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