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This editorial appeared in Volume 10(2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Postcolonial Studies

by Henry Schwarz

In an historical sense, postcolonial studies describes the movements for national liberation that ended Europe's political domination of the globe, with 1947 an epochal date signalling the emergence of South Asia, "the jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, as an independent region. For the next forty years, one nation after another shook off colonial domination until the United Nations in 1987 numbered some 160 autonomous member-states. The dismantling of the Soviet Union since 1989 has resulted in the emergence of many more, with continuing effects upon the shape of the world, but the question of whether this continues the worldwide movement of decolonization is still debated.

In either event, this freeing and splintering of political entities has been among the most characteristic and most determining features of the second half of the twentieth century. When postcolonial studies limits itself to these specific events, the political overcoming of colonial/ imperial domination, it marks a distinct sub-field of certain disciplinary divisions. The so-called Third World that arose as a political entity following the 1955 Bandung Conference on non-alignment has been studied extensively by scholars in disciplines such as Economics, International Relations, Government, History, Sociology and Literature. In general terms, when we refer to "postcolonial" here we will be using it in this sense, as the historic struggle against European colonialism and the emergence of new political and cultural actors on the world stage during the second half of the twentieth century. These struggles have profoundly reshaped the production of academic knowledge as much as they have reshaped world power.

In a larger historical temporality, postcolonial studies also considers the longue durée of European expansion, exploration and conquest during the so-called Renaissance or Early Modern era of European history. In 1492 Christopher Columbus, sailing west from Spain, mistakenly though he had landed in China. A scant six years later Vasco da Gama, sailing from Portugal and somewhat better informed, found a reliable sea route east to the south Asian port of Calicut. European naval expansion in both directions saw tremendous increases in commodity circulation and resulted in a boom of seafaring navigational technology. Most striking perhaps, considered on a world scale, were the results of contact: the decimation of populations in the Americas and the enforced movement from Africa and Asia of people to the Americas, and from Europe to the settler colonies of the Americas, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other places. Entire continents were cleared of their inhabitants in order to make space for new European settlers, and paradoxically new groups of people, mainly from Africa and Asia, were shipped to the Americas to serve as their slaves. Of course the first people did not entirely disappear, nor were the European reasons given for slaughtering, enslaving, converting, infecting or neglecting them entirely convincing. Nonetheless, the modern world has been decisively shaped by these events. Many would still argue that the rise of Europe to global dominance from 1500 to 1950, with the holocausts and diasporas thus caused, has been the most significant event structuring world power in the year 2000.

In the Asian hemisphere trade depended on alliances between Europeans and local inhabitants, and conquistadorial practices such as those followed in the Americas were not followed by and large, although very significant displacements and enslavements took place there too and continue to influence the structure of society. The opening of Europe to other worlds through navigation has been deemed a crucial event for the subsequent histories of Asia and the Americas, which soon after their "discoveries" became decisively colonial as European techniques of economic and military organization overwhelmed the early practices of trade. To many contemporary scholars, this description best suits postcolonial studies as the analysis of the historical, technological, socio-economic and cultural links between Europe, Asia and the Americas since 1492, that is, as the emergence of European dominance following the first contact by water.

In the case of the relationship between Europe and Asia, it must be admitted, this date is very arbitrary as significant trade and cultural links between, say, Italy and China can be traced back to the 13th century, and between Greece and India to the 4th century BC. The Iberianpeninsula was of course an Islamic enclave from 711 to 1492, and the so-called renaissance in Europe was a direct product of the preservation and transportation of ancient Greek texts by Muslim scholars. Asia has been present in Europe for quite a long time. These historical facts lead us to the necessity of distinguishing a specifically "colonial" relationship from the long histories of contact and trade between East and West. But the emergence of the Americas and Asia into European consciousness from the 15th to 18th centuries does seem decisive for any accounting of world history, and the legacy of European civilization in the Americas and Southern Antipodes -- the construction of world-historical republics side by side the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans and Asians -- does seem a persuasive periodizing strategy.

In this perspective, postcolonial studies expands its purview not only historically but disciplinarily. If we are to consider American and Antipodean indigenes as constituent members of the field, not only academic departments of Anthropology but a full range of native practices and knowledges must be included to shape the underlying theory and methodology of the discipline. This inclusion has serious limits, however. On the one hand, why would anyone want to be "included" in a field that obsessively replays his or her destruction? On the other hand, in many formerly colonized countries such attempts to return to pre-colonial traditions of cultural understanding have been charged with "nativism," a naive recovery and celebration of supposedly pure, non-European practices untainted by foreign dominance. What nativists fail to recognize is that colonization in most cases makes any return to the past quite ambiguous, for colonizers are brilliant revisionists who often rewrite ancient traditions to serve their own purposes in the present, thus compromising and transforming the ancient sources of authority themselves. This process renders the ancient traditions fully modern and implicates them in practices of colonial dominance. Several influential books on colonial history in Africa and India, such as Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger's The Invention of Tradition, and Lloyd Rudolph and Susan Rudolph's The Modernity of Tradition make this process painfully clear.

