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

by Tarique Niazi

Postcolonial Theory: Origin and Evolution


What is postcolonial theory? What constitutes its theoretical core? How does it comprehend the world? What sets it apart from postcolonialism and postcolonial studies? Does it qualify to be a theory at all? Answers to these questions are difficult to derive. Postcolonialism—a pivot on which postcolonial theory has supposedly been built—is such an elusive concept that few scholars have hazarded to define it. Even the basic questions and terms are in dispute. For instance: Are Australia, Canada, and the US post-colonies? Is the term postcolonial a “misnomer” as Edward Said avers in his 1998 interview with Neeladri Bhattacharya, Suvir Kaul, and Ania Loomba? Does a postcolonial world even exist as Loomba and her fellow editors and contributors question in the 2005 collection Postcolonial Studies and Beyond? 

While detractors gleefully mock post-colonialism’s elusiveness, its practitioners seldom venture to pin it down. Highlighting this ambiguousness in her book Postcolonial Theory, Leela Gandhi speaks of postcolonial theory as “a diffuse and nebulous term,” which, “unlike Marxism or deconstruction … seems to lack an ‘originary moment’ or a coherent methodology” (p. xiii). Outlining its broader contours, she sees postcolonialism as “marked by a dialectic between Marxism … and poststrcuturalism/postmodernism” that “manifest[s] itself in an ongoing debate between the competing claims of nationalism and internationalism, strategic essentialism and hybridity, solidarity and dispersal, the politics of structure/totality and the politics of the fragment” (p. xiii–xiv).

In an effort to pin down postcolonial theory more concretely, editors Jini Kim Watson and Gary Wilder envision it as a three-dimensional enterprise in The Postcolonial Contemporary. According to their model, postcolonial is, first, “a formal designation that refers to the period, processes, and formations that came into being after the end of colonialism” (p. 3). Second, it is indicative and inquisitive of “social formations and subjectivities that follow colonialism,” and of how these subjectivities are “shaped, haunted, or suffused by the preceding colonial era, practices, processes, [and] arrangements” (p. 3). Lastly, postcolonial “refers to the epistemological implications of the first two designations,” indexing “how colonial assumptions, logics, and arrangements shaped the Western concepts through which a purportedly universal (social) science claimed to produce knowledge of the (non-Western) world during the colonial epoch” and even into the present (p. 3). Resting it on these three prongs, Watson and Wilder sum up the postcolonial perspective as “one that recognizes, refuses, or replaces” Eurocentric epistemologies or “colonial forms of thinking” that were instrumentally deployed “to mediate, mystify, or legitimize colonial and postcolonial forms of domination” (p. 3).

Neil Lazarus, author of The Postcolonial Unconscious, which has been widely hailed as a tour de force in the field, depicts postcolonialism in terms of its “assumptions and investments” and marks it not in terms of what it stands for but what it stands against. He lists five negatives that define postcolonialism, including “a constitutive anti-Marxism; an undifferentiating disavowal of all forms of nationalism and a corresponding exaltation of migrancy, liminality, hybridity, and multiculturality; an hostility towards ‘holistic forms of social explanation’ … an aversion to dialectics; and a refusal of an antagonistic or struggle-based model of politics” (p. 21). As editor of The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies, Lazarus even goes so far as to claim that since the 1970s “‘postcolonial’ has ceased to be a historical category” (p. 3) and has instead become “a fighting term, a theoretical weapon, which ‘intervene[s]’ in existing debates and ‘resists’ certain political and philosophical constructions” (p. 4).

In his review of The Postcolonial Unconscious, published in Modern Philology, Christopher Taylor argues that postcolonialism is averse to the letter M—namely, materialism and Marxism—a claim that most irks Lazarus. Alternatively, in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, contributor Timothy Brennan seems to echo Lazarus’s views in The Postcolonial Unconscious when he sees the elasticity of postcolonialism ripple through postcolonial studies, a discipline that he finds too diffuse to be a field or subfield of studies, and one that he thinks can mean different things to different people. As he perceives it, “in spite of being clearly marked (if not segregated) within individual academic departments, postcolonial studies is a porous entity rather than a discrete field,” which “arose in the form of a political metaphorics rather than a bordered space, either ‘field’ or ‘discipline’” (cited in Loomba et al., 2005, p. 3).

In The Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East, editors Anna Ball and Karim Mattar believe that “a chorus of scholars [who have] picked up on … ‘postcolonial’ as a trans-period deconstructive praxis” seek “to revitalise the field for precisely the challenges [Edward] Said thought it, by definition, obscures” (p. 5). Assessing the status of postcolonial studies in the edited volume Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, editors Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Matti Bunzl, Antoinette Burton, and Jed Esty call for it to “respond not only to the search for historical clarity about the making of modern empires but also to the continuing and bloody ambition of neo-imperialism” (p. 13).

The common thread that ties the preceding descriptions of postcolonialism together is the theory’s enduring engagement with the colonial past of decolonized nations in Asia and Africa. This engagement led to a postcolonial critique of Western epistemologies, colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism (at least in the earliest iteration of postcolonialism). Its protracted dialogue with these issues helped postcolonial theory forge just as many foundational claims, covering the inadequacy of Western thought and methodologies for the study of non-Western people and places, the persistence of the colonial past in the postcolonial present, nationalism as the reverse of colonialism, and the limits of colonial capitalism’s universalizing features.

This essay aims to assess postcolonial theory at its current juncture by evaluating its assumptions about Western epistemologies, colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism to determine its status in the twenty-first century. In the following section, it reviews postcolonial theory’s treatment of Enlightenment universals, while the third and fourth sections offer postcolonialist and Marxist critiques of postcolonial theory. The fifth section attempts to chart a way forward, especially for a productive interface between postcolonialism and Marxism.