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Shifting Boundaries: The Postcolonial and
by Byron Caminero-Santangelo, Department of English, University of Kansas
In his most recent book, Postcolonialism, Robert Young makes a useful distinction between the terms
"postcolonial"and "postcolonialism." He defines the postcolonial as "coming after colonialism and imperialism,
in their original meaning of direct-rule domination, but still positioned within imperialism in its later sense of the
global system of hegemonic economic power. The postcolonial is a dialectical concept that marks the broad
historical facts of decolonization and the determined achievement of sovereignty--but also the realities of
nations and peoples emerging into a new imperialistic context of economic and sometimes political
domination." Postcolonialism names "a theoretical and political position which embodies an active concept of
intervention within such oppressive circumstances" (57).
Young's careful distinction between a set of political conditions and a theoretical stance is important in terms of
the study of "postcolonial" cultural production because some prominent work in the field suggests that all such
production has the same agenda or the same perspective. Commenting on the study of "postcolonial
literature," Stephan Sleman writes of the "confusion in which the project of identifying the scope and nature of
anti-colonialist resistance in writing has been mistaken for the project which concerns itself with articulating the
literary nature of Third and Fourth-World cultural groups" (31). A classic example of this confusion is the claim
in The Empire Writes Back that: "post-colonial literatures everywhere . . . emerged in their present form out of
the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power,
and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre. It is this which makes them
distinctively post-colonial" (Ashcroft 2). This claim is highly problematic, since there are plenty of examples of
literature from postcolonial societies which are by no means focused on writing back to the colonizer and to the
colonizer's culture. As Arun Mukherjee asserts, "This kind of theorizing leaves us only one modality, one
discursive position. We are forever forced to interrogate European discourses, of only one particular kind, the
ones that degrade and deny our humanity. I would like to respond that our cultural productions are created in
response to our own needs, and we have many more needs than constantly to 'parody the imperialists'" (6).
Mukherjee alludes here to the enormous diversity of concerns to which "postcolonial" cultural productions
responds-a diversity created, in part, by different forms of imperialism and the multitude of pre-colonial cultures
which they impacted. Such diversity is repressed by the kind of definitions of "postcolonial" offered by The
Young's definitions also addresses the complaint of critics like Anne McClintock and Aijaz Ahmed that the term
postcolonialism elides continued economic imperial relationships between the former colonizers and colonized
and projects a problematic notion of progress which can be "prematurely celebratory" (294). Young carefully
distinguishes between colonialism as direct rule which the post in postcolonial designates as over and
imperialism which can designate economic and indirect political control beyond the moment of formal
independence; in other words, he enables us to mark the important moment of formal independence from
European colonialism without ignoring continued forms of imperial control.
Yet, despite the apparent soundness of Young's definitions, they do not entirely escape the kinds of problems
that those like McClintock and Ahmed detect in the suggestion of a movement beyond colonialism suggested
by the post in postcolonial. The problems with Young's definitions turn on the issue of the nation and its
relationship with colonialism. Young claims that the post in postcolonial refers to national liberation from direct
colonial rule but not freedom from other forms of imperialism. However, national independence did not
necessarily result even in freedom from direct colonial control for many within the new nations; Young's
definition only works if we focus on the relationship between newly independent nations and their former
colonizers and repress forms of internal colonialism. As Anne McClintock defines it, "Internal colonization
occurs where the dominant part of a country treats a group or region as it might a foreign colony" (295). An
easy example of internal colonialism would be apartheid South Africa. Because they were free from British rule,
Afrikaners in Apartheid South Africa thought of themselves as postcolonial (in Young's terms). Yet, suggesting
that blacks under apartheid would see the era of colonialism over in any way is highly debatable. In other
words, we need to avoid too strict an equation between freedom from direct foreign control and liberation from
colonialism; this equation can all too easily encourage an exclusive focus on the struggle against external
forms of control and can, as a result, suppress the varied and abundant forms of internal colonialism in the
"postcolonial" world--which themselves often work in contradictory ways with external economic control.
Yet, despite the many problems with the term "postcolonial," it has certain advantages. As Rajeswari Mohan
points out, using it when referring to cultural production from what is still often called the "Third World"
encourages a focus on political relationships and discourages an eliding of the way that past and present
imperial connections between "the west and the rest" have helped produce contemporary global conditions: "As
a historical and epistemological category, postcoloniality immediately draws attention to the historical and
cultural contexts of producing and reading texts in a world riven by political hierarchies, economic
manipulations, and hegemonic interests" (34). Mohan's explanation of the benefits of using the term
"postcolonial" or "postcoloniality" points to an important connection between the use of this term and
"postcolonialism" because those who ascribe to postcolonialism insist on understanding the "Third World" and
its relationship with the "First World" in the light of the colonial past. As Young asserts, Postcolonialism
"involves a reconsideration of the history of modern European colonization, particularly from the perspective of
those suffering its effects, together with the defining of this history's contemporary social and cultural impact."
(Postcolonialism 4). This intellectual work enables an exploration of the common elements that linked different
forms of European colonialism; as a result, it continues the work of anti-colonial liberation movements which
found common cause, despite the wide variety of colonial situations from which they developed. This is not to
deny that we must remain attuned to the plethora of colonial and postcolonial situations. As Young claims in
Colonial Desire, "at this point in the postcolonial era, as we seek to understand the operation and effects of
colonial history, the homogenization of colonialism does also need to be set against its historical and
geographical particularities. The question for any theory of colonial discourse is whether it can maintain, and do
This need for careful attention to the interplay between the universal and particular should certainly be applied
to the term "postcolonial." As Ania Loomba notes, the postcolonial "is a word that is useful only if we use it with
caution and qualifications." It "is useful in indicating a general process with some shared features across the
globe. But if it is uprooted from specific locations, [it] cannot be meaningfully investigated, and, instead, the
term begins to obscure the very relations of domination that it seeks to uncover" (19).
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. New York: Routledge, 1998.
McClintock, Anne. "The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term 'Post-colonialism'." Williams and Chrisman 291-
Mohan, Rajeswari. "Dodging the Crossfire: Questions for Postcolonial Pedagogy." College English 19.3 (1992):
Mukherjeee, Arun P. "Whose Post-Colonialism and Whose Postmodernism." World Literature Written In
Slemon, Stephen. "Unsettling the Empire: Resistance Theory for the Second World." World Literature Written in
Young, Robert. Colonial Desire. New York: Routledge, 1995.
_____. Postcolonialism. Malden: Blackwell, 2001.
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