Postcoloniality Research Paper

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Postcoloniality is the unprecedented, complex predicament faced by individuals, societies, and their governments after the end of European colonial rule. An increasing number of social scientists, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, have found conceptions of postcoloniality useful for characterizing many contemporary societies. Theories of postcoloniality have emerged especially as more established alternatives— theories of modernization, of underdevelopment, of the Third World, and of revolution—have lost their power to explain the present and predict or guide the future. The premise of most postcoloniality theories is that ‘The history of the West and the history of the non-West are by now irrevocably different and irrevocably shared’ (Sangari 1995, p. 147).

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Writings on postcoloniality range widely in discipline and scholarly methods, and might be typifiable first of all by an attitude, even a mood: disillusionment coupled with commitment, disillusionment with the conspicuous failure of decolonization to produce a world of peace, prosperity, and real liberation, coupled with commitment to diagnose that failure and seek improvements or alternatives. In a British colonial prison during World War II, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that ‘Out of this crucible of war, wherein so much is melting, we hope that something finer will emerge for the West as well as the East, something that will retain all the great achievements of humanity and add to them what they lacked’ (Nehru 1982 [1946], p. 81). Thirty-seven years later, as he helped launch the ‘Subaltern Studies’ school of history, Ranajit Guha declared the ‘historic failure of the nation to come to its own’ in postcolonial India, its failure as either a bourgeois democracy on the European model or a socialist ‘new democracy.’ He declared the study of this failure ‘the central problematic’ for the historiography of India (Guha 1982, p. 7). Similarly, Frantz Fanon wrote in the late 1950s, in the midst of the Algerian anticolonial war, that ‘Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men,’ that ‘the European game has finally ended; we must find something different,’ and that ‘It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man’ (Fanon 1968, pp. 36, 312, 315). Thirty-five years later, in the Afterword added to his classic philological study Orientalism, Edward Said specifically abjured the idea of ‘fixed identities battling across a permanent divide’ of Europeans and others (Said 1994, p. 335), in favor of more nuanced multicultural critique of power. While some theorists voice a continuing optimism that, especially in Southern Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia, the end of the twentieth century has inaugurated a new age of revolutions (e.g., Comaroff 1996), the dominant tendency in most studies of postcoloniality is critical dissection of utopian anticipations.

To date, discussion of postcoloniality has been more extensive in the Humanities than in the Social Sciences. Critical, often reflexive, theorizing about postcolonial identity and experience has been more extensive than social scientific research into political, economic, and cultural dynamics of postcoloniality. However, controversies in postcolonial theory have provoked fruitful research in anthropology, history, geography, sociology, political science, and other social sciences, characteristically entailing profound political as well as analytic questions. Good available readers on postcolonial studies include Williams and Chrisman (1994) and Ashcroft et al. (1995). This research paper centers on efforts to address three powerful antinomies in postcolonial theory, concerning (a) the agency of dominated groups, whether they determine their own fate, (b) the power of the West, whether Western paradigms are inevitable, and (c) the goal of liberation, and when and how postcoloniality might ever end. The paper concludes with the tensions between postcoloniality theory and postmodernism, and with efforts to relate postcoloniality and globalization, arguing against portrayals of globalization as the end of postcoloniality, in favor of depiction of the two as intrinsically related.

1. Can The Subaltern Speak?

In 1988, literary critic Gayatri Spivak posed the above question as a challenge to the ‘Subaltern Studies’ school of historians (Spivak 1988). The Subalternists, following Gramsci’s theory of class politics in culture, have sought to uncover hidden realities of dominated people’s experience and agency in South Asia. The ‘Subaltern Studies’ project, and Spivak’s question, have led to debates and research globally on class, status, culture, and power especially in colonial and postcolonial societies.

