- Postcolonial Studies at the Twenty-Five Year Mark
To recast Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, this special issue seeks neither to praise postcolonialism nor to bury it, exactly. As an introductory essay, it may be useful here to begin with the “post” itself, as the prefix that both enables and delimits an entire range of literary, theoretical, and cultural practices under the heading of the postcolonial. One could arguably read under the heading of the “post” an entire history of crises and deferrals, a genealogy of a culture’s compulsion to hurl its discontents into the void of the “post” (for example, postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism). Although the prefix “post” has grown so overdetermined in academic usage as to be nearly useless, this particular act of deferral produces a very precise effect: it provides the soothing illusion that whatever is really significant has either already happened or is yet to come. The former reading would cast the “post” as an aftermath, an appendix to the already formed object of study, reified in the manner of that which can be studied and known in its finitude (for example, postmodernism’s relation to modernism). The latter reading renders the “post” as part of a safely theorizable future whose true implications remain unconsidered, its impact blunted by the perceived lack of immediate impact. (This empty gesture of deferral—the very opposite of a “setting to work,” and therefore the site of its repression—is perhaps best typified by Gayatri Spivak’s “I write for a future reader.”)1 This special issue of MFS opts instead to read the “post” as the space or index of a future already visible in the form of an array of texts that collectively point toward a horizon and a future. What has arguably [End Page 677] changed over the past quarter century is not the “post” but its referent: that is, the futures toward which the field known as “postcolonial studies” think and work. This new referent, to which we will return below, is the global.
The “post” in “postcolonial” has emerged over the past twenty-five years as the baggiest of academic monsters. Its immediate problem has been the multiplicity of national and colonial histories that have come under its purview, and within each of these the gradations and variations of race, class, ethnicity, and gender among individuals. Each of these variations informs the individual subject’s (post) colonial imaginary in ways that impact their respective responses to the colonial experience. Thus the most immediate danger that the signifier “postcolonial” has always posed is that of renouncing cultural and historical specificity in the name of a theoretical consistency.
Critiques of postcolonialism along these lines go back at least as far as the field’s initial rise in the 1980s. While recognizing these shortcomings, however, this aggregate of unaligned, irregular discourses that we have come to call “postcolonial” together constitute a critique of the many injustices perpetrated on the rest of the world under colonialism and imperialism. In other words, what has always established the postcolonial as a collective, however provisionally, is less a specific method or object than a condition. The discourses collectively known as “postcolonial” share, if nothing else, a condition of having been (or presently being) colonized, and the problem of how to live with that condition. These shared concerns have constituted a broad context for postcolonial studies at the interstices of discourses such as nationalism, class, ethnicity, gender, language, economics, race, geography, and so forth. All of these and more have formed the analytical ground for the postcolonial precisely because no single metatheoretical model has ever done them all justice. The postcolonial thus constitutes a meta-analysis of its own relation to colonialism, a reckoning or coming to terms with what has happened and continues to happen under the sign of empire. It is this question of how to live in the aftermath of irrevocable harm that has formed the crux of the postcolonial, and that continues to fuel current global and postglobal studies.
If the divergent body of work known as “postcolonial literature” shares a common project or goal, it would be a broad...