Postcolonialism

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Student Question

In what respects is postcolonialism a postmodern movement?

Quick answer:

Postcolonialism can be judged postmodern chiefly because modernism, as a movement affecting the arts and intellectual thought, occurred before the European states took measures to decolonize. Additionally, much literature from the modernist period perpetuates older stereotypes about the indigenous peoples of colonized nations.

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As with other literary and historical issues, terminology is often used in a flexible way. There is no hard and fast definition of when modernism ended and postmodernism began. Nor is there total agreement even on what truly constitutes modernism, given the diversity of style and intent in literature and the other arts during the period (1900–1950) we usually characterize by that term.

Much writing from this time, while typically overturning older attitudes and styles within the European-American culture, either skirts the issues raised by colonialism or, even if it deals with them from a liberal perspective, still expresses older attitudes. For example, Conrad's Heart of Darkness condemns the European colonial system, yet portrays Africans stereotypically and seems to suggest that imperialism is bad mainly because it harms the white man. Similarly, George Orwell, while attacking the British colonial system, portrays Burmese and Indian people in patronizing terms even while treating them sympathetically. Though the issue is a slightly different one, prejudicial and anti-Semitic attitudes are evident in the work of T. S. Eliot, an icon of modernism.

Postcolonial thinking overturns these attitudes and no longer views world culture as Eurocentric. The works of Western intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, as well as Frantz Fanon and a huge number of non-Western writers, have expressed new ideas about the dynamic between the colonizers and colonized from the second half of the twentieth century on. The time period of this changed attitude corresponds to the new world created by decolonization and to the postmodern movements in the arts.

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