Post-Colonialism or Post-Imperialism?

Luke Strongman
University of Canterbury
Department of English

Deep South v.2 n.3 (Spring, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Luke Strongman, all rights reserved.

Over the last few years much has been written about post-colonialism, but as few are decided on the precise meaning of the term itself, perhaps this is appropriate. One of the dangers problematised in the area of post-colonial studies is that it will enact a form of reversal, a discursive de-territorialisation over the territory that the Imperial project initially made claim to. There is the concern that if conceived of in this way there is nothing essentially new in the post-colonial theoretical enquiry, that it will be misconceived if it sets about to re-articulate and re-fashion the very Imperial process that brought it into being. There is no going back. We need to be reminded that for an area of discourse that concerns itself with the `other', the `subaltern', the `abject', the `liminal', and the `marginalised', post-colonial theory is not to be found in the process of re-articulating the `centre' or `periphery' of discursive strategies inscribed by the Imperial project, (as, for example, popularly expounded by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin in the 1993 text, The Empire Writes Back). Rather, post-colonialism is perhaps better conceived of as an articulation of a plurality of `centres', as a re-inscription of a multiplicity of emergent identities. Thus we are not so much engaged on a project of de-scribing empire, as re-inscribing its hybridized offspring.
In the 1994 text De-scribing Empire Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson make the claim that:

The first stage of a process of de-scribing Empire is to analyse where and how our view of things is inflected (or infected) by colonialism and its constituent elements of racism, over-categorization, and deferral to the centre. The processes of history and European historicizing continue to warrant attention, but they should not seduce us into believing that de-scribing empire is a project simply of historical recuperation. The hegemony of Europe did not end with the raising of a hundred national flags . . . The post-colonial is especially and pressingly concerned with the power that resides in discourse and textuality; its resistance, then, quite appropriately takes place in and from the domain of textuality, in (among other things) motivated acts of reading. The contestation of post-colonialism is a contest of representation.[1]

While this is not the place to attempt to critique the overall aims of post-colonial studies, it is the intention here to take odds with the notion of `de-scribing' Empire and to coin in its place the concept of `re-inscription' as a starting point to comment on a few of the concerns of post-colonial discourse. At the same time it is the intention here to make the general suggestion that much of what has been perceived of as post-colonial both in its oppositional (post-independence colonies at the historical phase after colonialism) and complicit (occurring as a confluence of colonialism and modernity) forms is perhaps better understood as post-imperialism.

While I have no argument with Tiffin and Lawson's view in much of its detail, I do in its larger scope. De-scription reinforces the idea of binary oppositions, and the process of cultural exposition after empire is not this simple. We no longer have one or more groups `writing empire' and politically engaged members of Western institutions on behalf of the subaltern or 'other', reversing this process simultaneously `de-scribing empire'. Perhaps we never have had again the topography of post-colonial discourse seldom seems this simple. De-scribing Empire with its interesting focus on textuality, "The contestation of post-colonialism is a contest of representation", tends to imply that colonial-imperial forces far from themselves having changed and changed the culture over which they are exercised have merely transmuted from the physical world into that of the intellect, with the tacit implication that colonisation today is less a physical act than an intellectual one. I am not so sure. Imperialism, colonisation, and resistance to the colonial-imperial process be this ideological, discursive, military, economic, or hegemonic remains a contemporary political fact. The difference is that it takes place in a different world from that of a hundred years ago and its forms and kinds too have changed. As Tiffin and Lawson state in their conclusion: "The texts of Empire need to be described as part of the anatomy of Empire, but they also need to be de-scribed as part of the liquidation of Empire's effects."[2] If this implies the location of the discourse of post-colonialism within the wider concerns of global culture after-empire then I agree; however, the abstraction of the condition of post-colonialism to the `domain of textuality' is one thing with its own set of problems and considerations, and the evolving nature of that which is represented is another. Afterall, as Simon During points out: "To think of the world as ultimately only knowable through language is to allow what is extra-linguistic no epistemological status."[3]

The essential problem with the notion of de-scribing empire is that every act of description involves an acknowledgement of in-scription, an acknowledgement and perpetuation of the re-writing of the binary of empire and (post)colonial, of coloniser and colonised that fuels the post-colonial concern with marginality and recognition of the `other'. When viewed this way, de-scribing' Empire is a view of post-colonial study in which the coloniser or `settler-invader' is forever on the back foot. This `retro-lutionary' stance is at odds with the process of centripetal diffusion by which Empire is fragmented and de-creates the energies by which hybridised identity is emergent.

