Postmodernism & Postcolonialism






Naive Definition

The literal meaning—as with all such terms—will be helpful only as a starting point, which we must inevitably leave.  The historical, cultural and intellectual currents associated with the term oblige us to use it as a key to understanding very specific critical attitudes, trends and problems.  The literal meaning, then, from post- (after) and colonialism (the conditions of and the situations describing the occupation of colonized lands by Imperial powers) means the conditions of and situations describing colonized lands and peoples after the colonizers no longer hold them as their property.  So the situations we might name postcolonial are very wide ranging and include states and countries of the following: Ireland; the Caribbean (e.g., Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica); pretty much the whole of Africa; Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific; South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan); South East Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia).  Strictly we would also have to include not only Canada (uncontroversially) but also the USA and, in historical terms, one would probably have to admit that few places on the globe have not been colonized sometime in the last 2000 years.  We should also take note that the post- (after) doesn’t necessarily indicate either that the colonizers have gone away (literally or in terms of cultural or political influence), or that the conditions of postcolonialism have necessarily changed much from those of colonialism.  In the first case a strong imperial presence might remain in the form of a “metropolitan-periphery” hierarchy so that the colonial hierarchy is simply repeated in a different way.  That is, instead of ruling by government and law the colonizers continue to rule through cultural and economic power and influence.  In the second case (not unrelated to the first) the systems of administration (legal, educational, sanitary etc.) are often kept in place.  It’s well known that you cannot simply replace one system with another without serious or even catastrophic results (tending to reinforce the inevitable powerful resurgence of the replaced system).  In general terms, then, a postcolonial situation always involves a relation (often if not always in terms of repetition) to the colonial history.  The relationship, however, as it is mapped out in different ways around the larger part of the globe is extremely complex and obliges us to take into consideration an attention to specific and particular details that would threaten to break down any sense of generality concerning the notion postcolonialism.  For instance, Irish relations towards the British are rather obviously unlike those of Singaporeans or Jamaicans; and Indonesian relations to the Dutch are something else again.  As we move around the globe these differences are revealed in terms of a dizzying diversity of histories and situations.  But yet, certain generalities do emerge.  These involve the recent historical conditions that many critical commentators have been studying in terms of the word modernity.  Here we are allowed to bracket out a number of (apparently) historically less relevant instances of colonialism.  Alexander the Great, the Khans, the Romans, The great dynastic empires of China, the empires of Japan, the vast empires of south Asia—each of these has been responsible for colonizing parts of the globe but we can for the moment discount them by focusing on the more concentrated and in some senses more recent and more recently powerful phenomena associated with modernity, particularly western modernity.



Modernity must be grasped in terms of two distinguishing and distinguished historical processes: those of modernization and of modernism.


With the swift rise in Europe and America of powerful tendencies manifesting advances in technology and science, as well as the development of nation states, democratic political systems and the expansion of capitalist modes of production, the word modernization comes to describe them.  Associated with modernization, of course, are not only the values of humanism and enlightenment, but also those of colonialism and European Imperialism as the modernization of the west spreads around the world.


The word modernism however is used to describe certain trends in art, writing, criticism and philosophy that have had a powerful influence on the development and experience of the 20th century.  Conventionally we can date these trends from the last decade of the 19th century (1890) to about the beginning of the 2nd world war in 1939.    So we can provisionally accept that the phenomena of modernism were produced within a fifty-year period.  Modernism is not, of course, a period in itself (other kinds of art and writing occurred during this time) but it does describe a wide range of textual phenomena that exerted a profound influence on the way we all think and experience our world today.


Modernity, then describes both the tendencies associated with modernization (science, technology, rationality) and the self-critical attitude of artists, writers and philosophers who, within modernity, have profoundly questioned its powerful limits.  We can thus, provisionally at least, identify a point of confluence between postmodernism and postcolonialism.  In fact postcolonialism names a specific mode of intellectual and artistic production and has a historical provenance within the field of critical theory.  In this narrower and more powerful determination we can see that the issues of postmodernism are very close to those of postcolonialism.


The following points are designed to show how the term postmodernism can be linked to the term postmodernism.  My feeling is that, if we are to accept either of the two terms as being of any use at all, then we must take both into consideration (each point provides a hyperlink to the corresponding point on the “Postmodernism” page).


