From political reference to self-narration
‘Postcolonial’ as periodizer
in Post-everything

The term ‘postcolonial,’ although well established in reference to the history of the Americas since the nineteenth century, proliferated in frequency through the 1960s with the acceleration of processes of decolonization. Down through the 1970s and 1980s, ‘postcolonial’ remained for the most part a relatively straightforward periodizer of political order. In the wake of both deepening disillusionment with the regimes that had followed colonial rule and the movement into Western universities of intellectuals who had emerged out of the postcolonial milieu, dissatisfactions with existing national and developmental narratives intersected with a whole set of intellectual repudiations that travelled under the loose banners of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘poststructuralism.’ In the process, ‘postcolonial’ began a slow transformation from a periodizer of political order to a periodizer of intellectual and cultural dispositions implicated in the history of colonialism. As the term ‘postcolonial’ assumed significance in primary reference to forms of artistic and scholarly practice, the object of postcolonial scholarship increasingly shifted from a problematic of historical periodization to one of conceptual approach, so that since the turn of the millennium one has been able to speak of a thriving field of ‘postcolonial medieval studies.’


The term ‘post-colonial’ proliferated rapidly in English and French starting in the 1950s, mirroring the acceleration of processes of decolonization. Down through the 1970s and 1980s, ‘post-colonial’ remained for the most part a relatively straightforward political periodizer. It named whatever institutional order followed the end of formal colonial rule – and by extension, the social and cultural forms that accompanied that institutional order. But starting in the 1980s, a second usage of the term ‘postcolonial’ (increasingly in its unhyphenated form) began to bifurcate from its former meaning as a periodizer of political order, so that it began to function also as a periodizer of scholarly dispositions. As the term ‘postcolonial’ assumed significance in reference to a smaller world of scholarly interpretation, rather than in reference to a larger world of political and social order, the object of postcolonial scholarship was increasingly released from chronological and geographical limits.

This chapter attempts no critical engagement with the substance of the various claims most often characterized as ‘postcolonialist’. It rather offers a more modest attempt to characterize the main trajectories of the term’s usage and of the field of scholarship that has ridden under its banner. In the first section, I draw on a combination of JSTOR and Ngram data to offer a descriptive analysis of the major trajectories in the frequency and usage of the term ‘postcolonial’. In the second section, I take a closer look at the evolving significance of the term in the theoretical texts most closely associated with the development of the field of ‘postcolonial studies’.

The rise of the ‘post-colonial’

‘Post-colonial’ is not a new term. A search of the JSTOR archive demonstrates that it was already a not uncommon, if somewhat scholarly, term in the first half of the twentieth century. Its primary reference in this period seems to have been the United States, with secondary reference to Latin America; and its primary function was the periodization of political institutions based on an implicit tripartite schema of pre-colonial/colonial/post-colonial, without any further specification of the meaning of the key intervening concept, ‘colonial’. Hyphenation was the standard form, but dropping the hyphen was a recognizable occasional alternative throughout this period.

The late 1950s saw the first inklings of a new rise in the frequency with which the hyphenated form, ‘post-colonial’, was used. That upward trajectory would persist and accelerate all the way to the end of the millennium, when it peaked. (Parallel and contemporary developments were evident in both French and German.) It would be remarkable if that increase were not to be found, obviously, given the large-scale political transformations in global order occurring at that time.

Looking at JSTOR, it seems that of the 47,161 items that used the term between 1955 and 1980, 10 per cent were still tagged to American Studies – but this was down from 15 per cent in the period 1900–55. Meanwhile, 8.5 per cent were tagged to African Studies (up from 2 per cent in 1900–55), 7 per cent to Asian Studies (up from 3 per cent in 1900–55), and just under 5 per cent to Latin American Studies (around 2.5 per cent in 1900–55). Meanwhile, 31 per cent were tagged to History (28 per cent in 1900–55), just under 16 per cent to Political Science (13 per cent in 1900–55), 7.5 per cent to Economics (also 7.5 per cent in 1900–55), 7.5 per cent to Sociology (around 3.5 per cent in 1900–55), and only around 7 per cent to Language and Literature (6 per cent in 1900–55).1 Taking these figures together – especially the relatively minor role of literary studies – it seems clear that the major shifts in usage turned: (1) on the increasing relevance of the term to the social sciences and to historical analysis, and (2) on the increasing relevance of the term to non-American referents, especially in Africa and Asia (hardly surprising in the era of decolonization). For the most part, ‘post-colonial’ remained until very late in the twentieth century a straightforward periodizing term primarily concerned with political institutions and their social correlates. Ngram analysis confirms this: in the period 1955–80, the most common words to follow the adjective ‘post-colonial’ were ‘period’, ‘state’ and ‘era’, followed at some distance by ‘society’, ‘Africa’, ‘situation’ and ‘world’. (In fact, what followed the word ‘post-colonial’ as commonly as anything else, an impressionistic survey suggests, were specific place names, especially the names of nation states.) All of these phrases saw a significant upward trend throughout the period, but especially pronounced from around the mid 1960s.

