When was ‘the post-colonial’? Thinking at the limit


Necessarily, we must dismiss those tendencies that encourage the consoling play of recognitions. Michel Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’

When was ‘the post-colonial’? What should be included and excluded from its frame? Where is the invisible line between it and its ‘others’ (colonialism, neo-colonialism, Third World, imperialism), in relation to whose termination it ceaselessly, but without final supersession, marks itself? The main purpose of this paper is to explore the interrogation marks, which have begun to cluster thick and fast around the question of ‘the post-colonial’ and the notion of post-colonial times.

If post-colonial time is the time after colonialism, and colonialism is defined in terms of the binary division between the colonisers and the colonised, why is post-colonial time also a time of ‘difference’? What sort of ‘difference’ is this and what are its implications for the forms of politics and for subject formation in this late-modern moment? These questions increasingly haunt the contested space in which the concept of the ‘post-colonial’ now operates and they cannot be satisfactorily explored until we know more about what the concept means and why it has become the bearer of such powerful unconscious investments – a sign of desire for some, and equally for others, a signifier of danger.

This interrogation can most usefully be done by engaging with the case against the ‘post-colonial’,which has been rapidly taking shape in a series of critical commentaries in recent months. Ella Shohat, whose work in this field has been exemplary for critical scholars, has taken it to task for a variety of conceptual sins. She criticises the ‘postcolonial’ for its theoretical and political ambiguity – its ‘dizzying multiplicity of positionalities’, its ‘a-historical and universalizing displacements’ and its ‘depoliticizing implications’ (Shohat, 1992). The post-colonial, she argues, is politically ambivalent because it blurs the clear-cut distinctions between colonisers and colonised hitherto associated with the paradigms of ‘colonialism’, ‘neo-colonialism’ and ‘Third Worldism’ which it aims to supplant. It dissolves the politics of resistance because it ‘posits no clear domination and calls for no clear opposition’.

Like the other ‘posts’ with which it is aligned, it collapses different histories, temporalities and racial formations into the same universalising category. This is a critique shared by Anne McClintock, another of the original scholars working in this field, who criticises the concept for its linearity and its ‘entranced suspension of history’ (McClintock, 1992). For both critics, the concept is used to mark the final closure of a historical epoch, as if colonialism and its effects are definitively over. ‘Post’, for Shohat, means past: definitively terminated, closed. But this too, for Shohat, is part of its ambiguity since it does not make clear whether this periodisation is intended to be epistemological or chronological. Does ‘post-colonial’ mark the ruptural point between two epistemes in intellectual history or does it refer to ‘the strict chronologies of history tout court’? (Shohat, 1992: 101)?

In his recent polemical contribution to this debate, the distingushed scholar of modern China, Arif Dirlik (1994), not only cites many of the criticisms of Shohat and McClintock with approval – he too finds the concept ‘celebratory’ of the so-called end of colonialism – but adds two substantial critiques of his own. The first is that the post-colonial is a post-structuralist, post-foundationalist discourse, deployed mainly by displaced Third World intellectuals making good in prestige ‘Ivy League’ American universities and deploying the fashionable language of the linguistic and cultural ‘turn’ to ‘rephrase’ Marxism, returning it ‘to another First World language with universalistic epistemological pretentions’. The second and related argument is that the ‘post-colonial’ grossly underplays ‘capitalism’s structuring of the modern world’. Its notion of identity is discursive not structural. It repudiates structure and totality.

Post-colonial discourse, he says blankly, is ‘a culturalism’ (Dirlik, 1994: 347). Lurking within the first of Dirlik’s arguments is a refrain which is common to all these recent critiques: namely, the ‘ubiquitous academic marketability’ of the term ‘post-colonial’ (McClintock, 1992) and the prominent position in its deployment of ‘academic intellectuals of Third World origin . . . [acting as] pace-setters in cultural criticism’ (Dirlik, 1994: 347). Let us leave aside the latter point, with its whiff of politically correct grapeshot and the unwelcome glimpse it unconsciously affords into (as well as the bizarre preoccupation of American-based critical intellectuals with) the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of American Academia.

There are larger issues hovering in the shadows here to which we will have to return – such as, for example, the reductionism of Dirlik’s proposition that post-colonial criticism ‘resonates with the conceptual needs’ of global relationships caused by shifts in the world capitalist economy (when last have we heard that formulation!) which, he says, explains why a concept which is intended to be critical ‘should appear to be complicitous in “the consecration of hegemony’” (Dirlik, 1994: 331, quoting Shohat; see also Miyoshi, 1993). Of course, when one looks at these arguments carefully in context, there is less underlying agreement between them than sometimes appears.

The ‘multiplicity of positionalities’ which Shohat finds disquieting in the post-colonial may not be all that different from the ‘multiplicity’ McClintock regards as a worrying absence: ‘I am struck by how seldom the term is used to denote multiplicity.’ The assault on post-structuralism in Dirlik does not actually square with what we know of McClintock’s substantive work, which is profoundly ‘post-foundational’ in inspiration (for example, the brilliant essay on ‘The Return of Female Fetishism’ in New Formations, 1993; see also 1995). Though Shohat ends her critique with the recognition that one conceptual frame is not necessarily ‘wrong’ and the other ‘right’, her criticisms are so extensive and damaging that it is difficult to know what of substance she would like to see rescued from the debris. But this is nit-picking.

The case against the post-colonial advanced by these critics and others is substantial and must be taken seriously in its own terms. A certain nostalgia runs through some of these arguments for a return to a clear-cut politics of binary oppositions, where clear ‘lines can be drawn in the sand’ between goodies and baddies (Shohat’s article starts with the ‘clarifying’ instance of the Gulf War).