There is a danger that in `unravelling' the imperial project, we will miss new and important threads that are refashioned from its offcasts. Symptoms of these are the entangled metatheoretical debates about the status and definition of alterity by those who see themselves implicated by the very position of conferring this status. How is it that as Stephen Slemon puts it "the heterogeneous field of `post-colonial studies' is reproducing itself at present as a spectacle of disorderly conduct" such that he need carry out "some refereeing in this structure of professional or disciplinary regulation?"[4] Slemon's concerns are undoubtedly both genuine and well-founded, articulated as they are in an overall concern about the ways power in post-colonial institutional critique is wielded, how it is both positioned and put to use. One irony is that the particular concerns of post-colonialism, that is, the relationship between coloniser and colonised within political, economic, discursive, and geographical territories can be appropriated, manipulated and refined for expedient ends, even within the territory made claim to by post-colonial discourse itself. The problem however articulated and at whatever level of abstraction is the familiar one of identity and it is a problem, as Slemon points out, that quickly spreads from the local to the theoretical, from the particular to the general:

If we overlook the local, and the political applications of research we produce, we risk turning the work of our field into the playful operations of an academic glass-bead game, whose project will remain at best a description of global relations, and not a script for their change. There is never a necessary politics to the study of political actions and reactions; but at the level of the local, and at the level of material applications, post-colonialism must address the material exigencies of colonialism and neo-colonialism, including the neo-colonialism of Western academic institutions themselves.[5]

In the context of New Zealand culture, as with Australian, the issues of post-colonialism and textuality are complicated and perhaps 'livened', by the strong oral traditions of the 'colonised', coupled with increasingly multi-cultural populations. Institutions of power are institutions of inscription. Not only are there obvious language barriers between coloniser and colonised but also barriers of the medium of expression. Aboriginal `dreaming' and Maori oral mythology are unfortunately as traditionally inaccessible to the settler-invader as the inscripted institutions of science and law are to the colonised. Of course, colonialism and post-colonialism are directly concerned with this very process of interchange, assimilation, appropriation and re-appropriation, and the political and theoretical `re-positions' and `re-positioning' within this process. However, there is a danger of hypocrisy in post-colonial studies given that those who theorize and are involved in claiming voice for the post-colonial subject are themselves often settler subjects. As Tiffin and Lawson put it:

The very diversity of colonial experience with its Eurocentred hierarchies has fathered a shadowy counter-hierarchy in which he or she who can most plausibly claim the kiss of the whip is accorded pre-eminent speaking position. Like the settler subject, a majority of post-colonial critics find themselves uncomfortably inside the residue of power structures they profess to oppose, and ambivalent beneficiaries of those structures . . . . Imperialism is a cultural effect of comprehensive power in the transmission and consumption of ideology that is not adequately registered by colours on a map.[6]

The term `post-colonial studies', however, is becoming less meaningful within academic institutions in the way that Commonwealth and `new literatures' of the 1970s and 1980s have already become. As Timothy Brennan has pointed out, if Britain is seen now as post-colonial too, the notions of `centre' and `periphery' on which post-colonial studies is (mistakenly) founded are now redundant. If all nations which at some point have come under the sway of British imperialism are seen as post-colonial, then this term no longer does much useful distinguishing work. Such cultures are more likely to be understood in terms of a combination of both post-colonialism and post-imperialism, although what distinguishes these two terms is complex and indeterminant.

Mishra and Hodge make the basic claim for post-colonial studies that its ambiguous politics was implied in the field it brought into being: "`Commonwealth literature' did not include the literature of the centre, which acted as the impossible absent standard by which it should be judged. The term also occluded the crucial differences between the `old' and the `new' Commonwealth, between White settler colonies and Black nations that typically had a very different and more difficult route into a different kind of independence."[7] Post-colonial studies attempted to consider and define relations between the settler or colonial-invader races and groups and the first-nation races and groups which articulated the newly emergent voices of nationhood after colonialism.

A novel which claims voice in opposition to the imperial process and which articulates a counter-discursive stance to the presence of the settler-invader would, on the surface, seem to offer itself to the term 'post-colonial'. An example of such writing is Ben Okri's The Famished Road (1991) which narrates a lyrical and local mythological response to the gradual Westernisation of a remote African village, ostensibly from the position of the pre-modern colonised. However, written in the language of the imperial coloniser and by an author living in contemporary cosmopolitan London, there is an implicit collusion in the conception and writing of the novel with the culture of Imperialism.