The premises of the Subalternists have been, first, that prior histories of colonialism, decolonization, and the postcolonial nation-state have focused on elites, and second, that especially under colonial conditions, elite culture has not been hegemonic, i.e., has not established rituals and routines for social order unchallenged by ‘subalterns’ or lower class and status, dominated people. In order to explain why a unified postcolonial nation has failed to take shape, Subalternists seek to understand the social experience, collectivities and initiatives of ‘subaltern’ groups. The original South Asian ‘Subaltern Studies’ of peasant insurgencies and labor struggles have joined a much broader stream of scholarship on colonial and postcolonial politics, broader not only geographically but also topically, including especially in the 1990s many studies of sex and gender relations, institutions, and imaginaries. However, the issue of the failure of decolonization and the postcolonial nation-states remains central. Efforts have begun to identify positive, existing alternatives to ‘the nation’ as a form of social organization, not only in South Asia but also in East Asia (notably Duara 1995), the Americas and elsewhere, and also to understand the social legacies of specifically colonial and postcolonial state structures (e.g., in Africa (Mamdani 1996), in Indonesia (Pemberton 1994), and in India (Pandey 1990)).

In the context of research seeking to isolate colonial pathologies and celebrate successful resistances to them, Spivak’s question attracted enormous attention because it challenged a second tier of scholarly premises. Phrased with a literary critic’s focus on voice, ‘Can the Subaltern speak?’ quickly metamorphosed into a question about coherent, autonomous agency, and initiative. Is it possible for ‘subaltern’ people to shape their own society and culture? Precisely as a radical among philologists, Spivak had insisted that representation in a literary or semiotic sense must be reconsidered in connection with representation in politics, representation in the sense of any capacity for a person to be the agent of, to stand for, the will of other people. Do subalterns have any real power to represent themselves, or is that precisely the lack that constitutes them as subaltern?

Social scientists have come to recognize empirical as well as theoretical issues here. In research on postcolonial societies, the question of subaltern political agency has intersected with studies of class and ethnic structure of anticolonial movements and postcolonial governments, and with studies of democracy in postcolonial conditions. While one tendency in contemporary scholarship is to discover unnoticed ways and means by which subaltern groups preserve themselves, maintain autonomous self-control, and even augment their life chances (e.g., J. C. Scott 1985), another trend is to seek aspects of political structure, global and local, that might account for the reproduction of extremities of domination and violence in postcolonial societies (e.g., Tambiah 1996), and a third trend is to seek to reintegrate the questions about colonial and postcolonial subalterns with studies of domination in metropolitan societies (e.g., Stoler and Cooper 1997). Are postcolonial governments especially likely to be bound to the interests of urban, elite, and ethnically marked subpopulations? Are ‘subaltern groups’ in such societies less likely to exercise routine rights as citizens, and more likely to sustain whole institutional apparatuses of avoidance and resistance, ‘informal’ economies, even labor migrations kept deliberately invisible to the postcolonial state? No consensus has emerged. However, it does grow increasingly clear at least that, systematically, the nation-state does not ‘come into its own’ in postcolonial societies, and ‘subaltern’ classes in them are neither powerless nor as powerful as citizens in the West.

2. Provincializing Europe

Is the postcolonial world destined (or doomed) to follow the West’s lead? To fit Western molds? Is the history of the West the central axis of world history? If it isn’t, then how can sense be made of colonial history? Research assessing the successes and failures of postcolonial societies that sought alternatively to emulate and to refuse Western models (China, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and many sites in Africa), especially concerning successes of non-Western capitalisms, and the failures of self-proclaimed socialist revolutions, suggest that efforts to understand the West either as ‘exceptional,’ successful for particular cultural or material reasons, or as ‘universal,’ a distillation of necessities, both fail to grasp the more complex dynamics of the actual history of capitalism, colonialism, and the rise of the nation- state. Anticipations kindred to those of Fanon and Nehru, hoping more or less radically for a new order to supplant the civilization of Europe, were common among anticolonial intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century. These anticipations frequently entwined in a variety of ways with socialist and communist projects for social reconstruction and/or revolution, an end to a capitalist era. For this and other reasons, decolonization became deeply enmeshed in the narrow frame of the Cold War, and was dramatically reconceived within it. The question of the future relation of excolonies and excolonizers became, temporarily, reduced to matters of allegiance in a grand global dualism. Social scientists operated under the premise that all ‘Third World’ new nations were destined as they ‘modernized’ to join either the ‘free’ or ‘Communist’ worlds (see Pletsch 1981). However, by the end of the century much that was taken for granted in this Cold War common sense was in doubt, was under scrutiny, or was repudiated outright, not only concerning the viability of a revolution against capitalism but also concerning modernization and the nation-state.

