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Theoretical Accounts of Great Power Politics

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Published: Tue, 02 Jan 2018

Postcolonialism is primarily concerned with the south, the subaltern and its past because as Abrahamsen argues, “Any understanding of contemporary IR requires a careful account of the multiple and diverse power relationships that link the North and the South, both in the colonial past and the postcolonial present.” (Abrahamsen, 2007) Postcolonialism finds its origins in work done with a view to give a voice to the history of the south and the subaltern that was not heard as it was silenced, even gagged by the actions of imperialist Europe. “Postcolonial theory places the south and the subaltern at the centre of analyses.” (Abrahamsen, 2007) It is a contextually new area of theory within the sphere of international relations that has emerged out of literary and cultural studies. “The most significant movement that began postcolonial work was (and still is) the subaltern studies group that (re)examined Indian history and historiography.” (Goss, 1996) The connection postcolonialism shares with Indian historiography stems from the counter hegemonic aspirations shared by both, “Postcolonialism has strong affinities with Indian historiography, which has been motivated by a desire to retell history from the counter-hegemonic standpoints of the colonised.” (Abrahamsen, 2007) On the whole postcolonialism does not, however, call for the return to a “pristine, unspoilt pre-colonial culture,” (Abrahamsen, 2007) and many even claim that this would be detrimental if not impossible. I will explore postcolonialism through looking at some of the key contributors to postcolonial study, namely Fanon and Said with a briefer look at Spivak and Bhabha. Within this I will touch upon the influences that came from the field of post-structuralism with writers such as Lacan, Faucault and Derrida. I will then look at the concepts of hybridity, ethnicity and location that have become revised and this more compelling in recent postcolonial work before finally looking at some criticism that has been aimed at postcolonial theory, notably from Hobson.

Fanon was a very influential part of early postcolonialism; his work can be divided into three separate sections, investigating black identity, the resisting colonisation and the process of decolonisation. Fanon’s ‘search for black identity’ is best demonstrated in his work Black Skin, White Masks. In this work Fanon suggests that colonialism and its deep rooted ideas of “white racial superiority” (Fanon, 1967) over non-white people has formed a sense of severance and estrangement in the self-identity of the non-white colonised people. The history, culture, language, customs and beliefs of the white coloniser are, under colonial rule, to be regarded as universal, the norm and better or higher than those of the indigenous colonised people. This produces a strong sense of inadequacy throughout the colonised and eventually, in order to counteract these feelings of inadequacy, this leads the colonised to adopt the culture and customs of the colonisers. Within the colonised this forms a divided sense of self in identity shaping and a feeling of alienation from their own culture. Fanon also suggests that the taking on of the coloniser’s language and forms of representation is additionally detrimental to the indigenous people as representational stereotypes are created which were more often than not reflected on the colonised as primitive and uncivilised, as Fanon puts it, “As I begin to recognize that the Negro is the symbol of sin, I catch myself hating the Negro. But then I recognize that I am a Negro.” (Fanon, 1967) It is clear that Fanon is greatly influenced on the subject of identity by post-sctructuralist thinker Lacan. Particularly Lacan’s concept of the ‘mirror-stage’ of identity formation, which occurs in early childhood and is linked to the idea of an ‘image of completeness’ in the body of another person independent of the self.

Fanon’s second phase of work relates to the “struggle against colonialism” (Fanon, 1967), which has strong links to his involvement in the Algerian War of independence which eventually saw him exiled from Algeria. His work on this area can be found mostly in his books Dying Colonialism and Toward the African Revolution, and with the revolutionary nature and context in which these works were written it is not surprising to discover they were heavily influenced by Karl Marx and Western Marxism. Fanon’s arguably most significant work on the ‘struggle against colonialism’ was his interest and concern with history, much of which in his book The Wretched of The Earth. Fanon believed that the struggle against colonialism crucially involved the colonised ‘claiming back’ their history from the negative or non-existent accounts that had been shaped by the colonisers. He emphasizes the crucial significance of the culture and representations of their past being essential to the formation of both new positive forms of identity formation and new forms of social organisation which are required in the newly independent post-colonial era (Fanon, 1967).

