Skip to Main Content

Postcolonial Theory in the 21st Century: Is the Past the Future or Is the Future the Past? (February 2021): Home

by Tarique Niazi


This essay first appeared in the February 2021 issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 5).


Postcolonial theory has long seen its obituaries written with mock grief, which just as often turned out to be premature, exaggerated, or both. Although it has thus far survived its ill-wishers’ dire premonitions, postcolonialism still faces existential challenges; even an apparently innocuous charge that it has become irrelevant to the contemporary world could be life-threatening. Critics who take this line claim that postcolonialism’s assumptions, investments, and methods were invented for a dematerialized world and have since grown too dated to comprehend the materialized world at its current juncture. Additionally, proponents of postcolonial theory have been defensive against charges of neglecting contemporaneity in favor of absconding to the safe haven of analyzing the past, emphasizing particularity over universality,and culture over materiality.

These charges are fodder for those who have long consigned postcolonialism to its assumed burial place. Although postcolonial theory has made tremendous contributions to furthering understandings of the Third World and its underdevelopment, as well as produced a long line of theorists, critics, and writers of high theory, its studied silence on the growing roster of global challenges somewhat diminishes its storied achievements. This essay is an attempt to assess postcolonial theory’s future based on its assumptions of Enlightenment thought, colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism, and will review postcolonialist and Marxist criticism of those assumptions to chart a way forward for imagining its continued relevance.

Tarique Niazi is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. He received his PhD in environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.