Introduction to Postcolonial Theory
By Dr. Dawn Duncan
Having worked with Postcolonial Theory for well over a decade now, I recognize that not all postcolonialists are on the same page when it comes to the theoretical definition or practice. However, as a teacher it is important to me both to teach my students the history of Postcolonial Theory with all its permutations and to articulate my own approach as clearly as possible. To that end, over the past few years I have proposed a flexible foundation for postcolonial theorists that more closely represents global realities than the former definition allowed1. I use a three-point construct, with the points representing the ontological, contextual, and textual components—all of which will be explained below. I also attempt to show the relevance of postcolonialism to understanding root causes of world problems and possible solutions.
If we look at a brief history of postcolonial studies, we can appreciate the way in which the theory and practice have evolved. Though colleges and universities are portrayed in the media, especially by conservative voices, as being hotbeds for radicals to push societal change, the truth is that the academy is slow to embrace change. On the positive side of this issue, we might note that academics take time to contemplate and analyze, to reflect upon all the ramifications change brings. On the negative side, we might note that the academy remains deeply hierarchical with older, established voices holding sway in decision-making at administrative and curricular levels. Whatever the explanation for the reality, ideas seem to fester for some 10-15 years before bringing about real adaptation. Postcolonial studies certainly is representative of such an academic evolution. In 1961 Frantz Fanon published The Wretched of the Earth (a follow-up to his Black Skin, White Masks of 1952). Fanon, a Black native of Martinique who was trained in Psychiatry in France, experienced firsthand the disconnect between his personal identity as a Black Frenchman and the racism he encountered in the White French society during his time in Paris. Time he spent working in Algeria, Tunisia and Ghana furthered his examination of racism and colonialism. His books reveal the ugly face of a binary world and call for a radical, violent overthrow of the racism explicit in colonialism. The two works he produced before his premature death from cancer were translated into English over the next decade and provided the fire that initiated what would become postcolonial theory in the hands of academics. Some 17 years after the appearance of The Wretched of the Earth, Edward Said, born in Jerusalem when it was still part of Palestine and acclaimed scholar and professor of Comparative Literature for some years at Columbia University, under the influence of Fanon’s writing produced what some may think of as the first academic book of postcolonial studies, Orientalism, in 1978. In his book, he examines notions of Orientalism (the different, the exotic, the mysterious but not quite civilized) and its combination of racism and colonialism as it appears in literature, providing a telling story of the postcolonial situation. From this point forward, scholars begin to engage with the concepts of Fanon and Said, with important voices like Homi Bhaba and Sara Suleri emerging in the dialogue. Another eleven years along the road, Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffins edit the first volume of essays by postcolonial theorists, The Empire Writes Back, in 1989. At this point, enough scholars have begun working in the field for the area of study to start showing up in graduate school seminars. At my own university (University of North Texas), I was exposed to the approach in the early 90s and found it most applicable to my work in Irish Studies, choosing it has my foremost applied theory before earning my doctorate in 1994. By the turn to the 21st century, it had become clear to...
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