‘Post-colonial’ seemed to have named a set of circumstances that followed the withdrawal of (European) colonial rule. It remained unspecific in its assumptions about the character of the ‘colonial’ whose antecedence defined it, however, and correlatively did not seem to be seen as a concept carrying any specific heuristic burden. For example, in a 1985 reflection on the enduring legacies of colonialism in Latin America, Steve J. Stern suggested that it was the ‘resilient grip of the past that has made terms such as “neocolonial” so appealing in discussions of post colonial history’.2 Assumed in this formulation is that ‘neocolonial’ is a term of analysis whereas ‘post colonial’ is merely a periodization.

The unhyphenated form, ‘postcolonial’, largely tracked the fortunes of the hyphenated form in the period 1900–85. But starting around 1990, it began its own remarkable acceleration, so that whereas the two terms had enjoyed roughly equivalent usage frequency until the mid 1980s, by the year 2000 ‘postcolonial’ had become the vastly more common usage. This is also more or less true in French and German at the same time, even though – due in no small part to the structure of the French and German academies – what would gradually emerge as the field of ‘postcolonial studies’ in the final decades of the twentieth century remained a predominantly Anglophone pursuit throughout this period.

In part this reversal may be explicable in terms of the changing aesthetic and economic concerns of (especially US-based) publishers, who began a war on hyphens more generally. But it also loosely correlated with a shift in the fields of discourse in which the term operated. This shift was marked by the rise of several newly frequent phrases that were still extremely rare in 1990 and that were most strongly associated with the unhyphenated version of the term. ‘Postcolonial theory’ overtook ‘post-colonial state’ in the mid 1990s to become the most common combination of terms involving either ‘postcolonial’ or ‘post-colonial’. ‘Postcolonial studies’ overtook ‘post-colonial state’ at around the same time to become the second most common combination. Similarly, the usage frequency of ‘postcolonial criticism’ and ‘postcolonial discourse’ increased dramatically between 1990 and 2000 to become among the most common combinations. Associated terms, such as ‘subaltern’, also saw increased usage frequency starting around 1990. This increase was presumably directly linked to the new associations and expanded analytical relevance given the term by the rise of the Subaltern School of historians.

For the period 1990 to 2000, a JSTOR search for the hyphenated form ‘post-colonial’ returned 62,914 items, while a search for the unhyphenated form, ‘postcolonial’ only returned 16,257 items.3 Suggestively, however, less than 16 per cent of the items containing the term ‘post-colonial’ are tagged to Language and Literature (as against almost 28 per cent to history); whereas almost 37 per cent of the items containing the term ‘postcolonial’ are tagged to Language and Literature (as against around 16 per cent to history). This may correlate with a distribution of scholarly focus between the more hyphen-averse USA and the more hyphen-friendly Commonwealth. Nonetheless, that the hyphen/no-hyphen distinction was at least partly coming to be mapped onto this larger discursive shift is further suggested by the fact that, even after the rise of ‘postcolonial’ as the more frequent form of the term in general (and the combinations ‘postcolonial theory’ and ‘postcolonial studies’ along with it), ‘post-colonial’ remained most commonly followed by the terms ‘state’, ‘period’ and ‘era’. The new field of ‘postcolonialism’ was disproportionately associated with the unhyphenated form of the term.

The formation of postcolonial studies

As late as 1990, Robert Young’s widely cited book, White Mythologies, could situate the writings of Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak within a lineage stretching back to Sartre and Althusser without (so far as I can see) invoking the term ‘postcolonial’ at all.4 The commitment to ‘postcolonial criticism’ first emerged into stuttering self-consciousness out of the vibrant field of colonial studies in the second half of the 1980s. In the wake of both deepening disillusionment with the regimes that had followed colonial rule, and the movement into Western universities of intellectuals who had emerged out of the milieu of twentieth-century left nationalism, dissatisfactions with existing national and developmental narratives intersected with a whole set of intellectual repudiations in the United States and Western Europe that travelled under the loose banners of postmodernism and poststructuralism.

