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Sunday, 20 December 2009





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Post-colonial studies

In an earlier column, I focused on the ways in which Cultural Studies has begun to dominate the scholarly agendas and methodologies of both the humanities and social sciences in seats of higher learning in many parts of the world. Similarly, during the past two or three decades, Post-colonial Studies, and Post-colonial Theory that fuels it, have emerged as a very powerful and productive mode of critical investigation in the Western academy. They have begun to inflect the trajectories of growth of many disciplines such as literature, history, anthropology, sociology and political science.

At first glance, the term Post-colonial Studies might appear to be a straightforward concept - it is, after all, what follows colonialism. However, the apparent simplicity of this concept serves to mask a complexity of contradictory meanings; it does not, for the most part, pay adequate attention to the rival notion of neo-colonialism. Very often, the two terms are conflated, and we need to disentangle them, if post-colonialism is to become a useful analytical tool.

Basically, there are two important ways in which to conceptualize post-colonialism. The first is as a period marker, as that which succeeds colonialism. As I stated earlier, this is highly problematic and is of limited value; neo-colonialism, too, succeeds colonialism. The second is to examine it as a style of thinking, mode of re-imagining, a form of analytical representation, that focuses on issues of knowing. This second gloss, no doubt, contains its own share of ambiguities, but it also has the merit of calling attention to a number of critical issues that invite re-thinking.

Post-colonial Studies grew out of the corpus of critical writings on colonialism. There are, to be sure, diverse scholars representing diverse disciplines, who are herded together into this capacious concept of post-colonialism.

However, it needs to be pointed out that the term Post-colonial Theory is used largely to designate the body of works marked by a certain type of cultural analysis and a distinct way of making sense of the way we make sense. And this mode of critical inquiry has been largely inspired by French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Pierre Bourdieu.

It is indeed this intrusion of French high theory that has generated a great deal of controversy about Post-colonial Studies, presenting extremes of approval and disapproval.

Unlike Cultural Studies, Post-colonial Studies, has a strong South Asian connection. Many of the most outstanding scholars associated with Post-colonial Studies, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha, being the two most prominent among them, are Indians or Indian "born scholars. I have had the pleasure of having extending conversations with many of them.

The field of Post-colonial Studies, as we understand it today, is largely the creation of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha. In 1978, Said published his path-breaking work, "Orientalism". Which was to exert a deep and pervasive influence on the rise of Post- colonial Studies and the distinctive critical approach to colonial texts that characterizes it.

Spivak has termed "Orientalism" the source book of Post-colonial Studies. Gayatri Spivak sought to extend this pathway of inquiry into newer territories by drawing on deconstruction, feminism and Marxism. Homi Bhabha, in a series of dazzling essays, compelled us to re-think the fraught encounter between the colonizer and colonized. While these three scholars largely shaped the field, it has to be conceded that Frantz Fanon in the 1960s paved the way for the emergence of this field of study.

Post-colonial Studies, to be sure, has come in for its share of criticism. The Turkish-born Arif Dirlik, the Filipino-born E. San Juan, who teach in the United States, and the Indian scholar Aijaz Ahmad, among others, have mounted scathing attacks on practitioners of Post-colonial Studies. Critics of Post-colonial Studies assert that it is too closely linked to Eurocentric ideas, it is far more preoccupied with claustrophobic battles of abstraction within the metropolitan academe rather than the stark realities of the colonized countries; it also displays an elitism as reflected in the impenetrable prose preferred by its adherents. The perceived lack of serious engagement with history and politics is also a matter of concern.

For example, Aijaz Ahmad, lamenting the fact that Post-colonial Theorists ignore history, especially the struggle for survival of colonized people, makes the following observation.

"Within the context, speaking with virtually mindless pleasure of transnational cultural hybridity, and the politics of contingency, amounts in effect to endorsing the cultural claims to transnational capital itself."

In addition to these deficiencies, I wish to focus on another lack, not adequately articulated, namely, the evident unwillingness of Post-colonial Theorists to deal with indigenous writings.

There have been a few exceptions such as Spivak's work on Tagore and Mahasweta Devi. If Post-colonial theory is to become a powerfully consequential mode of cultural critique it is important that Post-colonial Theorists address issues of local writing in indigenous languages. For example, in the case of Sri Lanka, Post-colonial Theory must engage seriously the pre-Independence writings of Piyadasa Sirisena, Anagarika Dharmapala, Munidasa Cumaratunga and Martin Wickremasinghe. In fact, they present a valid counterpoint to the general drift of Post-colonial Theory.

If Post-colonial Theory is to be productive of new insights and consequential in terms of the palpable impact on the developing countries, it must move out of the Eurocentric institutions that house it and protocols that nourish it, and engage more openly and resolutely the glaring social inequities in colonized societies, and how they find creative articulation in indigenous modes of writing.

As a first step, Post-colonial Theorists must learn the indigenous languages in which the bulk of post-colonial work is carried out. Without such an effort, Post-colonial Theory will end up being a mere extension of the navel-gazing preoccupations of the metropolitan academy.

That would indeed be a great pity for, in the process, a wonderful opportunity for creative scholarship would have been lost.


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