Interviewing My Own Authoritative Voice: The Definition, Usefulness, and Limitations of the Term Postcolonial

Adam Stolorow '98, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

Sign on office door reads:

Post-colonial Postcolonial Questions answered in firm manner nonindicative of cursory knowledge of postcolonial theory.

Dr. Stolorow is in.

Adam: How has postcolonial studies been presented in the course thus far?

Stolorow: As a series of topics of concern to postmodernist theorists and undergraduate students of English literature. As . . .

Adam: Was that English with a capital "E?"

Stolorow: Well, supposedly the undergrads are studying capital E English. This course is, after all, offered by the capital B capital E Brown English department. But theorists have suggested an important distinction between "what is proposed as a standard code, English (the language of the erstwhile imperial centre), and the linguistic code, english, which has been transformed and subverted into several distinctive varieties throughout the world" (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, p. 4). What is actually being studied may not be capital E English literature singular, but lower case e english literatures plural. As I was saying, post-colonial studies . . .

Adam: What's up with the hyphen?

Stolorow: I haven't figured that one out yet. To continue, postcolonial studies has been presented in the course as a series of topics and as a process of and strategy for engagement with colonialisms.

Adam: Let's talk about postcolonialism as a collection of topics. . .

Stolorow: It becomes most evident if you take a look at the chapter groupings in The Post- Colonial Studies Reader: universality and difference; representation and resistance; postmodernism and post-colonialism; nationalism; hybridity; ethnicity and indigeneity; feminism and post-colonialism; language; the body and performance; history; place; education; production and consumption. Add to this list issues of migration and border crossings of all kinds, race, governmental control, and so forth. Soon we are not doubtful about the ability of the term postcolonial in discussing all manner of topics. . . Instead we find ourselves searching for a way to limit postcolonial studies in a way that makes the term meaningful. It's a concern that the editors of the reader share:

Like the description of any other field the term has come to mean many things, as the range of extracts in this reader indicates. However we would argue that post-colonial studies are based in the "historical fact" of European colonialism, and the diverse material effects to which this phenomenon gave rise. We need to keep this fact of colonisation firmly in mind because the increasingly unfocused use of the term "post-colonial" over the last ten years to describe an astonishing variety of cultural, economic and political practices has meant that there is a danger of its losing its effective meaning altogether. Indeed the diffusion of the term is now so extreme that it is used to refer to not only vastly different but even opposed activities. In particular the tendency to employ the term "post-colonial" to refer to any kind of marginality at all runs the risk of denying its basis in the historical process of colonialism (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1995, p.2).

So a pressing concern of postcolonial studies today is to establish limits. There doesn't seem to be a clear-cut solution. Take postcolonial studies as an engagement with colonialisms, for example.

Adam: Can you clarify what you mean by engagement?

Stolorow: Postcolonialism is a line of inquiry "distinguished, not by a clean leap into another discourse, but by its critical reaccentuation of colonial and anti-colonialism" (Thomas, Colonialism's Culture p.7). The postcolonial does not arise to fill a space left by vacating colonialisms, but engages with and is situated within the colonial at every level. Its aim is not a congratulatory separation. It is not to allow us to separate the colonial past from the liberal, post-colonial present, but to examine colonialisms as processes which continue to affect certain geographical areas of the world and the cultures in them.

Adam: But doesn't the term "post"-colonial indicate the end of something? What is it post-? You've already indicated that the political separation of imperial power from colonized state is only political, not a complete break with the colonial impact. . .

Stolorow: Postcolonial concerns are about the encounter of cultures. As the editors of The Postcolonial Studies Reader state in the introduction to their collection, postcolonialism "addresses all aspects of the colonial process from the beginning of colonial contact" (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, p.2) So we could say it begins with the cultural encounter of colonization. Repression and resistance, hybridity and difference all have their start here.

Adam: What about countries in which the colonial encounter did not mean formal colonization? For example, where the meeting of cultures occurred because of missionary work? We've seen the power of naming and the introduction of religious stories into indigenous culture in Soyinka's Aké. If Nigeria had not been a formal British colony, but had only been in contact with missionaries, would this theme in the work still be postcolonial?

Stolorow: That's an excellent point. The key may lie in the themes of postcolonialism: hybridity is not solely a concern of our studies here, but of many other fields. Any time there is a contact between cultures, the potential for hybridizations is present. Limiting postcolonial studies to formally colonized (nations, places, cultures? what is the object of colonization?) areas does not preclude the work from speaking to these themes in other frameworks. In Nehanda and Anthills of the Savannah , we find common issues of resistance to oppressive structures through language and community. While the means of resistance may have relevance to struggles elsewhere, it is the object of resistance -- in Nehanda a colonial force, and in Anthills an indigenous government derived from a colonial power -- that matters.

Adam: Maybe what we're looking for in terms of limits is a definition of "colonial." You've been saying "colonialisms" rather than "colonialism."

Stolorow: I've been trying to indicate the heterogeneity of the colonial experience as it varies from area to area. Postcolonialism is an attempt to contain many colonialisms. It is a plurality in the guise of a singular discourse. One challenge lies in trying to move from "colonialisms" to "postcolonial." We examine colonialism and literature, point out how these are really colonialisms and literatures, then struggle to provide a singular framework, postcolonialism, which can encompass, compare, and contrast the differences between varying experiences. . .

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