Postcolonialism- a lecture for a Global Studies Theory class


Key Terms:


Frantz Fanon

Che Guevera

Edward Said

Jean Paul Sartre



Origins of Postcolonial theory


Early French authors

Franz Fanon

Fanon’s Experience in Algeria

Fanon’s writings

Edward Said

Indigenous Forms of Knowledge

Knowledge as a form of colonialism

Indigenous Peoples

Land as an Issue

Unsettled Borders

The Body

Feminism and Postcolonialism

Criticisms of Postcolonial theory

Liberalism and Postcolonialism

Show: video clip on Edward Said: first one, perhaps start of the second.

Postcolonial Theory:

  • Easy to forget how important imperial powers were
  • At the start of the twentieth century, they controlled nearly nine-tenths of the Earth’s surface
  • 1950s and 1960s colonial powers quickly lost control of vast territories
  • in the case of the Portuguese empire, it collapse in the 1970s, after nearly 500 years of rule in Africa
  • colonial relations did not change overnight with the announcement of independence
  • a shift from direct to indirect rule
  • colonial relationships endured
  • shaped even the way people thought and wrote
  • the language that they used, the products that they brought, and their culture
  • postcolonial theorists study colonialisms legacies
  • these are economic, but equally environmental, cultural and social
  • I want to talk about the origins of this theory
  • Began on the margins between the developed world and the developing world in Algeria
  • Then was appropriated by two key figures: Frantz Fanon from Martinique and Edward Said, a U.S. scholar of Arab ethnicity
  • Has since spread: become very influential in the humanities but not in the social sciences
  • This literature shares commonalities: in particular, a fascination with the link between identity and writing


  • To discuss post-colonialism, you must begin in North Africa
  • France had lost its empire in North America after 1763
  • Shattering blow to national pride
  • It was determined to remain an imperial power like its archrival Britain
  • Moved into Algeria in 1830
  • The new colony was to be a means for France to resolve all kinds of internal contradictions
  • Brought support in France for this move
  • Great thinkers of the time –such as deToqueville- backed the colonial project
  • Believed that Algeria was central to France’s reputation and interests
  • Created a colony that was not supposed to be a colony
  • In New France, French rule had been predicated upon an alliance with native peoples
  • This had enabled them to move deep into the interior at a time when the English colonies were still strung out along the coastline
  • In Algeria, the French took a different approach
  • They focused on assimilation
  • The colony came to be seen as inseparable from France
  • Colonization was encouraged
  • Because France did not have enough settlers who wanted to go to Algeria, immigration was welcomed from all over Europe
  • These people became citizens, and in turn perceived themselves as being more French than the French
  • The key to defining their identity was mastery of the French language
  • At the same time, the Arab population was marginalized
  • In 1873 the French passed a law which gave the best land to settlers 
  • Their education was second-hand
  • Despite the rhetoric about equality, they were second-class citizens
  • They could only become citizens if they renounced Islam and embraced Christianity
  • Even then they were not accorded the same rights as French citizens in the colony
  • The majority population was oppressed
  • This left many of the “French”citizens of Algeria in a strange position
  • Theoretically they belonged to France
  • But they didn’t feel that way
  • Perceived themselves as being alienated from the local community
  • They were caught between two cultures
  • Some families had been there for generations
  • But they did not truly belong to Algeria
  • Did not speak Arabic, were not Muslim
  • Many scholars were Jewish
  • This placed them in a complex positoin
  • Two communities: but they did not fit in either
  • For example, during World War Two they lost their citizenship
  • Did not regain it until six months after the war
  • This experience scarred many intellectuals, who wondered “who am I” and “Where do I belong?”
  • After World War Two, the Algerian war for independence began (1954-1962)
  • The French fought with incredible brutality
  • Captured in the great film “The Battle for Algiers”
  • Because the colony was perceived as being part of France, the fighting was particularly bitter and savage
  • There were more than a million settlers in Algeria at the time
  • Nearly a generation of French males fought in Algeria
  • Intellectuals of French descent in Algeria had to think about their position
  • Even before the end of the conflict, this led to the first wave of theoretical writing about postcolonialism
  • All these authors focused on the question of identity
  • Were fascinated by language, because that was largely how they defined themselves
  • A whole series of authors
  • All these authors experienced alienation and exile, as they fled Algeria after the French defeat in the Algerian War for independence
  • A bitter blow for France
  • Perhaps similar to the Vietnam War in the US
  • But the US never thought that Vietnam was part of its nation, nor did it have a million exiles coming back after the fighting
  • A very bitter memory in France, and it’s fair to say that France is still haunted by this memory
  • Many intellectuals who went to France found that they no longer belonged there too
  • Striking that all of the original authors of postcolonialism were of European ancestry
  • This has led to some to say that postcolonialism is a theory base of the elites, with strong European roots
  • Truth more complex than this
  • It’s also true that the figures who would later influence post-colonialism did not think of themselves as postcolonialists
  • But the arguments that they would make would be adopted by others