Edward Said identified himself as an anti-colonial activist, and he understood the contemporary object of his writings as still an essentially colonial situation. He correlatively seems to have had little use for the term ‘post-colonial’ until later in his career. It wasn’t really until 1989 that he was invoking the ‘postcolonial effort to reclaim traditions, histories and cultures from imperialism’, and even then he clearly understood such ‘postcolonial efforts’ as a direct continuation of anti-colonialism and anti-racism.5 In his three most famous essays from the 1980s, meanwhile, Homi K. Bhabha seems to have used the term ‘postcolonial’ only once, and then in a slighting reference to ‘the despair of postcolonial history’.6 In 1986, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan used a discussion of the impact of Said’s Orientalism as the occasion ‘to reflect upon the English literature academic in India as post-colonial intellectual’.7 As late as 1989, even when the subtitle of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other identified as its conceptual burden the task of Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, the term ‘postcolonial’ seems to have been entirely absent from the text itself. When she published When the Moon Waxes Red two years later, there was still only one reference to ‘the postcolonial other’ in the text.8

From the mid 1980s, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was beginning to identify the standpoint of the ‘postcolonial critic’ as generative of the readings she proposed. It was ‘the postcolonial reader’ who found ‘satisfying’ the ways in which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein subtly exceeded imperialist frames;9 and it was the ‘situation of the post-colonial critic of imperialism’ that rendered visible the limitations of Dominick LaCapra’s approach to historical reading.10 It is nonetheless striking that, in her 1988 introduction to Selected Subaltern Studies (a text that would ultimately play no small part in consolidating the relationship between the subaltern and the postcolonial, and in establishing the Subalternists as key figures in postcolonial studies), the term ‘post-colonial’ had little role to play in her exposition of the theoretical problem. In the essays themselves we find references to ‘a post-colonial state’ (in an essay by Gautam Bhadra) and the more ambiguous ‘colonial (and post-colonial) societies’ (in an essay by Partha Chatterjee); while Spivak’s own reference to the ‘(post)colonial intellectual’ could be taken to imply that the ‘post’ in this formulation was for the most part conceptually redundant.11

In 1987, Simon During was questioning whether ‘the concept postmodernity’ (already without hyphen) stood in irresolvable tension with the ‘possibility of post-colonial identity’ (still with hyphen). ‘Post-colonialism’ could look to postmodernism for affiliation and support in its aspiration to affirm the possibility of an Otherness ‘uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts and images’. Yet it would nonetheless find itself confounded by postmodernism’s concurrent insistence that ‘the Other can never speak for itself as the Other’.12 It is striking, three decades later, to see how immediately During still identified the problematic of ‘post-colonialism’ with the problematic of nationalism, which had been at the core of the rising frequency of the term ‘post-colonial’ in the post-World War II period of decolonization.13 The same was still largely the case in 1989, when Laura Kipnis argued that the ‘emergence in feminist theory of the periphery, the absence, and the margin implies a theory of women not as class or caste, but as colony’. This implied that ‘the theoretical emergence of these political spaces now being described by continental feminists parallels the narrative of the decline of the European empires and the postcolonial rearrangements of the traditional centers on a world scale’, rendering feminism into a kind of ‘decolonizing movement’.14 Here postcolonialism was being construed as one dimension of the ongoing conceptual sequelae of the formal dismantling of European empire.

It seems that 1989/1990 was the axial moment around which ‘postcolonialism’ was solidified as a new field of (especially literary-critical) scholarly discourse that had inherited (1) the concerns of anti-colonial and anti-racist intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, C. L. R. James, Chinua Achebe, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; (2) the critique of elite nationalism in Subaltern Studies; and (3) the critique of colonial knowledge and colonial discourse pioneered in the work of Abdallah Laroui, Anouar Abdel-Malek, Edward Said, Bernard Cohn, Abdul JanMohamed, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Lata Mani, and others. Crucially, the problematic of ‘the postcolonial’ was increasingly distanced from the problematic of anti-colonial nationalism.