Colonizers also tend to implant modern structures on their territories, such as the exploitive economic system of capitalism, and political structures borrowed from Europe such as territorial boundaries, parliaments and censuses that de facto transform traditional practices into modern ones that can never be repudiated if a new nation is to participate in the international state system once it is liberated. But these so-called modern forms and institutional structures also can function in a profoundly backward fashion. One dramatic example of a colonizer dragging a nation into the backwardness of postcolonial modernity is given in the Portuguese withdrawal from the new nation of Guinea-Bissau in 1975. Upon exiting the newly-liberated country, won through an historic struggle that energized the theory and practice of national liberation, the retreating troops set fire to the National Archives which they in fact had built. Official records of births and deaths, titles to land, government agreements, treaties and diplomatic arrangements, and other business committed to paper during a 400 year occupation were destroyed. Thus Guinea-Bissau became modern and free. Having won back their country, they would now have to begin writing their history.

Long historical temporalities stretching back to the sixteenth century create other demands on scholarship. The range of discrete regional histories, not to mention languages become research problems of monumental proportion. In this larger configuration of the field, postcolonial studies alerts us that the very forms through which we study the world, the academic disciplines, are implicitly structured by Europe's imperial dominance of the world since 1500. Academic knowledge developed in the modern era in very different ways than which it was practiced in medieval European universities, for instance, and the practice of overseas domination had a profound impact on the structure and content of European knowledge. As Edward Said argued so brilliantly in 1978, European knowledge is colonialism. The archives of the great Western universities were built from the orientalist acquisition of information about the other. Thus to study this archive is to participate in the politics of dominance. Postcolonial studies works to make this relation of unequal power more visible, with the goal of ending it. Postcolonial studies in this sense is the radical philosophy that interrogates both the past history and ongoing legacies of European colonialism in order to undo them. Thus it is not merely a theory of knowledge but a "theoretical practice," a transformation of knowledge from static disciplinary competence to activist intervention. Postcolonial studies at its best changes the world, providing interpretations that have practical consequences.

Colonial domination has been a fact of life around the world for thousands of years, not just hundreds. If we recognize postcolonial studies in its largest sense as the study of all impositions upon people by other people from foreign territories, we then expand the field to include such phenomena as, for example, the ancient Greek projects of subjugating distant territories to tributary status, the Roman Empire, the Aryan invasion of India (if that in fact occurred at all), the consolidation of the Ch'in Empire in China in third century BC, and the political conquests of outlying groups by the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Middle America.

In this way, postcolonial studies can examine recurring patterns and processes of violence against neighbours and distant peoples over long periods of time. One must be cautious however, in invoking such seemingly ancient antagonisms lest we fall back into naturalistic excuses such as "human nature" for explaining violence against others. As in all responsible scholarship, one must vigilantly contextualize and historicize the sources of conflict so that world history does not appear as one long succession of colonizing regimes. We feel that the lessons of the last fifty years, derived from the specific struggle against European colonial imperialism, have provided new tools to help us distinguish the specificity of the present from the supposedly ancient antipathies frequently blamed for conflict. In this disciplinary configuration postcolonial studies is allied with Peace Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, World Systems theory, certain strains of Anthropology and Theology, and other diverse projects for the transformation of knowledge into action that attempt to change the present by analyzing the global and local consequences of the European domination of the globe.

Thus it is not sufficient to limit postcolonial studies to strictly historicist explanations. A number of sociological, economic and philosophical questions have been raised within the field that cannot be contained within historical description. As noted in the third horizon above, postcolonial studies questions the violence that has often accompanied cultural interaction and attempts to frame explanations of it as well as to provide alternate models of accommodation or getting along. It also proposes practical models of ending or channeling conflict, often by rethinking the nature of identity in situations where groups come together and interact. Is it really sufficient, for example, to speak of humans as belonging to particular ethnic or national groupings, and therefore excluded from others? Under what terms? When is one group imposing on another? What is the difference between interaction and imposition? Given that most of the people on this planet have in fact been communicating and travelling for a very long time, postcolonial studies also questions the divisions of humanity into regions ("East is East and West is West, and ne'er the twain shall meet"); the division of knowledges into disciplines; and the seemingly universal tendency to think of fellow humans as "others." For whenever definitions of identity and belonging, inclusion and exclusion, rights and entitlements are posited, they are done for specific, contingent and situational reasons. Postcolonial studies invites us to examine these reasons in empirical detail and with theoretical precision, recognizing that the world is an integrated ensemble of historical and regional processes, and that particular times and places can rarely be separated out from larger patterns if we are to make interpretations capable of producing change. The reverse is also true: large historical patterns only take on meaning when they can be shown at work in specific contexts.

Henry Schwarz is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University and Visiting Scholar in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Writing Cultural History in Colonial and and Postcolonial India (1997) and of many articles on Postcolonialism and literary theory. He is Regional Editor of Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (Routledge) and has co-edited Reading the Shape of the World: Toward an International Cultural Studies (1996) with Richard Dienst, and Contributions to Bengal Studies (1998) with Enayetur Rahim.


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