Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

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

by Tarique Niazi

Conclusion: The Future of Postcolonial Theory

As detailed above, Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism has garnered immense attention from both postcolonialists and Marxists, generating heated debates that are enlightening in equal measure. The need, nevertheless, is to direct this conversation to productive ends. As mentioned earlier, Watson and Wilder believe a generative dialogue between postcolonial theory and Marxism could not be more urgent, arguing as practitioners of postcolonial theory that it is long overdue for a major shift in focus from culture to politics (or political imaginaries). For Neil Lazarus and Priyamvada Gopal, postcolonialism is missing its materialist heartbeat. They too are critical of the theory’s overemphasis on culture at the expense of structure; as Lazarus has meticulously documented, literature on the Global South throbs louder with the materiality of life than does postcolonial literary criticism.

They are not alone. Aijaz Ahmad, Benita Parry, Timothy Brennan, and Arif Dirlik have long been pushing for postcolonialism to engage with what (as mentioned earlier) Christopher Taylor calls the letter M—Marxism and materialism. As Lazarus persuasively argues in The Postcolonial Unconscious, life in a materialized world is constantly challenged by unavoidable material problems. The challenges of climate change, environmental decline, habitat destruction, and their consequences in the conflagration of viral eruptions (e.g., the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, but also all past and potential viral eruptions induced by global climate change) require postcolonial theory to retool its assumptions and methodologies to address these existential issues. It is heartening to see that some of the leading lights of postcolonialism—see, for example, Chakrabarty’s 2009 essay in Critical Inquiry, “The History of Climate Change: Four Theses”—have begun to pay attention to “the theoretical mal-condition,” begun in the late 1970s, that led to “the absence of any serious or legitimate ‘leftist’ thought,” what Aijaz Ahmad once termed the “token and flabby forms of ecologism and ‘third worldism’” (cited in Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory, p. 70).

Postcolonial theory thus needs to reconsider its view of postcolonialism to include the contemporary forms of occupational colonialism that Edward Said, in Orientalism, calls the neocolonialism and neoimperialism of globalizing agents, such as the IMF and World Bank. This will require postcolonial theory to address the contemporaneity of racial and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, and to reconsider what Lazarus calls the struggle-based model of politics. Equally importantly, postcolonial theory must redirect its geographical attention to places it has long ignored, like the Middle East and Latin America, where its intellectual roots germinated, bolstered especially by such seminal thinkers as Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and Edward Said. Ironically, theory has turned away from both regions, as expressed in The Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East, edited by Ball and Mattar, and in Jose Bortoluci and Robert Jansen’s 2013 essay “Toward a Postcolonial Sociology: The View from Latin America.” Returning to these material and geographical roots will help postcolonialism reimagine colonial and imperial depredations beyond cultural discourses.

As Chibber has forcefully argued, postcolonial particularism must be balanced with Enlightenment universals to avoid replicating the essentialism and orientalism that Said feared and that postcolonialism so vehemently denounces. This shift is in line with the arguments for Watson and Wilder’s suggested “political turn” and the material heartbeat that Lazarus and Gopal pinpoint as missing in postcolonial theory, a theme that also arises in Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies, edited by Crystal Bartolovich and Lazarus. For its part, Marxism needs to come to terms with the postcolonial emphasis on culture as part of the Marxian ideas of base and superstructure, consciousness and class, idealism and materialism, and economy and society. Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, seized on cultural Marxism and built on his ideas to make sense of the ideologically driven world, as evidenced by his Prison Notebooks. It is no wonder, then, that postcolonialism is so in tune with Gramsci.

Yet, superstructure without base is fiction, and material challenges need ideational representations to be socially understood, as one is predicated on the other. If postcolonialism resides in language and literature, then its exclusive focus on literary criticism and culture is understandable. But, if it aspires to become a social science, then postcolonialism must move past its current trajectory to embrace material realities beyond discursive ones. At the same time, its detractors, especially Marxists, need to appreciate the tremendous contribution postcolonial theory has made to help further understandings of the Global South and its underdevelopment, while in the process building a vast regime of literature and specialized vocabulary. In fact, the latter required Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith, and Helen Tiffin to compile Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts, a sizable dictionary. This treasure trove of advanced intellectual labor deserves to be conserved, if not preserved, for the crucial project of reimagining post-colonialism.