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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 and Its Critics from Within

by Tarique Niazi

Postcolonial Theory and Its Critics from Within

Postcolonial theory has its critics from within its own ranks whose main criticisms are fourfold. First, the assumption that colonialism is over and a postcolonial world is here does not hold up. Second, postcolonialism’s methodological toolkit is too obsolete to deal with emerging world problems. Third, the field’s selective geographic focus has omitted “problem areas,” such as the Middle East. Fourth, postcolonialism’s stance on anti-colonial movements and a struggle-based model of politics is contrary to revolutionary political practice. For these reasons, many critics, including Watson and Wilder; Lazarus; Loomba, Kaul, Bunzl, Burton, and Esty; and Timothy Brennan, in his texts, “Re-imagining Postcolonial Studies,” “The Illusion of a Future,” and At Home in the World, declared postcolonial theory irrelevant to the contemporary human condition.

In The Postcolonial Contemporary, Watson and Wilder claim that postcolonialism had passed its prime by the close of the 1990s, whereas in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, Loomba et al. discover that its existing lifespan ran from the 1978 publication of Said’s Orientalism to the 2001 publication of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Neil Lazarus meanwhile argues in The Postcolonial Unconscious that it had ceased to be a “historical category” after the 1970s. In particular, these critics are tired of the field’s infatuation with the past at the expense of the present—as elucidated by Watson and Wilder in The Postcolonial Contemporary, Lazarus in The Postcolonial Unconscious, and Lazarus and Priyamvada Gopal in their 2006 “Editorial” for After Iraq—its faith in the primacy of “culture” over “politics” (Loomba et al., 2005), and its turn away from materiality to a self-invented, dematerialized world. Readers can investigate this last topic in greater detail in Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, Benita Parry’s Postcolonial Studies, Lazarus’s “The Politics of Postcolonial Modernism” in The Postcolonial Unconscious, Brennan’s At Home in the World, and Arif Dirlik’s 1994 essay in Critical Inquiry, “The Postcolonial Aura.”  

Many theorists, including Ball and Mattar, Lazarus, and Said, have objected to the designation of postcolonial, arguing that colonialism continued in different forms, such as the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, which Lazarus presents as evidence of neocolonialism and neoimperialism in The Postcolonial Unconscious. Earlier, Gopal and Lazarus argued in their 2006 editorial that the US invasion of Iraq was a paradigmatic event to have “a fundamental change in the framing assumptions, organsing principles and intellectual habits of the field” for the “contemporaneity of imperialism, colonialism[,] and capitalism” (p. 7). They chastised Neil Larsen for his “misperception” that the decline of insurgent anticolonial movements in the 1960s–70s signaled “an end of all forms of revolutionary political practice,” as he advanced in his essay for the edited volume A Companion to Postcolonial Studies, “Imperialism, Colonialism, and Postcolonialism” ( p. 7). Their ire was particularly reserved for the hubris with which Hardt and Negri (2001) trumpeted that “imperialism is over,” and that “no nation-state can today … form the center of an imperial project.” They denounced this assertion as Negri and Hardt’s “characteristic mix of recklessness and sheer intellectual perversity” (pp. 7-8).

Similarly, Ella Shohat, in “Notes on the ‘Post-Colonial’” (published in the journal Social Text), and Joseph Massad, in “The ‘Post-Colonial’ Colony” (published in the collection The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies), reject postcolonialism as a designation, finding it inapplicable to the Palestinian context. Shohat argues that it entails “the ‘ahistorical, universalizing’ and ‘depoliticizing’ implications of … ‘the postcolonial condition’ and ‘post-coloniality’” (p. 104), while Massad likewise contends that “‘the synchronicity of the colonial and the postcolonial’ in the contemporary space of Israel/Palestine … renders the teleology suggested by these designations incoherent” (p. 312). In his previously mentioned 1998 interview with Neeladri Bhattacharya, Suvir Kaul, and Ania Loomba, Edward Said likewise remarks that the term postcolonialism falsely implies that colonialism is over, thereby “distort[ing] or mask[ing] the prevalence of ‘neo-colonialism’ both ‘in [his] part of the world’ and in the activities of globalizing agents such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund” (p. 82).

