The Terminology of Postcolonial Criticism

Tip: You can maximise this window by double-clicking on the top bar or clicking on the window icons in that area.

Here are some of the terms that commonly circulate in postcolonial discourse. A few of them are so fundamental to any understanding of the way the world works today that it is difficult to see how we can look out on it without invoking them. Thus race, nationalism, globalisation, neo-imperialism are all part of the way we view events that come to us refreshed by the colours of new crisis or new violence with every evening’s news bulletin. Likewise, terms such as liberal, neo-con, terrorist, and fundamentalist are part of contemporary mapping of the political world, though only invoked here in passing. Other terms listed here are more specific to postcolonial studies - e.g., ethnicity, hegemony, alterity, exoticism and hybridity.

Note: I am writing these lexical notes ‘on the trot’ during successive semester of the module as the terms come into play in lectures and in seminars. Please advise me of any errors and suggest any new terms/topics that would you to see covered.

Although a very brief attempt is made to define each of these here, it is only in the printed contexts that their use and significance can be fully appreciated. This argues that the best method of familiarising yourself with them (and with the world as they describe it) is to engage in wide postcolonial reading. Short of that, a useful handbook is Bill Ashcroft, et. al., Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge 2000). The order in which they are listed here is alphabetical on the basis that no other form of prioritisation is appropriate until the theoretical standpoint incorporated in this module has been fully consolidate - though perhaps this should never happen!

Term Meaning & context
Alterity (meaning “otherness”) is used, in postcolonial studies to refer to the difference between terms (or positions) in a binary system and hence can bear the meaning of thing remorselessly opposed and mutually antagonistic. In some writers the word ‘othering’ is used to define the way in which a colonial subject defined his/her own identity as different or even opposite from that of the imposed colonial stereotype.
  The term alterity is thus used to suggest the way in which the oppositional nature of the binary system [see Binarism] can be made to break down, revealing an area of freedom based on apartness from it, or else on the very differences involved in it. This last is a tenuous but fertile notion. Whereas binarism implies a rigid set of mutually-exclusive positions, alterity speaks of difference in such a way as to open up the possibility of constructive interaction resulting in recognition of existing roles but psychic independence from them.
 A hallmark of all postcolonial based on the concept of alterity is the ability to enter into dialogue with the ‘other’ rather than the rejection of the other and the assertion of the simply rightness of one’s one selfhood and tradition in the existing polarity of difference.
 In the domain of cultural representation (i.e., art and literature), the epitome of this ability is the work of the postcolonial novelist since novels necessarily involve different character-worlds or subjectivities whose separate being is beyond question. The other cannot simply be postulated as ‘wrong’ or treated as a ghost - although a popular explanation of ghost-stories and the Gothic genre today is precisely the attempt of colonial oppressors to negate the being of the colonised (or, in a limited number of instances, vice-versa.)
 As Mikhail Bakhtin puts it, the novelist tries to understand his characters both from inside and the outside. The result is a formal counterpart of the kind of thinking that must be applied to real people if binarism is to give altereity in postcolonial societies. [See further remarks in Lecture 8, supra.]
Binarism is involved in the construction of a system of meanings (i.e., culture, ideology, mentality, &c.) which assigns opposite senses to certain terms (e.g., white/black; good/bad) and sets up a series of equivalences between the vertical terms in the resulting schema (e.g., white=good, black=bad).
  In postcolonial studies the term is used chiefly to describe the way colonial ideology constructs a world of meaning in which the colonist maintains a privileged position through the use of language - that is, by means of a cultural hegemony expressed in the everyday language of the colony.
 Such an ideology promotes the idea that areas falling between opposites (such as black and white) are taboo - that is to say, to engage in any mixing or to suggest that there is an occupiable zone between them is scandalous and forbidden. Apartheid is the fullest expression of this taboo.
 It is in that in-between zone that the postcolonial studies attains its full stature as a liberation theory. Faced with binary oppositions that enforce mutual exclusion, postcolonialism seeks to fosters inclusiveness and multiculturalism.
 The escape from binarism rarely coincides with the early phases of anti-colonial resistance to colonialism - which are typically nationalist in content. Instead, it is something that comes after nationalism which it regards as a binary system in its own right (i.e., one in which the polarity has simply been reversed).
 The shift from exclusiveness to inclusiveness which succeeds on narrow-gauge nationalism implies an opening of channels of communication between the erstwhile parts of the postcolonial nation, and this is can be expressed in terms of a shift from binarism toward alterity - a term that acknowledges the existence of the ‘other’. [See further remarks, infra.]
Colonialism refers, in practical terms, to the activities of (chiefly) European powers in continents, countries or regions of the world where they were able to extend their military and economic might at different phases of modern history, thus establishing a powerful cultural and economic hegemony which defined the relative positions of the coloniser and the colonised.
  In a more theoretical view, all colonies share the same essential structure - that is, the structure of colonialism. This is deemed to be essentially identical whether originating in conquest or trade, and is recognised by a general system of meanings (or mentality) imposed on the colonised by the coloniser in which the former is assigned a place of higher (or even exclusive) value and the latter a place of lower (or even negative) value, though with some possibilities of borrowing and mimicry of one by the other.
 Since colonialism is the over-arching political reality which conditions most of the literature on this module it is unneccesary to illustrate its multiplicity of forms - synchronic and diachronic - any further in this note. Suffice to say that colonisation takes place in time, and in time it is reversed or overturned, or else perpetuated in a modified and internalised form as neo-colonialism; and that it also exhibits degrees and related variations such that a given society can seem colonised from one standpoint and part of the colonising power from another.
Critique (v.)  
Though meaning little more than ‘criticise’, the term critique derives from Hegelian and Marxist thought and bears the meaning: to analyse a given formation or idea in such a way that its internal contradictions and its nature as a product of a specific cultural hegemony and/or ideology are revealed.
  In other words, a critique is conducted from an alternative and putatively superior theoretical position. (I.e., you can’t critique anything unless you occupy such a position!)
Deconstruct (v.)  
This verb derives from the post-structuralism of Jacques Derrida and is taken to refer to the form of intellectual critique by means of which a social or cultural structure is made to reveal the way or ways in which it is actually a ‘construct’, produced by a discourse of power or ideology put in place and sustained in the interest of a given class (e.g., the colonists, the bourgeoisie, &c.)