It is the process of decolonisation which characterises Fanon’s third stage of critical work. Beside the recovery and “reconstruction of their own history and culture as the foundation for the new post-colonial forms of nation and national identity”, (Fanon, 1967) Fanon also considers two additional ideas which are of central interest to later postcolonial work. These two ideas are the concepts of ‘colonial space’ and ideas related to the role of the middle class intelligentsia, sometimes called the comprador bourgeoisie, in new postcolonial nations. Both of these ideas were born out of Fanon’s belief that it is key for the nations that the world has given birth to in the postcolonial era to create original forms of social democracy instead of using existing colonial institutions and merely swap indigenous people into already existing administrative positions. Fanon uses the example of city structure to suggest that these colonial institutions are fundamentally racist because they replicate, repeat and (re)create the concepts and ideas of the colonisers. This can be demonstrated through the fact that most colonial cities have areas within them where the colonial administration and businessmen live and work. These are regions of privilege which often reject indigenous people and in doing so reaffirm the ideologies of the colonisers. Fanon believes in a “large scale rebuilding” (Fanon, 1967) of these urban areas and all other types of colonial administration and government in an approach which will create more democratic, postcolonial forms of social organisation, in order to systematically reject the ideologies which support colonial rule. Fanon also adds that the educated groups of the colonised population need to recognise that their education is founded on the ideologies and the beliefs of those who colonised them and even though they themselves are the indigenous people, they need to be careful not to reproduce the coloniser’s concepts and beliefs when reconstructing in the postcolonial era.

Said is, along with Fanon, one of the most important academics within postcolonial theory, “It is Ahmad who has identified Said’s lasting contribution, as the first to provide, ‘a whole critical apparatus for defining a postmodern kind of anti-colonialism’ which, also for the first time, had little (if no) relation to Marxism” (Goss, 1996) Said’s most famous work, Orientalism, was a pioneering analysis of the stereotypes and colonial assumptions that are inherent in Western representations of the ‘Orient’. For Said the ‘Orient’ was the people and cultures that extended from North Africa and the Middle East. In Orientalism, the argument he makes is that that the representation of the orient in the West has been as the ‘binary opposite’ of the West or ‘Occident’. Said examines the West’s view of the Orient and believes that the way the Orient is seen by the west is as encapsulating everything they find awkward or unsettling to their dominant image. The West projects this ‘fantasy’ image onto the largely unknown orient and in this sense it is seen as the occident’s other. Said follows this on with a discussion of how the western depictions of the orient work to re-impose ‘colonial domination’ by using their own western beliefs and culture as a way of counteracting the deficient, potentially harmful qualities of local, ‘inferior’ cultures. Said also believes that this Orientalism he speaks of comes in two separate forms, drawn from Freudian ideas Said labels them latent and manifest Orientalism. Said describes latent and manifest orientslism respectively as, “an unconscious (and certainly an untouchable) positivity and the various stated views about Oriental society, languages, literatures, history, sociology and so forth.” (Said, 1973) Essentially latent Orientalism is, as Kennedy puts it, “a collective and unconscious shared set of images and attitudes that does not change through time.” (Kennedy, 2000) Manifest Orientalism follows on from this as the expression in words and actions of latent Orientalism.