In contrast, a novel of post-imperialism may make no overt reference to the relationship between settler-invader and colonised peoples but nevertheless, read contrapuntally (with recognition to what is significantly excluded, omitted, or absent from the text), implicates the imperial culture in a relationship with a complex array of international identities in the post-imperial era. One such example among contemporary novels is A.S. Byatt's Possession, (1990) a post-modern historical detective novel in which plot and characters while seminally English are nevertheless played out against a backdrop of an artistic form coterminous with Victorian imperialism (Pre-Raphaelite poetry) and in which the narrative unfolding in the present highlights the concern for cultural identity with an American neo-imperialism. Post-colonial studies characteristically can be seen as enacting a neat reversal of colonialism, the battle for cultural dominance characterised by the imperial impulse continues to be played out within such discourse, albeit in changed form and in disparate ways.

In many ways the process of imperialism is disseminated from within. What is often little realised about empire is that in the act of ostensibly colonising its subject nations, these nations themselves, albeit unwittingly, colonised empire. Agency is not merely uni-directional but is, in fact, multivalent. A system of cultural territorialisation and capitalist excentricity is deconstructed, disseminated, and fragmented under the burden of its own expansion. The act of colonial-imperialism changed empire irrevocably from the moment of initial imperial impulse. Empire stood less for territorialisation than for the Anglo-conception of that territorialisation. The lines of trade, communication, and discourse linking Great Britain to its colonies, while controlled and maintained by the agents of empire, simultaneously masked a plethora of alternative stories told and retold along the same lines and the stories of counter-cultures proliferated among lines within, across, and underneath the direct and 'official' systems of communication, trade and exchange represented by the first. Thus, for example, the ominous spread of 'chapatis' that portend the nativist uprising of Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) represents an alteria symbolic function to the enactors of the revolt while spreading alarm among the colonists over the ambiguity of the portent. As Ronald Robinson puts it in 'The Excentric Idea of Imperialism':

for all the initiating force of the metropolitan components in [these] economic and power relations, they produced such vastly different imperial effects in the different countries as to suggest that imperial wealth and power were generated substantially through the third set of linkages which ran from top to bottom of local political economies. In the last analysis, imperialism gathered its forces from the local collaborative systems which translated European economic and power inputs into multiplied indigenous outputs. The character of local collaboration and resistance, the extent of national unification, decided the balance of inequalities and so the degree of imperialism involved.[8]

Lines of communication and exchange within contemporary world cultures are now fragmented, widened, interwoven, globally dispersed, and complexly intertwined. This has inevitable consequences for nation formation and even the way in which populations conceive the idea of 'home'. As Vijay Mishra puts it: "`Home' now signals a shift away from homogenous nation-states based on an ideology of assimilation to a much more fluid and complex definition of nations as a multiplicity of diasporic identities."[9]

Post-colonialism, while ostensibly about the telling of these alternative stories, in fact often ensures the parade of empire in clothes of the 'other'. The term frequently connotes a frustrating and all embracing binarism between `self' and `other', indigene and settler-invader, the familiar and the strange. As Mark Williams has put it: "At some point the post-colonial becomes an uncontrollable Manichean tendency to divide all literature into that produced by the oppressors and that by the oppressed. The rubric is thus both too vaguely inclusive and too exclusive."[10] This Manichean tendency, while too vaguely inclusive and exclusive, is also ineluctably opaque.

From Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1715) onwards the allegories of colonial expansion often brought the colonial mind up against an image only of itself. As Hugh Ridley has observed in Images of Imperial Rule (1983): "Crusoe's Island, like the fictional representations of European colonies which succeeded it, is peopled with figures which already lay within the traveller's mind; the journey across the world, the shipwrecks and the strange adventures lead although the protagonist by no means realises this back to Europe and the European self."[11]

Imperialism was never about the culture of the colonised and not implicitly about contact between cultures. While in economic terms imperialism was about profit, first and foremost it was about the imperialist psyche, the representation of the white European unto him or herself, be this reflected in the Rousseauean idea of the `noble savage', or in the Christian missionary project of bringing enlightenment to the `indigenous heathen'. However, from the perspective of the colonised who may have no culturally embedded pre-existing notions of contact with others (the coloniser or imperialist) prior to colonisation, it could be argued that such a process is only recently being reciprocated in literatures written from the perspective of the colonised. Again, Ben Okri's The Famished Road can be interpreted in this light.