In the late-twentieth century, great popularity accrued among scholars for Benedict Anderson’s vaguely Marxist theory that the nation as an ‘imagined community’ was central to the century’s global culture (Anderson 1983), but at the same time, disquiet about actual postcolonial nations and states led to new critical questions. Partha Chatterjee mounted the most influential challenge to the premise of the nation-state for excolonies. Chatterjee amplified and reconsidered the implications of parts of Anderson’s argument, that ‘the nation’ was a form for politics linked intrinsically to Enlightenment social theories, a political format pioneered in the Americas and Europe, and then ‘pirated’ in already ‘modular’ format as colonies were refashioned and new nations built. Insofar as this is what happened, then, decolonization was not actually a break from Western hegemony. ‘Europe and the Americas, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery’ (Chatterjee 1993, p. 5). Chatterjee doubts that ‘our imaginations must remain forever colonized’ (Chatterjee 1993, p. 5). However, the question of how to decolonize political imagination, and whether or where it has already been decolonized, has been a provocative one for postcolonial studies. While an-other influential critic has argued that postcolonial critique of Western universalisms has opened a ‘third space’ outside both local, cultural particularisms, and modernist universalism (Bhabha 1994, pp. 36–9), others have defined postcolonialism instead as the dream that this could be done, ‘the need, in nations or groups which have been victims of imperialism, to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts and images’ (During 1987, p. 3), or the quest for a new relationship with ‘the intimate enemy’ (Nandy 1983). In this sense, as Lenin once hoped that a United Front politics in colonies could use bourgeois nationalism as a stepping stone to a proletarian revolution, a postcolonial perspective is proffered by some as the key to a new political future. With or without such a dream, the matter remains of how to understand the impact of ‘the West’ and its (possibly parochial) universals on one-time colonies in both the past and the present. Touchstones for controversy have included ‘world system’ models of a globally coercive Western-centered economy, and models of globally hegemonic Western culture. World system economic models have largely been encompassed by approaches emphasizing the irreducibility of both global and local economic forces, and the necessity to understand both. While support increases for models of economic ‘globalization’ that see global economic forces and relations increasing in their influence over time, the causes of the rise of the West as the pre-eminent capitalist center, and the place of colonialism in that history, are still much debated. Similar controversies have followed models of globally hegemonic Western culture, notably Edward Said’s landmark study of the kind of discourse he named ‘Orientalism,’ discourse that constitutes the East and West comparatively, the East as the inferior antithetical other. Said’s study has been criticized, ironically, for itself overriding the possibility of non-Western political discourses, for itself undermining the possibility of a world history centered anywhere but the West. Studies have also begun of processes of cultural globalization and of the crucial process of the localizing intermixture of global and local cultural elements that clearly accompanies the development of global cultural connections, the process Hannerz has named ‘creolization’ (Hannerz 1992).