This is not as compelling an argument as it seems at first sight. These ‘lines’ may have been simple once (were they?), but they certainly are so no longer. Otherwise, how are we to understand the general crisis of politics on the left except as some sort of simple conspiracy? This does not mean that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ sides, no play of power, no hard political choices to be made. But isn’t the ubiquitous, the soul-searing, lesson of our times the fact that political binaries do not (do not any longer? did they ever?) either stabilise the field of political antagonism in any permanent way or render it transparently intelligible? ‘Frontier effects’ are not ‘given’ but constructed; consequently, political positionalities are not fixed and do not repeat themselves from one historical situation to the next or from one theatre of antagonism to another, ever ‘in place’, in an endless iteration. Isn’t that the shift from politics as a ‘war of manoeuvre’ to politics as a ‘war of position’, which Gramsci long ago, and decisively, charted? And are we not all, in different ways, and through different conceptual spaces (of which the post-colonial is definitively one), desperately trying to understand what making an ethical political choice and taking a political position in a necessarily open and contingent political field is like, what sort of ‘politics’ it adds up to?

There may indeed be differences of response here between the US and Britain. Without going to great lengths, I find myself insisting that what the Gulf War provided was not the clarifying political experience of ‘lines . . . drawn in the sand’ but the difficulties which arose in opposing the Western war in the desert when manifestly the situation in the Gulf involved both the atrocities which the Alliance committed in defence of Western oil interests under UN cover against the people of Iraq (in whose historic ‘under-development’ the West is deeply implicated); and the atrocities committed against his own people and against the best interests of the region, not to speak of those of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, by Saddam Hussein.

There is a ‘politics’ there; but it is not one from which complexity and ambiguity can be usefully expunged. And it isn’t an untypical example, randomly chosen, but characteristic of a certain kind of political event of our ‘new times’ in which both the crisis of the uncompleted struggle for ‘decolonisation’ and the crisis of the ‘post-independence’ state are deeply inscribed? In short, wasn’t the Gulf War, in this sense, a classic ‘post-colonial’ event? 244 Ella Shohat, of course, at one level, clearly understands this argument, if not endorsing all of its implications.

The last three decades in the ‘Third World’, she observes, have offered a number of very complex and politically ambiguous developments . . . [including] the realization that the wretched of the earth are not unanimously revolutionary . . . and [that] despite the broad patterns of geo-political hegemony, power relations in the Third World are also dispersed and contradictory. She refers to conflicts ‘not only between . . . but also within nations, with the constantly changing relations between dominant and subaltern groups . . .’ (Shohat, 1992: 101).

However, instead of this observation provoking an examination of the potential value of the term ‘post-colonial’ in precisely referencing this shift theoretically, she ends this part of the discussion with a polemically negative observation about the visibility of the ‘post-colonial’ ‘in Anglo-American academic cultural studies’. In short, where she could easily have concluded with a conceptual reflection, she chose instead a polemical closure. As to whether the concept ‘post-colonial’ has been confusingly universalised: there is undoubtedly some careless homogenising going on, as the phrase has caught on and become widely and sometimes inappropriately applied.

There are serious distinctions to be made here which have been neglected and which do weaken the conceptual value of the term. Is Britain ‘post-colonial’ in the same sense as the US? Indeed, is the US usefully thought of as ‘post-colonial’ at all? Should the term be commonly applied to Australia, which is a white settler colony, and to India? Are Britain and Canada, Nigeria and Jamaica ‘equally “post-colonial”’, as Shohat asks in her article? Can Algerians living at home and in France, the French and the Pied Noir settlers, all be ‘post-colonial’? Is Latin America ‘post-colonial’, even though its independence struggles were fought early in the nineteenth century, long before the recent stage of ‘decolonisation’ to which the term more evidently refers, and were led by the descendants of Spanish settlers who had colonised their own ‘native peoples’? Shohat, in her article, exploits this weakness effectively and it is clear that, in the light of this critique, those deploying the concept must attend more carefully to its discriminations and specificities and/or establish more clearly at what level of abstraction the term is operating and how this avoids a spurious ‘universalisation’. Anne McClintock also persuasively distinguishes between a number of different trajectories in global domination, in the course of making a valid and important general point about the need to think the ‘continuities and discontinuities of power’ together (p. 294). Lata Mani and Ruth Frankenberg, in their carefully argued assessment (1993) are particularly helpful here in reminding us that it need not follow that all societies are ‘postcolonial’ in the same way and that in any case the ‘post-colonial’ does not operate on its own but ‘is in effect a construct internally differentiated by its intersections with other unfolding relations’.

So, a more careful discrimination is in order between different social and racial formations. Australia and Canada, on the one hand, Nigeria, India and Jamaica on the other, are certainly not ‘post-colonial’ in the same way. But this does not mean that they are not ‘post-colonial’ in any way. In terms of their relation to the imperial centre, and the ways in which, as C. L. R. James put it about the Caribbean, they are ‘in but not of the West’, they were plainly all ‘colonial’, and are usefully designated now as ‘post-colonial’, though the manner, timing and conditions of their colonisation and independence varied greatly. So, for that matter, was the US, whose current ‘culture wars’, conducted throughout with reference to some mythicised Eurocentric conception of high civilisation, are literally unintelligible outside the framework of America’s colonial past.

There are, however, some ways of discriminating between uses of the term which are not, in my view, helpful. Some would deny it to white settler colonies, reserving it exclusively for the non-western colonised societies. Others would refuse it to the colonising societies of the metropolis, reserving it for the colonies of the periphery only. This is to confuse a descriptive category with an evaluative one.

