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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207

Postcolonial criticism is an examination of the history, culture, and especially literature of cultures of Africa, Asia (including the Indian subcontinent), the Caribbean islands, and South America as they are produced by people from these areas during the colonial era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Specifically, postcolonial criticism is...

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Postcolonial criticism is an examination of the history, culture, and especially literature of cultures of Africa, Asia (including the Indian subcontinent), the Caribbean islands, and South America as they are produced by people from these areas during the colonial era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Specifically, postcolonial criticism is an analysis of the power and political structures that pervaded the relationship between colonial powers and colonized areas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Major works of postcolonial criticism have been produced by scholars in the fields of history, sociology, and political sciences. Primary influential works include Edward Said's Orientalism, whose thesis states that the West has misunderstood and misappropriated notions of the East or “Orient,” its cultures, and its exemplars. Indian British scholar Homi Bhabha continued Said’s work by proposing a hybridization of cultures resulting from the colonial era that persists into the present. Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published a seminal article in 2010 titled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” which investigated colonialism from the perspective of the oppressed and brought a Marxist approach to postcolonial studies.

There are numerous other scholars currently working in postcolonial criticism; however, the genesis of the field is largely represented by these three exponents in the late twentieth century.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

Postcolonial criticism analyzes and critiques the literature, poetry, drama, and prose fiction of writers who are subjects of countries that were governed by or that were colonies of other nations, primarily England and France, and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Postcolonial criticism deals mainly with the literatures of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean by analyzing the interactions between the culture, customs, and history of indigenous peoples and of the colonial power that governs. Postcolonial criticism is part of a larger field called cultural studies, or race and ethnicity studies.

To understand the importance of postcolonial literature, a reader should understand the scope of European involvement in the lives of people around the world. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, European countries conquered, governed, and otherwise had interests in the majority of nations around the world. Colonialism had begun principally through mercantilism and the protection of mercantile companies, such as the British East India Company, by the British navy and the navies of other trading countries. By the mid-twentieth century, however, domination by Europe began to end, as colonized countries staged successful independence movements. By 1980, Britain had lost all but a few of its colonial holdings; Hong Kong remained British until 1997 and Australia remained British until 1999.

Postcolonial literary criticism is a recent development. Formerly known as commonwealth studies, postcolonial literary studies includes examinations of works by authors from colonized nations. After nationalism, indigenous novelists and poets finally were able to express freely their own thoughts and feelings about the effects of the long-term conquest of their peoples, their traditions, and their customs. Although some literature from the East originated in these early days of colonial rule, the great mass of postcolonial literature began as colonies gained their independence.

Edward Said

A list of the most influential postcolonial critics would have to begin with Edward W. Said (1935-2003), whose Orientalism (1978) is considered a foundational work in postcolonial studies. Said has a special place in postcolonial studies in part because of the uniqueness of his birth and education. He was born in Jerusalem while it was still a British protectorate, and he was educated in Egypt, England, and in the United States, where he received his doctorate from Harvard University. He taught at Columbia University for many years, won a number of honors, and was well-regarded in his profession.

In Orientalism, Said argues that Europeans have always been prejudiced against people of the Orient (the East), a prejudice that led to the formation of images of the East and of Easterners that were both mistaken and romanticized. Because of their view of the Orient, Europeans, and later Americans, began to feel justified in their conquest of the East, particularly the nations of the Middle East. Said, however, also denounces the Middle East for accepting the prejudiced values of the West regarding the Orient. In Orientalism, Said focuses on the ideas that become commonplace when the people raised in a governing culture, such as England, are mistakenly educated about the people of the country they dominate, such as India.

Said argues that even though Europeans were interested in the nations they governed and even made efforts to learn about the people, language, and cultural history of their colonies, nevertheless, European understandings and attitudes were often mistaken. One of the most common mistakes of the Orientalists, as Said calls the colonizers of the East, is their misguided view of the Orient itself. Said argues that, for example, Orientalists most often see a series of opposites between the two cultures. That is, they believe that the culture of the European country is normal and that the culture of its colony is simply a mirror-image of, and inferior to, the governing nation. To the Orientalist, therefore, the culture of the governed people is less than normal, or subnormal.

To take another example, Oriental males are often portrayed as weak and effeminate; nevertheless, they are considered a threat to European women, and European women are considered by the Orientalist to be drawn to the mysterious males of the East. To understand this dichotomy, one might consider an image from popular culture: the 1920’s Italian film star Rudolph Valentino, whose most famous role was as an Arabian sheik who abducted European and American women. This image of the Arabian sheik, one of the most popular images of the 1920’s, found resonance with many people, who then formed their own ideas of what a “sheik of Araby” was like from these film portrayals.

Still another example of Orientalist views of the East is the stereotype of the Asian or Arab woman as exotic, highly sexed, and eager for domination by a European conqueror. To an Orientalist, the East is always compared to the West, but this comparison always considers the East inferior. That is, where the West is progressive, the East is backward, where the West values unity and friendship, the East is untouchable and alien, where the West is strong and unconquerable, the East is weak, merely awaiting the domination of the West. Thus, Said seems to suggest that to the Orientalist, the East and its people are alien.

Orientalism as well as Said’s 1993 book, Culture and Imperialism, provoked much debate, both pro and con, among historians, but there is no denying the special place of these works in the canon of postcolonial literary criticism. In these works, Said attempts to show how these ideas of the past are clearly presented in the writings of authors of the colonial period, and how the literature of the former colonies has perhaps progressed somewhat beyond the errors of the past. Even if a mistaken worldview is somehow a part of human nature, in that people yearn for the fantastic and exotic instead of sameness among the world’s peoples, Said contends that such a view prevents an honest relationship among peoples of varied cultures.

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