What is postcolonialism?

Postcolonialism is like the Expanding Brain Meme. You can define it very simply, and then slightly more complexly, and then even more complexly. So I’ll take a couple of options in turn.

The first option is to understand postcolonialism as a historical situation, and as being about an event that occurred in time, in many countries (see Young, 2001, 44). This event is when a country ended its status as a colony, either a settled one as in the US, or an unsettled one as in, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and declared its independence.
This already immediately leads to some definitional issues about what counts as a postcolonial state (or country). For example, many countries and people have liberated themselves from other countries which ruled them throughout, for example, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Think of the breakup of the Spanish empire, of which many modern-day Latin American countries were a part, or the Ottoman empire, which used to contain Tunisia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Albania and others. However, they don’t often get the label ‘postcolonial.’ This is because an awareness of ‘colonisation’ and ‘decolonisation’ didn’t really start to be common until after 1945, with the end of World War II and the rise of the United Nations, when there was a wave of independence movements. Others say that postcolonialism started with the modern wave of decolonisation, which commenced after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 (Mignolo, 1995). Nonetheless, few say that the breakdown of the Ottoman or Spanish empires created ‘postcolonial’ countries, even though they could certainly use that term if they wanted to, because they were colonies and they were the subject of ‘colonial’ practices.

You can look at this map to see countries that have at some point been colonised: there’s lots!

It is also worth thinking about what unites or differentiates post-colonial countries from each other. They’re obviously not all the same despite having a lot in common, like the original inhabitants having their land or resources taken, and locals exposed to horrifying practices which include genocide, slavery, and removal from home. Mignolo (1995) and others like Anne McClintock have tried to come up with ways of classifying post-colonial countries. Mignolo and McClintock say that some post-colonial countries are breakaway settler colonies (like Australia or the US), while others are ‘deep settler’ colonies (settled with extreme violence and brutality, like Algeria or Kenya). This is obviously not a neat distinction because Australia and the US were also settled with extreme violence.

Postcolonialism, not decolonisation 
At this point it is probably a good idea to ask why postcolonialism is called postcolonialism and not the much more obvious term decolonisation. This is the stage at which we hit Brane Meme level 2, and it has to do with the ‘post’s in the social sciences: postcolonialism, postmodernism, poststructuralism. Post- simply means ‘after’, and Level 1 would suggest that anything that comes after you stop being a colony is post-colonial. However, postcolonial scholars and activists are trying to do something more than that. Colonial practices still occur regularly in ‘no-longer-colonial’ states. When this happens it is called neo-colonialism. You can look to the Northern Territory Intervention for an example of neo-colonialism.

The post- in post-colonialism
I’ll explain why ‘postcolonialism’ is the chosen term through a quick foray into postmodernism, which is probably a slightly more familiar term. And, according to Mignolo, postcolonialism and postmodernism are sort of two sides of the same coin. Mignolo says that Australia, the US and New Zealand are not places where postcolonialism was born, but he does say that they are where postmodernism was born. What’s the difference? Well, Mignolo says that both postmodernism and postcolonialism are responses to different types of colonial inheritance. Both postmodernism and postcolonialism respond to the ‘inheritance’ of modernism. The West expanded during the modern age, called ‘The Age of Discovery,’ in the eighteenth century. This is why modernism and colonialism go hand in hand – they both spread at the same time.

The difference between postmodernism and postcolonialism, knowing that they both respond to the same thing – the ideas, like a belief in empire, spread during the Age of Discovery – is just about the location of where the response is coming from. Mignolo says that people like Fredric Jameson and Jean-Francois Lyotard were doing postmodernism because they wrote from inside the West (Western Europe, North America, Australia and NZ). He says that people who write from outside the West (different terms include: subaltern, Global South, Third World, Orient) are doing postcolonialism. So postcolonialism has a really strong emphasis on place and perspective (Epstein 2014).

Postcolonialism says that everything has a context. Who is saying something matters and where they are saying it from makes a difference. This is a way of reminding people inside the West who try to come up with universal theories that they are also thinking and writing from a particular place, and approaching things with their own sets of ideologies. This is called the ‘regionalisation’ of knowledge, rather than trying to spread the same concepts, like Reason, or God, everywhere, as if they don’t have a point of origin.
The ultimate challenge of postcolonialism, what the ‘post-‘ part of it really wants to do, is to completely reject and reverse the entire thought system we have in place today: the colonial system. In the same way postmodernism is about rejecting everything to do with modernism, postcolonialism is about rejecting the entire system of colonialism. Not just what colonisers did, but what they make us believe and how they make us think and treat each other.

This is a thought system based on lots of concepts. I will just name one, ‘logocentrism.’ Logocentrism is a word invented by Ludwig Klages and popularised by Jaques Derrida (1967). As usual there is a harder and easier way to think of ‘logocentrism.’ On one hand it means that Western philosophy and thought tends to assume that what we think (or write or say) is “true.” That is, that what we think (or write or say) accesses reality and that reality exists independently of what we think. Just like some dickhead who doesn’t realise what they think is mostly an opinion and who insists they’re right all the time because they’re using logic and their big smart brain. I personally think that this definition of logocentrism is better captured by the concept of the ‘correspondence theory of truth.’