What the concept may help us to do is to describe or characterise the shift in global relations which marks the (necessarily uneven) transition from the age of Empires to the post-independence or postdecolonisation moment. It may also help us (though here its value is more gestural) to identify what are the new relations and dispositions of power which are emerging in the new conjuncture. But as Peter Hulme has argued recently, If ‘post-colonial’ is a useful word, then it refers to a process of disengagement from the whole colonial syndrome which takes many forms and is probably inescapable for all those whose worlds have been marked by that set of phenomena: ‘post-colonial’ is (or should be) a descriptive not an evaluative term . . . [It is not] some kind of badge of merit. (Hulme, 1995) This thought also helps us to identify, not only the level at which careful distinctions have to be made, but also the level at which ‘post-colonial’ is properly ‘universalising’ (i.e. a concept which is referring to a high level of abstraction).

It refers to a general process of decolonisation which, like colonisation itself, has marked the colonising societies as powerfully as it has the colonised (of course, in different ways). Hence the subverting of the old colonising/colonised binary in the new conjuncture. Indeed, one of the principal values of the term ‘post-colonial’ has been to direct our attention to the many ways in which colonisation was never simply external to the societies of the imperial metropolis.

It was always inscribed deeply within them – as it became indelibly inscribed in the cultures of the colonised. This was a process whose negative effects provided the foundation of anti-colonial political mobilisation, and provoked the attempt to recover an alternative set of cultural origins not contaminated by the colonising experience. This was, as Shohat observes, the critical dimension of anti-colonial struggles.

However, in terms of any absolute return to a pure set of uncontaminated origins, the long-term historical and cultural effects of the ‘transculturation’ which characterised the colonising experience proved, in my view, to be irreversible. The differences, of course, between colonising and colonised cultures remain profound. But they have never operated in a purely binary way and they certainly do so no longer.

Indeed, the shift from circumstances in which anti-colonial struggles seemed to assume a binary form of representation to the present when they can no longer be represented within a binary structure, I would describe as a move from one conception of difference to another (see Hall, 1992), from difference to différance, and this shift is precisely what the serialised or staggered transition to the ‘post-colonial’ is marking. But it is not only not marking it in a ‘then’ and ‘now’ way.

It is obliging us to re-read the very binary form in which the colonial encounter has for so long itself been represented. It obliges us to re-read the binaries as forms of transculturation, of cultural translation, destined to trouble the here/ there cultural binaries for ever. It is precisely this ‘double inscription’, breaking down the clearly demarcated inside/ outside of the colonial system on which the histories of imperialism have thrived for so long, which the concept of the ‘post-colonial’ has done so much to bring to the fore. (See, on this historiographical point and its implications for a politics of the present, Catherine Hall’s essay in this volume.) It follows that the term ‘post-colonial’ is not merely descriptive of ‘this’ society rather than ‘that’, or of ‘then’ and ‘now’. It re-reads ‘colonisation’ as part of an essentially transnational and transcultural ‘global’ process – and it produces a decentred, diasporic or ‘global’ rewriting of earlier, nation-centred imperial grand narratives.

Its theoretical value therefore lies precisely in its refusal of this ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘then’ and ‘now’, ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ perspective. ‘Global’ here does not mean universal, but it is not nation- or society-specific either. It is about how the lateral and transverse cross-relations of what Gilroy calls the ‘diasporic’ (Gilroy, 1994) supplement and simultaneously dis-place the centre-periphery, and the global/ local reciprocally re-organise and re-shape one another. As Mani and Frankenberg argue, ‘colonialism’ always was about, and ‘post-colonial’ certainly is about, different ways of, ‘staging the encounters’ between the colonising societies and their ‘others’ – ‘though not always in the same way or to the same degree’ (Mani and Frankenberg, 1993: 301).

This argument connects with another strand of the critique – namely, the ‘postcolonial’ as a form of periodisation, and what Shohat calls its ‘problematic temporality’. What ‘post-colonial’ certainly is not is one of those periodisations based on epochal ‘stages’, when everything is reversed at the same moment, all the old relations disappear for ever and entirely new ones come to replace them. Clearly, the disengagement from the colonising process has been a long, drawnout and differentiated affair, in which the recent post-war movements towards decolonisation figures as one, but only one, distinctive ‘moment’.

Here, ‘colonisation’ signals direct colonial occupation and rule, and the transition to ‘post-colonial’ is characterised by independence from direct colonial rule, the formation of new nation states, forms of economic development dominated by the growth of indigenous capital and their relations of neo-colonial dependency on the developed capitalist world, and the politics which arise from emergence of powerful local elites managing the contradictory effects of under-development. Just as significant, it is characterised by the persistence of many of the effects of colonisation, but at the same time their displacement from the coloniser/colonised axis to their internalisation within the decolonised society itself. Hence, the British, who were deeply implicated with the regional economies, the ruling factions and the complex politics of the Gulf States, Persia and Mesopotamia through the network of mandates and protected ‘spheres of influence’ after World War One, withdrew in the decolonising moment ‘west of Suez’; and the ‘aftereffects’ of this pervasive type of indirect colonial hegemony is then ‘lived’ and ‘reworked’ through the various ‘internal’ crises of the post-colonial states and societies of the Gulf States, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, not to speak of Palestine and Israel. In this scenario, ‘the colonial’ is not dead, since it lives on in its ‘after-effects’. But its politics can certainly no longer be mapped completely back into, nor declared to be ‘the same’ in the post-colonial moment as it was during the period of the British mandate.

These complexities and re-stagings have become a common feature in many parts of the ‘postcolonial’ world, although there have also been other ‘decolonising’ trajectories, both earlier ones and ones with significantly different outcomes. One could ask – it seems some of the critics are asking – why then privilege this moment of the ‘post-colonial’? Doesn’t it, with its preoccupation with the colonised/ colonising relationship, simply revive or re-stage exactly what the post-colonial so triumphantly declares to be ‘over’? Dirlik, for example, finds it strange that the postcolonial critics are so preoccupied with the Enlightenment and with Europe, the critique of which seems – oddly – to be their central task. McClintock also criticises the ‘recentering of global history around the single rubric of European time’ (p. 86).

