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Friday, April 06, 2007

The Scramble for Post-Colonialism - Stephen Slemon

(Below is the simplified summary of the essay. Like all simplifications this might distort concerns of the original. I have written keeping in mind students of non-English medium background and from Thiland. All the best)

Post colonialism is a confused area now. It has arrived at the intersection of many viewpoints some of them contradistinction and canceling each other. There are also efforts on the part of some to police the field- in the sense; there are some who wish to control the field. This tendency to control is dangerous because, then those who wish to control may impose their own hidden agenda which will against the spirit of post colonialism.

The field of post colonialism is being professionalized. It is becoming a institution which provides effective tools for cliquing the society. It is also enabling us to understand our societies in a deep manner.

Slemon wishes to address disorder brought about the various developments mentioned above. So he wants to find out

1. who is the player in the postcolonial field, (i.e. who are the people writing, building theories in PC (I will use this short form hence forth to refer to post colonialism. Please do not do that in the exam)

2. who is on the bench ( who is isolated by other theorist and writers in the field of PC)

3. When and how a player is called out.( When are writers are isolated?)

His primary question is: Why do so many radically different and methodologically hostile critical and teaching practices want to ground them in an area called PC. They do it in order to de-scribe (question, rewrite etc) their various empires and to engage in emancipatory and local institutional politics.


The term PC is used in different fields to talk about heterogenous (diverse) set of subject positions, professional fields, and critical enterprises. It is used in nine different ways

  1. Term critiquing totalizing forms of western historicism ( trying to see all developments as those beginning from the west)
  2. subset of postmodernism and poststructuralism ( i.e., one more post--)
  3. Longing by local people when larger nation identity is imposed on them. E.g. Kannadigas/tamilians asserting themselves against larger Indian identity.
  4. Cultural marker of non-residing third world intellectuals
  5. The suppressed voices and identities during the colonial period
  6. oppositional form of reading. I.e. reading in way that is different from the way the colonial masters taught us to read.
  7. political activity that springs from rejection of commonwealth studies

Despite all these different understanding it is still difficult to capture the concept of colonialism itself. Because the Western theories of subjectification and its resistances continue to develop in sophistication.

Colonialism has two important angles. One – it was a political and economic structure. Political because it ruled the colonizers in the principles of the west. Economic because of the trade interests. The second angle is ideological.. The colonizers way of thinking and ways of looking at the world were imposed on the colonized. And as a result, indigenous knowledge systems were destroyed.

The diagram

The diagram represents the colonial process. It says that colonization was a one way process. It took place from left to right. To colonize, the colonizers drew upon two important tools – the institutional regulators and semiotic field. Institutional regulators included colonial education system. The semiotics field refers to the way the colonizer represented the colonized in various texts names – novel, poems, painting, drama, travelogues, autobiographies etc. These representations gave a justification for colonization back home.

Two central debates within pC are : historical specificity and agency.

Historical specificity: There is a problem of defining; saying this exactly is colonialism that applies to colonialism all over the world. Because it is true that in certain cases there are actual historical incidents we can fall back on to point out as the causes. But there are other causes which are tranhistorical, e.g. certain ideological reasons, which vary from colonizer to colonizer. Even when we talk about representation, it shifts from time to time. The colonizer does not represent the colonized the same way through out the period of colonization.

Agency: Agency refers to the opposition to the colonial rules. The question is who or what acts as opposition. For ex. in India open protest of Gandhi and others are seen as protests. But what about the tribals, nomads who were more feared by the British because of their unpredictability than the others.

Colonialism always presents the subject (colonized people) as without agency.

Homi Bhaba does not agree that there is a homogenous colonial representation or subject formation either on the part of the colonizer or colonized. For him colonial identity is overwritten by differential play of colonialist ambivalence. Therefore, he suggests persistent questioning of the frame. The frame he refers to is the space of representation as well as frame of western modernity itself.

