Introduction: The Politics of Postcoloniality

By David Jefferess (UBC Okanagan), Julie McGonegal (McMaster University), and Sabine Milz (Boston University)

This special issue has its origins in a conference on "The Politics of Postcoloniality" organized by the editors and held at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in October 2003. The idea for that conference began in a series of conversations that we had been engaged in as (then) graduate students in English about the status, value, and future of the field of postcolonial studies with which we were just beginning to become acquainted. The three of us had been debating amongst ourselves the merit of the various objections raised against postcolonial theory, and the possibility of alternative forms of postcolonial analysis that could engage with and transform structures of oppression and violence. Frustrated with the materialist/discursive divide, the circularity of colonial discourse analysis itself, and the apparent failure of the field to engage with contemporary forms of imperialism, as well as transnational struggles/solidarity, we talked at length about how postcolonial studies could (or should) be modified, and even transformed, so as to become more historically and politically relevant. Our organization of the conference reflected our wish to extend the terms of debate by reaching outside the parameters of the historical home of postcolonial studies, the English Department, to include scholars from a variety of disciplines, including those who do not see their work as situated in the field.

Of course, as we acknowledged in the conference call for papers, the debate over the future and merit of postcolonial studies is hardly new. In many ways, in fact, it is quite old; old in the sense that it is tired, or more accurately, that critics seemed tired of engaging it. Indeed, expressions of concern about the conceptual efficacy of the term "postcolonial" have long been expressed by many scholars; suspicion about the entrenchment of postcolonial scholars in the Euro-American university has become almost rampant; and attacks on the field for its insufficient attention to materialism are now fairly standard. Familiarity with the controversies that plague postcolonial studies has translated, it seems to us, into fatigue with discussions aimed at renegotiating its founding assumptions and procedures. The impasse that has beset the field since its inception exists now as much as it ever did, only there is noticeably less interest in thinking critically about how it might be overcome.

Among practitioners, the failure to take up in earnest the task of reconceptualizing postcolonial studies may have to do with the general but pervasive sense that the field has had its day, so to speak. That is, there seems to be an increasing perception that, as E. San Juan Jr. has argued with some force, it is time to "move beyond postcolonialism." More than one of us has heard it said with some confidence by renowned postcolonial critics themselves that the end of postcolonial studies is imminent; it is not uncommon, furthermore, to witness postcolonial studies being referred to in the past tense, as if it has already disappeared as a field of study and form of analysis. As newcomers to the field, such proclamations trouble and puzzle us, especially since the alternative to postcolonialism seems to be the emergence of "globalization studies," a field with an even murkier politics and one that seems all too often to focus attention back on cultural production and cultural practices in Europe and North America. Admittedly, these worries may stem from anxieties about career success and advancement, anxieties to which some of postcolonialism's detractors would (rather simplistically) claim postcolonial critics are particularly prone. However, they also stem from the concern that as poor a job as postcolonial literary studies has done of acknowledging literature not written in English or building an inclusive and engaged community of scholarship across borders and classes, postcolonial theory has provided a valuable critique of the discourses that underwrote the colonial project and that continue to inform neoliberal imaginings of a unified world (market), including "civilization" and "progress." Grand assertions of postcolonialism's finis seem to us, first of all, to overstate the position of the field within larger institutional structures, as well as, and more importantly, to downplay completely the importance of postcolonial theory and criticism as a valuable critique of a global economy in which the legacy of imperialism is still very much in evidence.

Recently Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued in Empire that by paying too much attention to this legacy, postcolonial scholarship risks "end[ing] up in a dead end" (137). We agree that this risk of a dead end is at hand (in fact, one could say postcolonialism is already in a dead end), but we disagree that it is because of an undue focus on a "past form of domination" (138) that no longer exists. It is only as an inheritance that we can begin to understand imperialism and combat, as Hardt and Negri argue, the "new strategies of rule" into which it has transmuted in the contemporary era. As Diana Brydon argues in her contribution to this issue, Hardt and Negri "were too hasty in dismissing postcolonial theory as a backward-looking study with no relevance to the challenges of globalization. The civilizing mission remains alive and well." One reason why postcolonialism remains in our view a vital area of academic study is because it is still arguably the only methodological framework strongly committed to a critique of the global conditions of domination and oppression to which the "civilizing mission" has given rise.

