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What Is Postcolonial Criticism?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Postcolonial criticism is a term applied primarily to analyses of power and political and aesthetic relations in countries administered by colonial powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Particular areas of emphasis include the Indian subcontinent, northern and central Africa, and southeast Asia. These regions were under the control of colonial powers like England, the United States, and France. Although postcolonial criticism encompasses a wide variety of academic areas, including film, philosophy, and sociology, the focus is generally on literature produced in former colonies and the ex-colonizer’s response. Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak are important exponents of postcolonial criticism.

The general purpose of engaging in postcolonial criticism is to open a space where the residual effects of colonialism can be resisted. It is not a question of restoring precolonial cultures, but rather showing how former colony and colonizer can establish a mutually respectful relationship in a postcolonial world. An important facet of this criticism is to expose and deconstruct the racist and imperialist assumptions of colonial logic that still influence relations between nations. Such exposure is believed to help reduce their power.

There are many different schools of thought within postcolonial criticism about how to achieve these goals. One of the field’s foundational texts is Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978. Said studied the relationship between power and knowledge in the West’s domination of the East. He is particularly critical of how the West views the Oriental and Oriental culture and literature as irrational, depraved, and childlike. This is the essence of Orientalism as defined by Said.

Said argues that the West’s view of Oriental cultural affirmed by Western institutions is used to justify the domination of Arab and Asian peoples. As the West can define itself as virtuous, rational, and normal in comparison, Arab and Asian languages, cultures, and institutions are marginalized. A Palestinian, Said attempts to create a site of resistance to the hegemony of Western ideas and values as he understands them.

Spivak offers a different version of postcolonial criticism that is less influenced by Michel Foucault than Said’s Orientalism framework. She prefers to use deconstruction to question the oppressive binary oppositions set up within colonial discourse. Spivak is a feminist and often attempts to show how the female subject is silent in the dialogue between a male-dominated West and Asia.

Bhabha, like Spivak, is interested in undoing colonial binaries as well as Said’s binary of East and West. He argues that the experience of colonized peoples creates a hybridity of perspective; the individual identifies simultaneously with the colonizer and his or her own people. This state, for Bhabha, is simply part of the postmodern condition.

Frantz Fanon is arguably one of the first writers associated with postcolonialism. He analyzed the nature of colonialism and its subjugation of people in his book The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961. This text laid the groundwork for future postcolonial theorists by describing the systematic relationship between colonialism and how the suppressed lost all humanity.

Like any other form of criticism, postcolonialism presents some limitations. It sometimes implies a romantic vision of the other and simplistic politics. Although the emphasis is on difference, postcolonial theory sometimes conflates very distinct cultures under the umbrella term of third world. While some postcolonial criticism has been groundbreaking, other work has done little to change unequal relationships between countries.

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