Misapprehension toward Postcolonial Theory – a reflection

The study of colonialism and its aftermath – what academia calls "Postcolonial Theory" (PCT)--–is in the eyes of most scholars a specific domain: inquiry on the lands and peoples who were at one time either the objects of colonialism or the products of that experience. In other words, if you do Postcolonial Theory–--as a historian, anthropologist, sociologist, literary critic, and so on–--you are colored with a certain hue: you study whatever went on in countries that were not European (and later on, American) and upon which European power was wielded.

There is of course much truth to this. Postcolonial Theory tries to make sense of processes (colonization and decolonization) and conditions (coloniality and postcoloniality) whose most apparent manifestations are found in such locales and amongst such peoples.

Yet, insulating PCT to these locales and to specific branches of social science or humanities (here I focus on the former), betrays a fundamental misapprehension. PCT is as much an inquiry and a project about the countries and peoples at the receiving end of European (and American) power as it is an inquiry about Europe (and even America) itself. PCT is a study about global power relations, and despite what a quick glance at the world map might suggest, it has no precise boundaries–--at least, no geographic North-South or East-West pairs to firmly contain it.

This claim rests on two fundamental points: first, colonialism as a practice and imperialism as an ideology are not necessarily European or American phenomena. Japan, for example, in its modern history has engaged in such adventures. Moreover, nothing would prevent a formerly colonized country to act as a colonizer in its own right. Second, colonialism, imperialism and postcolonialism have shaped European countries and their North Atlantic offshoot as much as the "objects" of colonialism, i.e., those locales PCT usually addresses. Let me clarify.

PCT tells the story of the encounter between colonizer and colonized, narrating the contamination and hybridization of the colonized, its resistance, rebellion, and quest for independence from colonial institutions and practices. So far, so good. Yet, right at this juncture, the misapprehension kicks in: PCT would be then confined to dealing only with the formerly colonized–--hence "post-"colonialism. It is a one-way street: a sender/receiver affair, with no feedback, let alone a constituting mutual set of power relations. For instance, when analyzing the trajectory of the formerly colonized, this view would have PCT concentrate on the arduous path of the formerly colonized's economic and political development. That is, arduous in the newly independent's practical efforts and repeated failures. However, such hurdles are always configured in relation to a paradigm of political, economic and social development the West has outlined. The message was sent, only poorly understood or applied.

The views of PCT, then, are grounded in a hardly concealed frustration sighing "what’s wrong with you guys?" The answer is allegedly to be found in some grand theory of difference PCT has to enunciate, a theory able to account for the formerly colonized's lag-failure-tardiness (or what have you). The logic of a single history would subsume PCT under its gaze and then explain away the predicaments of the colonized as bumps in the road. In other words, PCT is expected to account for those bumps.

Western or Western-looking institutions treat the (formerly) colonizing and (one time) colonized countries and peoples as discrete categories that are all driving, at different intervals and with different success rates, along the same path. In this view, studying the colonized is approaching a different locale, and we have a ready-made theory (PCT) to do just that, that is to recognize the issues, idiosyncrasies, peculiarities (also, for sure, the most fascinating ones for a taste of the exotic) of non-Western settings.

What escapes the great misapprehension is instead the relational aspect of PCT: as a theory about power, it cannot but be so. There is no mere sender/receiver relation going on here. There is neither a simple feedback mechanism from the colonized back to the colonizer. What we witness is a properly co-constitutive process, to use the language of social constructivism, whereby the very interaction with the colonized, the very processes of conquest, exploitation and violence (physical, psychological, epistemic), the confrontation with rejection, rebellion and resistance have shaped the colonizer just as the colonized. If identity formation is always a process of differentiation, of setting alter versus ego at all times, then it must be true that European, North American, Western identity is firmly and inescapably rooted in the experience and practice of colonialism. In that experience and in the practice of colonialism modern Europe was molded.

Postcolonial Theory comes to the rescue precisely to tell us how and why what we call the "West" has a certain set of features. Any other account, depicting a purely internal process of societal differentiation, economic development and political transformation, would miss this fundamental aspect–--and thus short-circuiting into grandiose navel gazing. Postcolonial Theory offers instead the tools to see how the world we live in is crucially constituted by an encounter, for the greatest part bloody and exploitative, shaping both parties in dissimilar fashions but within the precincts of a shared history.

We may entertain few questions at this point: what are the parameters of this encounter and, more specifically, how can we understand the process of co-constitution? What kind of philosophy of history is inspired by this view? What kind of identities and with which features have thus emerged, and are still emerging? And what can we learn about the politics of imperialism and neo-post-colonialism still ravaging the planet?


Massimo Ramaioli is an Assistant Professor in Social Development and Policy at Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan.

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