One text that served as a common point of reference for discussion and debate, whether appreciative or sceptical, was Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin’s The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, which emerged out of Australia in 1989. It sought, probably for the first time, to introduce postcolonial studies as a coherent field of literary study. It announced an expansive vision of postcolonialism’s appropriate object of study: ‘We use the term “post-colonial”, however, to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day … because there is a continuity of preoccupations throughout the historical process initiated by European imperial aggression.’ The volume treated ‘post-colonial literatures’ as defined by their emergence out of a common ‘experience of colonization’ and by a common emphasis on ‘their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre’.15 The volume defended the idea of a ‘post-colonial literary theory’ as a response to the ‘inability of European theory to deal adequately with the complexities and varied cultural provenance of post-colonial writing’.16

On the one hand, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin thus proposed a conception of the postcolonial as an epochal totality that defined the condition of the literary: ‘[T]his book is concerned with the world as it exists during and after the period of European imperial domination and the effects of this on contemporary literatures.’17 On the other hand, working with this expansive definition of the ‘post-colonial’, The Empire Writes Back was effectively displacing the conventional periodizing function of the term in favour of an emphasis on positionality. The ‘post’ marked a subjective distance, dissonance and/or difference from the norms of colonial discourse generated as a direct result of the experience of European colonialism. From the end of the fifteenth century, they suggested, the conceptual vocabulary of colonial discourse – the discourse of the metropole – was incapable of adequately expressing the experience of the colonized, or of recognizing the ways in which, read carefully, cultural artefacts emerging from the colonized margins effectively performed or instantiated that impossibility. This impasse generated an inescapable condition secondary to (hence ‘post’) the experience of colonialism. The ‘postcolonial’ that the postcolonial literary critic inhabited was thus fundamentally continuous with the postcolonial that had emerged contemporaneously with the projection of European power on the rest of the world – even as the successes of anti-colonialism in the twentieth century had created new possibilities for the self-conscious critique of ‘neo-colonialism’.

It was also in 1989–90 that Spivak first began to identify the domain of subalternity that lay beyond the limits of the colonial text (in her expansive sense of that term) as ‘a representation of decolonization as such’, and thus the limit that defined the problematic of ‘postcoloniality’.18 Here the problematic of the postcolonial and the problematic of nationalism were definitively coming apart; and subalternity (which in the initial vision of Ranajit Guha was very much a self-conscious contribution to left nationalism) was being conceptualized as distinct from and even incommensurable with the nation-state project.19 By 1990, a volume of interviews unequivocally identified Spivak as The Post-Colonial Critic.20 It was also in 1990, with the publication of Nation and Narration, that Homi K. Bhabha began to embrace the term ‘post-colonial’.21

In 1991, Kwame Anthony Appiah published his influential essay, ‘Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?’ Like the earlier text by During, Appiah emphasized the asymmetries between the ‘postcolonial’ and the ‘postmodern’. And like During, he emphasized that the postcolonial gesture differed from the postmodern gesture in no small part by the fact that postmodernism looked to the non-Western intellectual to be an ‘otherness machine’ whereas postcolonialism critiqued the appeal to otherness in the name of an ‘ethical universal’. Appiah identified the nationalist problematic that was the core of During’s conception of postcoloniality, however, as bound to colonialism; whereas the ‘space clearing gesture’ of postcolonialism increasingly represented the ‘postnativist’ and ‘postnationalist’ ‘pessimism’ of a ‘comprador intelligentsia’ disillusioned by the experience of the postcolonial state yet bound nonetheless to the university and the Euro-American publisher for its existence. The post- of postcolonialism is thus the ‘after’ of disillusionment with everything that colonialism and nationalism had promised, but it was an ‘after’ that nonetheless refused the celebration of the proliferation of differences that was central to postmodernism.22 As with Spivak, postcolonialism here was coming apart from the history of the nation state, the history that had been the primary engine of the proliferation of its usage through the second half of the twentieth century.

In 1992, the disjuncture between the analytical work intended by the concept of the postcolonial and the history of anti-colonial nationalism was further cemented by the publication of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History’. A hyperreal figure of ‘Europe’, he argued, remained the ‘sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call “Chinese”, “Indian”, “Kenyan”, and so on … In this sense, “Indian” history itself is in a position of subalternity’. To find a way to articulate what could not be articulated within the discursive protocols of academic history implicitly meant that such a historical account would have to be rendered incommensurate with the constitutive assumptions underlying ‘third-world nationalisms, as modernizing ideologies par excellence’.23 The object of Chakrabarty’s postcolonial critique was thus precisely what could not be recuperated to the project of post-colonial state formation. That this excess cannot be further specified turns on the radically colonial constitution of the epistemological status of history itself.