Ethnicity is an acceptable term for “race” in postcolonial and other politically-correct forms of intellectual discourse. It speaks of social groups both in their phylogenic (i.e., hereditary) aspect and in respect of distinct cultural traditions.
 As such, it carries a strong implication that the identity of a given group is original to it and hence authentic as distinct from imposed or adopted through colonisation by or assimilation to another group.
 When a view of the world is formed purely from the standpoint of a single population and/or culture, the result is sometimes said to be ethnocentric - that is, not allowing for differences between cultures. This critique is more commonly applied to the European outlook on other cultures than to their outlook on Europe or each other - although ethnocentricity can be so extreme in so-called “primitive” tribal groups that other tribes are regarded as ghosts, phantoms, zombies and so forth.
 In modern society, ethnocentricity is also applied to ‘narrow-gauge nationalism’ - meaning, the assertion that the nation consists of, or has its roots in, the history and customs of a specific race (Teuton, Celt, and so forth).

False Consciousness  
In a given historical situation, either the class or nation in the dominant position or that in the subaltern position (or both) will exhibit and deploy a version of the world which is at variance with the correct historical analysis. This is called ‘false consciousness’ - a term much-used by Marxists to describe the version of social reality maintained by the bourgeoisie, ostensibly in its search ofr higher values but actually as a disguise for its rapacity in relation to the ‘lower’ (i.e., working) class.
The process by which the market economy of the world is gradually extended and unified, globalisation can be said to have begun with the commencement of the colonial era and to end when the unified forces of international capitalism (represented primarily by the multi-national corporations in collaboration with the dominant world power) succeeds in imposing its economic terms on every national community in the world.
 In classical terms, this means that the ‘free market’ policy associated with economic liberalism demands the removal of tarriff walls in regions formerly protected against exposure to cheap agricultural goods or cheap manufactures from the metropolitan economies. In contemporary terms, it means that former colonies and developing countries everywhere are turned into cheap-labour factories and/or producers of raw materials for same to the benefit of investors and comsumers in so-called “First World” countries.
 The use of ‘foreign aid’ packages controled by the International Monetary Fund to support national bourgeoisies in former colonies, thus reducing the population to near-slave status in the world economy, was one of the leading features of the Cold War period. Today (when the reputation of the IFM is overcast), the exploitation of ‘war on terror’ threats in conjunction with aid packages has the same effect.
 In either case it is nigh-impossible for under-developed and developing countries to stay outside the globalisation net or to refuse the offer of global working-class status in relation to the investor nations.
 In the face of this, it is necessary for the postcolonialist to understand the neo-colonial world as well as the colonial world and the resistance to it in the independence period, since nationhood is not in fact synonymous with freedom when capital can reduce a population to poverty and oppression in spite of sovereign government and territorial borders.

A term of Greek origin, originally describing the way in which a given city holds other cities or communities in its power, and applied by Anton Gramsci to the way in which a dominant culture makes members of any culture which it dominates think and act in ways consistent with its own value-system, thus voluntarily - if also unconsciously - fortifying the ideas and agencies that establish and maintain it in a position of relative inferiority.
  A ruling group (Gk., hegemon) requires and obtains the acquiescence of the subordinate group chiefly through cultural transmission and most of all, of course, through education. In this the central element is the introduction of the language of the dominant culture among members of the subaltern group.
 Correspondingly, of course, a dominated or colonised grouping will seek to free themselves from cultural hegemony by insisting on the value and importance of their own language. Hence cultural nationalism - and especially a language-movement - is often the first form of resistance adopted by decolonising peoples.

