Postcolonial Writing



Modern European colonialism was distinctive and by far the most extensive of the different kinds of colonial contact that have been a recurrent feature of human history. By the 1930s, colonies and ex-colonies covered 84.6% of the land surface of the globe. Only parts of Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Siam and Japan had never been under formal European government (Fieldhouse 1989:373). Such a geographical and historical sweep makes summaries impossible. It also makes it very difficult to "theorise" colonialism — some particular instance is bound to negate any generalization we may make about the nature of colonialism or of resistances to it. There is always a certain amount of reduction in any attempt to simplify, schematise or summarise complex debates and histories, and the study of colonialism is especially vulnerable to such problems on account of colonialism’s heterogeneous practices and impact over the last four centuries. (Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism xiii)


Definition of "Postcolonial Writing"

Writing which critically or subversively scrutinizes the colonial relationship. Writing that sets out to resist colonialist perspectives. It demands a change in power, a symbolic overhaul, a reshaping of dominant meanings.


  • Focus on representations of the Other, groups, ideologies in relation to others
  • Focus on language and literature
  • Emphasis on identity as doubled, hybrid, unstable; being both colonized and colonizer has harmful effects
  • Stress on cross-cultural interactions between the pre-colonial and postcolonial
  • Decentering of discourse-- especially "masterful" discourse and totalizing world views
  • Writing against the humanist or imperialist subject (inventing a new man/woman)
  • Problematizing historical knowledge
  • Attempts at disorientation
  • Challenging rigid binaries: exotic v. domestic; rational v. irrational; science v. religion; enlightened v. backward; correct v. immoral or amoral
  • Championing cultural hybridity
  • Focus on writing in the construction of experience
  • Use of subversive strategies of mimicry/parody and irony; intertextuality or duality of meaning, magical realism


Fundamental Concepts




The discourse of post-Enlightenment English colonialism often speaks in a tongue that is forked, not false. If colonialism takes power in the name of history, it repeatedly exercises its authority through the figures Of farce. For the epic intention of the civilizing mission, "human and not wholly human" in the famous words of Lord Rosebery, "writ by the finger of the Divine" often produces a text rich in the traditions of trompe-l'oeil, irony, mimicry and repetition. In this comic turn from the high ideals of the colonial imagination to its low mimetic literary effects Mimicry emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.
Within that conflictual economy of colonial discourse which Edward Said describes as the tension between the synchronic panoptical vision of domination - the demand for identity, stasis - and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history - change, difference - mimicry represents an ironic compromise. If I may adapt Samuel Weber's formulation of the marginalizing vision of castration, then colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference. The authority of that mode of colonial discourse that I have called mimicry is therefore stricken by an indeterminacy: mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal. Mimicry is, thus the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which 'appropriates' the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which coheres the dominant strategic function of colonial power, intensifies surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both 'normalized' knowledges and disciplinary powers.
The effect of mimicry on the authority of colonial discourse is profound and disturbing. For in 'normalizing' the colonial state or subject, the dream of post-Enlightenment civility alienates its own language of liberty and produces another knowledge of its norms. The ambivalence which thus informs this strategy is discernible, for example, in Locke's Second Treatise which splits to reveal the limitations of liberty in his double use of the word 'slave': first simply, descriptively as the locus of a legitimate form of ownership, then as the trope for an intolerable, illegitimate exercise of power. What is articulated in that distance between the two uses is the absolute, imagined difference between the 'Colonial' State of Carolina and the Original State of Nature.
It is from this area between mimicry and mockery, where the reforming, civilizing mission is threatened by the displacing gaze of its disciplinary double, that my instances of colonial imitation come. What they all share is a discursive process by which the excess or slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) does not merely 'rupture' the discourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a 'partial' presence. By 'partial' I mean both 'incomplete' and 'virtual'. It is as if the very emergence of the 'colonial' is dependent for its representation upon some strategic limitation or prohibition within the authoritative discourse itself. The success of colonial appropriation depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace. (Bhabha, The Location of Culture 85-ff)

Mimicry, then, is the attempt of the colonized subject to imitate the colonizer. This attempt can never be successful, whether because of racial markers, cultural backgrounds, or educational systems. However, this mimicy is a tool of the colonized, because on the surface it appears, as Bhabha stats above, to be "almost but not quite." However, the colonizer can never be sure if this is a sincere attempt at imitation, or if this is a way of making fun, of undermining the authority of the colonizer. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also a deadly form of abuse. So the colonized subject must maintain this difference, this ambivalence, this slippage. Think of the girls in the market in Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. How do they make fun of Amusa, the subaltern? They imitate British cultural impositions, offering both a nod to the colonial power and an undermining of that power at the same time.