It is true that the ‘post-colonial’ signals the proliferation of histories and temporalities, the intrusion of difference and specificity into the generalising and Eurocentric post-Enlightenment grand narratives, the multiplicity of lateral and decentred cultural connections, movements and migrations which make up the world today, often bypassing the old metropolitan centres. Perhaps, however, we should have been warned by other theoretical examples, where the deconstruction of core concepts undertaken by the so-called ‘post-’ discourses is followed, not by their abolition and disappearance but rather by their proliferation (as Foucault warned), only now in a ‘decentred’ position in the discourse.

‘The subject’ and ‘identity’ are only two of the concepts which, having been radically undermined in their unitary and essentialist form, have proliferated beyond our wildest expectations in their decentred forms into new discursive positionalities. At the same time, there is someting to the argument that, as Lata Mani and Ruth Frankenberg remark in their critique of Robert Young’s White Mythologies (1990), sometimes the only purpose which the post-colonial critique seems to serve is as a critique of western philosophical discourse, which, as they observe, is like ‘merely [taking] a detour to return to the position of the Other as a resource for rethinking the Western Self’. It would, as they say, be a turn-up for the books if the ‘key object and achievement of the Algerian War of Independence was the overthrow of the Hegelian dialectic’ (1993: 101)! In fact, in my view, the problem with White Mythologies (1990) is not that it sees the connection between the post-colonial and the critique of the western metaphysical tradition, but that it is driven by a Promethean desire for the ultimate theoretically correct position – a desire to out-theorise everyone else – and, in so doing, sets up a hierarchy from the ‘bad’ (Sartre, Marxism, Jameson) through the ‘not-too-bad-but-wrong’ (Said, Foucault) to the ‘almost-OK’ (Spivak, Bhabha) without ever once putting on the table for serious critical inspection the normative discourse, the foundational figure – i.e. Derrida – in relation to whose absence/presence the whole linear sequence is staged. But that is another story – or rather the same story in another part of the forest. . . Many of the critiques of the ‘post-colonial’, then – paradoxically, given its poststructuralist orientation – take the form of a demand for more multiplicity and dispersal (though Dirlik, with his stress on the structuring force of capitalism, is deeply suspicious of this kind of post-structuralist flirtation).

Yet, while holding fast to differentiation and specificity, we cannot afford to forget the over-determining effects of the colonial moment, the ‘work’ which its binaries were constantly required to do to re-present the proliferation of cultural difference and forms of life, which were always there, within the sutured and over-determined ‘unity’ of that simplifying, over-arching binary, ‘the West and the Rest’. (This recognition goes some way to rescuing Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ from the critique that it fails to discriminate between different imperialisms.) We have to keep these two ends of the chain in play at the same time – over-determination and difference, condensation and dissemination – if we are not to fall into a playful deconstructionism, the fantasy of a powerless utopia of difference.

It is only too tempting to fall into the trap of assuming that, because essentialism has been deconstructed theoretically, therefore it has been displaced politically. In terms of periodisation, however, the ‘post-colonial’ retains some ambiguity because, in addition to identifying the post-decolonisation moment as critical for a shift in global relations, the term also offers – as all periodisations do – an alternative narrative, highlighting different key conjunctures to those embedded in the classical narrative of Modernity. Colonisation, from this ‘post-colonial’ perspective, was no local or marginal sub-plot in some larger story (for example, the transition from feudalism to capitalism in western Europe, the latter developing ‘organically’ in the womb of the former). In the restaged narrative of the post-colonial, colonisation assumes the place and significance of a major, extended and ruptural world-historical event.

By ‘colonisation’, the ‘post-colonial’ references something more than direct rule over certain areas of the world by the imperial powers. I think it is signifying the whole process of expansion, exploration, conquest, colonisation and imperial hegemonisation which constituted the ‘outer face’, the constitutive outside, of European and then Western capitalist modernity after 1492. This re-narrativisation displaces the ‘story’ of capitalist modernity from its European centring to its dispersed global ‘peripheries’; from peaceful evolution to imposed violence; from the transition from feudalism to capitalism (which played such a talismanic role in, for example, Western Marxism) to the formation of the world market, to use shorthand terms for a moment; or rather to new ways of conceptualising the relationship between these different ‘events’ – the permeable inside/outside borders of emergent ‘global’ capitalist modernity.

It is the retrospective re-phrasing of Modernity within the framework of ‘globalisation’ in all its various ruptural forms and moments (from the Portuguese entry to the Indian Ocean and the conquest of the New World to the internationalisation of financial markets and information flows) which is the really distinctive element in a ‘post-colonial’ periodisation. In this way, the ‘post-colonial’ marks a critical interruption into that whole grand historiographical narrative which, in liberal historiography and Weberian historical sociology, as much as in the dominant traditions of Western Marxism, gave this global dimension a subordinate presence in a story which could essentially be told from within its European parameters. Colonisation, understood or re-read in this sense, was only intelligible as an event of global significance – by which one signals not its universal and totalizing, but its dislocated and differentiated character.

That is to say, it had to be understood then, and certainly can only be understood now, in terms, not only of the vertical relations between coloniser and colonised, but also in terms of how these and other forms of powerrelations were always displaced and decentred by another set of vectors – the transverse linkages between and across nation-state frontiers and the global/local interrelationships which cannot be read off against a nation-state template. It is in this reconstitution of the epistemic and power/knowledge fields around the relations of globalisation, through its various historical forms, that the ‘periodisation’ of the ‘post-colonial’ is really challenging. However, this point hardly surfaces in any of the critiques. And when it does (as in Dirlik, 1994), its effects are contradictory for the run of the argument, as I hope to demonstrate below.