The threat of heterogeneity (Page 24 onwards)

Central problem in PC construction is the metaphor of post colonialism as a central metaphor. It is on this metaphor that critical methodologies are striving to have absolute control. Therefore, genuinely post – or anti-colonial forms of academic work should go beyond the diagram. Such works are done my Benita Parry and Homi Bhabha.

Postcoloniaslim today, functions in the academy as a political analysis of what to do about he ‘problem’ of colonialism both as a structure of historical power and as a debate within ‘theory’.

The ambivalence in PC discourse will suggest two forms of literary critical work which try to understand what happens politically when the colonized write. One, tries to discover the ‘real’ colonized beyond the colonial representation. Second, writing back to the empire – writing my story in my own way.

Methodological disagreement: the debate is likely to produce affiliation to some writers which will also see these writer being deployed beyond the areas of their own work. E.g. Gayatri Chakravarthi Spivak or Edward Said have been deployed in debates and purposes which they themselves never conceived or thought of.

Methodological disagreement can at the heart of it have neocolonialism at play within the work of opposing critical practice.

Spivak questions the attempt to reclaim ‘authentic’ subaltern voices that colonialism has silence. She says, such an attempt falls into the trap of colonialism itself. Because for colonialism ‘voice’ meant at expressive, articulate voice.

At the heart of accusation and counteraccusation between the warring post-colonial theorist is the notion that: the Other is always neo-colonialist – the voice of the colonizer in renewed function and in institutionalized form.

Slemon fears that the field of post colonialism is in danger of colonized by competing methodologies. He also fears that it will land up in researches which have no inertest in PC. As examples he sites works of Homi Bhabha and Spivak whose brilliant work in theorizing of colonialism and deconstruction respectively, undermines all the work in post colonialism itself.

Therefore, Slemon suggests that PC should become more tolerant of methodological difference. He also wishes to preserve decolonizing commitment to postcolonial studies. Post colonial studies should talk across cultural locations and across methodological dynasties.

Forms of colonialist power differ radically across cultural locations. and its relations with other oders of oppressions are always complex and multivalent. However the resistant to colonialist power find material presence at the level of local, therefore we must always address the local.

Slemon is open to PC being both a geographical metaphor as well institutional location . He is welcome to both the noisy disagreement of postcolonial differences and clarity.

But he is worried about the loss of specificity of colonial relations as well as the thorough specialization which will kill the discord.


Bharat said...

brilliant, thinks a heap sir. I was planning on leaving this one out. that's all changed now

rahul said...

ambivalence or "F" is kinda confusing especially with regards to Said's orientalism...need help with that

Medha said...

Thank you sir!

Sai Prasanna said...

Wonderful! Thanks a ton Sir! It was really kind of you to provide us with this summary. Very grateful to you

karuna said...

sir u saved my life!!

Anil Pinto said...

To Rahul

Orientalism roughly means the way western scholars described and theorised in their scholarly work the ‘orients’ i.e. Asians. This was done in various disciplines like Anthropology, sociology, Indology etc. Translation of Sanskrit texts, and writing books about India, China, Middle East were all part of this intellectual ‘movement’ called Orientalism.

The ambivalence refers to the uncertainty about defining how the ‘orient’ was constructed. One the one hand the orient was produced as an object of scholarly knowledge, where as on the other they became a geographical location with all its problems and contradictions becoming a standard against which the west could claim superiority. That is the ambivalence.

Anil Pinto said...

'F' refers to the location of the pointon the diagramme. The concept I mentioned in my previous comment

Ashish said...

super!!! is it that easy?

Anil Pinto said...

Wonder, how you dug it out. Thanks. Feel my efforts are worthy.

vaneet said...

sir...its a request that if u can plz put up notes on your blog for 3 poems 6th sem optional english
1) the joy of writting
2)a eveing prison
3) ithaca

sir i would be glad if you could put up notes with reagrd to these 3 poems.
thank you..

Anil Pinto said...

Dear Vaneet,
Not sure if i can about the other two but will try to put up sth on prison evening.

Anonymous said...

would anyone please draw the line between anticolonialism and postcolonialsm ?