One of the basic principles of postcolonial thinking is that you really should not say, “one of the basic principles of ‘X’ is ‘Y.’ ” Postcolonialism, in its epistemological orientation, stands against what it labels “essentialism,” the identification of central or core characteristics, particularly of peoples, societies, and cultures. However, adhering to this prohibition makes it difficult to identify and discuss anything, including postcolonialism.
In postcolonial thought, there is good reason to reject essentialist characterizations of peoples, societies, and cultures. The reason is that, according to postcolonial thought, “knowledge is power,” but not in the traditional sense of knowledge giving one real understanding of the world, gives one power in the world. Rather, the postcolonial view, following Michel Foucault, is that “knowledge is power” in the sense that what we call “knowledge” is really constructed ideology with no grounds in reality, which is designed to justify the imposition of power over others, to repress and exploit others for fun and profit. Of course, this other postcolonial epistemological principle, that true knowledge does not exist, raises the same kind of awkward question that arises with all relativist theories: must postcolonial doctrines and assertions, like those to which it directs its critical attention, be considered “constructed ideology with no grounds in reality which is designed to justify the imposition of power over others?”
Postcolonial thought has developed in the context of the confrontation of cultures. Its stance is critical toward imperialism and colonialism, especially European imperialism and colonialism. For example, according to Abdul Jan Mohammed, “Motivated by his desire to conquer and dominate, the imperialist configures the colonial realm as a confrontation based on differences in race, language, social customs, cultural values, and modes of production.” Essentialism is used to define imperial and colonial subjects as different, as “the Other” (as the postcolonialists would say), and to contrast the culture, economy, politics, science, and so on of Europe favorably in comparison.
Postcolonial thought manifests itself in many contexts and is applied in many fields. As Stephen Slemon explains, postcolonialism has been used as a way of ordering a critique of totalizing forms of Western historicism, as a portmanteau term for a retooled notion of “class,” as a subset of both postmodernism and poststructuralism (and conversely, as the condition from which these two structures of cultural logic and cultural critique themselves are seen to emerge), as the name for a condition of nativist longing in postindependence national groupings, as a cultural marker for nonresidency for a third-world intellectual cadre, as the inevitable underside of a fractured and ambivalent discourse of colonialist power, as an oppositional form of «reading practice,” and, as the name for a category of «literary” activity which sprang from a new and welcome political energy going on within what used to be called “Commonwealth” literary studies.
In anthropology more specifically, postcolonialism has two main thrusts: First, again at the epistemological level, it challenges anthropological research in “other” cultures, attacking both the authority of anthropologists to speak for other cultures and essentialist descriptions of those cultures. Postcolonial preferences in reporting on other cultures would be for an emphasis on “voices” of the subjects themselves; that is, instead of commentary and analysis by the anthropologist, ethnographic reports would consist of comments and commentaries by the “natives.”
Second, at the level of social and historical analysis, anthropologists of postcolonial bent would de-emphasize focus on characteristics of the local or regional indigenous culture, and instead analyze the ways in which European imperial and colonial power distorted and corrupted indigenous culture, and exploited and oppressed imperial and colonial “subjects.” In postcolonial analysis, culture and social organization that may at first appear to be indigenous, and above all social and cultural problems, whether in economics, politics, human relations, gender relations, human rights, and so on, can be traced to externally imposed imperial and colonial impositions.
Perhaps the most important postcolonialist influence on anthropology has been Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said, a professor of English at Columbia University, argued that Oriental Studies, the field of historical, literary, and cultural examination of the Middle East, consisted not so much of dispassionate, reasoned, objective understandings of the Middle East, but rather a set of fantasy projections, distorted disparagements, and demeaning misrepresentations, the real purpose of which was not to understand the Middle East, but to justify and encourage European conquest, oppression, and exploitation of the Middle East and its peoples. From this perspective, any critical comment directed toward the Middle East can thus be dismissed as “Orientalism.” Said’s critics argue that Said violated his own strictures in his account of Oriental Studies, and accuse him of “Occidentalism.” Said, from a privileged family of Palestinian origin residing in Egypt, presented himself as a Palestinian refugee and adopted the Palestinian cause as his heartfelt political commitment, influencing many in academia to side with Palestine.
Two important intellectual streams converge in postcolonialism. One is Marxism, and particularly Leninism. Marxism was a great political influence in the second half of the 19th century and the 20th century, and became a major academic influence as well. Popular in Europe throughout the 20th century, Marxism became influential in North American academia during and after the 1960s. But with the decline and fall of the Soviet Union and communism in the late 1980s, Marxism lost some of its luster. Lenin’s Imperialism, which updated Marx by applying his theory to the wider imperial and colonial fields, has continued to be an inspiration. Postcolonialism, without acknowledging its debt too explicitly, has drawn on Marxism and Leninism, although, like Foucault, a more modern and direct influence on postcolonialism, stressing power more than the economics emphasized by orthodox Marxism.
The other stream converging in postcolonialism is postmodernism, arising in anthropology from cultural and symbolic anthropology; it takes the epistemological stand that everyone is “positioned” and can only see a particular point of view, rendering all opinions “relative” and “subjective.” There is, thus, no objective knowledge, and one view (or custom, practice, culture, or society) is as good as the next. Postcolonialism applies this precept to Third-World societies.
For postcolonialists, anthropology cannot fulfill its “modernist” or “realist” objective of discovery and accurate representation. According to the postcolonial vision, Western anthropologists—epistemologically hampered by cultural blinders, and guilty of colonialist crimes—can legitimately only advocate on behalf of the colonial oppressed, the subaltern, the disadvantaged, while at the same time condemning their oppressors, European and American imperialists and advocates of capitalist globalization. Indeed, under the influence of postcolonialism, much academic anthropology has discarded aspirations of a scientific nature and taken on the character of political advocacy.
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