What’s more, to jump several stages ahead for a moment, it is precisely because of this critical re-lay through the global that the ‘post-colonial’ has been able to become so sensitively attuned to precisely those dimensions which Shohat, for example, finds problematic – questions of hybridity, syncretism, of cultural undecidability and the complexities of diasporic identification which interrupt any ‘return’ to ethnically closed and ‘centred’ original histories.

Understood in its global and transcultural context, colonisation has made ethnic absolutism an increasingly untenable cultural strategy. It made the ‘colonies’ themselves, and even more, large tracts of the ‘post-colonial’ world, always-already ‘diasporic’ in relation to what might be thought of as their cultures of origin. The notion that only the multi-cultural cities of the First World are ‘diaspora-ised’ is a fantasy which can only be sustained by those who have never lived in the hybridised spaces of a Third World, so-called ‘colonial’, city.

In this ‘post-colonial’ moment, these transverse, transnational, transcultural movements, which were always inscribed in the history of ‘colonisation’, but carefully overwritten by more binary forms of narrativisation, have, of course, emerged in new forms to disrupt the settled relations of domination and resistance inscribed in other ways of living and telling these stories. They reposition and dis-place ‘difference’ without, in the Hegelian sense, ‘overcoming’ it. Shohat observes that the anti-essentialist emphasis in ‘post-colonial’ discourse sometimes seems to define any attempt to recover or inscribe a communal past as a form of idealisation, despite its significance as a site of resistance and collective identity. She makes the very valid point that this past could be negotiated differently, ‘not as a static fetishized phase to be literally reproduced but as fragmented sets of narrated memories and experiences’ (1992: 109).

I would agree with this argument. But this is to take the double-inscriptions of the colonising encounter, the dialogic character of its alterity, the specific character of its ‘difference’ and the centrality of questions of narrative and the imaginary in political struggle seriously (see, for example, Hall, 1990). However, isn’t that precisely what is meant by thinking the cultural consequences of the colonising process ‘diasporically’, in non-originary ways – that is, through, rather than around ‘hybridity’? Doesn’t it imply trying to think the questions of cultural power and political struggle within rather than against the grain of ‘the post-colonial’?

The way difference was lived in the colonised societies after the violent and abrupt rupture of colonisation, was and had to be decisively different from how these cultures would have developed, had they done so in isolation from one another. From that turning point in the closing decades of the fifteenth century forwards, there is, of course, no ‘single, homogeneous, empty (Western) time’. But there are the condensations and ellipses which arise when all the different temporalities, while remaining ‘present’ and ‘real’ in their differential effects, are also rupturally convened in relation to, and must mark their ‘difference’ in terms of, the over-determining effects of Eurocentric temporalities, systems of representation and power.

This is what is meant by placing colonisation in the framework of ‘globalisation’ or rather by the assertion that what distinguishes modernity is this over-determined, sutured and supplementary character of its temporalities. Hybridity, syncretism, multidimensional temporalities, the double inscriptions of colonial and metropolitan times, the two-way cultural traffic characteristic of the contact zones of the cities of the ‘colonised’ long before they have become the characteristic tropes of the cities of the ‘colonising’, the forms of translation and transculturation which have characterised the ‘colonial relation’ from its earliest stages, the disavowals and in-betweenness, the here-and-theres, mark the aporias and re-doublings whose interstices colonial discourses have always negotiated and about which Homi Bhabha has written with such profound insight (Bhabha, 1994).

It goes without saying that they have, of course, always to be set within and against the over-determining power-knowledge discursive relations by which imperial regimes were stitched or laced together. They are the tropes of supplementarity and différance within a dislocated but sutured global system which only emerged or could emerge in the wake of the onset of the colonising expansionist process which Mary Louise Pratt calls the Euro-imperial adventure (Pratt, 1992).

Since the Sixteenth Century, these differential temporalities and histories have been irrevocably and violently yoked together. This certainly does not mean that they ever were or are the same. Their grossly unequal trajectories, which formed the very ground of political antagonism and cultural resistance, have nevertheless been impossible to disentangle, conceptualise or narrate as discrete entities: though that is precisely what the dominant western historiographical tradition has often tried to do. No site, either ‘there’ or ‘here’, in its fantasied autonomy and in-difference, could develop without taking into account its significant and/or abjected others.

The very notion of an autonomous, self-produced and self-identical cultural identity, like that of a self-sufficient economy or absolutely sovereign polity, had in fact to be discursively constructed in and through ‘the Other’, through a system of similarities and differences, through the play of différance and the tendency of these fixed signifiers to float, to go ‘on the slide’. The Other ceased to be a term fixed in place and time external to the system of identification and became, instead, a symbolically marked ‘constituitive outside’, a positionality of differential marking within a discursive chain. It is possible, now, to answer the question posed earlier about the ‘post-colonial’s’ preoccupation with Eurocentric time.

The Enlightenment returns, in the discourse of the ‘post-colonial’, in its decentred position, because it represents a critical epistemic shift within the colonising process, understood in this wider sense, whose discursive, powerknowledge, effects are still in play (how, in western discourses dominated by Science and the Social Sciences, could it fail to be?). Until the Enlightenment, difference had often been conceptualised in terms of different orders of being – ‘Are they True Men?’ was the question which Sepulveda put to Bartholome de Las Casas in the famous debate at Vallodolid before Charles X in 1550. Whereas, under the universalising panoptic eye of the Enlightenment, all forms of human life were brought within the universal scope of a single order of being, so that difference had to be re-cast into the constant marking and re-marking of positions within a single discursive system (différance).