As Spivak has observed, the attribution of a unified speaking voice and an authentic native `essence' to the colonised, far from destabilising imperialistic cultural practices, actually serves to reconstitute the Subject of the West. As she puts it: "The theory of pluralized 'subject-effects' gives an illusion of undermining subjective sovereignty while providing a cover for this subject of knowledge. The much publicized critique of the sovereign subject thus actually inaugurates a subject."[12]

Positioning discourse from colonised peoples into discrete and knowable categories such as non-European or 'Third-World' acts so as to traduce the narratives of colonised peoples which are in turn interpolated by Western narratives of identity. Similarly, James Clifford in The Predicament of Culture (1988) discusses the contemporary condition of societies in which it is increasingly difficult to attach identity, meaning, or `authenticity' to a coherent culture or language or to a (presumably essentially modernist) discourse which attempts to do so.[13]

Clifford argues that the pattern of cross-cultural influences of today no longer involves the gradual absorption of non-modern cultures to modern; rather, the non-modern has an almost equally powerful effect on the modern. Clifford does not envisage the world as populated by endangered authenticities but rather as a globalism that harbours improvisatory and combinational cultural responses in which the Third World plays itself against the First, and vice versa. If, as Clifford suggests, authenticity is relational, then identities can no longer be stable, and self-other relationships are a matter of power, rhetoric, and discourse, rather than cultural `essence'. For Clifford, 'traditional' cultures are without regret (or the nostalgia-mode of post-modernism). They are newly syncretised as part of an inevitable, ongoing process. This process is not that of modernisation which is monocultural but of global inteconnectedness in the legacy of imperialism. As he puts it in `The Global Issue: A symposium':

at least three processes are always going on. One is the disappearance of certain orders of difference. The second is a process of translating orders of difference. And the third is the creation of new orders of difference. This last, I would divide into two locally interconnected dimensions: first, imposed or neocolonial forms, stemming from an economic relationship to the state or the wider world system; and second, emergent orders which are invented out of historical debris, moulded from indigenous and foreign material.[14]

Clifford thus sees the `new global order' as challenging tradition and traditional ways of viewing culture and subjects and mixing new and often vibrant syncretized and hybrid amalgamations. As Maxwell puts it, what this means is that "the colonised have more to gain from histories that challenge the concept of identity than from histories that sustain the illusion of a unified subject."[15]

The fundamental distinction to be made throughout this debate is the understanding of post-colonialism as a means largely for the descendents of the settler groups in the colonial-imperial process to claim authenticity and autonomy and purge the guilt of empire as a process which altered pre-modern civilization. This is attempted by firstly, separating themselves from the 'original' culture; and secondly, by increasing understanding their empire as a muted and ambiguous legacy among nations, ethnic groups and selves engaged in the culture of imperialism. Given this reading, post-colonial literature can be seen as a transitory phase of the wider cultural condition of the legacy of imperialism.

Once the colonial-imperial process is entered into, however, and over time a relationship between coloniser and colonised established, independence from the coloniser is questionable if one shares the same means of expression (or cultural codes and social mores) as the coloniser, if not the same customs. The act of reclaiming indigeneity 'damaged' by the process of colonisation reinscribes indigeneity in changed terms. There is only a movement forwards, and this, while no longer necessarily an overt British imperialism in the contemporary climate now proceeds in the negotiation of cultural identities within complex forms of neo-imperialism and corresponding resistances to them. Such complexities characterise the expressions of cultures; after `empire', often in hybrid terms, but when these are reassembled under the overriding mantle of `post-colonialism' they often do so hypocritically.

Such is the reversal of psychological and literary-theoretical reading in the wake of decolonizing projects and the process of 'othering', that not only is an apologetic guilt for empire and the process of colonisation the unwritten code of the post-colonial critic, but also the spurious belief that only the `indigenous' can claim an `authenticity' or an authentic cultural expression `above, beyond, and prior' to that of the coloniser, and this, ironically according to the measure of racial purity. As such this is a form of post-modern nostalgia mode in which only the simulacrum of an essential past is invoked to allay the ambiguity and indeterminacy of the present.

