DOI link for Introduction
Critiques of postcolonialism have intensified over the last decade, by no coincidence the decade that has also brought postcolonial studies to prominence as an institutionalised academic field. Postcolonial studies, though never fully accepted within the academy, has become distinctly fashionable; ‘postcolonial’ is a word on many people’s lips, even if no one seems to know quite what it means. Like other commodified terms used largely for academic purposes, postcolonialism has taken full advantage of its own semantic vagueness. Like its sister term, postmodernism, it has yielded a cache of definitions, each of these recognised as provisional, as if in anticipation of the next to come.1 It would be simple, but also simplistic, to be cynical about this definition industry which, in an era of academic overproduction, has helped to keep people in careers; the fact remains that postcolonialism, for all its definitional-not to mention methodological-inconsistencies, has provided a catalyst for some of the most exciting intellectual work to be seen today. To ask ‘what is postcolonialism?’ appears, in any case, to be less productive than to ask some such other question as ‘what can postcolonialism do?’. Bart MooreGilbert, in his recent survey Postcolonial Theory (1997), puts the case for postcolonial criticism as ‘a more or less distinct set of reading practices… preoccupied principally with analysis of cultural forms which mediate, challenge or reflect upon…relations of domination and subordination’ (Moore-Gilbert 1997:12). These relations, continues Moore-Gilbert, ‘have their roots in the history of modern European colonialism and imperialism’, but they also ‘continue to be apparent in the present era of neocolonialism’ (12). While this is as good a working definition as any, it still leaves room for doubt. For as Moore-Gilbert himself recognises, it is
far too broad and still too narrow: too broad in the obvious sense that too much time and space is covered, too narrow in that it excludes other, possibly related oppositional practices. The trouble with postcolonialism, when seen as a broad-based critical method, is that it risks being collapsed into a catch-all ‘metaphor for cultural embattlement’ (Suleri 1992b). At best, this inclusiveness provides the grounds for fruitful alliances (between colonial-discourse analysts and feminists, for example, or between more traditional New Literatures critics and radical scholar-activists in ethnic/ minority fields); at worst, it affords a rationale for the kind of intellectual tourism that meanders dilettantishly from one place to another in search of ill-thought goals.