This process was organized by those shifting mechanisms of ‘otherness’, alterity and exclusion and the tropes of fetishism and pathologisation, which were required if ‘difference’ was ever to be fixed and consolidated within a ‘unified’ discourse of civilisation. They were constitutive in the symbolic production of a constitutive outside, which however has always refused to be fixed in place and which was, and even more today is, always slipping back across the porous or invisible borders to disturb and subvert from the inside (Laclau, 1990; Butler, 1993). The argument is not that, thereafter, everything has remained the same – colonisation repeating itself in perpetuity to the end of time. It is, rather, that colonisation so refigured the terrain that, ever since, the very idea of a world of separate identities, of isolated or 252 separable and self-sufficient cultures and economies, has been obliged to yield to a variety of paradigms designed to capture these different but related forms of relationship, interconnection and discontinuity.

This was the distinctive form of disseminationand-condensation which colonisation set in play. It is in privileging this missing or downgraded dimension in the official narrative of ‘colonisation’ that the discourse of ‘post-colonial’ is conceptually distinctive. Although colonisation’s particular forms of inscription and subjection varied in almost every other respect from one part of the globe to another, its general effects also require to be crudely but decisively marked, theoretically, alongside its pluralities and multiplicities.

That, in my view, is what the anomalous signifier ‘colonial’ is doing in the concept of the ‘post-colonial’. What, then, about the more troubling question of the prefix, the ‘post’? Shohat, for example, acknowledges that the ‘post’ signals both the ‘closure of a certain historical event or age’ and a ‘going beyond . . . commenting upon a certain intellectual movement’ (1992: 101, 108). She clearly prefers the latter meaning to the former. For Peter Hulme (1995), however, the ‘post’ in ‘post-colonial’ has two dimensions which exist in tension with each other: a temporal dimension in which there is a punctual relationship in time between, for example, a colony and a post-colonial state; and a critical dimension in which, for example, postcolonial theory comes into existence through a critique of a body of theory.

Moreover, the tension, for Hulme, is productive, whereas for Shohat it produces a structured ambivalence. In this respect, she seems to argue that the ‘post-colonial’ is different from the other ‘posts’ in attempting to be both epistemic and chronological. It is both the paradigm and the chronological moment of the ‘colonial’ which the ‘post-colonial’ claims to be superseding. However, it seems to me that, in this respect, the ‘post-colonial’ is no different from the other ‘posts’. It is not only ‘after’ but ‘going beyond’ the colonial, as post-modernism is both ‘going beyond’ and ‘after’ modernism, and post-structuralism both follows chronologically and achieves its theoretical gains ‘on the back of’ structuralism.

The trickier question is whether in fact these two could ever be separated, and what such a separation would imply about the way ‘colonisation’ itself is being conceptualised. ‘Colonialism’ refers to a specific historical moment (a complex and differentiated one, as we have tried to suggest); but it was always also a way of staging or narrating a history, and its descriptive value was always framed within a distinctive definitional and theoretical paradigm.

The very succession of terms which have been coined to refer to this process – colonisation, imperialism, neo-colonial, dependency, Third World – shows the degree to which each apparently innocent descriptive term carried in its slipstream powerful epistemological, conceptual and indeed political baggage: the degree, in short, to which each has to be understood discursively. Indeed, the distinction which this critique seems to be trying to enforce between ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’ is exactly what the discourse of the post-colonial (or rather, what thinking both ‘the colonial’ and ‘the postcolonial’ discursively) has displaced. With ‘colonisation’, and consequently with the ‘post-colonial’, we are irrevocably within a power-knowledge field of force.

It is precisely the false and disabling distinction between colonisation as a system of rule, of power and exploitation, and colonisation as a system of knowledge and representation, which is being refused. It is because the relations which characterised the ‘colonial’ are no longer in the same place and relative position, that we are able not simply to oppose them but to critique, to deconstruct and try to ‘go beyond’ them. But what exactly might be meant by this ‘after’ and ‘going beyond’? Shohat argues that ‘The operation of simultaneously privileging and distancing the colonial narrative, moving beyond it, structures the “in-between” framework of the “post-colonial”’ (1992: 107). She is not very sympathetic to this un-decidability. But it is possible to argue that the tension between the epistemological and the chronological is not disabling but productive.

‘After’ means in the moment which follows that moment (the colonial) in which the colonial relation was dominant. It does not mean, as we tried to show earlier, that what we have called the ‘after-effects’ of colonial rule have somehow been suspended. It certainly does not mean that we have passed from a regime of power-knowledge into some powerless and conflict-free time zone. Nevertheless, it does also stake its claim in terms of the fact that some other, related but as yet ‘emergent’ new configurations of power-knowledge relations are beginning to exert their distinctive and specific effects.

This way of conceptualising the shift between these paradigms – not as an epistemological ‘break’ in the Althusserian/ structuralist sense but more on the analogy of what Gramsci called a movement of deconstruction-reconstruction or what Derrida, in a more deconstructive sense, calls a ‘double inscription’ – is characteristic of all the ‘posts’. Gramsci, speaking about transformations in the field of practical common sense, observes that they have to be thought as a process of distinction and of change in the relative weight possessed by the elements of the old ideology . . . what was secondary or even incidental becomes of primary importance, it becomes the nucleus of a new doctrinal and ideological ensemble.

The old collective will disintegrates into its contradictory elements so that the subordinate elements amongst them can develop socially . . . (Gramsci, 1975, 1979. See also Hall, 1988: 138) What, in their different ways these theoretical descriptions are attempting to construct is a notion of a shift or a transition conceptualised as the re-configuration of a field, rather than as a movement of linear transcendence between two mutually exclusive states. Such transformations are not only not completed but they may not be best captured within a paradigm which assumes that all major historical shifts are driven by a necessitarian logic towards a teleological end. Lata Mani and Ruth Frankenberg make the critical distinction between a transition which is ‘decisive’ (which the ‘post-colonial’ certainly is) and one which is ‘definitive’.

