Not unlike the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and postmodernism, postcolonialism refers not only to a temporal marker that signals a shift in mentalities and metaphilosophical questioning but also to a decolonizing movement enabled by new material conditions and to a theoretical and philosophical methodology. As a temporal marker postcolonialism is caught in a series of paradoxes. On the one hand, postcolonialism signals the alleged end of colonialism and the beginning of a new historical period. On the other hand, at the center of postcolonialism is the exploration of what postcolonial theorists have called the postcolonial present, namely, the enduring legacy of colonialism in contemporary times. Still, one of the most basic goals of postcolonialism is to foreground the movements of decolonization that began as early as the end of World War II, peaked during the 1950s and 1960s, and have lasted into the twenty-first century. For this reason many postcolonial theorists argue that postcolonialism is less an "ism" that describes an already past movement, but is more a series of philosophical issues that emerge from the ongoing process of decolonization in the midst of the global hegemony of Europe and the United States.
Undoubtedly, postcolonialism also refers to all the movements of decolonization that emerged during the 1950s, movements that predominantly took the form of so-called Third World nationalism. These movements of national liberation and anti-European imperialism and decolonization spread throughout the so-called Third World, a noun that conceals the specific Cold War context of many of these anticolonial struggles. Third World makes reference to all those recently created nations that were part neither of the developed, capitalist, industrialized, democratic First World nor the developing, industrializing, and socialist Second World. Critical theorist Robert J. C. Young (1950–) has for this reason argued that instead of referring to Third World postcolonialism, we should make reference to Tricontinentalism, by which he means, the deliberate and explicit joining of former colonial societies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in anticolonial struggles. What postcolonialism as the collective name for a series of movements seeks to foreground is precisely the engagement with what is called by some postcolonial theorists the postcolonial condition, or postcoloniality. Latin American sociologist and critical theorist Anibal Quijano has called this condition the postcoloniality of power, a felicitous expression that expresses what Homi K. Bhabha (1949–) has called the ongoing colonial present.
As a theoretical and philosophical methodology, postcolonial theory is no less heterogeneous and at times internally contradictory than the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were. Postcolonial theory finds many of its philosophical sources in the discourse of, to use Paul Ricoeur's apropos phrasing, the hermeneutics of suspicion : Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, semiotics, structuralism, and postmodernism. More concretely, most of postcolonial thinking takes place through demystifying readings of canonical figures in Western philosophy. Such demystification is exemplified in the works of Louis Althusser (1918–1990), Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre. As a methodology, postcolonialism submits both the production and effects of all cultural artifacts, whether they be novels, philosophical texts, or sociological treatises, to a type of X-ray that shows the ways in which these texts and their effects are caught in the dialectical tension between colonialism, imposed and internalized, and anticolonialism, both internal to the West, and from without, from the colony, the liberated postcolonial nations, and emergent social movements.
This type of double reading that traces the effects of colonialism on colonial consciousness and culture, and that unearths and names the voice and gaze of the colonial other, has been amply developed by what has been called postcolonial criticism. With this term some critics seek to differentiate between the kinds of work that literary criticism performs from that which theory or philosophy produces. Yet, the attempt to differentiate between postcolonial criticism and theory reproduces one of the most contested disciplinary divisions that postcolonialism, as a methodology of analysis, continuously aims to challenge. As the works of Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942–) illustrate and explore, literary criticism cannot be separated from and made to dispense with philosophical analysis, and the latter cannot dispense with literature nor be made to speak in a language purified of rhetoric, simile, metaphor, and the thick historicity of its diction. Furthermore, postcolonial theorists can neither negate nor neglect the ways in which disciplinary divides have been utilized to silence and deauthorize other forms of questioning—in what postcolonial theorists call the production of knowledge—precisely because of postcolonial theory's own hybrid and interdisciplinary sources.
Postcolonialism can be said to be a phenomenology of the social world that analyses in tandem the mutually conditioning effects of the objective on the subjective and vice versa. Social existence conditions the ways in which subjects are able to live and experience their subjectivities, and such subjectivities in turn, whether subjugated or insurrected, transform the social world. Postcolonialism is therefore also simultaneously a type of critical epistemology and historical ontology that studies the sources and effects of modes of representation and the ways in which social being is historically conditioned. As Spivak has put it, appropriating and displacing the phenomenological hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger, colonialism has worlded —that is to say, woven a thick web of material relationships that made possible meanings and the subjects that are mediated by them—the worlds of both the colonizer and the colonized. What makes postcolonialism different from other forms of phenomenology, ontology, and epistemology is that it has deliberately sought to disclose the world worlded by colonialism from the standpoint of the subaltern. By the term subaltern postcolonial critics mean those agents who have been expropriated, exploited, marginalized, racialized, bestialized, and rendered part of the fauna of continents empty of people and subjects. Every social agent and epistemic subject occupies a location, whether this location be literally geographical or figuratively political, epistemological, racial, or gendered. Edward W. Said (1935–2003) has called the analysis of this localization of all agents the geographical inquiry into historical existence.