At their extremes, globalization models can be as simple in their symmetries as conceptions of postcoloniality can be stark in their asymmetries. Recharacterizations of global culture in terms of flows, links, and hybridities, and inquiry into ‘modernity at large’ (Appadurai 1996), have added an important complexity to studies of postcoloniality, undermining the starkness and simplicity of the colonizer–colonized dualism, and challenging the premise of continuing cultural superiority of the West. However, the situation of postcoloniality requires attention to asymmetries. Reconsidering the past, present, and future place of the West, postcolonial theorists have grown as skeptical of triumphalist visions of reversal, of a nonWestern overcoming of Western culture, as they are critical of intrinsically colonial visions of Western superiority over the rest. In Pro incializing Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests a way out of the antinomies generated by efforts to reckon with Western domination (Chakrabarty 2000). The paradox in all postcolonialisms that seek a triumphant postcolonial succession to Europe at history’s center, Chakrabarty shows, is that even in such a success, the historical structure would still be ‘First in Europe, and then elsewhere.’ Europe indeed pioneered the form of historicist explanation that gives time a single processural center, giving capital and its culture of Enlightenment a unified place, time, and pattern of development in Europe, while occluding all inassimilable complexities of its earlier and later history elsewhere. However, Chakrabarty argues for abandoning such historicism, in favor ofa method which never confines universal history, and provincializes Europe not from a new center, but instead by understanding Western cultural history, also, as one of creolizations (to use Hannerz’s term here). Following Chakrabarty (or the similar, ‘anti-Hegelian,’ argument of Duara (1995)), one can provincialize Europe, confront and unmake colonial asymmetries, without a triumphalism that will inevitably, fatally, unmask as mimicry of European colonialism’s own naive historicist egocentrism. Reflection on how, in recent but past centuries, Europe encountered and came in particular, powerful, but not all-powerful, ways to embody and develop universals of capital, democracy, science, etc., might point toward alternative developments in the past and the present, and possibilities not yet recognized for the future, rather than renewing an imperative to overcome empires already dead. In any case, postcolonial theorists have grown weary of battle with colonial ghosts.

3. When, And How, Can Postcoloniality End?

It will now be useful, and easy, to clarify the distinction between postcolonialism and postcoloniality. If postcolonialism is the aspiration for a profound political perspective to emerge from the experience of decolonization, postcoloniality is the unprecedented political predicament that decolonization has delivered many societies. The antinomies that fuel the struggle to constitute a postcolonialist political vision are, in less ideological form, equally inescapable for those without postcolonialist aspirations. Postcolonialist quests for political mission via subaltern standpoints struggle over what to expect from and for subaltern political agency. However, vast, dominated, and politically active populations no doubt exist in subaltern positions in postcolonial societies. Any coherent postcolonialism would seem to require a history both centered on and decentering of Europe, but, no doubt, Europe did once dominate, in various and varying ways, the societies it colonized. The question of how, and whether, that domination can be (or has been) ended is crucial to the third antinomy for postcolonialism, the third aspect of predicament in postcoloniality.

Anticolonial theorist and activist Franz Fanon insisted on the goal of liberation, not mere decolonization, for European colonies. Decolonization was something done for, and to, one-time colonies, where the goal should be actual liberation. In fact, as Fanon perceived, in the aftermath of World War II, the European empires disintegrated with extraordinary rapidity, and (except for the French and Portuguese) with little violence: Fanon perceived why. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, Western powers and especially the newly pre-eminent United States greatly feared radical new states emerging from wars of liberation, and preferred to shape successor regimes and constitutions through a pre-emptive orderly process. As Fanon put it, the message flashing was ‘for God’s sake let’s decolonize quick,’ as the pieces of European empires were reconfigured into the nationstate form of ‘self-determination’ required by the new, US-fashioned United Nations (Fanon 1968, pp. 70, 79).