Who were these early French authors?

  • There are so many thinkers that I cannot cover them all in depth
  • But I will touch on them briefly
  • Jean Paul Sarte and Camus were two of the foundational thinkers of postcolonialism
  • But they were in contradictory positions
  • Sartre was a Marxist and a philosopher
  • He was frustrated that the left in France were ignoring colonialism’s debasing effects
  • He took a very critical stance on Algeria, and was frustrated that the French communist party was too beholden to the Soviet Union
  • He wrote a preface to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, which will be discussing very soon
  • Wrote bitter critiques of the colonial system
  • He came into conflict with another great intellectual Albert Camus
  • He too wrote to critique the division of Algeria into two social worlds
  • But he believed that the ultimate answer was assimilation
  • He favored the survival of a French community in Algeria
  • Sarte supported Algerian’s right to support to violence
  • Camus bitterly denounced violence in all forms
  • He became known as a great existentialist philosopher, although he himself rejected the term existentialism
  • He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957
  • But was heckled by an Algerian in the audience
  • In response, he spoke out against violence, and seemed to critique the Algerian uprising
  • Led him to face bitter criticism
  • Intellectuals like Simon de Beauvoir condemned him
  • Camus almost never spoke about Algeria again before his death in a car accident in 1960
  • Both his first and last novels focused on the experience of settlers in Algeria
  • Spoke of their alienation in a world in which they were not quite at home, despite generations in the country
  • I cannot talk about all the French postmodern theorists
  • I will just list them to give you a sense of how important the Algerian exiles were
  • Derrida, who was critical to literary theory
  • Cixous: a feminist theory, whose experience was shaped by experience as a Jew
  • Althusser, Bourdieu and Lyotard
  • Although Foucault was not a French-Algerian, he also spent time there
  • Most of the postmodern thinkers who shaped later postcolonialism were people from this background
  • Important to note that not all the people influenced by Algeria were of European ancestry
  • In particular, I want to talk about a man from Martinique, which is still a part of France

Franz Fanon’s Origins:

  • Fanon is an iconic figure
  • African-American man from Martinique
  • Intense experience in France
  • In Martinique, he had always been perceived as a light skinned man
  • But in France, little children would see him and call out: “Look, a Negro!”
  • Martinique even now is a department of France
  • This is where Empress Josephine came from
  • If you visit the island, people drive Peugots and Renaults
  • French identity important
  • When Fanon went to France, he realized that he was not French and could never be accepted as such
  • For him, the experience was searingly painful
  • How did he respond to how people defined him?
  • Did he accept other peoples’ definition of him as lesser? 
  • Not the only person from the Caribbean who had to wrestle with this issue
  • In the 1920s Marcus Garvey from Jamaica had become a powerful figure who addressed these questions
  • Emigrated to the U.S. carried out a lifetime of work
  • Not enough time in this course to consider the work of Garvey and others
  • The only point that I want to make is that Garvey’s work was not unique