The white racism at the `dark heart' of empire variously impelled or tempered by the enlightenment and Christian projects of bringing 'civilization to the savage' is finally inverted in an expression of guilt on the behalf, not of the coloniser, but of their `post-colonial' descendants. Such a condition is co-incidental with the recognition of the 'other', the former colonised, although ironically still within the cultural terms of the post-coloniser, a guilt which constructs now the former colonised `other' as racially `pure' and culturally authentic. As Masel puts it in `Late Landings: Reflections on Belatedness in Australian and Canadian Literatures': "The problem for post-colonial writers is that the landscape has, in effect, been hierarchized, and that, collective postcolonial guilt aside, the places of authenticity are perceived to be debarred from postcolonials of nonaboriginal abstraction."[16]

Every claim to cultural dominance on behalf of the coloniser was also an assertion of cultural lack of the colonised. In the late twentieth century, Western modernity has fused and interfused with pre-modern indigeneity and resulted in hybridity, globalism, the scattered diaspora, and a complex web of mass communications that proliferate within late-capitalist and post-industrial post-modernity. A parallel is also to be drawn between this process and the waning of Christian influence as the imperial project metamorphoses into the global shifts and divides of post-modernity in which disparate fundamentalist religions challenge the spread of Christian belief as enshrined in the rhetoric of empire.

This awareness of lines between cultures is also in the light of the media and communication era of contemporary post-modernism expressed, not only in the the sense of nationalist division , fundamentalist beliefs arising in formerly colonised areas, but also in the sense of complex and multivalent connectivity. In some sense post-modernism acts as a `justifying' discourse which by osmosis enables the incorporation of the settler-culture into post-colonialism, as for example, with Stephen Slemon's analysis of the post-colonial as anti-colonial discourse, a counter-discursive form that emerges in what he calls `second-world' societies as they acquire a first world agenda, internal reaction against the homogenising tendency of imperialism. Examples of such societies include Canada, the Caribbean, and in some senses New Zealand with its Maori Renaissance and policy of bi-culturalism from the early 1980s.

The inter-connectivity of discursive forms paradoxically works towards defining national boundaries as at the same time it dissolves them. As a consequence, aporias have opened up within and between cultures, national and international `post-cultural' boundaries and it is in these largely undefined and indeterminant areas that post-imperial cultures negotiate their cultural identity. Hence, the seemingly paradoxical terms such as that of Timothy Brennan's `Third World Cosmopolitans', Bhabha's concept of liminality, and Maxwell's description of Clifford's project as `post-cultural'. While the intermixing of races in some cases has resulted in newly and vigorously voiced nationalisms, it is also expressed in a laissez-faire post-modernism, increased and increasing links of transportation and information between nations and on the macro-political and economic level, the assembly of nations into three trading blocs, European, Asian, and American. The social, political, and cultural anxieties and crises of nationhood have resulted in re-readings of privileged, pure pasts which excludes unwanted narratives, races, cultural references. Thus history is re-read and sometimes purged, and new histories are created in the re-reading. What these histories, be they re-interpreted and re-constructed in the light of post-colonialism cannot ignore, however, is the overriding mantle of imperialism that brought them into being and the way it acts as a force for their ongoing change.


1. Tiffin, C. and Lawson, A., (eds), `Introduction', De-scribing Empire ¾ Post-colonialism and textuality (London: Routledge, 1994), p.9.

2. Tiffin and Lawson, p.231.

3. During, S., `Postmodernism or postcolonialism', Landfall 155, 39, 3, 1985, p.379.

4. Slemon,S., `The Scramble for Post-colonialism', in Tiffin and Lawson (eds), De-scribing Empire, p.15

5. Slemon, p.32.

6. Tiffin and Lawson, p.232.

7. Mishra, V. and Hodge, B., `What is post(-)colonialism?' in Frow, J. and Morris, M. (Eds.), Australian Cultural Studies Reader (St. Leonards, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 1993), p.30.

8. Robinson, R., `The Excentric Idea of Imperialism, with or without Empire.' In Mommsen, J. and Osterhammel, J., (Eds). Imperialism and After. Continuities and Discontinuities (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p.282.

9. Mishra, V., `Postcolonial Differend: Diasporic Narratives of Salman Rushdie', Ariel, 26, 3, 1995, p.7.

10. Williams, M., 'Looking Sideways: English Studies, Tradition & Cross-Cultural Comparisons', SPAN , 28, 1989, p.26.

11. Ridley, H., Images of Imperial Rule (London: Croom Helm, 1983), p.5.

12. Spivak, G., `Can the Subaltern speak?', in Williams, P. and Chrisman, L., (eds), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.66.

13. Clifford, J., The Predicament of Culture (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988). The discussion here is in general terms.

14. Clifford, J., `The Global Issue: A Symposium', Art In America, 77, 7, 1989, p.87.

15. Maxwell, A., `Revisionist Histories and Settler Colonial Societies', Southern Review, 27, 4, 1994, Pp. 387-388.

16. Masel, C., `Late Landings: Reflections on Belatedness in Australian and Canadian Literatures', in White, J., (Ed.), Recasting the World: Writing After Colonialism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), Pp. 162-163.

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