Logocentrism proper is a bit different because it looks at how humans struggle to think in a way that doesn’t always look for a centre, or an ultimate truth or idea that can be applied everywhere. This is called ‘universalising’ or ‘essentialising.’ Logocentric societies always find themselves defining things in relation to other things, especially one core (or ‘transcendental’) thing (if you trace it all the way back). Derrida says that some examples of our ‘logos’ that we have ‘centered’ include God, Man, and Reason, and we make everything else we think about flow out of these really central concepts. Second wave feminists, women who were writing in the 1970s, might say that the thing we have centred is the Phallus, hence the term ‘phallocentrism.’ That’s why some people look around at wars — guns — and sex — dicks — and religion — the Father — and see the phallus and phallic things everywhere, and argue we have centered it.

Derrida’s issue with our need to make ‘centres’ is that a centre always requires a periphery, which forces you to exclude some things and push them away to the edge. By needing to define things against other things, you can’t help but come up with a centre that ‘is’ and everything else that ‘is not.’ And that’s no way to live your life. In the case of phallocentrism, feminist use this concept to show how women are subjugated and pushed to the side when they are represented as the ‘Other’ of a man, or the lesser opposite of a man. Something we might be fixated on centering in the 21st century is the idea of the State (or country) — this leads to our rigid maintenance of borders that exclude non-citizens, especially refugees; our prioritisation of the rights of countries over people; and the ability to seemingly legitimately destroy any movement (armed or not) that is below the level of the state (ie the monopoly that the state has over the use of force). In many ways the idea of the State has replaced our idea of God in the modern era! I give this example to show how the ‘logos’ is always transforming, but leads to the same process that Derrida described where that thing becomes so central we can’t think of the world through any other framework.

Worlding Beyond the West

Postcolonial scholars use the concept of logocentrism to say that the West thinks of itself as the centre of the world, while everywhere outside of the West is the ‘edge’ and becomes important only through how it relates to the West rather than having its own identity. Edward Said (1979) says that the West requires the East in order to maintain its image of itself – if the East is a place where everyone is poor, uncivilised, or a criminal, then that means the West is full of clever, rational and superior humans. You might also see this concept as the term ‘Othering.’
To go to Brane Level 3, let us also return to the point that it’s not enough to say that because a country is no longer a ‘colony’ that it is post-colonial. With the understanding that to be post-colonial you need something more than just your colonised status in law to change, and knowing that the ultimate goal of post-colonialism is to completely deconstruct the way we see everything, let’s look at the steps in between those two things. What actually does need to change to get from Point A (no-more-colony) to Point B (logocentrism completely unravels and our braines explode)?

Types of resistance to colonialism
My, and people like Robert Young (2001, 60) and Amilcar Cabral’s (1969), answer to that question is that there is a need to significantly upheave the power relationship between the coloniser and the colonised that continues to exist (see also Chowdhry and Nair, 2002, 12). Or in other words, to reverse and resist domination. We might also call the coloniser the West, while the colonised can be called the Orient, whether that be Asia or the Middle East or Africa. We have to also make room for First Nations people in this – the indigenous people whose land was taken away by settler colonialism.

Amilcar Cabral, in his book Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle, in 1969 was one of the first to identify the two tenets of what it means to shift a power relation. Resistance, like postcolonialism, has one obvious and one less obvious facet. The first is, of course, to shift the material relationship of domination. One way we retain power over other people is when we don’t pay them or pay them very poorly for their work; we withhold healthcare, safety or money from them; and when we have all the food we need while others starve.

Second, domination can be exercised discursively. This means the way that we represent and think about the identity of the colonised and the coloniser in a way that enables colonisation. The identity of the colonised is usually defined by the coloniser. I will offer a few examples of discursive domination, a term you can treat as interchangeable with Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of doxa, or Chandra Mohanty’s discursive colonisation.

First, for example, the representation of Aboriginal people in Australia as being criminal enables them to be mass incarcerated.

Second, in my parents’ home country of Turkey, the representation of the Kurdish ethnic minority in the country as lacking their own distinctive language or culture was used to force assimilation and deny their claims to their own nation-state. If you do not have your own ethnicity, language, or culture, then why should you need a country? You can just be a part of Turkey (or Iran, Iraq, or Syria) – that is the ‘logic.’ And as you can see, this is why the concept of ‘logic’ needs to be challenged, since logic is usually just defined by those in power and used to justify their actions.

Third, the belief that First Nations people are “savages” or “uncivilised” is an example of discursive domination, because believing this about indigenous people allows us to act in particular ways towards indigenous people. For example, if we believe that indigenous people are uncivilised and don’t have any history or culture, then it becomes easy to destroy their land by dumping nuclear waste on it, building a pipeline through it, or tearing it down to build a mine. You can see how this relates to material domination – you can also make money off of the way you represent other people.

A final example: during the Transatlantic slave trade, when African people were being loaded onto slave ships in brutal and horrifying conditions and transported to the United States, there was a big debate about whether or not black people had souls. Some people said they didn’t have souls, which made them the equivalent of animals, which meant that you could use them for labour the same way you would use a horse or an ox. The belief that black people didn’t have souls made it easy to use them as slaves, rather than to treat them as people. From this white people got labour they did not have to pay for, huge amounts of money from the agricultural and domestic work these people did, as well as buildings they built. One of the big arguments from religious activists that underscored the abolitionist movement was the attempt to get people to see black people as having souls (see Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 memoir The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, p. 102-3).

Postcolonialism is about dismantling both of these forms of domination – changing how we represent colonised people, and changing the material circumstances of the world so they do not continue to be profited off of and forced to live in lower socioeconomic classes than most white people do. How good is that lol?