Fanon’s Experience in Algeria

  • Fanon at first felt a great loyalty to France
  • In 1944 he joined the Free French army in order to fight against Nazi Germany
  • But he experienced a great deal of racism during the conflict
  • He returned to Martinique a war hero but alienated
  • Went to France to study medicine
  • Was able to find work in Algeria after his studies
  • But it was in Algeria that Fanon came to fully develop his ideas
  • He was a doctor, who came to work in a psychiatric facility 
  • Always an unconventional doctor
  • When he arrived in 1953 he had been horrified to see all of the patients at his psychiatric hospital in straightjackets
  • He had ordered the nurses to remove them
  • This was a large test of wills, which he had won
  • The patients then lay there unmoving, exactly as if they still had the straightjackets on them
  • Fanon had walked around to explain that there would be no more straight jackets
  • At one point, the hospital’s director phoned the police in a panic
  • Ten inmates had escaped, and one doctor was missing
  • A couple of hours the director is embarrassed
  • The hospital bus had just returned with Fanon
  • His soccer team from the mental hospital had just emerged victorious
  • But for Fanon serving as a doctor was a disappointing experience
  • He ultimately decided that he could not heal psychiatric injuries which sometimes resulted from the experience of colonialism itself
  • He resigned his position in 1956
  • Was ordered to leave Algeria within two days by the French authorities
  • Instead went underground to join the armed resistance
  • A figure very much like Che Guevara
  • Both men were doctors who became militants
  • Fanon’s life after making this choice would be very short
  • He believed that revolutionary violence was the key not only to freedom but also to dignity

Fanon’s Book:

  • Fanon’s first book was Black Skin, White Masks
  • He talked about the impact that French imperialism had upon the psyche of black men and women
  • Despite their black essence, they adopt white values and ideals, in particular in terms of how they presented themselves to others
  • The task was to allow these people to be able to reclaim their identities
  • Perhaps not unsurprising that a psychiatrist would be interested in this topic
  • He was interested in how the native had been defined as a native, and then had internalized this identity
  • Fanon wrote another book, The Wretched of the Earth
  • The entire book was written in only ten weeks
  • Very different from this first book
  • This did not focus on psychiatric states
  • This focused on action
  • Writing at a particular historical moment
  • Patrice Lumumba had just been murdered in the Congo as part of a CIA action
  • The Vietnam war was heating up
  • Colonial regimes breaking down globally 
  • People were looking for a means to justify anti-imperialism
  • Fanon gave them that justification
  • It quickly became the bible of decolonization
  • He argued that violence was the key force that upheld imperialism
  • As such, violence was justified to overthrow it
  • Colonial rule was only a means to legitimate colonial violence
  • His book was first published in France in 1963, and was simply titled the damned
  • Fanon had been deeply influenced by Sartre, who wrote an introduction to his work
  • It was published in English two years later, when it was retitled the Wretched of the Earth
  • By 1968 it had become hugely influential in the black empowerment movement in the United States
  • By then Fanon was dead of leukemia
  • Ironically enough he had gone to the United States to seek treatment
  • But his work remained important long after his death
  • It strengthened Che Guevera’s interest in African independence struggles
  • For Fanon, the book had been a means of education
  • Fanon took a far more radical approach to colonial issues than many of the French theorists
  • But his work was also related to their arguments
  • Something strange
  • Fanon was not from Algeria
  • How was it that he was in such a short period to be so closely associated with Algeria?
  • Like the French theorists, he was an outsider in this world
  • Perhaps because –as with the French- Algeria was the place where he had a deep experience of colonialism, in which identity was particularly problematic
  • Important to a later thinker, Edward Said

Edward Said:

  • Said published a key book called Orientalism in 1978
  • This is –with Fanon- the key text in postcolonial studies
  • Said is so important that I need a separate lecture just on his work
  • Suffice it to say here that while other authors were very important, Said more than anyone else helped to spread postcolonial theory in academia and the developing world
  • Said’s key idea: postcolonialism is not only is not only about ending the formal structures of power but also about decolonizing European thought and history (Ahluwalia, 63)
  • Decolonization has a psychological aspect
  • Realizing that modernity does not have to be defined by Europe
  • That part of the way that the former imperial powers retain their influence is by shaping depictions of colonized peoples
  • But this is abstract
  • In practice, what kind of issues do postcolonial theorists address