Watson and Wilder are particularly critical of postcolonialism’s dismissal of Western epistemologies as Orientalist modes of inquiry. They argue that the discipline has lagged far behind major events of recent vintage, such as the Green Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in the Middle East, to explore their true dynamics from a distance. These events, they argue, challenge the theory’s basic premise of an East-West split (i.e., the inadequacies of Western epistemologies) that assumes non-Western people cannot rise above their purported ossified caste, class, racial, religious, and ethnic identities to forge an overarching solidarity, and that to do so will require the deprovincializing of the Global South. 

Watson and Wilder further stress the need to replace postcolonial theory’s “cultural turn” with a “political turn” they call “the postcolonial contemporary.” Earlier, Loomba et al. (2005) deemed the discipline’s assumptions and methodologies, invented in the 1970s, inadequate for the challenges posed by the information age. In the same vein, Lazarus (2011) notes that postcolonial theory’s dated assumptions and methods, which were meant to comprehend the post-Soviet “dematerialized” world, were outmatched by the economic challenges of the great recession of 2008, the severity of austerity programs in Europe, and the parallel capitalist-imperialist material conditions. 

Postcolonialism has also come under harsh scrutiny for its geographical bias, especially for its near-total omission of the Middle East. In The Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East, coeditors Ball and Mattar offer a scathing critique of the field for this elision. They write that even “as postcolonialists around the world sought to legitimate their work … they tended to neglect the politics, societies and cultures of the region, and … even repress, the Middle Eastern origins of their adopted models of colonial discourse, the colonizer/colonized interface and cultural resistance” (p. 4).

Ball and Mattar hold up The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith, and Helen Tiffin, as “the classic statement of the field’s self-definition.” As they demonstrate, it offers an exhaustive list of postcolonial literatures and cultures comprising “those of African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Caribbean countries, India, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Pacific Island countries … Sri Lanka, [and] the [US],” (p. 4), but conveniently neglects those of the Middle East. They conclude that postcolonial theory is overdue for a renewed interest in the Middle East, a region whose thinkers (Frantz Fanon, who was prominent in Algeria; Albert Memmi from Tunisia; and Edward Said from Palestine and the Levant) were the founding inspiration for postcolonial studies.

 Many postcolonial theorists, including Lazarus, Ahmad, Parry, Brennan, and Dirlik, disapproved of postcolonialism’s turn away from materiality to a self-invented, dematerialized world. In his contribution to the The Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East, Karim Mattar in particular focused on three key figures of the discipline—Aijaz Ahmad, Homi Bhabha, and Bill Ashcroft—and called out their intended or unintended “Mis/Readings and Mis/Appropriations” (p. 24) of Edward Said. As he argues, these thinkers detached Said from the context of the Middle East and depoliticized his active struggle for Palestinian rights.

In a similar critique, Lazarus devotes three chapters of The Political Unconscious to postcolonialists’ “misreading” of Frantz Fanon, Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said. He chastises Homi Bhabha for writing a “flawed” foreword to the 2004 edition of The Wretched of the Earth by Fanon and argues that “there is not only a yawning chasm, but active opposition between the position staked out by Bhabha … and that articulated by Fanon” (p. 181). Finally, Lazarus laments that Jameson’s particular concept of the Third World is villainized by Ahmad (in the essay “Jameson’s Rhetoric of ‘Otherness’ and the ‘National Allegory’”), that Fanon’s passionate call to arms is ignored by Bhabha, and that Said’s humanist stance and advocacy of the intellectual representative is conveniently forgotten by most postcolonialists. In his sharpest observation, Lazarus reveals that “the world has … typically been more adequately registered and rendered in postcolonial literature than in postcolonial criticism” (p. 36).