The year Chakrabarty’s essay was published saw the definitive fruition of the self-consciousness of the scholarly formation of ‘postcolonial studies’ with the publication of a large cluster of writings problematizing the increasing analytical weight being ascribed to ‘postcolonial’ as a field-defining and field-unifying term. The debate surrounding these concerns in 1992 was at least as important as the forceful innovations connected with the affirmatively elaborative literature of two or three years earlier, sharpening the contours of argument and defining the limits of the field more clearly.

It was in 1992 that Sara Suleri expressed deep scepticism about the ethical elevation of ‘postcolonial feminism’ and its celebration of the ‘racially female voice’. Whereas ‘postcolonial’ had previously referred to ‘the discursive practices produced by the historical fact of prior colonization in certain geographically specific segments of the world’, it was coming to function more as ‘an abstraction available for figurative deployment in any strategic redefinition of marginality’. On the one hand, that displacement ‘helpfully derails the postcolonial condition from the strictures of national histories’. On the other hand, it threatened to render the concept ‘so amorphous as to repudiate any locality for cultural thickness’.24

It was also in 1992 that Anne McClintock complained in the pages of Social Text that, while ‘“post-colonial studies” has set itself against the imperial idea of linear time … the term “post-colonial” … is haunted by the very figure of linear “development” that it sets out to dismantle. Metaphorically, the term “post-colonial” marks history as a series of stages along an epochal road from “the pre-colonial”, to “the colonial”, to “the post-colonial”’, effecting a ‘re-centering of global history around the single rubric of European time’ by conferring on ‘colonialism the prestige of history proper’. In effect, she suggested, not only did postcolonialism fail to overcome the colonial stadialisms and Eurocentrisms it set out to uproot, but it also threatened to erase the substantial differences between cultures subjected to colonialism and the forms of colonialism to which they were subjected, even as it could too quickly lapse into a ‘prematurely celebratory’ characterization of the existing world.25

In the same 1992 issue of Social Text, Ella Shohat echoed many of the same concerns about homogenization, premature celebration and the ascendance of colonialism as the master-sign of history. She acknowledged the ‘rising institutional endorsement of the term “post-colonial” and of post-colonial studies as an emergent discipline’, but was critical of the ‘depoliticizing implications’ of the transition from the ‘anti-colonial’ and ‘activist’ to the ‘professional’ and ‘theoretical’ concerns that its ascendancy marked. The usage of ‘post-colonial’ systematically confounded two distinct periodizations: on the one hand, that of ‘going beyond anti-colonial nationalist theory’ through a series of ‘disciplinary advances characteristic of intellectual history’, and on the other hand, ‘a movement beyond a specific point in history, that of colonialism and Third World nationalist struggles’ as a movement taking place within ‘the strict chronologies of history tout court’. The primacy of the former periodization over the latter in postcolonial criticism threatened to obscure the ‘broad political-economic’ dimensions of the ‘imperialized formations’ that perdured across the caesura of formal decolonization.26

Most impactfully of all, perhaps, 1992 also saw the appearance of Aijaz Ahmad’s searing 350-page diatribe against the broadly poststructuralist tendencies of colonial and postcolonial criticism in his controversial book, In Theory. Ahmad’s primary complaint was that the discourse-focused approach of postcolonial studies failed to engage with the broader social realities of global political economy, resulting in a critical practice whose self-indulgently inflated claims to oppositional politics were substantively empty. Its ‘mystique of theoretical professionalism’ served to depoliticize and domesticate the impulses of an older leftist activism, even as its narrowly rhetorical radicalism belied the comprador class origins and elite Western institutional affiliations of its key advocates.27 Ahmad’s book was arguably not lastingly significant as a theoretical intervention in itself. Even many of those most inclined to sympathize with the broadly Marxist thrust of his critique found the argumentation unconvincing and its tendency to ‘polemical assassination’ reprehensible.28 But in capping 1992’s attempts to push back at the ascendance of the postcolonial as a field-defining concept, it provided the occasion for precisely the kind of defensive gesture that fully demarcated the field. By the time Public Culture issued its special issue dedicated to ‘Debating In Theory’ in 1993, the wagons had been sufficiently circled that its essays could be read as sophisticated explorations of the proper boundaries of permissibility and impermissibility defining an interdisciplinary field of ‘postcolonial studies’.