The negative representations and stereotypes touched upon by Said are examined further by McLeod in Beginning Postcolonialism. He looks at the defamatory way in which the Middle-East is portrayed from an ‘orientalist’ perspective. A summation of the ways in which the East is represented by the West is presented by Mcleod, “The orient is timeless i.e. without a concept of history until given one by the west, strange, feminine, and degenerate. In short, the East is everything morally negative in comparison to the West’s moral superiority.” (McLeod, 2000) The foundations on which Said builds his work on the representations of the East by those in the West are significantly influenced by French post-structuralist Faucault and his works The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. Said uses Faucault’s ideas on the formulation and use of a discourse to try to firmly establish the concept of orientalism. “For Foucault, a ‘discourse’ is a body of thought and writing that is united by having a common object of study, a common methodology, and/or a set of common terms and ideas.” (Klages, 2001) The ‘archaeology’ Foucault undertakes is to unearth the characteristics that underpin certain statements and then try to define the reasons and situations under which these statements go on to form a discourse. There is, what some might call, a formula for identifying these statements as a discourse, I will use Said’s work on Postcolonialism as an example to explain each criteria. Primarily and fundamentally the statements making up the discourse should all have a shared element of analysis, in the case of Said the element of analysis is, of course, the orient. Secondly all statements should have a shared style of rhetoric, in the case of Said this is the rhetoric of the colonisers and their belief in the West being over and above the East. Thirdly the statements need to have a logical structure of concepts, in this case concepts such as capitalism and liberalism that have evolved out of the West’s supposedly superior rationality. Finally there needs to be a connecting theme that runs through all the statements, within Said’s work we can say that this theme is the West over and above the east in their moral, cultural and intellectual standings.

Having mentioned Faucault I think it is also necessary to talk about the important influence of another post-structuralist theorist on postcolonial theory, namely Derrida. Derrida is heavily connected with the approach to critical analysis known as deconstruction, which is defined by Chambers dictionary as “an approach to critical analysis applied especially to literary texts which asserts that it is impossible for any text to communicate a fixed and stable meaning, and that readers should leave behind all philosophical and other concepts when approaching a text” (Chambers Dictionary, 1997)

One of the themes of deconstruction is to untangle the dichotomies, or ‘binary oppositions’ more specifically, that make up Western and Western-derived thought. There are an almost endless number of these binary oppositions; examples would include male-female, mind-body, rational-emotional, north-south and western-eastern. According to Derrida there is a hierarchy present in all binary oppositions with one term being dominant over the other. Importantly Derrida also suggests that the terms on each side of the dichotomy define each other and consequently are not secure. Starting with Fanon postcolonial theory has also paid a great deal of attention to these binary oppositions, particularly the ones closely related to colonialism, and the hierarchy that exists within them.

Another two influential postcolonial thinkers come in the form of Spivak and Bhabha; the areas on which they focus, feminism and post-modernism to name two, and have become crucial to the thought within postcolonialism. In looking at their work it is clear that two key themes that yet again turn up are identity and representation. A great deal of work within the postcolonial sphere has been focused upon the relationship between representation and the forming of identity. Within this area there are three concepts that have been used to shed analytical light onto the subject, namely hybridity, ethnicity and cultural location. These concepts are, evidently, connected but postcolonialists don’t limit themselves to these areas of critical analysis.

Hybridity is essentially the mixing of two, or more, cultures, languages, beliefs or social patterns. It is seen by many, including Bhabha as a form of resistance, “Hybridity, for Bhabha , is a sign of resisting domination. Hybrid identities can engender new forms of being that can unsettle and subvert colonial authority.” (Abrahamsen, 2007) Hybridity can be linked with previous ideas in postcolonialism, the idea of retrieving postcolonial forms of history, culture and language in order to create new national identities is mentioned throughout postcolonial works. However, the migrations that occur inside and outside the colonies i.e. colonisers migrating into the colonies and the colonised migrating out to the colonial powers, has resulted in a much higher level of hybridity within national identities than initially thought. It had been in many early postcolonial works that one of the most prominent forms of collective resistance was the focus on a separate identity and being culturally distinct from the colonisers. It has recently been shown how difficult identity construction of this sort is and further investigation is being undertaken in this area. The conditions under which hybridity occurs in postcolonial societies can consist of mass recognition of cultural suppression, a colonial invasion with the purpose of securing control politically and economically, and when colonial settlers migrate into an area and make the indigenous people conform to their new social patterns. It could be argued that an example of the indigenous people conforming to new social patterns can be found with the aborigines in Australia, colonisers introduced them to much stronger alcohol than they had ever been used to and alcohol abuse is now a major issue within aborigine culture, “Aborigines are twice as likely to die from the effects of alcohol as their non-indigenous counterparts.” (Mecer, 2007) Examples of hybridity within national identity can be seen by means of sport throughout the world, football, rugby and cricket are all of English invention and can be identified as the national sports of countries that used to be British colonies i.e. Football in African countries such as Ghana, Rugby in Australia and Cricket in India.