To put this another way, all the key concepts in the ‘post-colonial’, as in the general discourse of the ‘posts’, are operating, as Derrida would put it, ‘under erasure’. They have been subjected to a deep and thorough-going critique, exposing their assumptions as a set of foundational effects. But this deconstruction does not abolish them, in the classic movement of supersession, an Aufghebung. It leaves them as the only conceptual instruments and tools with which to think about the present – but only if they are deployed in their deconstructed form. They are, to use another, more Heideggerean, formulation, which Iain Chambers, for example, prefers, ‘a presence that exists in abeyance’ (Chambers, 1994).

In a now-famous exchange about ‘thinking at the limit’ – which seems to me a good description of the status of ‘the post-colonial’ as an episteme-in-formation – Derrida once defined the limit of philosophical discourse as ‘the episteme, functioning within a system of fundamental constraints, conceptual oppositions outside of which philosophy becomes impracticable’. He spoke of ‘a necessarily double gesture marked in certain places by an erasure which allows what it obliterates to be read, violently inscribing within the text that which attempted to govern it from without’ and of trying to respect as rigorously as possible ‘the internal, regulated play of philosophemes . . . by making them slide . . . to the point of their non-pertinence, their exhaustion, their closure’.

To deconstruct philosophy thus would be to think – in the most faithful interior way – the structured genealogy of philosophy’s concepts but at the same time to determine – from a certain exterior that is unquantifiable or unnameable in philosophy – what this history has been unable to dissimulate or forbid. By means of this simultaneously faithful and violent circulation between the inside and the outside of philosophy . . . there is produced a certain textual work . . . (Derrida, 1981) When his interlocutor, Ronse, asked him whether by this means there could be ‘a surpassing of philosophy’, Derrida remarked, There is not a transgression if one understands by that a pure and simple landing into the beyond of metaphysics . . . But by means of the work done on one side and on the other side of the limit, the field inside is modified and a transgression is produced that consequently is nowhere present as a fait accompli . . . (Derrida, 1981)

The problem, then, is not that the ‘post-colonial’ is a conventional paradigm of a logicodeductive type which erroneously confuses the chronological and the epistemological. Lying behind this is a deeper choice between epistemologies: between a rational and successive logic and a deconstructive one. In this sense, Dirlik is correct to pinpoint the question of the post-colonial’s relation to what can be broadly called ‘post-structuralist’ ways of thinking as a central issue which its critics find particularly troubling. Larger issues are thus ‘at stake’ in this debate than the criticisms which have been widely signalled sometimes suggest. Dirlik is particularly ferocious in this area and for reasons which are not difficult to identify.

Discovering that the term ‘post-colonial’ is applied to many writers who do not necessarily agree with one another, some of whom Dirlik likes and others he does not, he is driven to the polemical conclusion that the ‘post-colonial’ is not the description of anything or anyone in particular but rather ‘a discourse that seeks to constitute the world in the self-image of intellectuals who view themselves or have come to view themselves as post-colonial intellectuals [and] . . . an expression . . . of [their] new found power’ in First World Academe.

This rather crude ad hominem and ad feminam namecalling disfigures the argument of a distinguished scholar of modern China and it would perhaps be wise to think of it as ‘symptomatic’. But of what? We get a clue to an answer when he takes Gyan Prakash’s elegant post-structuralist defence of the post-colonial’, ‘Post-colonial Criticism and Indian Historiography’ (1992) as his principal stalking horse. Let us leave the many local criticisms of this article, some of which we have already mentioned, to one side.

The main burden of the charge is that the post-colonial, like the post-structuralist discourse which provides its philosophical and theoretical grounding, is anti-foundational and, as such, cannot deal with a concept like ‘capitalism’ and with ‘capitalism’s structuring of the modern world’ (p. 346). Moreover, the ‘post-colonial’ is ‘a culturalism’. It is preoccupied with questions of identity and the subject and hence cannot give ‘an account of the world outside the subject’. Attention is shifted from national origin to subject position and ‘a politics of location takes precedence over politics informed by fixed categories (in this case the nation, though obviously other categories such as Third World and class are also implied)’ (p. 336). The ‘post-colonial’ presents the coloniser equally with the colonised with ‘a problem of identity’ (p. 337). This is all going with a remarkable swing for twenty pages when, on page 347, a by now somewhat characteristic ‘turn’ begins to reveal itself. ‘These criticisms, however vehement on occasion, do not necessarily indicate that post-colonialism’s critics deny it all value . . .’

The ‘post-colonial’ discourse, turns out, after all, to have something to say about ‘a crisis in the modes of comprehending the world associated with such concepts as Third World and nation state’. Nor, apparently, is it to be denied that as the global situation has become more blurred with the disappearance of the socialist states, with the emergence of important differences economically and politically between so-called Third World societies and the diasporic motions of peoples across national and regional boundaries, fragmentation of the global into the local has emerged into the foreground of historical and political consciousness. (Dirlik, 1992: 347)

This may appear to innocent eyes like recuperating a good deal of already repudiated territory, apart from containing in itself some questionable formulations. (Some postmodern critics may believe that the global has fragmented into the local but most of the serious ones argue that what is happening is a mutual reorganisation of the local and the global, a very different proposition: see Massey, 1994; Robins, 1991; Hall, 1992). But let that pass.