Back in 1987, Simon During had characterized postmodernism as internally fissured by its simultaneous refusal ‘to turn the Other into the Same’ and its recognition that ‘the Other can never speak for itself as the Other’. But he had also characterized the postcolonial impulse as similarly fissured between what he called ‘the post-colonized’, who ‘identify with the culture destroyed by imperialism and its tongue’, and the ‘post-colonizer’, who ‘cannot jettison the culture and tongues of the imperialist nations’ even if they did not identify with them. That tension between the appeal of transcendence and the inescapability of immanence was on full display in Chakrabarty’s famous essay, where ‘Europe’ represented the inescapable limit of historical discourse even as it represented a limit that had to be overcome. But the field that flourished in the subsequent two decades was also riven by a different tension that many of the critiques of 1992 were pointing towards. On the one hand, a politicizing impulse located postcolonialism within a long pedigree reaching back to the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century. This impulse remained central to the constitution of a genealogy for the field in both The Post-Colonial Reader of 1995, and even more powerfully in Robert Young’s historical introduction to the field in 2001, where postcolonialism was directly identified with the ‘tricontinentalist’ anti-colonial tradition.29 On the other hand, a metaphorizing impulse displaced postcolonialism from that pedigree through an emphasis on the colonial foundations of the anti-colonial commitment to national liberation. In During’s terms, the conception of the ‘post-colonized’ turned out to be at profound odds with the political aspirations of anti-colonialism, in so far as anti-colonialism was pervasively nationalist and developmentalist, and thus simultaneously expressive of a ‘post-colonizer’ vision.

The result was, as Shohat had in some sense already anticipated, a tendency to shift the burden of postcolonial analysis from a specific object of study – the colonial situation and its sequelae – to a particular mode of analysis – a practice of reading committed to recognizing the colonial roots of its own epistemological assumptions and to overcoming the resulting limitations to whatever extent possible. The tradition of interrogating forms of subjectivity under colonial conditions – a thriving literature from Frantz Fanon to Ashis Nandy – no doubt played a crucial role in mediating the relationship between these two distinct problematics.

So if the ‘post-colonial’ had begun in the 1960s as a concept bound to the historical era of decolonization for its vibrancy, the ‘postcolonial’ became increasingly by the 1990s a concept contiguous and contemporary with the colonial, bound to an internal narrative about the colonial foundations of the protocols of disciplinary knowledge. Postcolonialism named an approach to reading texts that could be applied to almost any object. The tension was sharp enough that by 1997, Edward Said was distancing himself from ‘postcolonial studies’ on the grounds that he cared more ‘about the structures of dependency and impoverishment that exist’ in the global South;30 while Spivak declared herself a critic of ‘metropolitan postcolonialism’ in 1999.31

Four broad and instructive tendencies became evident in the proliferation of the postcolonial in the 1990s.

First, forms of scholarship that had previously travelled under the rubric of colonial studies came to be retrospectively identified under the rubric of ‘postcolonial studies’. Works by Edward Said, Bernard Cohn, Talal Asad, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff could all be grouped within the larger framework of postcolonial studies, despite not having been conceptualized under that rubric. By 1993, the literary scholar Ambreen Hai could complain of Ralph Crane’s Inventing India (published the previous year) that it had neglected ‘the last twenty years of British and American scholarship in postcolonial theory and cultural criticism’.32