While our choice of title for this special issue might seem so generic as to be meaningless, by foregrounding the terms "politics" and "postcoloniality" we want to suggest that postcolonialism remains an indispensable critical practice insofar as it stands in opposition to the militaristic and market-driven agendas of our time. In distinguishing "postcoloniality" from "postcolonialism," Graham Huggan has argued that the former term represents a regime of value that privileges the late capitalist system of commodity exchange, while the latter term represents a politics that resists the global processes of commodification. This distinction may be somewhat crude in its sanitization of postcolonialism but it does serve the useful function of reminding us of the important strategic work that postcolonial criticism undertakes, particularly in a context of intense (and intensifying) political and economic inequality.[1] How exactly postcolonialism should respond to this context, what its commitments should be in the neo-imperial present of the twenty-first century, is a difficult question and not one that the contributors to this volume answer in any definitive or singular way. Despite their divergent ideas and opinions, however, they agree that postcolonialism is far from irrelevant to twenty-first century political goals and struggles, and that, on the contrary, its conceptual tools and analytic framework can and should be harnessed in the interests of critiquing the colonial past and the contemporary world order.

In this, the authors of the following essays question the wholesale dismissal of the field undertaken not just by Hardt and Negri, but by a wide range of critics before them. One of the most scathing indictments of the field has been articulated by San Juan Jr., who argues that postcolonial discourse's apparent "radicalism mystifies the political/ideological effects of Western postmodernist hegemony and prevents change" (22). Like many other critics of postcolonial studies, San Juan Jr. condemns its supposed fetishization of textualism and he homogenizes all postcolonial criticism; for instance, he contends that "postcolonial critics dismiss historical materialist analysis as obsolete or useless, or ‘circumscribed'" (16). Interestingly, this rather popular critique of the field — one that constructs postcolonial notions of hybridity and diaspora as the field's key objects of study, which, ironically enough, work in collusion with neoliberal myths of pluralism — contradicts the notion that postcolonial critical discourse is preoccupied with antiquated centre/periphery models of power that set up the "periphery" as passive victim. While such sweeping statements provide provocative quotations for conference calls for papers, like the one we organized, they misrepresent the history of postcolonial studies in a way that leaves little room for imagining how postcolonialism might contribute to a wider project of social justice, or, to paraphrase Thomas King's words from the 2003 Massey Lecture, to "making lives better" (58). Recalling his delight at the emergence of postcolonial studies, King refers specifically to the field's promise to improve the material lives of oppressed peoples, and to transform the economic and political configurations that render oppression a prevailing feature of modern life:

not only because it expanded the canon by insisting that we read, consider, and teach literatures of colonized peoples, but because it promised to give Native people a place at the table[2] ... I know that it never promised explicitly to make the colonized world a better place for colonized peoples. It did, however, carry with it the implicit expectation that, through exposure to new literatures and cultures and challenges to hegemonic assumptions and power structures, lives would be made better. (58)

Whether postcolonialism has made good on its promise or not is open to question, as King recognizes. The answer varies, of course, according to whom you ask, but for most it involves more than a simple affirmation or negation.

Ranjana Khanna's contribution to this issue captures perfectly the profound ambivalence and uncertainty that characterizes postcolonial studies, and subsequently, most analyses of the field's achievements. Describing postcolonialism as a melancholic discipline, Khanna maintains that the factors leading to announcements of its death — for instance, the failures of anti-colonial liberation projects and the current neo-imperial forces of globalization — have in fact been sites of engagement for a field characterized primarily by the paradox of impossibility. Reading Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks' diagnosis of postcolonial studies as afflicted with melancholia as being about the "affect" rather than the "affectation" of melancholia in postcolonial field formation, Khanna argues that melancholia is endemic to the field of postcolonial studies and conceptualizes a form of postcolonial melancholia as affect. But affect in this case — and Khanna borrows from Sigmund Freud, Nicolas Abraham, Maria Torok, and Jacques Derrida to theorize it — is more than a disabling affect attached to the past; it is also, and most importantly, "an ethico-political gesture toward the future," thus providing the possibility of an enabling postcolonial agency. Khanna's concluding note draws hope from the anticipatory outlook of postcolonialism, as much as it also reminds us of the value of the field's orientation toward the past; she writes eloquently of a postcolonial melancholia whose critical agency is "future oriented as much as it is attached to a past that cannot be forgotten, or recognized within the logic of knowable memory."

