Once More with Feeling: What is Postcolonialism?

Deepika Bahri
D EFiNiNG THE PARAMETERS and boundaries of the postcolonial territory is a task not without its challenges. Much of the work done under the label "postcolonial" is content to assume a general understanding of its limits and possibilities. A sufficiently thoughtful definitional and conceptual framework, however, continues to elude us. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes, in postcoloniality, "every metropolitan definition is dislodged. The general mode for the postcolonial is citation,
more » ... citation, reinscription, rerouting the historical" (Outside 217). In a very fundamental sense, of course, "postcolonial" is that which has been preceded by colonization. The second edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "of, relating to, or being the time following the establishment of independence in a colony" (968). Even this minimally descriptive definition, to no one's surprise, is not empty of ideological content or the power to encapsulate and transfix a "thing" simply by naming it; it is no revelation that one can become a function of what one is called. Rather than contend with definition when it fails, postcolonial theorists are apt to multiply its connotative possibilities to suit their various needs. Despite problems and limitations in terminology, the description "postcolonial," in a certain abstract sense, obtains and is used with relative impunity by scholars, publishers, journalists, and so on. While the definitional "postcolonial" might be considered a fairly bounded creature, the actual usages of the term make it a very Protean, indeed, often Procrustean sort of being, which allows us to yoke together, sometimes arbitrarily, a very diverse range of experiences, cultures, and problems (see McClintock). Thus is it used not merely to characterize that which succeeds the ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 26:1, January 1995 essay, "The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism," which I encountered as I was revising this essay, has also seemed to me an interesting engagement, however debatable, with the useful question, "Why is now the Postcolonial moment?" It is a question that Mary Vasudeva and I posed to several interviewees for our collection, and one that Spivak, in turn, asked us. 26 The question of aesthetics is a good bit more complex than my off-hand remark would suggest. In the interest of containing this already-unwieldy essay, I will defer further discussion.