Second, the invocation of postcoloniality began to spread beyond its early development in literary studies into other disciplines in the human sciences. This proliferation tended to track the relative proximity of diverse disciplines to literary studies. As early as 1990, Henry Giroux had embraced the analytical power of the postcolonial, as part of a package of intellectual practices that included postmodernism and feminism, for educational studies.33 In 1991, Donna Haraway was imagining a practice of science studies that engaged ‘with postcolonial, antiracist, and feminist cultural politics’, and by 1992 Sandra Harding was outlining programmatic possibilities for ‘postcolonial science studies’.34 History’s engagement with the concept also happened early, in a period when the discipline enjoyed strong connections with literary studies, thanks to the ascendance of the new historicism – a conjuncture that was reinforced by the specific role Spivak played in brokering a relationship between the Subaltern Studies project and postcolonial theory, as well as by the broad reception in 1992 of Chakrabarty’s essay, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History’, and Gyan Prakash’s response to Rosalind O’Hanlon and David Washbrook, ‘Can the Subaltern Ride?’35 Similarly, the centrality of literary scholarship to the American model of area studies meant that the postcolonial was recognized as a periodizer of scholarly dispositions by the early 1990s (especially but by no means exclusively in South Asian studies). In contrast, whereas anthropology was an important incubator of critical analysis of colonialism’s significance to the developments of modern epistemological norms, it was slower to embrace the rubric of postcolonialism as a descriptor of these concerns. While the introduction to a 1992 special forum on ‘Contested Pasts and the Practice of Anthropology’ in American Anthropologist advocated that anthropologists engage more actively ‘in the multidisciplinary debates over colonial discourse and postcolonialism’, and a critical response the following year expressed ‘misgivings about the discourse on postcolonialism’ in ‘American anthropology’, the actual contributors to the forum reflected a more general indifference towards the postcolonial as a rubric for locating their own contributions (except in the older sense of political periodization).36 In political science and economics, the reach of postcolonialism was felt least. By the late 1990s, however, a postcolonial heterodoxy was being elaborated even in a discipline as far from literary studies as international relations.37

Third, the geographical reach of the theoretical applicability of postcolonial criticism extended centripetally to include the European metropole within its analytical ambitions. Of course, from the very beginning of its emergence in literary studies, the concept of the postcolonial had been framed expansively from the beginning to encompass ‘all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’.38 That definitely included Europe within its scope, as the frequent focus on metropolitan and canonical texts in the practice of postcolonial criticism. But in more recent years, self-identifiedly postcolonial analysis of European contexts has turned not only on the post-imperial condition of Europe: Southern Europeanists have begun, as Roberto Dainotto observes, to draw ‘a new lexicon to discuss the old facts of Europe’s internal colonialism’ from the repertoire of ‘postcolonial and subaltern studies’.39 Here, the experience of marginalization in Southern Europe becomes its own form of colonization, which in turn opens the space for the reconceptualization of the region’s experience through the theoretical lens of postcolonial theory.

Fourth, the postcolonial expanded its temporal reach to include the study of historical periods before the era of the early modern European expansion. Both the tendencies towards geographical and temporal extension were emblematic of an increasingly metaphorizing tendency in the construal of the epistemic object that the rubric of the postcolonial invoked. Perhaps most emblematic of the metaphorizing tendency has been the thriving field of (self-identified) ‘postcolonial studies’ of the European Middle Ages.40 Because the ‘medieval past can be colonized, like a distant continent’, medievalists ‘cannot be blamed for trying (like a third world country) to catch up’ to the modernists who dominate the academy.41 Postcolonial medievalists are eager to show that the ‘ideological groundwork for colonialism was being laid well before 1492’, but they are much more fundamentally concerned with how an engagement with postcolonial theory can produce a rethinking of inherited spatial frames, periodizations and normative assumptions through the confounding of conventional assumptions about the modern/premodern binary.42 For a ‘criticism that has detailed the imperialistic colonization of space surely must now turn to an examination of the epistemological colonizations of time’.43 The violent incursion on the rights of the dead is clearly first and foremost a problem of the scholarly subject and the protocols of knowledge production that frame it. Decolonizing the past then functions as a metaphorical reflex of decolonizing our own contemporary forms of knowledge.

Does such a development represent a provocative extension of postcolonial inquiry, and or does it represent a ‘supernova’ tendency that threatens the dissolution of postcolonial studies as an interdisciplinary field? Postcolonial studies arguably peaked in the early 2000s – not much more than a decade after its fruition to epistemological self-consciousness – and since then the question of its exhaustion or even ‘end’ as a field has been voiced many times.44 The significance of these concerns, however, is inevitably obscured by the confounding anxieties produced by the simultaneous crisis in the reproduction of literary studies (still the core of postcolonial studies) within the post-2008 US academy.45 The institutional successes of postcolonial thought have certainly blunted some of the boundaries that helped define it as a discrete field of inquiry. For the moment, its most prominent exponents occupy some of the most desirable and powerful institutional positions in the Anglophone academy – so there seems little reason to anticipate an imminent demise in its fortunes more precipitous than the general crisis in humanities education.