Indigenous Forms of Knowledge:

  • Postcolonial theorists place a great deal of emphasis on indigenous forms of knowledge
  • They argue that colonized peoples had great reserves of knowledge, which imperial powers tended to appropriate without credit
  • Class example: traditional knowledge and use of plants
  • Greatest diversity of domesticated plants found near the equator
  • In the First World, this is largely thought of as natural
  • But post colonial theorists argue that this is because of thousands of years of traditional plant use, during which local peoples have tested and refined plants to meet their needs
  • Companies search for the best plants to develop new strains of seeds
  • It is possible to patent a form of life if it has been modified
  • So companies can find traditional plants, modify them slightly, then patent it
  • Not only theoretical
  • As we will see later in the course, even viruses have been patented

Knowledge as a tool of Colonialism

  • This problem also means that people in the developing world may be alienated from traditional academic disciplines, in which they are written about, rather written with
  • Some people have tried to get around this problem
  • In Northern Canada and Alaska researchers have worked to create maps with Inuit and Innu peoples
  • Traditionally, maps of the North spare
  • Large laminated map on the floor
  • Community comes together and notes their traditional travel paths, fishing sites, migration areas, where traditional plants are harvested
  • Changes how you perceive the north
  • This kind of collaborative process very different from traditional scholarship
  • Allows you to see the region in a different way
  • But this is not how traditional scholarship is done
  • Think of Claude Levis Strauss, the great anthropologist, who did work with the Brazilian indigenous peoples in the 1930s
  • Incredibly detailed book, Tristes Tropiques
  • A very sad book, which is now a classic
  • You can read the entire book and not now that he traveled with his wife
  • Not only are local peoples marginalized, but so are women and other minorities in the production of knowledge
  • Key point: knowledge can also serve as a colonial tool
  • My experience with Washington in the Amazon: he would hunt for gold in Guyana
  • Did so on orders from outsiders, working with maps created before the British left
  • Before the British left Iraq they created a complete arial survey of the country
  • A tool for oil companies, the military
  • Many of the books that are written about regions after colonialism ended were written in other languages, by people from the metropole
  • That is where the archives were
  • Took time to develop universities in the new colonies
  • This left people in developing countries outside debates concerning their regions
  • My experience at ISI: African scholarship alienated from political science, which he viewed as a heavily Western discipline
  • He was frustrated by the extent to which political scientists emphasize the creation of the modern nation state system in 1638
  • What he asked, did 1638 mean to people where he was from in Africa
  • I would argue that it does matter
  • But he was right that scholarship does not stress non-Western examples
  • Even writing can be a tool of colonialism
  • Preliterate peoples are written about not with
  • The power of names is significant
  • The Canadian north is filled with the names of English royalty
  • Explorers would name local landmarks after themselves, regardless of the fact that local peoples already had names for the locations
  • Queen Charlotte Islands; Haida Gwaii
  • Ayer’s rock; Uluru
  • A common experience with indigenous peoples
  • Including here in Oregon, where the state has decided to name geographical locations with the word “squaw” in the placename
  • Colonial powers remake the landscape by renaming it
  • Demonstration of power
  • How do you undue that?