For it is followed, in the second section of the article, by a long, detailed and persuasive account of some of the main features of what is ‘variously’ described as ‘late capitalism, flexible production or accumulation, disorganised capitalism and global capitalism’. These include: the new international division of labour, the new global information technologies, a ‘de-centering of capitalism nationally’, the linkage provided by the transnational corporation, the transnationalisation of production, the appearance of the capitalist mode of production, ‘for the first time in the history of capitalism’ (p. 350), as an ‘authentically global abstraction’, cultural fragmentation and multi-culturalism, the rearticulation of native cultures into a capitalist narrative (the example here being the Confucian revival amongst the rising South East Asian capitalist elite), the weakening of boundaries, the replication internally in once-colonial societies of inequalities once associated with colonial differences, the ‘disorganization of a world conceived in terms of three worlds’, the flow of culture which is ‘at once homogenizing and heterogenizing’ (p. 353), a modernity which ‘is no longer just Euro-American’, forms of control which cannot just be imposed but have to be ‘negotiated’, the reconstitution of subjectivities across national boundaries, and so on . . .

It is not only an impressive, and impressively comprehensive, list. It also, I think incontrovertibly, touches at some point every single theme which makes the ‘postcolonial’ a distinctive theoretical paradigm, and marks decisively how radically and unalterably different – that is to say, how incontrovertibly post-colonial – is the world and the relations being described. And, indeed, to the reader’s astonishment, this is also acknowledged: ‘post-coloniality represents a response to a genuine need, the need to overcome a crisis of understanding produced by the inability of old categories to account for the world’ (p. 353).

Is there a ‘post-colonial’ critic in the house who would dissent from that judgement? Two arguments could follow from this second half of the essay. The first is a serious one – indeed, the most serious criticism which the post-colonial critics and theorists have urgently now to face – and it is succinctly put by Dirlik. ‘What is remarkable . . . is that a consideration of the relationship between postcolonialism and global capitalism should be absent from the writings of postcolonial intellectuals.’ Let us not quibble and say of some post-colonial intellectuals. It is remarkable. And it has become seriously damaging and disabling for everything positive which the post-colonial paradigm can, and has the ambition to, accomplish.

These two halves of the current debate about ‘late modernity’ – the post-colonial and the analysis of the new developments in global capitalism – have indeed largely proceeded in relative isolation from one another, and to their mutual cost. It is not difficult to understand why, though Dirlik does not seem interested in pursuing this as a serious question (he does have a trivial answer to it, which is different). One reason is that the discourses of the ‘post’ have emerged, and been (often silently) articulated against the practical, political, historical and theoretical effects of the collapse of a certain kind of economistic, teleological and, in the end, reductionist Marxism.

What has resulted from the abandonment of this deterministic economism has been, not alternative ways of thinking questions about the economic relations and their effects, as the ‘conditions of existence’ of other practices, inserting them in a ‘decentred’ or dislocated way into our explanatory paradigms, but instead a massive, gigantic and eloquent disavowal. As if, since the economic in its broadest sense, definitively does not, as it was once supposed to do, ‘determine’ the real movement of history ‘in the last instance’, it does not exist at all!

This is a failure of theorisation so profound, and (with very few, still relatively sketchy, exceptions: see Laclau, 1990, but also Barrett, 1991) so disabling, that, in my view, it has enabled much weaker and less conceptually rich paradigms to continue to flourish and dominate the field. (Dirlik himself makes, at one point, an interesting observation that he prefers ‘the world system approach’, even though, like the post-colonial, it ‘locates the Third World discursively’ [p. 346], but this interesting and fruitful line of discussion is not pursued.) Of course, it is not simply a matter that the relationship between these paradigms has been left to one side. This is itself partly an institutional effect – an unintended consequence, some would say, of the fact that the ‘post-colonial’ has been most fully developed by literary scholars, who have been reluctant to make the break across disciplinary (even post-disciplinary) boundaries required to advance the argument.

It is also because there may well be some conceptual incompatibility between a certain kind of postfoundationalism and the serious investigation of these complex articulations. But this cannot yet be accepted as an unbridgeable philosophical chasm, especially because, though they do not address the question of the conceptual role which the categeory ‘capitalism’ may have in a post-foundationalist ‘logic’, certain articulations of this order are in fact either implicitly assumed or silently at work in the underpinning assumptions of almost all the post-colonial critical work. Dirlik has therefore put his finger squarely, and convincingly, on a serious lacuna in the post-colonial episteme. To have concluded with the implications for the future of the post-colonial paradigm of this critique would indeed have served a very important, timely and strategic purpose. And had this been the conclusion to his essay, one could have overlooked the curiously broken-backed and internally contradictory nature of the argument (the second half repudiating in effect much of the substance and all of the tone of the first half).

However, it is not. His conclusion takes the second path. Far from just ‘representing a response to a genuine [theoretical] need’, he ends with the thought that ‘Post-coloniality resonates with the problems thrown up by global capitalism’, is ‘attuned’ to its issues and hence serves its cultural requirements. The post-colonial critics are, in effect, unwitting spokespersons for the new global capitalist order. This is a conclusion to a long and detailed argument of such stunning (and one is obliged to say, banal) reductionism, a functionalism of a kind which one thought had disappeared from scholarly debate as a serious explanation of anything, that it reads like a echo from a distant, primeval era.

It is all the more disturbing because a very similar line of argument is to be found from a diametrically opposite position – the inexplicably simplistic charge in Robert Young’s Colonial Desire (1995) that the post-colonial critics are ‘complicit’ with Victorian racial theory because both sets of writers deploy the same term – hybridity – in their discourse! Here, then, we find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis, between the devil and the deep blue sea. We always knew that the dismantling of the colonial paradigm would release strange demons from the deep, and that these monsters might come trailing all sorts of subterranean material. Still, the awkward twists and turns, leaps and reversals in the ways the argument is being conducted should alert us to the sleep of reason that is beyond or after Reason, the way desire plays across power and knowledge in the dangerous enterprise of thinking at or beyond the limit.



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