1 Accessed 7 August 2020.
2 See Steve J. Stern, ‘Latin America’s Colonial History: Invitation to an Agenda’, Latin American Perspectives, 12:1 (1985), 3–16.
3 Accessed 7 August 2020.
4 Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London: Routledge, 1990).
5 Edward W. Said, ‘Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors’, Critical Inquiry, 15:2 (1989), 205–25, 219.
6 Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, Critical Inquiry, 12:1 (1985), 144–65, 149. The other two essays on which his reputation was built are ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, October, 28 (1984), 125–33, and ‘Sly Civility’, October, 34 (1985), 71–80.
7 Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, ‘After ‘Orientalism’: Colonialism and English Literary Studies in India’, Social Scientist, 14:7 (1986), 24.
8 Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989); When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 186.
9 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, Critical Inquiry, 12:1 (1985), 259.
10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives’, History and Theory, 24:3 (1985), 251.
11 Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds), Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 10, 175, 389.
12 Simon During, ‘Postmodernism or Post-Colonialism Today’, Textual Practice, 1:1 (1987), 33.
13 Ibid., 43–6.
14 Laura Kipnis, ‘Feminism: The Political Unconscious of Postmodernism?’, Social Text, 21 (1989), 149–66, 161, 163.
15 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 2.
16 Ibid., p. 11.
17 Ibid., p. 2.
18 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Woman in Difference: Mahasweta Devi’s “Douloti the Bountiful”’, Cultural Critique, 14 (1989–90), 105–28, 106.
19 See Ranajit Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, in Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds), Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 37–44.
20 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (New York: Routledge, 1990).
21 See Homi K. Bhabha, ‘DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation’, in Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 291–322.
22 Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?’, Critical Inquiry, 17:2 (1991), 336–57.
23 Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for Indian Pasts?’, Representations, 37 (1992), 1, 21.
24 Sara Suleri, ‘Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition’, Critical Inquiry, 18:4 (1992), 756–69, 759.
25 Anne McClintock, ‘The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term “Post-Colonialism”‘, Social Text, 31/32 (1992), 84–98, 85–7.
26 Ella Shohat, ‘Notes on the “Post-Colonial”’, Social Text, 31/32 (1992), 99–113.
27 Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), quotation from p. 1.
28 See Benita Parry’s review in History Workshop Journal, 36 (1993), 232–42, 232.
29 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1995); Robert Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).
30 Ania Loomba, ‘Remembering Said’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 23:1/2 (2003), 12–14, 12.
31 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. xii.
32 Ambreen Hai, review of Ralph J. Crane, Inventing India: A History of India in English-Language Fiction, Journal of Asian Studies, 52:1 (1993), 183.
33 Henry A. Giroux, ‘Rethinking the Boundaries of Educational Discourse: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Feminism’, College Literature, 17:2/3 (1990), 18, 20, 21.
34 Donna Haraway, ‘The Actors Are Cyborg, Nature is Coyote, and the Geography is Elsewhere: Postscript to “Cyborgs at Large”’, in Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (eds), Technoculture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 24; Sandra Harding, ‘After Eurocentrism: Challenges for the Philosophy of Science’, PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1992, vol. 2, 311–19.
35 Gyan Prakash, ‘Can the “Subaltern” Ride? A Reply to O’Hanlon and Washbrook’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 34:1 (1992), 184.
36 Jonathan D. Hill, ‘Overview’, American Anthropologist, 94:4 (1992), 814; Takami Kuwayama, ‘A Japanese Anthropologist’s Response to “Contested Pasts and the Practice of Anthropology”’, American Anthropologist, 95:3 (1993), 704.
37 Albert J. Paolini, Navigating Modernity: Postcolonialism, Identity, and International Relations (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999).
38 Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, p. 2.
39 Roberto M. Dainotto, Europe (In Theory) (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 172.
40 The impulse has been strong enough that a recent introduction to postcolonial historical studies gives an entire chapter to the field: Rochona Majumdar, Writing Postcolonial History (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), chapter 4.
41 Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams, ‘Introduction: A Return to Wonder’, in Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (eds), Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 1; Margreta de Grazia, ‘The Modern Divide: From Either Side’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 37:3 (2007), 453–67, 457.
42 Lisa Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), pp. 2, 4.
43 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Introduction: Midcolonial’, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (ed.), The Postcolonial Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave, 2001), p. 5.
44 See, for example, the special forum on ‘The End of Postcolonial Theory?’, PMLA, 122:2 (2007), 633–51.
45 The Chronicle Review: Endgame: Can Literary Studies Survive? (2020), (accessed 7 August 2020).


An intellectual history of post-concepts


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