Though these terms hardly need explanation, the ways in which they are used in postcolonial criticism should be carefully noted. Moreover, identitarian politics is perhaps the central strand of cultural politics in any land today and hence is clouded by the clamour of various group-interests and their political agendas.
Often in contrast to the essentialist tendency of these, postcolonialism engages with the idea that the self is only a social and culture ‘construct’.
  As such, it offers an implicit challenge to the ‘revivalist’ idea that the purpose of anti-colonial struggle is to scrape away the ill-effects of colonial culture in order to reveal the identity or selfhood of the colonised in all its original, untrammelled purity.  In fact, the production of a postcolonial self is as much the work of ideology as the production of a colonised identity - with the difference that it is now embraced as an authentic, and therefore a healthy, image of the self.
 At the early stages of national resistance to colonialism, however, this idea seems at once heretical and unattainable. That is why the communal ‘self’ associated with ethnic (and often religious) memory is brought to the fore in anti-colonial struggles.
Imbricate (v.)  
The word derives from the Latin imbrex, ‘a roof-tile’ (imber = ‘rain’), and hence refers to any ‘overlapping’ arrangement of materials. In postcolonial studies, it refers to the way in which the colonial subject is embedded in social and cultural structures which define his/her place and restrict his/her movement according to the distribution of semiological elements in the whole.
This the form taken by colonialism when a number of colonies located in different regions of the world are claimed as colonies or subject-nations by a single national power and administered by means of political and cultural codes or strategies dictated at the heart of the so-called “mother country”.
  The assumption of maternalistic and paternalistic responsibilities for the subject nations, together with the entitlement to chastise, is part of the imperial mindset, especially in modern empires (including the neo-colonial empires of the New World Order in our own day) where rule is maintained by the operation of ‘benevolent’ agencies (education, food-aid, &c.) rather than brute force.
 The relationship between culture and empire is thus at the heart of postcolonial studies.
In ordinary usage, the term refers to the capital city as distinct from the towns and rural areas that comprise the territory of a nation. In postcolonial studies, the term is associated with the colonial or imperial capital or the colonial country considered as the ‘capital’ of the empire.
 The impact of metropolitan ideas, customs, and fashions is obviously immense and a rejection of some or all of these by the ‘native’ is naturally a mark of the early stages of anti-colonial struggle.
 At the same time, the postcolonial nation seeks to establish its own metropolitan practices - sometimes drawing on the ‘authority’ of the native to do so but equally often by expropriating the so-called standards of the former colonial power.
 In such cases, the new metropolis may easily become the centre of neo-colonial or neo-imperialist rule - that is to say, a perpetuation of the control by the former colonial power using economic and cultural means rather than military and civil force.
 While expropriation of the mechanicism of metropolitan control brings with it many dangers for postcolonial nations, the attempt to destroy the metropolis can result in awful tragedy as in the case of Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot murdered millions of former city-dwellers.
Nation; nationalism  
Nationalism is the ideology of nation-states, most pronounced in the independence-making period but very much present, if tacitly so, during the period of full development. In the post-World War II era, virtually up to our own day, it was intellectually fashionable to disparage nationalism as a force for evil in the world; but post-colonial interpretations tend to see it as capable of great good, beginning with the benefits of personal and collective self-esteem, as well as capable of unmitigated violence both against is external enemies and against those within who represent a challenge to its often-overstated claims.
  In the ideological view of nationalists, aA nation is a people living within a given territory that with a distinct history and tradition often, but not invariably associated with a hereditary line of rulers (Kings, Kaisers, Khans) or their modern successors (oligarchies, parliaments, dictatorships).