1. Problematizing Frontiers.

      Our distinction between “modern” and “postmodern” can be broadly mapped back over the distinction between colonial and postcolonial if we take “modern” to denote the condition of modernity and “postmodern” to distinguish, as before, between intentional and unintentional postmodernism.  Postcolonialism would thus be—both the active theorizing of the postcolonial condition and the condition itself.  So, on the one hand, postcolonial theory, with the combined resources of poststructuralist criticism and postmodernist philosophy, addresses these issues critically, i.e., by drawing attention to the specific and ineluctable historical grounds in the colonialism and ethnocentrism that has always accompanied western history and thought.  In this sense the problematizing of frontiers that we identified with postmodernism can be resituated in terms of the frontiers between western powers and colonized countries, between European subjects and their colonial others, always grounded in the conditions according to which one identity is related to an other (the abstract “relation to the other” without which there’d be no relations whatsoever).  So having argued that “defining a difference is the same as drawing a boundary and defending a frontier,” we have concrete historical examples in a broad field where boundaries and frontiers have been asserted, policed and legislated in terms of colonization.  The failures and paradoxes of colonialism are revealed to be those that are determined by any attempt to legislate a frontier without taking account of its ground (the relation to the other).  The logic of colonialism assumes two contradictory things: 1) the colonized subject is now “one of us” (belongs to the colonizer’s “we”) and 2) the colonized subject is not one of us and can thus either only repeat in an inauthentic way what (the European) we must always be or threaten (the European) us, as irrecoverably other from behind the veil of otherness.  The threat of confusion that appears to come from outside a designated limit (them as opposed to us) turns up, from a postcolonial point of view, as being at the same time the possibility of identity itself, so any attempt to push an other to the outside returns as a kind of distorted mirror image to mock the sense of “we”.  This would be the first instance of the relation between postmodern and postcolonial—two similar forms of troubling the notion of identity at its root.  The attempt to keep a boundary secure between what is valued and what threatens the valued thing reveals that this strategy of inclusion and exclusion tends to be built on paradoxical grounds that, in the full logic of the paradox, must include as part of its own condition the thing that is perceived as a threat, hence the second phenomenon.  Postcolonialism cannot maintain a distinction between colonizers and colonized, between center (or metropolis) and periphery, without falling into paradox. 


2. Problematizing Grounds

      Just as with postmodernism, the grounds of all colonial exclusions and inclusions (and the frontiers and boundaries that are drawn between them) turn out to be paradoxical, so we need to rethink the whole notion of grounds—along with notions like foundation, origin, beginning, etc.  The general disappearances in postmodernism of notions of origin, source, ground and foundation have equivalents in postcolonialism.  Edward Said (Orientalism) showed that much of what is comprehended in the West as the Orient turns out to have been an extraordinarily sophisticated and heterogeneous series of theoretical fictions—inventions disguised as facts—and constitutes one of the great myths that have governed western attitudes to the world in general for thousands of years.  Orientalism is part of a complex narrative (as complex as it is contradictory) concerning progress, belatedness, otherness and identity, civilization and barbarism etc., and is as prone to hyperbolic praise as it is to derogatory scorn.  Like the “grand narratives” of western modernity, Orientalism in Said’s sense can be identified within a wide range of cultural registers (science, knowledge, art and culture, as well as bureaucratic administration and trade, which is what so much of the narrative in fact serves to support and maintain).  Instead of ground and origin, as we have seen, postmodernism begins to see things, including things like historical processes, in terms of repetition and difference (“just another case of history repeating”).  So the ground of colonialism would not be a simple narrative involving two origins or sources, one of which is dominated or even removed by the other (one culture conquered by another) but must instead by grasped in terms of the “pluridemensionalityof relations in their difference and repetition, in terms of the play of forces.  In this sense we can begin to see that colonialism itself doesn’t simply go away.  But, since the historical phenomenon was itself informed by the possibilities of repetition and substitution and manifests exactly the kind of play of forces that repetition and substitution imply, a postcolonialism would always in some sense manifest the colonialism of which it is the post.  In this sense we should look to the great god Capital, which was always anyway the main beneficiary—as well as the conqueror—of both imperialism (i.e., colonialism) and critical democracy (i.e., modernity) in the west.  So where are we going then?


3. Problematizing Destinations

      The problem of destination (colonialism’s destiny?) is certainly marked in postcolonialism.  The “some time or place or condition” that a modern would have marked out in advance is of course, in the ideological fulfillment of the colonial project (the civilizing of the primitive), the moment of independence.  This teleological (and fictional) narrative has civilization adopting its less advanced wards and then granting them their independence when good and ready.  The obvious inconsistencies here do not, however, prevent the paradoxes from emerging in concrete historical ways.  In postcolonialism the destination is deeply problematic (as is the notion of home).  The widespread phenomena of migration, trans-migration, the figure of the refugee, and diverse waves of global diaspora, have all in different ways problematised the notions both of origin and destination to such a degree that we can no longer make coherent sense of the world based on those notions.  Here you get the first of our affirmations repeated in the postcolonial dimension: 