Indigenous Peoples

  • In the West, indigenous peoples are not typically thought of in terms of colonialism
  • Instead, indigenous peoples are described as the true embodiment of the nation
  • In schools, indigenous peoples are typically only described at the moment of contact
  • As if these were the only true peoples, and later peoples are not “authentic”
  • You can see this in the work of anthropologists in the 1930s in the US and Canada who went out to find the remotest peoples
  • A sense that the peoples with the longest experience with contact are not truly authentic
  • Same process in Latin America
  • The indigenous peoples of Brazil’s north-east would not be studied
  • Remote Amazonian tribes would be
  • Colonial theorists would argue that this allows elites to avoid issues of traditional justice
  • In Oregon schools, you learn about Lewis and Clark and their contact with the native peoples
  • Don’t learn about the experience of people on the Warm Springs today
  • Yet indigenous peoples have a long experience with colonialism
  • Not finished
  • Can see that still in the Canadian north
  • People can’t own their own houses
  • I will be discussing the crisis at Attawapiskat later in the course
  • Key point: indigenous peoples have their own experience of colonialism
  • True all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Burma and elsewhere
  • Another example of how colonialism endures after the end of traditional colonial relations
  • Indigenous peoples: in some respects nations without borders
  • Not thought of as foreign
  • But having done work both on both Brazil and northern Canada, I have much more in common with the Portuguese than Cree culture
  • The Cree language is more difficult to understand than Portuguese
  • But they are not typically thought as foreign
  • Postcolonial theorists would say that this is a colonial legacy, that we still do not see the legacy of colonialism with these peoples, or respect their sovereignty

Land as an Issue

  • Classic example of this: land claims issues
  • Later in the class I will talk about Kahnanakwe, Quebec and Caledonia Ontario
  • The cases I know best as a Canadian
  • But you see this issues globally
  • In Southern Africa: apartheid overthrown, but unequal landholding endures
  • Robert Mugabe used this issue to gain popularity
  • But after he expropriated white farmers land production collapsed
  • Complex issues
  • But colonial legacies endure
  • In 1913, South Africa had enacted the Native Land Act
  • This made it illegal for native peoples to possess land outside the “Scheduled Native Areas” except as farm laborers
  • This still shapes patters of land-holding
  • See this in the Andes, where the descendants of the Spanish colonizers still own more land than the indigenous peoples
  • Still fuels resentments and protests
  • Not only an indigenous issue
  • Look at landlessness in Brazil, those who are most likely to be landless are the descendants of slavery, who are still the most impoverished group within the nation
  • Has given rise to an increasingly powerful landless movement
  • Shares some aspects in common with indigenous peoples’ struggles
  • In India, you have seen frequent uprisings and rebellions –sometimes inspired by Marxism- but which at base are about anger with unequal landholding systems
  • This is the situation for farmer communities
  • In some respects, they were at least in a better position than nomadic communities
  • Their right to land was never recognized
  • Yet they needed the largest territories

Unsettled Borders:

  • Another postcolonial issue is that of borders
  • The outgoing colonial powers often defined borders to suit temporary political interests
  • For example, the Kurds did not receive a state in the Middle East, even though they represent a nation
  • Instead, their population was divided amongst Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq
  • This fact has destabilized the area ever since
  • Sudan had an Islamic north and a Christian or animist south
  • Country finally divided, but only after great bloodshed
  • The same can be said of Pakistan and East Pakistan
  • The division between India and Pakistan led to mass violence after partition
  • The issue of Kashmir is still not settled, and is still dangerous
  • Throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa you saw the creation of new nations
  • Defined by imperial interests
  • In Russia, Stalin defined the borders of Kazhakstan so that it would never make sense as an independent state
  • When ethnic conflicts then broke out, they were then often defined as age-old hatreds
  • An expression of the primitive state at which these people lived, rather than a legacy of colonialism

The Body:

  • Theorists also argue that postcolonialism can be seen in more than borders and land, or other such large scale issues
  • Colonial regimes were interested in maintaining purity and conformity, in order to separate the rulers from the ruled, and to ensure their dominance
  • For this reason, they were concerned with issues of identity
  • This led them to take an usual interest in the body
  • This was expressed in many ways, which still have influence
  • One can see this with clothing
  • The veil and the burqa are still powerful issues
  • Is it OK for a woman to wear a burqa?
  • In France, the answer would probably be no
  • Fanon talked about this during the war in Algeria
  • In that period, women defined their allegiances by wearing a veil
  • Not only a personal choice
  • It made a political statement
  • Fanon said that it disturbed the colonizers because the woman could see without being seen
  • Fanon also had difficulties with this during his work in a psychiatric hospital in Algeria
  • He wanted to have men and women share the canteen
  • Intense resistance: had to have a separate canteen for women
  • Division of sexes is one way that we define who were are, by deciding what spaces bodies can enter
  • This also ties to issues around feminist post-colonialism