Dominant groups in society, including fundamentally but not exclusively the ruling class, maintain their dominance by securing the "spontaneous consent" of subordinate groups, including the working class, through the negotiated construction of a political and ideological consensus which incorporates both dominant and dominated groups. (Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture 165)

At its most basic, hegemony in the postcolonial sphere is the process or processes by which a colonizing or imperial culture maintains its position of power. These may include:

  • the use of governmental and cultural institutions to formalize power,
  • the employment of a bureaucracy to make power seem reasonable and abstract (and, therefore, not attached to any one individual),
  • the education of the colonized subjects in the culture and ideals of the dominant culture, through the formal education system and the popular media,
  • the creation and employment of a police force (sometimes quasi-military) to put down any opposing views.




Hybridity commonly refers to the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonization.

The term "hybridity" has been most recently associated with Homi Bhabha. In his piece entitled "Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences," Bhaba stresses the interdependence of colonizer and colonized. Bhabha argues that all cultural systems and statements are constructed in what he calls the "Third Space of Enunciation." Cultural identity always emerges in this contradictory and ambivalent space, which for Bhabha makes the claim to a hierarchical "purity" of cultures "untenable." For him, the recognition of this ambivalent space of cultural identity may help us to overcome the exoticism of cultural diversity in favor of the recognition of an empowering hybridity within which cultural difference may operate. (Ashcroft, et al., Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies 118)
It is significant that the productive capacities of this Third Space have a colonial or post-colonial provenance. For a willingness to descend into that alien territory – where I have led you – may reveal that the theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. To that end we should remember that it is the "inter" – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the inbetween space – that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. It makes it possible to begin envisaging national, anti-nationalist histories of the "people." And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves. (Bhabha, The Location of Culture 56)

This is one of the most intensely debated concepts in Postcolonial studies, because it argues against the essentialism that sits behind the idea of the purity of any particular culture. Unfortunately, most of us are heavily invested, both rationally and emotionally, in such a construct, so we balk at this idea. Real culture, Bhabha argues, is always impure. For me, it's a theoretical move analogous to Walcott's emotions in the final stanza of "Ruins of a Great House":

Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
But still the coal of my compassion fought
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, 'part of the continent, piece of the main',
Nook-shotten, rook o'erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
'as well as if a manor of thy friend's…'




Unlike the Americans, the French and British-- less so the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Portugese, Italians, and Swiss-- have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western Experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.…
It will be clear to the reader...that by Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one, and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic institutions. Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient-- and this applies whether the persion is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist-- either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she says or does is Orientalism.…
Related to this academic tradition, whose fortunes, transmigrations, specializations, and transmissions are in part the subject of this study, is a more general meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism is a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident." Thus a very large mass of writers, among who are poet, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, "mind," destiny, and so on. (Said, Orientalism 1-3)

Said's text is a touchstone for all Postcolonial studies. His recognition that the Other is so because of the Self is crucial. "The Orient" is exotic and mysterious because the Occident constructs it thus. "The Orient" is a monolith because the Occident can deal with it more easily if it can wrap it all up with one big bow. The Orient is worthy of our study because the Occident has created a structure to study it. Then the Orient is the subject of pronouncements by the Occident because the Occident has studied the Orient. These pronouncements are verified by the Occidental structure created to study the Orient, and so we create an iterative loop.

Many critics of Said have said that his work gives us nothing new, but that, to me, doesn't matter. At worst, he has brought together a number of critical strands, weaving them into something which, if it is not new, is at least significantly packaged and easily understood. At best, he has revealed previously-hidden stereotypes, generalizations, and modes of thought which underpin the colonial and Imperial projects