By many diagnoses, decolonization and not genuine liberation was what the new ‘Third World’ received. But the problem of what would constitute genuine liberation, and which groups merit it, has become increasingly complex. As Firth (2000) has demonstrated, rhetorics of decolonization and liberation have expanded and proliferated after the breakup of most of the European empires has already been accomplished, expanding to articulate aspirations both of groups within nation–states (Biafrans in Nigeria, Kurds in Iraq) and new kinds of groups (women, indigenous peoples, even environments). If the premise of the United Nations has been that the nation-state as a political form constitutes the ultimate form of self-determination for all peoples, that simple, symmetric premise has been called into question. While most reckonings of postcoloniality focus upon the need to overcome asymmetries past, another approach entirely is to reckon it the onset, rather than the aftermath, of something, the predicament constituted for capital-poor excolonies by their reestablishment within the formal symmetries, and limited liabilities, of the United Nations model (Kelly and Kaplan 2001). From this perspective, the goal of liberation itself has become a very specific trap, as formally independent and autonomous political standing comes systematically to entail perpetual clientage, expanding debts and ongoing substantive subservience to outside agencies and agendas. Like the ‘free laborer’ perceptively critiqued by Marx as free of all access to means of production, these liberated states are, by their very freedom and formal equality, radically limiting of the life chances of their citizens, especially their subalterns. In an interesting recent controversy, Tambiah (1996) rejects the arguments of Pandey (1990) explaining postcolonial communalist violence in South Asia as a legacy of colonial policies that emphasized and institutionalized communal political differences. Tambiah argues that endemic political violence is a phenomenon of democracy especially in postcolonial conditions, conditions that engender a spiral of destructive, effervescent leveling crowds. The crowds seek not liberation but leveling, destruction of privileges perceived as unmerited, especially across ethnic lines.

Boundary issues have arisen concerning which societies are postcolonial, especially concerning East Asian societies never formally colonized, and the Americas where the legacy of earlier, Iberian domination and earlier independence movements must be calibrated with the history of European colonies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Sociologist Haejoang Cho has argued forcefully that Korea and other East Asian societies were colonized by the West, with becoming colonized defined as coming to require foreign means, methods, and tools simply to live and to think (Cho 1992–94). For the Americas, Klor de Alva (1992) has argued that few or none of the societies outside the Caribbean are postcolonial in fact, that regardless of mestizaje ideologies, Latin American societies are descended not from colonized peoples but largely from the colonizers. As with most of Latin America, whether the United States is postcolonial depends upon the definition adopted. The question is most interesting when connected to different boundary issues concerning postcoloniality: its relations with postmodernism, and with globalization.

Is the postin postcolonial the postin postmodern? (So asked another literary critic, Appiah (1992).) Can either end? Dramatic, relativistic postmodernist proclamations that the Enlightenment universals are dead have been countered, Appiah argued, by the fact of misery in postcolonial societies, leading postcolonial political movements to ground their calls for new reforms in ethical universals. While postmodernism offered a first alternative vision to the stalled modernization logic of the Cold War, at present conceptions of both postcoloniality and globalization offer more dynamic alternative formulations. How, then, are postcoloniality and globalization connected? Some scholars envision globalization as the successor, the late capitalist liberator from postcoloniality, as the globe moves from Western modernity to modernity at large or to alternative modernities, negating all vestiges of asymmetric colonial relations. The counter argument (Kelly 1998) is that postcoloniality and globalization are two sides of the same coin, the coin of American power, phenomena not necessarily of a ‘late’ capitalism but certainly of the new form capitalism has taken under US leadership in the twentieth century. If this is the case, if decolonization and globalization are the fruit of US-led quests for political self-determination and economic open doors, then Europe has already been provincialized by an explicitly anti-imperial agenda, and the predicaments of postcoloniality are the consequences, precisely, of a postcolonialism already instituted. David Scott has perceptively observed, in the first book with ‘After Postcoloniality’ in its title, that in the late twentieth century, in the wake of the global resurgence of liberal democracy and the failures of socialist states both Soviet and non-aligned, ‘it is no longer so clear what ‘‘overcoming’’ Western power actually means’ (D. Scott 1999, p. 14). Perhaps, then, the time has come for dividing ‘the West’ into its colonial European and twentieth-century American versions. In that case, postcoloniality could end only when American power is as thoroughly confronted as European power has been, and the limitations intrinsic to the formal symmetries of the political present are as fully overcome as have been the formal asymmetries of the colonial past.


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