  It is taken as given - or ‘self-evident’, as the American constitution puts it in a different context - that nations are entitled it to separate stateship and self-government and that minorities within larger national agglomerations are rightly subject to the rule of law dictated by the nation, so-constituted. Any attempt to defy that law or the power that implements it is regarded as rebellion.
 Some nations are majoritarian in terms of ethnic and religious composition, others not. All are mixed in terms of class composition. A few modern ‘republican’ nations (such as France) define themselves by their territorial borders rather than ethnicity or religion and, in fact, institute laws debarring any distinction between citizens made on this basis. In any case, the nation knows itself as such by looking across its borders - that is, in opposition to other nations.
  It has historically common to refer to the territory and community of the nation as the ‘fatherland’ and to elicit loyalty and obedience in a fashion analogous to the workings of the patriarchal family unit. In imperial realms (e.g., French Algeria) has been common to refer to the dominant formation as the ‘motherland’ - e.g., England was the motherland in British Indian.
  While this sounds superficially like a matriarchal schema, it is actually patriarchal in as much as the role assigned to ‘mother’ is subordinate to ‘father’ - in effect, a loving counterpart of the stern authority of the other. In keeping with the familial idea, any rejection of the tender mercies of the ‘mother’ will result in overt discipline by the ‘father’.
 Some of the larger modern states such as the Austro-Hungarian empire or the United Kingdom were united by a single or a dual monarchy, and others held together by a democratic accord (as in the United States of America.) In the first instance, there is always an evident hierarchy within the nation such that the group identified with the monarchy enjoys a special prestige, if not actually superior rights, in relation to the others.
 A different - and comparatively rare - form of political union can be seen in the United States of America where no institutionalised hierarchy between the component members is observable. A free, voluntary associate of this kind is nonetheless strenuously nationalist - or ‘patriotic’, as the leaders are more likely to say - and in any crisis it will quickly materialise that the association is no longer voluntary at all.
 It is characteristic of successful nations, empires and unions that they do not regard nationhood as a matter of great importance in the sense that it is not frequently asserted and, if so, often in very moderate terms.
 The prevailing state of affairs in wartime is markedly different and this reveals that it is only because the nation has come to be taken as part of the natural order that it is not asserted in any strenuous way. As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, ‘a healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones’.
The term simply means ‘born in a given country’ (from natus, Latin) and often has this meaning in English literature but acquired in the specific sense of ‘born in a region subject to colonial and/or imperial exploration’ in the 19th century.
  The colonial native is, quite simply, he (or she) who was found there by the colonist on arrival and is assumed to be incapable of moving outside the geographical space where he was first encountered and to be devoid of the cultural information that might release him from his ‘primitive’ condition.
 Particularly in the plural form (‘natives’), the term is pejorative and paternalistic, conjuring up ideas of populations lacking either individual consciousness or national purpose and generally organised along tribal lines and informed by mythology in place of history and magic in place of religion.
  It was the unfortunate fate of some explorers (such as Capt. Cook) to be killed ‘by the natives’ while stereotypical ideas of the dangers awaiting missionaries in Africa included vivid images of cannibal feasts conducted by ‘natives’ with bones through their noses. At the very least, the term denotes an incapacity or unwillingness on the part of the colonist to assign the proper name to the tribe or race involved beyond identifying them as not-European in a colonial context.
 Natives are killed with a relatively free hand as long as this form of anonymity is preserved.

