An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory

In the introduction to Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, and Politics, the authors Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins lay out the keynote aim of their book: “To focus on the methods by which post-colonial drama resists imperialism and its effects.” Their opening essay is an unwitting, and at times non-ironic, linear draft on a wittingly, and at time pan-ironic, nonlinear oeuvre.

The term Post-Colonial literature is a rather new one. Other names have included Commonwealth Literature, New Literatures in English, and Literatures Other Than British and American. The former categorizations suggest a furthering of marginalization, subordination, and a consistent monitoring of The Other – if not on his culture and customs, then in the literature itself. The Post-Colonial tagging does not infer a Post, as in After, rather a new “engagement with and contestation of colonialism’s discourses, power structures, and social hierarchies.”

In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said makes the distinction between colonialism and imperialism:
“Imperialism means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory; colonialism, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory.”

Post-Colonial theory, according to Gilbert and Tompkins, operates on two theoretical levels: elucidate the post-coloniality which is inherent in certain texts; unveil and deconstruct any continuing colonialist power structures and institutions.

Paraphrasing the authors, Post-Colonial drama – and this applies to its fiction, as well – responds to the experience of imperialism, whether directly or indirectly; is performed for the continuation and/or regeneration of the colonized communities; is performed with the awareness of, and sometimes the incorporation of, post-contact forms; and finally interrogates the hegemony that underlies imperial representation.

Post-Colonial drama and fiction refuses closure or a clean-finish to “stress the provisionality of post-colonial identities.” Non-closure in this sense acts as a form of resistance. If the agency of imperialism is to superficially clean-up and set in motion a backwards order, then the post-colonial artist must find the option of making a mess – his/her own mess, with his/her own catastrophic identity markers to fly up in the dust – a healing device. Non-closure as resistance is also a necessary reaction to the Eurocentric, self-proclaimed culturally-important texts: Bloodbath conclusions or a revenger’s fantasy fulfilled; marriage (or at least the writing/consummation of a love contract) or a Romancer’s fantasy fulfilled. The post-colonial writers must explore the possibilities of the open-air, of the unlimited possibilities of Imperialistic Absence: Colonialization itself equates closure: Entry, penetration, a body left ravaged of its native language, identity, cultural markers, ideas, and psycho-pathologies.

Thus, the radical newness of its drama and fiction is understandable. As Ian Steadman comments on South African drama: “The real potential of dramatic art lies in its ability to teach people how to think.” A step further is Said’s proclamation on formalism and post-colonialism:

“The question is a matter of knowing how to read, what to read. Texts are not finished objectsâÂ?¦ The great imperial experience of the past two hundred years is global and universal; it has implicated every corner of the globe, the colonizer and the colonized together. Because the West acquired world dominance, and because it seems to have completed its trajectory by bringing about “the end of history”âÂ?¦ Westerners have assumed the integrity and inviolability of their cultural masterpieces, their scholarship, their worlds of discourse; the rest of the world stands petitioning for attention at our windowsill.”

Yet this pressing of the nose against the glassing, this standing outside of the master’s house, becomes the touchstone for the post-colonial imagination: A bizarre dichotomy of wanting entry into the Western canon and a firm fist rallying against the house’s standards. The post-colonial writer is able in this utterly so-close position to borrow radically and to borrow unapologetically from all branches of theory and practice. The writer can steal the deconstructivist’s bitterness of naming and names, can retaliate alongside the post-modernist against mimicry and structure, can follow with Zola the traceable environment and heredity products of character, can strike angrily with the Feminist against the majority, and can bathe freely in the formalist’s tub a soaking of artistic virtue and fixity. Thus we find in its literature a global cross sectioning allied with local fantasma (R.K. Narayan’s The Guide); the limpness of martyrdom and active suffering (Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place); an ill-conceived history and highly contagious atmosphere of prose histrionics (Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children); a shouldering of guilt and questing for motherhood while defining an independent woman (Emecheta’s Kehinde); a yearning for hybridity and self-definition (Rushdie again, Satanic Verses); the idea of family pride and willing family separationism (DeSai’s Clear Light of Day); ambiguity and anger (Thiong’o’s A River Between). Add to this discourse the concepts of distorted memory, delayed memory, and a memory at times so piercing in its clarity of disaster that at times the reader must stop to wonder how the writer had the steel to create a work of Fichtean curves and arcs, subplots and subcharacters. The Western reader can feel only a slight warmth of intimacy with the texts, while at the same time be charmed by his own guilt. Blandly, the question for the Western reader is, “Can there be intimacy when reading these texts?”

Perhaps most interesting in the Post-Colonial strategy is the dominating, though subversive, message. Gilbert and Tompkins remind us that the literature is “more specifically political: to dismantle the hegemonic boundaries and the determinants that create unequal relations of power based on binary oppositions such as ‘us and them,’ ‘first world and third world,’ ‘white and black,’ ‘colonizer and colonized.'”

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