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Reviewed by:
  • Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction
  • Patrick F. McDevitt
Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. By Robert J. C. Young. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Robert J.C. Young has made a major contribution to the field of postcolonial studies with this lucid, wide-ranging and compelling synthesis. Expanding on themes first visited in his Colonial Desires and White Mythologies, Young has given readers an insightful analysis of the ways in which anti-colonial struggles inspired and shaped new forms of knowledge that, for Young, constituted a “counter-modernity” to western modernity. In addition to the standard fare for an introduction of this type (e.g., Said, Spivak, Bhabha, subalternism, hybridity, etc.), Young draws on a broad spectrum of thinkers, including Las Casas, Bentham, Marx, Mao, Connolly, James, Césaire, Fanon, Gandhi and others, to detail a genealogy of anticolonial thought and practice which forms the roots of postcolonialism. The book’s two greatest strengths are its attention to the historical development of postcolonial theory in relation to imperialism and anti-colonialism, and the relative absence of jargon.

Avoiding the common pitfall of over-quotation found in many introductions to post-structural and/or postcolonial theory, Young paraphrases widely and effectively without slipping into the academic argot that often obscures more than it illuminates for the non-initiated. Whereas some authors, for example Leela Gandhi in her Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction or Pauline Rosenau in her Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences, primarily quote difficult passages from other sources and leave them unclarified, Young effectively explains complex theories in plain, academic language. This would seem to remove a major stumbling block for students and non-specialists alike. However, this is not meant to imply that Young’s is a book for introductory undergraduate courses; it is probably not. Nonetheless, it certainly would appear to have great potential as a text for upper-level courses or a graduate seminar, especially in disciplines like history in which many students may be wary of ‘theory.’ Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction is fascinatingly theorized, it just is done in a way that is accessible.

Young, a professor of English and critical theory at Wadham College, Oxford, does not confine his analysis to literary studies, as other similar introductions often do (Moore-Gilbert, McLeod, for example). Nor is postcolonialism portrayed primarily as an academic dispute between traditionalists and an avant-garde or between Marxists and poststructuralists. This book firmly places the development of postcolonial theory within the history of colonialism, imperialism and most importantly, the anti-colonial movements in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

From the beginning, where he carefully defines and analyzes the terms colonialism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonialism, Young successfully avoids the reductive trap of creating an overly broad field of study. Postcolonialism, in Young’s estimation, never descends into a catchall phrase for the latest academic fashions in the study of imperialism and anti-imperialism. Specifically, postcolonialism (or “tricontinentalism” as Young would prefer) is used to designate the analysis of the historical and contemporary effects on both western and “tricontinental” (i.e., Asian, African and Latin American) cultures of western colonialism and imperialism and particularly the connection between the past and the present world.

After defining his terms, Young examines the development of both resistance to imperial and colonial domination and the intellectual tradition that informs the academic discipline of postcolonialism. In both discussions, Young’s attention to historicity is particularly refreshing and instructive. He resists the temptation to homogenize all oppression into one phenomenon and is careful to distinguish between different types of colonialisms, French and British for example, and between different types of domination within one national tradition. Nonetheless, throughout the book, much is made of the interconnectedness and intellectual cross-fertilizations of people and institutions from around the world in a common goal of liberation. Young is also especially attuned to the nuances and subtleties of the postcolonial project and repeatedly stresses the ways in which easy dichotomies and simplistic reductions between the west and the non-west or between imperialists and anti-imperialists confuse as much as they explain.

For Young, postcolonialism and anti-colonialism were both products of a revolutionary fusion of the indigenous and the cosmopolitan, which grew out...

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