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Critical Overview

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A coherent study of the body of the literature of Colonialism arose in the latter half of the twentieth century. A precursor to this work was Susanna Howe’s 1949 study Novels of Empire, which reviewed a body of literature in colonial settings. Critics from the late 1960s and early 1970s began raising questions about the morality of imperialism and the resistance of the colonized. Scholars began discussing imperialism not merely as a political policy but as a mythology, a system of symbols, narratives, and beliefs supporting imperialist action. But not until the release of Edward Said’s landmark work of cultural scholarship Orientalism in 1978 was there a theory of Colonialism that encompassed the full range of colonial discourse and its uses in legitimizing and maintaining colonialist practices. Orientalism as a cultural practice entails a web of beliefs about biology, culture, race, and religion that fix the “oriental” as “other,” thus necessarily “less than,” justifying the West’s dominance of the East. It was Said, in fact, who began the common usage of the phrase “colonial discourse” to describe the wide scope of textual practices related to Colonialism. Another of Said’s major studies is Culture and Imperialism (1993).

After Said, perhaps the other most influential scholar of Colonialism is Homi K. Bhabha. Bhabha emphasized the ambiguity of colonial discourse, introducing to colonialist studies the idea of hybridization, a theory first developed by the Russian scholar of the novel Mikhail Bakhtin in The Dialogic Imagination. Bakhtin defined hybridization as “a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, separated from one another by epoch, by social differentiation, or by some other factor.” Bhabha supported the work of Said but also offered a corrective by stressing the continual presence of those two languages and two consciousnesses, which create the ambivalence that characterizes the body of colonialist literature. Among Bhabha’s most influential works are the essay “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism” (1986) and The Location of Culture (1994).

Though racial difference was always a central factor in the study of the literature of Colonialism, feminist scholars insisted that gender was a missing term in the equation. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak pointed to an apparent feminist blindness to colonial discourse in texts such as Jane Eyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in her widely quoted essay, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” (1985). Studies that grew out of this argument include Laura Donaldson’s Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender, and Empire-Building (1992) and Jenny Sharpe’s Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Women in the Colonial Text (1993), which further explore the complex relationship between feminism and Colonialism. As Sharpe observed, many nineteenth-century feminists used the ideology of racial difference to advance their own cause. In his 1995 book Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race, Robert Young added the term colonial desire to the vocabulary of Colonialism. Young wrote that sexuality and commerce were closely bound together in colonial dis- course, arguing that “it was therefore wholly appropriate that sexual exchange . . . should become the dominant paradigm through which the passionate economic and political trafficking of Colonialism was conceived.”

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Essays and Criticism