This contentious term refers to the ethnic identity of a given people, based on geographical origin (Africa, Asia, &c.) and physical characteristics such as pigmentation, facial features but also incorporating ideas of moral and temperamental traits). Such forms of identification are not in themselves objectionable but are almost invariably associated with a binarism which assigns inferior value to the racial characteristics of the subject group in a colonial system. (In etymology, the term derives from the Latin radix, a root, and is associated with such terms as “native”, implying an unbroken connection with a certain land, territory, or even “soil”.)
  The “race” term has been widely censured in modern intellectual discourse as a result of Nazi excesses in its name but has begun to be rehabilitated in recent years on the grounds that, problematic as it is, it mark out real differences in the (pre-)historical heritage of human “families” (or phylogenes) and coincides with definite elements of identity in the cultural worlds of the populations involved.
 Seen in this light, the idea that ‘race is a social construct’ seems itself something of an intellectual fiction devised in order to facilitate multi-cultural life in the metropolitan centres of former imperial nations: a liberal idea which skirts around real difference in order to defend its own ‘borderless’ conception of modern civility and the associated idea of universal ethical norms.

Realism/Magic Realism  

Realism is the dominant aesthetic practice of Western literature since the rise of the novel in the 16th century. It presupposes a world which is subject to empirical laws, inhabited by individuals, each with his/her biography and each inserted in a wider social history which coincides with some cogent part of the history of a nation-state (such as England, France, Germany, &c.)
  Realism is implicitly supported by the claims of science to understand the world in its material structure and often involves the use of a narrator (named or anonymous) whose outlook implies the possibility of a direct and unambiguous revelation of what-is-going on in the world - though sometimes, in Western fiction, this unambiguous narrator is substituted by an ‘unreliable’ narrator whose version of events is supposed to be regarded critically, and whose judgements may best be viewed ironically.
 As the empirical premises of Western fiction (e.g., the English novel) are not particularly suited to the mentality of a non-European population, the transplantation of the novel to postcolonial countries often involves a misfit at the level of formal knowledge. In other words, there is an epistemological contradiction between the realist practice of the novelist and the cultural modality of the postcolonial nation.
 One way of dealing with this is to employ a specific technique (or strategy) known as ‘magic realism’ to modify the operations of the fiction narrative in such a way that it reflects the non-empirical mentality of the postcolonial population.
 Since, however, magic realism first sprung upon the literary world in the writings of the Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), it is possibly misleading to characterise it as an intrinsically postcolonial technique. At the same time, its exploitation by Indian writers (Salmon Rushdie), African writers (Ben Okri) and others has served to establish it as a primary resource in the remodelling of the novel as an appropriate expressive form for postcolonial experience.

