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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Where are Postcolonial Studies going?

Jacques Pouchepadass

Texte intégral

1September 2007

  • 1 The Intimate Enemy, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 29.

2Postcolonialism is not strictly speaking a theory, it is a web of critical thinking; all the more difficult to understand and define as it is prone to collective self-criticism and constant evolution. Its founding text is Edward Said’s celebrated Orientalism (1978,) which broke new ground compared to the old critical tradition of anticolonialism by strongly highlighting – not without a few simplistic assertions that were elaborated on in his later works – that the violence of colonialism was not just the sheer brutality of victory and destruction, of the material exploitation of man and by man, of the peremptory universalism of the “civilising mission” and of racial oppression, but also an epistemic violence, a kind of mental defect, which made the West’s “others” essential and classified them hierarchically. Said saw a true discursive formation in this mental instrument and these symbolic representations that formed the epistemic base of imperialism. His project to deconstruct this colonial discourse played a part in the poststructuralist and postmodernist intellectual climate in the English and social science departments of Anglo-American universities, where the influence of Foucault and Derrida was increasing in the wake of the “cultural turn”. For Said, as for the postcolonial thinkers who soon followed in his footsteps, this denunciation of the structure of thought underlying colonialism remained essential, in spite of the fact that colonial empires mostly belonged to a past. Through the heritage of the modern ideology once exported by colonial Europe, Western hegemony continued under renewed forms in the formerly colonised countries. In the words of Ashish Nandy, a well-known Indian postcolonial thinker, “this colonialism colonises understanding in addition to bodies (...). The West is now everywhere, in the West and outside; in structures and in minds1”. It is thus about ending it once and for all, with this European myth that is the linear narrative of progress, based on the historical experience of the West, establishing a hierarchy of subjects and knowledge and, which summarises binary opposites of the coloniser/colonised, occidental/oriental, civilised/primitive, scientific/superstitious and the developed/developing, etc.

3Critical thinking should not be forgotten, born in the domain of English literary studies, in response to the need to change the critique of English literature from the south into a type of cultural criticism developed by cultural studies. It undoubtedly changed the critique of colonialism, but it also dematerialised it by confining it to the order of culture. Inevitably, this focus on colonial discourse, associated with the demystification of the “great narratives” of ideology and modernity and the idea that colonialism has unmasked an essential flaw in Western rationality, has caused postcolonialism to diverge substantially from the universalist, rationalist and economist paradigms of orthodox Marxism. In reaction to this, from the 1990s, a materialist critique to postcolonial theory began to be expressed among authors such as Aijaz Ahmad, Arif Dirlik, Tim Brennan and Benita Parry. We cannot face the challenge of global capitalism, says Arif Dirlik, if the argument of the former economic and social critique is dismissed and is instead replaced with the denunciation of eurocentrism and the promotion of cultural difference. Many postcolonial authors now consider that rejecting the Age of Enlightenment and ensuing the “great narratives” of emancipation (first and foremost Marxism) has gone too far, as it may provoke anti-democratic political forces, dismissing the social science tools of critique on global capitalism. This materialist critique is often accompanied by the questioning of postcolonial intellect. There is a collapse between the situation of intellects of the Diaspora, whose careers in the West are the critique of universalist discourse of modernity, and concrete experience of people from non-Westerns countries who live, on a daily basis in economic and social conditions controlled by the outskirts of the developed world. For Arif Dirlik and Aijaz Ahmad, there is a class situation in postcolonial theory, which, they claim surfaces when an intellect arrives in the West and passes himself off as a qualified interpreter of the oppressed and speechless of the non-Western world.

4Historians often criticise postcolonial thinkers for their tendency to essentialise what they call “coloniality” in the form of a uniform, invariant and continued power, a type of generic, singular colonialism, without geographical specificities and which remained practically unchanged from 1492 to 1970. This coloniality, devoid of empirical content, takes little account of the behaviour of the colonised when faced with the power that controls them, and of the dynamics of this interaction or fight. Colonial regimes, such as those shown in historical sources, were neither monolithic nor omnipotent, and their history was always plagued by inconsistencies, ambiguities, disputes and negotiations. Moreover, postcolonial thinking tends to cast the history of inter-cultural relations in the mould of a coercion/resistance relationship, leaving out the failures, inadequacies or refusals from both colonial domination and indigenous resistance. It considers solidarity, but not betrayal in rebellious behaviour. It minimises the consent aspects of colonial subjection of those who are colonialised. Finally postcolonial thinking ignores the passive (but major) role of individuals and social groups who have kept themselves out of the game all along, both in the West and in the colonised world.

5Some postcolonial authors, such as David Scott, Vilashini Coopan and others have recently suggested that the critical force and heuristic value of the postcolonial paradigm in the contemporary context of globalisation are virtually non-existent. According to them, globalisation is not the last variant of neo-imperialism, but rather a radically new phase in the history of capitalism, which has nothing in common with the history of colonialism or with the former binary relationship between the centre and periphery. The explanatory power of the “decolonisation narrative” would thus disintegrate (the same death certificate also appears in the anti-globalisation manifesto, Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Postcolonial studies would thus overshadow globalisation studies. This analysis, however, is not universally shared. The debate on whether globalisation is a historically unprecedented phenomenon remains open, and various postcolonial authors highlight the many features that it still shares with the colonial age of imperialism including the fact that both are rooted in the overlapping of capitalism and the expansion of financial powers and modernity, the power relations and unequal exchange on a global scale in their economic, political and especially cultural environments. Reference is often made in this sense to Globalisation and its discontents, the book by the Nobel Prize Winner and former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, who explicitly draws a parallel between the IMF policies and colonialism. Moreover, the growing place occupied by teachings on diasporas, cosmopolitanism, border studies and transnational flows of all kinds, illustrates that the theme of postcolonial studies is anything but static and that its area of interest is beginning to overlap globalisation studies.

6Generally speaking, it seems that theoretical controversies, which are sometimes complex, and the political passages in which this current critical thinking became trapped in the 1990s, are partly overcome. The idealist indifference to historical contexts and empirical data of colonial discourse theory, the binary opposites of the “West” and “rest” (the West against the rest of the world), the paralysing radicalism of anti-eurocentrism, the rejection of notions of progress, modernisation, and development stemming more or less directly from the Age of Enlightenment (on the grounds that they once served to justify colonialism), are all becoming more flexible and subtle. Moreover, the initial intuitions of postcolonialism have become largely accessible. The critique of elitism and eurocentrism now virtually belongs to what one might call the doxa of the social sciences. There are crossings of all kinds of academic specialties in which postcolonial theory did not previously appear. These include environmental studies, religious studies, visual studies, media studies, linguistics, etc. The influence of postcolonialism is now widely present in all sectors of social science research, which favours the bottom-up approach and which concerns relations involving ethnicity, gender and the movement of people and goods in the past and in the present, or regions such as East Asia, which have never experienced colonisation. We could either conclude by saying that postcolonial studies are losing their specificity or, on the contrary, that they have already reached their objective. Their capacity to revive and institutionalise themselves in the Anglo-Saxon academic world, not to mention the prestige of the authors, does not see Postcolonial studies ending any time soon.


1 The Intimate Enemy, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 29.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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