Representation in Postcolonial Analysis

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Representation in Postcolonial Analysis


People know and comprehend the complex world in which we live through the act of naming it; thus through language and representations. The term representation embodies a range of meanings and interpretations. Etymologically, representation can be understood as a presentation drawn up not by depicting the object as it is but by re-presenting it or constructing it in a new form and/or environment. In ancient times representation played a central role in studying and understanding literature, aesthetics, and semiotics. The construct has since evolved into a significant component to analyze the contemporary worlds creation of audio visual as well as textual arts, such as films, museum exhibitions, television programs, photographs, paintings, advertisements, and literature. None of these representational forms are neutral because it is impossible to divorce them from the culture and society that produces them. R-rated films are an example of cultural restrictions, highlighting societys attempt to control and modify representations to promote a certain set of ideologies and values. Despite these restrictions, representations have the ability to take on a life of their own once in the public sphere. The term representation cannot be given a definitive meaning because there will always be a gap between intention and realization, original and copy.

In a 1997 essay entitled The Work of Representation, the sociologist Stuart Hall discusses the relationship between politics and representation and the systems representing both. He approaches representation as the medium or process through which meaning, associations, and values are socially constructed and reified by people in a shared culture. Representation involves understanding how language and systems of knowledge production work together to produce and circulate meanings. According to Hall, we give things meaning by how we represent them. Cultural representations help form the images people have of others; if assimilated by those others, they help form the images people have of themselves as well; cultural representations get embodied in institutions and inform policies and practices. The politics of representation, then, revolve around issues of power and control over ones own self and its representations and reproduction by others.

In sociocultural representations it is often difference that signifies by creating binary oppositions. Within this dichotomized relationship, one pole always tends to dominate (e.g., male over female, us over them, high over low), bringing issues of dissimilarity and power to the fore within a representation. The act of unreflexively representing the other has significant resonances with long-standing practices of domination within the context of colonization. A heightened awareness that asymmetries of representation enacted and reproduced the asymmetries of power in the colonial world has enhanced the significance of cultural politics in the academic field of postcolonial studies. The focus on culture and representation is not necessarily a diversion from the political realities of postcolonial struggle; culture and representation can even be used to inform the understanding of those colonial processes.

Much postcolonial scholarship is informed, in one way or another, by theories that elucidate the politics of representations. The single most influential scholar demystifying the process of constructing the Other is Edward Said (1935-2003). Employing a Foucaultian conception of the power/knowledge nexus and the politics of representation, Saids seminal book Orientalism established how the West (especially Britain, France, and the United States), through an academic, literary, and philosophical endeavor executed by Western intellectuals, was able to manageand even producethe Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period (an era initiated by colonial conquest). This linear and uninterrupted construction of the Orient as Other over many centuries became the basis and rationale for colonial oppression and served to strengthen the identity of Western culture. In Saids words, Orientalism isand does not simply representa considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with our world (Said 1994, p. 12).

Said eloquently demonstrated how the representations of Orientalism pervade the writings of European and North American literature icons such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy as well as modern-day media reports about the developing world, particularly the Islamic world. Although Saids arguments have been challenged and extended, his work is still the governing voice that leads scholars in anthropology, literature, mass communication, and postcolonial studies to critically analyze representations that demarcate us versus them. Saids insights provide a handy toolbox with which one can easily demystify how the global media exacerbated the stereotyped conflict between the West and the Islamic world in the post 9/11 era.

The postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak made an important contribution to theories of representation by insisting that the concept in a literary or semiotic sense must be reconsidered in connection with representation in politics, representation in the sense of any capacity for a person to be the agent of, to stand for, the will of other people. In her provocative essay Can the Subaltern Speak? Spivak underlined how representations, especially of marginalized groups from developing countries, are intimately linked to positioning: socioeconomic, gendered, cultural, geographic, historical, and institutional. The crux of Spivaks argument is that the representations of the developing world conflate two related but discontinuous meanings of representation (Spivak 1988, pp. 275-276). One meaning is speaking for, in the sense of political representation, and the second is speaking about or re-presenting, in the sense of making a portrait. While Spivak recognizes that representations cannot escape othering, Spivak argues for us to be scrupulous in so doing, especially in the case of unequal power relationships, when representing the Wests Other (the developing world) and the developing worlds Other (the subaltern).

Awareness of the constructed nature of sociocultural representations does not mean that people can do without them. A way to bypass the dilemma of representation of and for others is to acknowledge and articulate how power enters into the process of cultural translation. In the end, the crisis of cross-cultural representation can be resolved only through cross-cultural communications that are actually, rather than virtually, decentered and multivocal, that is, through the empowerment of others to participate as equal partners in the conversation of humankind.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Cultural Studies; Culture; Foucault, Michel; Hall, Stuart; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Orientalism; Other, The; Popular Culture; Postcolonialism; Representation; Said, Edward; Social Constructs; Subaltern; Visual Arts


Hall, Stuart. 1997. The Work of Representation. In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall, 13-74. London, Sage Publishing.

Said, Edward W. [1978] 1994. Orientalism. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, Gayatri C. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, 271-313. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan Education.

Noel B. Salazar