The term literally means of ‘lower rank’ and therefore ‘part of the official community but inferior to the others’. (In armies, the subalterns are the lowest ranking officers.) In postcolonial discourse, the subaltern are those who occupy a position of fixed inferiority.
  As such, the term can be used to refer to the colonial subject but also to members of the postcolonial community who continue to be oppressed or restricted as to the degree of liberation made available to them: hence Gayatri Spivak’s concern with the position of women as subalterns in postcolonial India (See Spivak “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, on this website.)
Interpellate (v.)  

This term, meaning to “call forth”, is used in the discussion of the way in which a subject (or person) is effectively constructed by the hegemonic ideology of the time and place into which they are born. In effect, therefore, they are born into an ideology by virtue of being born at such a time and place. This way of thinking abolishes the distance between the individual and the ideology of the society around him which is no longer seen as something chosen or rejected at a certain stage but as the actual force which makes him the person that s/he is. A given ideology is thus said to interpellated the subject into its own structures in such a way that the person bears up those structures and perpetuates them in his/her discourse.
  In Louis Althusser’s famous formulation, the subject comes to tell themselves about ‘their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there’. In other words, the subject is only free to tell himself what the ideology has told him - unless a revolutionary breach is made in the system of communication to produce a new kind of subject and, by implication, a new ideology. Naturally enough, this is a classic example of sophisticated Marxist thinking - engaged with psychology and semiology at the same time - and Althusser was the doyen of modern French Marxism.

Exotic bears the original senseof ‘alien’ or ‘from abroad’ but bears the more precise sense of strange or ‘outlandish’ with overtones of oddity and extravagance of appearance in ways encountered only where only explorers have gone - one of whose functions is to bring back exotic objects and even persons for display at home.
  The exotic is therefore considered almost as a common ‘trait’ and identifying mark pertaining to the natives in regions subject to colonial conquest and colonial rule. (Not to possess exotic features can been regarded as something of a failure on the part of such regions and their populations in the estimate of the metropolitan power.)
 Exoticism is, more particularly, a trait of eastern peoples, implying a conscious cultivation of such strangeness, and to that extent it is synonymous with orientalism in this aspect. The exotic is not merely a form of rarity associated with foreign regions; it is, rather, a specific aesthetic that seems to add an impractical aspect of design to commonplace things in the way that a pagoda differs from a Western house or a Burmese kriss differs from a European dagger.
 In the course of romantic culture, some countries within Europe have engaged in auto-exoticism: that is, they have attempted to turn themselves into the bearers of ‘curious’ features and in so doing to acknowledge there abnormality - indeed, to make a selling point of it.
 The best-known example of this is the apparent exoticism of 19th-century Ireland in relation to the English reading public, but Bavaria and Brittany and some other regions of continental Europe such as the Catalonia and Tyrol have exhibited the same trait. In so-doing they also represent themselves as colonised.
While referring originally to the study of Oriental languages and cultures, the term Orientalism has largely taken on the meaning bestowed on it by the postcolonial critic Edward Said who defined it as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ - i.e., countries to the East of the Bosphorus, taking a compass-bearing from the European West or North America (its trans-Atlantic counterpart). That “West” and “East” are geographical fictions is, of course, revealing of the way that Western orientation dominates global perceptions of cultural difference.
 Said’s idea of orientalism incorporates several strands of postcolonial thinking and offers the most comprehensive - if loosely structured - account of the way in which a given ‘strategic formation’ serves to ‘locate’ a given country in the hegemonic discourse of the dominant colonial culture. Taking Michel Foucault’s view of knowledge as a ‘discourse of power’, he attempts to show how Western knowledge of the East is, in fact, a distortion designed to serve its own political and economic purposes: ‘every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was [...] a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric’ (Orientalism, p.204.) The east is characterised as sensual and idle, immoral and naive, and - finally - incapable of self-knowledge and therefore needing to be understood and represented (even governed) by the West.
Still to come ...  


[ back ]
[ top ]

ENG312C2 - University of Ulster