Post-colonial studies: time to step out of the comfort zone?

Scholars in the field have been challenged to move beyond literary theory and take on some of the most difficult questions of our times

January 28, 2016
Muslim man holding "Not in my name" placard, Arrahma Mosque, Nantes, France
Source: Reuters

At the end of last year, Andrew Hussey issued a powerful challenge to those working in his field. Since 2014, he has been the inaugural director of the Centre for Postcolonial Studies (CPS). Although the CPS is part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, Professor Hussey is based in Paris, so he was blogging on the CPS website “under the shadow of the terrible violence that came to Paris on 13 November”.

“How do we even begin to understand such cruelty and its consequences?” he asked on the blog. Although this was obviously a question of particular urgency for those like himself, working on France and its links with North Africa and the Middle East, it could hardly be ignored by post-colonial studies more generally. “For all the pioneering work that has been produced since [the discipline] embedded itself in the academy, the world in the early 21st century has changed so quickly and so radically that it is as if…the ‘old politics’ no longer makes sense,” he wrote.

“The Centre for Postcolonial Studies is a new and young initiative whose remit is not to turn away from what has been achieved thus far; but to build on these achievements,” he continued. “To do this, however, it is also my belief – and this is the biggest challenge – that we do have to step away from academia and the comfort zone of literary theory and into the deeper, more complex world of real issues, real problems and, sometimes, real, raw violence.”

Much of this was highly relevant to the CPS’ inaugural workshop, held in London on 18 January, which brought together “heads of post-colonial studies research centres from across the UK and beyond” with a view to building collaborations and exploring how “the new CPS can best support and promote research”.

Some speakers discussed the nature of the discipline, the new perspectives it needed to embrace and specific projects on topics ranging from “francophone Caribbean literature” to “migrant women and the digital diaspora”. Others put more stress on public engagement and social justice at a time when the legacies of empire are fuelling some of the most significant public debates.

Ziad Elmarsafy, professor of comparative literature at King’s College London, had a number of suggestions about how post-colonial studies might need to rethink its research agenda.

He urged his fellow scholars to “expand [their] terms of historical reference” and to face the “brutal continuity [of empire and empire-building] in human history head-on, rather than seeing them as an exceptional feature of the past two centuries”.

He stressed the need to “take religion more seriously on its own grounds”, even if this meant “relaxing some assumptions that still operate about belief in a lot of academic work. Religion may well be the opiate of the masses, but that doesn’t mean that every believer is high or stupid.”

And he warned against a tendency to “overlook the state as a unit of analysis…The default position seems to be that the state is there to oppress and exploit, which is sadly true in a lot of cases; but it does not explain the persistence of the state and the insistence with which people, post-colonial or not, adhere to it. New thinking about belonging…might be the way to go.”

The resonances of colonialism

Those attending the workshop considered whether post-colonial studies’ stress on British and French colonial history and their aftermaths had led to a comparative neglect of, for example, what the “post-colonial” meant in the context of Latin America.

Anshuman Mondal, professor of English and post-colonial studies at Brunel University London, told Times Higher Education that he “works on the cultural politics and social rhetoric of Islamophobia and freedom of speech as part of the longer colonial project”. In this light, perhaps paradoxically, he believes that “colonial history provides a deep well of metaphors in Europe, even in countries that didn’t have empires”. He also indicated that he had observed “a big gap about the Middle East” in post-colonial studies, despite the fact that one of the discipline’s founding fathers was the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said.

As most of the UK’s great cities have deep and complex links with empire, several speakers at the workshop considered the implications of this.

Kendrick Oliver, professor of American history at the University of Southampton, noted that Southampton was “a significant port of empire as well as post-colonial migration”. The university’s special collections held the papers of Lord Palmerston, Lord Mountbatten and the Duke of Wellington, so they inevitably bridged the gap between imperial and post-colonial history and were probably “less sceptical of the metropolitan gaze than elsewhere”.

Matthew Brown, reader in Latin American studies at the University of Bristol, agreed that many of its researchers engage “with Bristol itself, its history, its role in the slave trade and the expansion of the city”. Yet he also flagged up the Quipu Project – an oral history initiative to document the terrible untold story of indigenous rural women and men targeted for forced sterilisations in Peru during the 1990s – as a good example of “getting away from navel-gazing theory and doing something with post-colonial studies”.

Anna Ball, senior lecturer in English at Nottingham Trent University, also expressed interest in “building links between post-colonial studies, activism and resistance”, referring to plans for “collaborations with local arts and cultural organisations hopefully leading to a festival of post-colonial activism”.

Perhaps the keenest response to Professor Hussey’s call for greater public engagement came from Amina Yaqin, senior lecturer in Urdu and post-colonial studies at Soas, University of London.

“If post-colonialism is to maintain its commitment to social justice and to addressing the most pressing contemporary issues facing society today,” she argued during the presentation of a paper co-written with Peter Morey, professor of English and post-colonial studies at the University of East London, “one of its priorities must be the position of the Muslim diaspora in the West.”

In a series of recent research projects, she said, she and Professor Morey had taken on the “twin task of critiquing neo-imperial Islamophobia – in attitudes and in policy – while also looking at intercultural trust-building…If the discursive disavowal of multiculturalism as a political project is now canonical and assimilationist rhetoric dominant, how can we clear space for the idea that cultural accommodation must be mutual if society is to evolve in a healthy way?”

After pointing to the role of “arts groups at a local level” in building trust and that of literature in helping us to understand “the imagined lifeworlds of different groups”, Dr Yaqin suggested that “there is a prevailing discourse tending towards the scapegoating of Muslims”.

Although “recent terrorist incidents and the punitive, anti-libertarian reactions to them” had led to extremely low levels of “intercultural trust”, those working in post-colonial studies were “uniquely placed to make an important, informed intervention to correct misconceptions and build a more just civil society for the future”.


Print headline: Can post-colonial studies shift from the word to take on the world?

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Reader's comments (2)

How sadly ironic that none of the academics you mentioned are affiliated with a university in a post-colonial country. Still the (post-)empire discussing what should be done in the (post-)colonies. Not to say they shouldn't, it's just a little heartbreaking.
Why tribals in india and in some Asian countries are still not a subject of post colonial studies? They are still colonised under social economical and cultural hegemony intentionally formed by dominant social forces to subjugate their lives. In nation like india the religious hegemony is so powerful and dominating that the excluded class (tribals are not part of Verna system as they follow animism rather than religious system) from Verna system is forced to accept their inclusion in the system. Their situation is getting worse day by day and sadly no scholar coming from these nation or west have shown any interest to highlight the tribal issues in these Post Colonial countries.