Ethnicity, some would say, is connected directly to the idea that hybridity is strong in national identities within postcolonial areas. Previously in postcolonial theory much of what now falls under the banner of ethnicity used to be labelled race. The main reason for this is centred on the idea of ‘blackness’ and being ‘black’ as an identity. This idea of ‘blackness’ stemmed predominantly from physical characteristics as an indicator of identity. Although this found a use when it came to the fight against racism and colonialism it came to be thought of as homogenising the experiences of all black people. Consequently this view also simplified the assorted and varied cultures within the black community. In addition to this, the idea of being ‘black’ as an identity was prone to ‘privileging’ black people by identifying them as the only ones to suffer from racism and colonialism. Subsequently within postcolonial work the term race has been ousted in favour of the term ethnicity. The concept of ethnicity distinguishes between cultures, religions and social activities that comprise a cultural identity whereas the physically based concept of race tends to homogenise. Additionally the move towards ethnicity shows a clear acknowledgement of hybridity and cultural identity and consequently beings them closer to the surface of critical activity within postcolonialism theory.

Given the extra focus on the previously mentioned concepts of cultural identity and hybridity coupled with the move from race to ethnicity, the comprehension of the concept of cultural location necessarily becomes more sophisticated. It is no longer concerned with the analysis of a specific geographical area so much as the analysis of the cultures, religions and social activities which interact to produce a cultural identity. This change in focus away from the geographical means that crucially important populations that may have migrated around, or out of, a colonised land, perhaps taking their culture with them, are not left out of postcolonialist work. Consequently a deeper and more complex research can be undertaken on the concepts of racism and colonialism.

There has been some criticism thrown at postcolonialism, perhaps as it has many branches the reach into different areas, Hobson for one argues that postcolonialism is plagued by its constant expansion, “The term postcolonial seems increasingly to be straining at its seams, incorporating a proliferating series of theories with varying ontologies and epistemologies many of which are incommensurable, as even some postcolonialist recognise.” (Hobson, 2007) On top of this he claims that the postcolonialist view point is narrow sighted and overlooks a vast period of time in empires did not cover the world, “East/West relations have, for the majority of world historical time existed outside the orbit of empire, thus rendering a central focus on imperialism as inadequate to the task of revealing Eastern agency.” (Hobson, 2007) He then argues that even though postcolonialism claims to try and undo, “the Eurocentrism produced by the institution of the West’s trajectory,” (Goss, 1996) it is still fundamentally flawed and even Eurocentric itself, “Postcolonialists refuse to grant subjectivity to Eastern actors and thereby deny them agency.” (Hobson, 2007)

I have looked at the arguments and ideas put forward by the most influential writers in postcolonial theory. Fanon’s search for black identity, struggle against colonisation and process of decolonisation investigation, I believe, are very persuasive. Especially his look at black identity as I believe the majority of ones identity is formed through similar concepts to Lacan’s mirror-stage identity formation. Another convincing argument, for me, is that regarding stereotypes, binary opposition and deconstruction. A great deal is tied up within our languages, evident when there isn’t a translation of certain words from one language into another. Consequently it can only lead to false understandings and misinterpretations throughout the world, especially in those places where languages are forced to co-habit such as colonial, and now postcolonial, areas. Essentially I think it is important to tackle the problem and discover the source of Western bias that undeniably exists in the contemporary world. In addition to this, perhaps more importantly, the countries and people who have been suppressed, silenced and denied a history need to be compensated, if not least through continuing study I this area. “The need, in nations, or groups which have been victims of imperialism to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts or images.” (During, 1990)

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