Feminist Post-colonialism

  • We will be discussing feminism next week
  • I will only note briefly here that colonial powers gave particular attention to the position of women, which interests post-colonial theorists
  • Not all colonial legacies are bad, nor are all independence movements perfectly good
  • Even Gandhi had very traditional ideas about women’s roles and sexuality
  • Early nationalists often thought that women defined the cultural mainstay of the nation
  • For nationalists, home and the domestic sphere was the best guarantee of traditional values (Robert Young, Postcolonialism, 97)
  • Women therefore were to be shielded from the outside world 
  • Because of their role in reproduction and raising children, they were the best guarantee of traditional identities
  • Women and modernity were often perceived as antithetical
  • In turn, colonial powers were able to legitimize their rule by fighting against practices that oppressed women
  • They outlawed child marriage, genital mutilation, and widow burning in India (suttee), in which a man’s widow was expected to burn herself to death on his funeral pyre
  • All of these steps brought progressive change for women
  • Colonial authorities were sympathetic to policies that would change the traditional practices of the people they ruled, so as to modernize them
  • This was sometimes called “colonial feminism”
  • Predictably, these policies became the focus of nationalist resistance
  • Not all colonial legacies were bad
  • This means that while women often wrestle with colonialism’s legacies, they are often accused of importing modernity, or failing to carry out their rule of preserving the nation’s true identity
  • Yet men and women often fought together to achieve national independence
  • But then men in some countries wanted to take back some of the freedom that women had gained during struggles against imperialism
  • In some countries you see powerful women’s movements after independence
  • Later in the class we will be talking about Vandana Shiva and the Chipko movement in India, which united feminism and ecology into a grass roots movement
  • I only note here that feminist postcolonialism is a powerful subcategory within postcolonialism itself

Weakness of Postcolonial Theory

  • Critics of postcolonialism say that it creates a simplistic narrative, which harkens back to a simpler and perhaps mythic past
  • Fails to give local peoples sufficient agency- too often portrayed simply as victims
  • They are often complicit in some respects in their own social problems
  • There are paradoxes
  • Colonial authorities sometimes implemented policies that benefitted women
  • Postcolonialism also downplays the importance of economics
  • As a post-structural school of thought, does not give enough attention to economic and power structures
  • Most of all, that post-colonialism provides a platform to critique the world, but not a program for how to address problems
  • The last point is the most common criticism of post-colonialism
  • What solutions does it propose?

Postcolonialism and Liberalism:

  • I also want to note something that is perhaps unexpected about post-colonialism
  • It has deep roots in classic liberalism
  • If you look at many of the ideals that it espouses, they are liberal ideals
  • The tolerance of diversity and diversity, the stress on minority rights, women’s rights, cultural rights: they all have roots in liberalism
  • Perhaps reflects just how radical classical liberalism was when it first appeared
  • Shows the ways in which ideologies are recycled
  • There are similarities between postcolonialism and Marxism
  • Che Guevera was in a pub in Ireland after the revolution
  • Ran into a famous Cuban publisher in a pub
  • Told him that he ought to publish a book that he’d been reading, The Wretched of the Earth
  • Both postcolonialism and Marxism concern themselves with the people who are marginalized
  • Marxism does so from a structuralist perspective that emphasizes economics and class
  • Postcolonialism takes a larger view of identity, to place greater stress on ethnicity and gender
  • The movement has also been influenced by Gramsci’s ideas about identity
  • Despite differences, there are many commonalities between Marxism and post-colonialism, and the movements are generally sympathetic to each other


Why do you think that postcolonial theory is very influential in the humanities –in particular in English- but is almost not studied in the social sciences? (I don’t have an answer for this, but it puzzles me)?

Can you think of other legacies of colonialism besides those that I’ve mentioned, like land claims issues, name disputes?

Can you think of any other struggles about place names? Any examples here in our state?

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