ‘with notable exceptions like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, most [countries] … had to [re-]invent, their historical roots’ after colonialism. Therefore,‘like its colonial predecessor, postcolonial identity owes its existence to force’.[6]

Criticism of focusing up on national identity

Scholars criticise and question the recent post-colonial focus on national identity. The Moroccan scholar Bin ‘Abd al-‘Ali argues that what is seen in contemporary Middle Eastern studies is ‘a pathological obsession with … identity’.[7]Nevertheless, Kumaraswamy and Sadiki argue that the problem of the lack of Middle Eastern identity formation is widespread, and that identity is an important aspect of understanding the politics of the contemporary Middle East. Whether the countries are Islamic regimes (i.e. Iran), republican regimes (i.e. Egypt, Syria, and Algeria), quasi-liberal monarchies (i.e. Jordan and Bahrain), democracies (i.e. Israel and Turkey), or evolving democracies (i.e. Iraq and Palestine), ‘the Middle Eastern region suffers from the inability to recognize, integrate, and reflect its ethno-cultural diversity.’ [8]
Ayubi (2001) questions if what Bin ‘Abd al-‘Ali described as an obsession with national identity may be explained by ‘the absence of a championing social class?'[9] [more information, visit this link]

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