In the wake of 9/11, postcolonialism's "ethico-political gesture toward the future" can seem more important than ever, and the stakes of its fulfilment even higher. In thinking through postcolonial theory's many limits and achievements, a number of contributors to this collection consider the field in relation to the attacks on the United States and the subsequent, so-called "war on terror." For Helen Scott, the contemporary moment reveals an emboldened U.S. imperialism. "Against a backdrop of brutal wars of domination and un-apologetic racist mythmaking," she writes, "critical exposés of the material history and continuation of imperialism are crucial." Scott belongs to a diverse group of scholars in postcolonial studies — among them are also the contributors to this volume Nagesh Rao, Sandro Mezzadra and Federico Rahola, and Sabine Milz — who write from a materialist perspective in an attempt to retrieve and probe anew established Marxist categories (such as imperialism, liberation, and class) and modes of critical practice for contemporary postcolonial work. She undertakes a materialist reading of contemporary Caribbean women writers and literary criticisms of this literature in an attempt to demonstrate the critical capabilities of the Western Marxist theorists Georg Lukács and Raymond Williams for contemporary postcolonial literary study. The goal of Scott's essay is to show that "Marxism continues to offer a way to read the myriad literary responses to imperialism without losing sight either of global forces of domination or the specificity of individual works of art in their capacity … ‘to lay siege to [Empire].'"

Like Scott, Rao points to the apparent failure of postmodernist postcolonial critics to produce a sustained critique of the material history and continuation of imperialism. According to Rao (and Mezzadra and Rahola, Milz, and Scott concur here) the wholesale rejection of universals such as Marxism, nationalism, and even imperialism has deprived postmodernist versions of postcolonialism of a crucial analytic through which to properly understand the current world order. Rao provides the example of a recent special issue of Postcolonial Studies that focused on plumbing and toilets as evidence of the irrelevance of the present postmodernist mode of postcolonial critical practice. According to Rao, postcolonialism has completely excluded itself from "the flurry of activity on the question of empire and imperialism" (Rao) that was ignited by Hardt and Negri's Empire and has since been enhanced by the Bush administration's post-9/11 declaration of "eternal war on terror." The privatization of water services, however, in places like South Africa and Bolivia, reveals the way in which the provision of basic human needs is embedded in ideologies that presume the beneficence of the "market" and reinforce a notion of "progress" in the form of the WC that reinforces the pre-eminence of privacy and individualism and legitimizes ecological destruction. It would seem that the postcolonial critic also has a responsibility to challenge popular left critiques of U.S. foreign policy that construct George W. Bush and his co-horts as buffoons and tyrants, strategically forgetting that the current "war on terrorism" is indebted to a history of Euro-American attempts to dominate global politics and economics and is imbedded in an evolving system of global power that is manifested, as well, in Clinton-ordered attacks on pharmaceutical plants in Sudan or the political economy of the HIV-AIDS pandemic in Africa.

One reason postcolonial critics have been slow to engage with U.S. military incursions around the world or the way in which structural adjustment programs facilitate Western benevolence in the form, for instance, of food aid to nations that have been forced to sell off their grain reserves, is because postcolonial criticism and theory have been developed within English departments and by literary critics. For many academics outside literary studies, the consequent postcolonial preoccupation with textuality and discourse is a reason for criticism. For many postcolonial literary theorists, it is a cause of anxiety. According to Brydon, this criticism and anxiety are, in part, misplaced. Brydon emphasizes that "[l]iterature has a role to play but cannot provide a substitute for politics." Echoing Said, she argues that a postcolonial politics involves reading literary texts as worldly texts by focusing on "the substance of their ideas and the contexts out of which they make their meaning." While we acknowledge that, in many ways, postcolonial literary theory seems to be at an impasse, we agree with Brydon that the study of literature and language has a role to play in critiquing current global relations of power and imagining a better world. As Ngugi Wa Thiong'o writes, "[o]ur propensity to action or inaction or to a certain kind of action or inaction, can be profoundly affected by the way we look at the world" (75). Brydon attributes crucial importance to "the way we look at the world" in her conceptualization of a postcolonial politics of "negotiation and compromise" that can move beyond the limitations of the current "politics of blame," politics of "speaking truth to power," and the now misused phrase "the personal is political." So does Scott in her materialist approach when she argues that while socio-economic realities and power relationships define our world, literature "constantly chafes against the limits of lived reality and provides a vision of alternative possibilities," a way "to imagine a world other than this and to communicate the desire for an alternative." Milz does likewise in her call for a turn toward materialist literary criticism.