4. Performativity

      The performative is that aspect of a text or institution that can be revealed at the level of its functioning or acting—it is institution in act.  “The terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively,” Homi Bhabha writes, in The Location of Culture, “The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition.”  In linguistics a performative utterance is one that allows the accomplishment of something through speech itself, e.g., warning or promising, both of which are speech acts that have some effect on the situation and addressee.  By comparing these with assertoric or constative sentences, which classically are considered as true or false descriptions of facts, language philosophy is led to consider acts of communication in terms of the total situation produced by the act in the context of its utterance.  It thus becomes possible to say that any speaker, in uttering a sentence, has produced a speech act that will have had some effect on its addressees.  But one can “perform” a speech act in two senses.  In the linguistic sense a performative act brings about some state of affairs by simply being uttered (as with a promise).  But such acts can also be performed in the dramatic sense—i.e., one can act out a performative in a performance.  Jacques Derrida’s controversial reading of J. L. Austin (Signature, Event, Context) shows that this acting out can be generalized as citationality, or iterability, and he shows that this is the condition for all types of utterance (and probably all acts).  This iterability is a kind of force, a kind of stricture that imposes the need for a counter-stricture—the constraints of the law in its attempt to eliminate contingency, for instance.  This citationality comes back to the law, to intention or teleology, as an accident, a kind of contingency, the contingency of its own founding in the general iterability of signs.  The possibility of disengagement, citational graft, and even empty or mechanical repetition, which demonstrably characterizes all iterable marks, is the very condition of experience and the condition for the intentional statements too.  This is not, the argument goes, an irritation or impropriety that accidentally attaches itself to proper usage.  Rather, as can easily be shown, without it any future utterance, any future addressee and any future at all, would be impossible.  In postcolonialism, then, the performative utterance takes on a specific and crucial significance.  Take Bhabha’s own introduction to a collection of essays on Postmodernism and Identity.  He writes:


It is one of the ironic signs of our times that then Introduction to The Real Me? Postmodernism and the Question of Identity should be written by an Anglicized post-colonial migrant who happens to be a slightly Frenchified literary critic.  For in that hybridity of histories and cultures you have the spectacle of the simulacral: the corrosive craft of colonial mimicry exposing the limits and borders of the sustaining project of Western mimesis (qt in “Lagging Behind” 76)


His point is actually quite complex.  In the performance of what it means to be an identity of postmodernism (hybrid and shifting) the repetition of the theory in the “fact” of the postcolonial repeats the colonial subject’s mimicry with regard to the west in a way that reveals and demonstrates the originary form of postmodernism in an inherently postcolonial response to colonialism.  Postcolonialism logically precedes postmodernism the moment a colonizer set foot on other lands.  The “logically” here, of course, is the logic of iterability—the originary nature of the possibility of citational graft—the possibility that must come before any identifiable origin as such.  In this sense the performative is revealed as ground (paradoxically but actually) and it is this that makes postcolonialism effective.    


5. Self-Reflexivity (or Auto-Referentiality).

      In the last quotation from Bhabha we witness, too, the self-reflexivity of the postmodern in the postcolonial—this doubling self awareness that brings us to an awareness of modernity’s own doubling of identity in the empty repetition of cultural signs—modernity can be broadly characterized as the attempt to disavow, repress, domesticate or expel the doubling that repetition produces as condition for identity.  In postcolonialism the hybrid is explicitly focused upon, performed, inscribed in its performance.  


6. Repetitions of the Same             

      Now we have a further reason for failing to construct that paradigm of good and bad postmodernism.  The knowing, educated, sophisticated irony about who and what and where we are would be in danger of simply repeating the traditional form of colonial superiority unless it could assume a solidarity with all those other forms of alienated, oppressed, marginalized community and those radically different modes of relation as they emerge performatively under the growing determinations of global capital.  Here postcolonialism must also participate in the general ethical affirmation of repetition and difference, sampling, citing, quoting and simulating existence with no origin or with origin already in representation, with no identity but what emerges out of repetition and difference (history as repetition, origin as difference).  The awkward consequence here is that something of the colonial past would need to be acknowledged as condition, as possibility, as remains of the postcolonial (and postmodern) present, as we face the blindness of a future destination without end.  Perhaps it is this blindness to the future that now and always structures our sense of self, of the present, and that hinders our understanding, even now, of a past that must also be comprehended according to the blindness it had then towards its future—not the future that here and now looks back, but that future that remains yet to come, for all time.  Who knows?




Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London, 1995.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture.  London: Routledge, 1994.

Phillips, John.  “Lagging Behind: Bhabha, Post-colonial Theory and the Future.” Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit. Ed. Steve Clark. London: Zed, 1999.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London, 1978.



A page with one or two instructive links


Postcolonialism: an extremely useful and well-organized page of links


A Creative and Provocative “Reader” in Postcolonial Theory


Garbage Culture: a page from the last site—is there any culture that could not be described in this way?


A great many links are here.