Postcolonial theorists argue that to analyze the world from the perspective of the colonizer—the sovereign European political subject ensconced on the pedestal of racial privileged—would distort at best and conceal at worst the ways in which the colonized, the subaltern of colonial cultures, have been disempowered, rendered invisible and silent, reduced to a mere tabula rasa for the evangelizing, civilizing, and commercializing mission of Europe. The postcolonial critique of Western domination is simultaneously a critique of the imposition of a global economic system of structural inequality, or what is also called the globalization of capitalism through colonialism and imperialism. For this reason postcolonial theory shares many important insights and methods with standpoint feminist epistemological critique. All social location, as both of these positions argue, is mediated by representations: cultural, gendered, racial, religious. Postcolonial critique, as a form of Marxism, thus also aims to unmask the fetishizing and alienating effects of the systems of cultural representation imposed by European colonialism.
Postcolonialism, therefore, maintains that since no cultural or personal identity exists outside representation, and all representation is mediated by the history of its production, imposition, or rejection, all identities are thus contaminated by instability, hybridity, or creolization. A postcolonial corollary to the hybridity of all identity is that there is no subjectivity and agency that is not affected by power. All subjectivity and agency, argue postcolonial theorists, are forms of power. The postcolonial analysis, however, maintains that some forms of power are genocidal, subjugating, and narcissistic while others are enabling, benign, and indispensable. Power, in this analysis, is neither a stable substance nor a force that emanates from a center but a configuration of relationships that condition modes of social interaction. For postcolonial theorists, however, the uses and abuses of power are discerned from the standpoint of its effects on the subaltern in history and society.
At the center of postcolonial theory, notwithstanding its variegated sources and heterogeneous forms of articulation, is a series of epistemological innovations. Whether one studies the work of Bhabha, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Said, or Spivak, to mention just some of the canonical figures in postcolonial theory, we encounter an in-depth and unmitigated analysis of what has been called variously the space of enunciation, the discursive fields, or the structure of attitude and reference. Postmodern theorists mean by these terms that all epistemic locations, statements, and responses of affect are either allowed or disallowed by certain rules, syntax, or injunctions. To claim epistemic authority, make statements, and submit to feelings is to be interpellated by the syntax of a discursive matrix that already also anticipates their assent, response, or evocation.
Some postcolonial theorists have focused their attention on the structures of attitude and reference that condition how subjects and agents are made to know, speak, and feel from a location of privilege and plenipotentiary sovereignty about other subjects and agents who are located somewhere else in history and space. Said's classic work Orientalism: Western Representations of the Orient (1979) documented and analyzed the ways in which orientalism, the collective name for a group of disciplines that studied the Orient, operated as a power-knowledge apparatus that interpellated European agents to adopt imperial affective, epistemological, and enunciative spaces and comportments. Other postcolonial critics have focused on the knowing, speaking, and feeling to of all colonial discourse and the ways in which their reifying, objectivifying, and alienating effects are both unsustainable and contested by the other of their addressee. In Fanon's work, for instance, we discover one of the most elaborate phenomenologies of oppression and liberation as well as a psychoanalytical analysis of the devastating effects of the powers of torture on both colonizer/torturer, and colonized/tortured. Yet other postcolonial theorists have focused on the how and by what means the mater-slave relationship between colonizer and subaltern have been mediated in such a way that neither the master nor the slave are entirely inured to each other's power of conquest or resistance. Spivak's work is without a doubt the most sophisticated, extensive, and sustained engagement with this dialectic of complicit and resisted knowledge production and insurrected agency.
Not unlike how Immanuel Kant illustrated his transcendental method by way of antinomies, postcolonial critics have developed a type of critical philosophy that proceeds also by way of the disclosure of a series of antinomies at the heart of contemporary Western thinking: universalism versus European exceptionalism; rationalism versus racial supremacy; humanism versus racial genocide; technophilia versus Romantic idolatry of the primitive; historicism versus teleological theodicy. As a critical methodology that inherits the discourse of what has been called a second Enlightenment, namely, the discourse of suspicion (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche), postcolonialism can be said to constitute a third Enlightenment, one that awakens the postcolonial world to the enduring legacies of five centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and now, globalization.
Postcolonialism is neither anti-Western, obdurately rejecting all European thinking, nor Third-Worldist, naively celebrating all that is produced and thought by the subaltern. Postcolonialism is a type of thinking that aims to situate us beyond the epistemological, ontological, and phenomenological Manichaeisms that have informed colonialism and postcolonial nationalism. Postcolonialism urges us to think beyond the either/or, for/against and in the proper space of the hybrid of the neither/nor, and/but, not with/but not without. For postcolonial thinkers, the philosophical inheritance of the West, of Europe, is at stake, not solely because it bears the traces of its complicity with colonialism, but because it is also the archive of resistance to that colonialism.
See also Deconstruction; Derrida, Jacques; Enlightenment; Epistemology; Foucault, Michel; Freud, Sigmund; Heidegger, Martin; Humanism; Kant, Immanuel; Lacan, Jacques; Mani and Manichaeism; Marxist Philosophy; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Ontology; Phenomenology; Postmodernism; Renaissance; Ricoeur, Paul; Romanticism; Psychoanalysis; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Structuralism and Post-structuralism; Teleology.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Brydon, Diana, ed. Postcolonialism: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. 5 vols. London: Routledge, 2000.
Cabral, Amilcar. Return to the Source: Selected Speeches. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.
Del Sarto, Ana, Alicia Ríos, and Abril Trigo, eds. The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Moore-Gilbert, Bart. Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics. London: Verso, 1997.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1993.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Western Representations of the Orient. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Said, Edward W. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
Eduardo Mendieta (2005)
"Postcolonialism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/postcolonialism
"Postcolonialism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/postcolonialism
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.