In her contribution to this volume, Milz argues that postcolonial critical discourse provides important tools for addressing the relationship between globalization, literature, and literary study. Yet these tools have been omitted in the recent North American debate on "global literary study," which she sees exemplified in the PMLA's special issue "Globalizing Literary Studies" and, in particular, in its call for papers. The latter situates the study of postcolonial texts within the project of "globalizing literary study" and, thus, within a context of world literature in English that establishes the Modern Language Association of America as the central, privileged place of world intellectual encounter and power. Alternatively, Milz probes a materialist literary approach to globalization that makes use of postcolonial criticism's attention to the links between literature, geopolitics, and economic forces and its critique of the concept of national literatures. This approach emphasizes what has been neglected in contemporary global literary study and postcolonial literary study alike — namely that the current contexts of neoliberal globalization have a pervasive influence on literature and the study of literature and, accordingly, necessitate a view of texts that takes into account this very situatedness and what it says about the current functions of literature and its study.

Citing the same PMLA issue as Milz, Tilottama Rajan's essay in this issue also reflects on the problems of global literary studies, which she maintains reflects and reinforces the current international order of U.S. dominance. Rajan wonders if the globalizing of literary studies is not more an effect of economic politics than it is the result of an emancipatory or pluralist turn in the humanities that minority studies represents. Her chief question is whether members of "visible" minorities have not in fact been assimilated and interpellated into working on their ethnic identities as a result of economic pressures of globalization. As a self-described "outsider" to the field of postcolonial study — in the sense of being situated in an English Department as a "hyphenated" Indo-Canadian focusing on German and French Romantic texts — she draws on personal experience in order to suggest that postcolonial literary studies have constructed and limited the position of the racialized scholar in the Euro-American university. Her perspective provides a unique formulation of and response to the identity politics debate, one that articulates the concern that postcolonial literary study reinforces the very constructions of colonial identities it purports to deconstruct and dismantle, and thus challenges us to think anew the question of what it means to be a "postcolonial intellectual."

Despite the concerns of critics such as San Juan, Aijaz Ahmad, and Ella Shohat, postcolonial studies continues to be imagined by postcolonial critics as a form of intellectualism that is particularly political. Leela Gandhi, for instance, argues that postcolonialism's "proposal for a non-violent reading of the colonial past through an emphasis on the mutual transformation of coloniser and colonised, and its blueprint for a utopian inter-civilizational alliance against institutionalised suffering is, indeed, salutary" (140). Similarly, Brydon contends in her contribution to this collection that the immediate task of the postcolonial critic is to create the kinds of knowledge and subjects who can work collaboratively towards "negotiating political change in the organizations of governance, power and wealth in the world." Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak's recent invocation of a notion of "planetarity," which echoes and extends that by earlier anti-colonial critics such as C.L.R. James, resembles Brydon and Gandhi's arguments in that it indicates that postcolonial critics, among others in the academy, must reinvent themselves in order to participate in the struggle for a global order that is not organized through neoliberal ideologies.

Mezzadra and Rahola introduce the concept of "postcolonial time" to highlight the contributions postcolonialism can provide to the definition of a genealogy of the present. Recalling Aimé Césaire's and W.E.B. Du Bois' readings of fascism as a form of colonialism infesting Europe, they observe that we now find ourselves in a postcolonial historical time, which is characterized by the spread of typically colonial logics of domination and exploitation into the "metropolitan city." Accordingly, they argue, contemporary postcolonial critics have a key role to play in bringing into relief the indissoluble link between anti-colonialism and postcolonialism; that is, in revisiting the models of political action of Fanon, Lumumba, C.L.R. James, and others in order to identify, "in the failure of the projects to which their names were connected, the sense of an hidden history" and, with it, the sense of a capacity for insubordination which has been erased by the "history of the winners." This also implies rejecting claims that contemporary globalization amounts to little more than U.S. neo-imperialism. Mezzadra and Rahola maintain — and for an interesting counterargument see Rao's essay in this issue — that such claims have run the risk of restricting power (the power to decide, to make history) and thus agency to the leading economic, political, and cultural vectors of power. They suggest an understanding of contemporary global power relations that, while acknowledging the dominance of the Western capitalist system, accentuates the "hidden" legacies and significances of postcolonial liberation movements and their very failures.

Like Mezzadra and Rahola, many of the contributors to this collection extend the materialist critique of postcolonial studies, at least implicitly drawing on the Marxian influences of anti-colonial thought, such as Frantz Fanon's recognition of battle lines not against the colonist per se but against hunger, poverty and ignorance. Yet, even while sympathizing with the critiques of postcolonialism they outline, they also articulate a future for postcolonialism that recognizes that material inequality is at least partly lived, understood, and changed, through discourses, cultural expressions, and the symbolic or figurative. In his contribution to this issue, entitled "Postcolonial Diasporas," David Chariandy argues that it is crucial for cultural critics in diaspora studies to understand diaspora not simply "as a ‘reality' to be empirically analyzed," but also as something "self-consciously ‘figurative' or ‘metaphorical' and thus a special agent for social change." Discussing the pioneers of the field of new diaspora studies, Rey Chow, Paul Gilroy, and Stuart Hall, Chariandy suggests that the new diasporas might best be understood "as ‘figures' which may help us to better theorize the shifting cultural politics of specific racialized collectivities within the modern West." This theoretical endeavor involves the dual task of studying the affinities and differences between specific new diasporas (e.g. Chinese, South Asian, Lebanese, Caribbean), as well as between specific new diasporas and old diasporas (e.g. Jewish, Armenian, African), and of exploring the broader political and epistemological implications of the marker "new diaspora."

In his extensive survey of the major issues in the field of new diaspora studies, Chariandy enters into conversation postcolonial theory, ethnic studies, migration studies, globalization theory, postmodernist theory, and materialist criticism. The interdisciplinary engagement and reach of the essay emphasizes how useful (and even indispensable) the theoretical insight of other disciplines and subdisciplines can be for the postcolonial critic when it comes to situating specific cultural texts and symbols in relation to their social, political, and economic functions. It gestures towards Said's notion of worldly criticism, that is, of a critical practice moved by an "unquenchable interest in the larger picture, in making connections across lines and barriers, in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a professional" (Said 76). Chandrima Chakraborty's essay in this collection, which discusses the historical importance of Bankim's novel Anandamath (1882) in the current context of resurgent Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), also speaks to the need for interdisciplinary work in contemporary postcolonial studies. Her call for making "connections across lines and barriers" (Said) focuses on the issue of language privilege, or, more precisely, on the widespread exclusion of non-English Indian literatures such as Anandamath in Anglo-American postcolonial literature courses and scholarship.

Chakraborty notes that since Salman Rushdie's winning of the Booker Prize with Midnight's Children in the early 1980s, postcolonial critics and teachers have advanced a very limited, selective notion of Indian literature as the literature written by migrant or diasporic writers of Indian origin. However, her essay's objective is to move beyond "hyperbolic statements" and "the fallacy" of decrying postcolonial studies as a First World academic invention by drawing "adequate attention" to the utility of postcolonial critical discourse for the study of works by non-migrant, non-English-language writers such as Bankim. The essay demonstrates that a postcolonial (re)reading of Anandamath — and especially the novel's figure of the ascetic, masculinist nationalist — is particularly important at the present historical juncture because of the text's impact on and current utilization by the Hindutva movement. It contributes to anti-Hindutva scholarship by means of postcolonial literary criticism, which becomes a tool for contextualizing Anandamath in a way that helps better understand and interrrogate contemporary militant Hindu nationalism in India.

With its origins in a call for papers that posed questions about the efficacy of postcolonial scholarship and the future of the field, this essay collection provides a diversity of counter-responses to the announcements of the field's imminent demise. While the authors and editors of this volume agree that the discursive/materialist divide, which has beleaguered the field of postcolonial studies virtually since its inception with the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, is ultimately debilitating when it comes to theorizing contemporary global power, they point towards approaches for effectually overcoming this divide. While the essays in this collection draw upon, and extend, various critiques of postcolonial studies, they also articulate a future for postcolonialism as a critical project (i.e. a politics) that acknowledges that a productive understanding of and resistance to global processes of oppression must work on the level of both the material and the symbolic.



We proceed in this introduction to give preference to the term "postcolonialism" even where, according to Huggan's definitions, "postcoloniality" might be more appropriate. This decision reflects the ambiguity of these terms, which are not as distinct as his definitions suggest; it is also in part a result of our awareness that to most of our readers, postcolonialism is by far the more familiar term, especially as a reference to a field of academic study.


However, it needs to be mentioned here that in his essay "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial" King rejects the term "postcolonial" for analyzing Aboriginal literature, arguing that the descriptor "postcolonial" fails to recognize that the history of Aboriginal literature started long before colonization.

Works Cited

Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. London: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. New York: Routledge, 2001.

King, Thomas. "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial." World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 10-16.

—. The Truth About Stories: A Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2003.

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. "Writing for Peace." Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1983: 71-76.

Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Pantheon, 1994.

San Juan, Jr. E. Beyond Postcolonial Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Seshadri-Crooks, Kalpana. "At the Margin of Postcolonial Studies: Part 1." The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies. Eds. Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000. 3-23.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakraborty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.