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date: 21 November 2019


Abstract and Keywords

One of the points of contention regarding postcolonial studies is the profound, even constitutive, divergence between theory and practice. This issue has been exacerbated by the field’s troubled relationship to Marxism. Indeed, a characteristic feature of postcolonial theory from the outset is the conflict between Marxists and poststructuralists. This article explores the relationship between theory and practice in postcolonial studies, with an emphasis on many of its theoretical concerns such as racism, sexism, language, memory, translation, and the problems of speaking of and for others. It argues that one way of addressing the manufactured divide between theory and politics is to focus on the historical figure of the anti-colonial activist-intellectual, using Nelson Mandela’s life as a representative case of the practical “antecedents-in-resistance” of postcolonial theory and as an experiential counterpoint to academic works within the postcolonial field. It also considers the place of popular culture in postcolonial studies, drawing examples from the areas of sport (international competitive athletics) and Caribbean popular music (reggae). Finally, it discusses tropes of race, and the persistence of racism, in the production of postcolonial cultural identities.

Keywords: postcolonial studies, theory, practice, Marxism, racism, memory, translation, Nelson Mandela, popular culture, race

The question mark at the end is probably the least surprising element in the title of Ato Quayson’s 2000 book Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice or Process? Its interrogative value, as the composite implies, is as much relational as definitional, with the fraught relationship between theory and practice, in particular, being integral to most current understandings of the postcolonial field. For many—both within the field and outside it—postcolonial studies is marked by a profound, even constitutive, disparity between theory and practice: hence increasingly routine criticisms that postcolonial theory is merely an end in itself or that, in primarily serving the needs of the western academy, it paradoxically silences the voices of those for whom it wishes to advocate: the economically exploited, the socially marginalized, the historically oppressed.

Such criticisms are hardly new; indeed, the postcolonial field has long since generated momentum by inviting them. For several decades now, the field has made a virtue of its own embattlement; a large part of that battle has been the continuing attempt to interrogate itself. Theory—in Jonathan Culler’s characteristically generous understanding of the term as a more-or-less systematic way of disputing ‘common-sense’ views of meaning, representation, and experience (1997: 3)—has been at the centre of postcolonial studies since most versions of its first beginnings. For Culler among others, theory is defined in terms both of its potential to adjust its own intellectual horizons—in terms of its heightened capacity for critical self-reflexivity—and in relation to the material consequences of those adjustments, i.e. theory, in so far as it seeks to change the way people think, is necessarily determined by its ‘practical effects’ (1997: 4).

One prominent version of the practical effects of postcolonial theory would be what the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o once famously called the ‘decolonisation of the mind’ (Ngũgĩ 1980): the challenge to European and other western knowledge systems and ways of thinking that have historically supported imperial authority, e.g. the view that imperial rulers are both culturally different to and morally superior to those they rule. The ‘decolonisation of the mind’ both underpins and supplements those forms of material transformation that postcolonial theorists like to call for: a radical overhauling of global social and economic inequality; an increased and appropriately legislated respect for what Young calls ‘the generative relations between different peoples and their cultures’ (2003: 7); a concerted political move towards establishing and developing broad-based participatory democracies no longer bound to the authoritarian power of the state.

‘Radical’ is perhaps the key term here. The radicalism of postcolonial theory and criticism has often tended to be taken for granted, not least by postcolonial practitioners themselves; as Moore-Gilbert et al. breezily put it, ‘in terms of its political orientation, [postcolonial studies offers] a site of radical contestation and contestatory radicalism’ (p. 299) (1997: 3)—as if neither of these mutually supportive radicalisms were seriously in doubt. Just how radical, however, is postcolonial studies? Moore-Gilbert et al.’s directly preceding suggestion already seems to undermine the brazenness of their declarative statement: postcolonial studies, they say, is the product of the poststructuralist turn and, as such, is best situated ‘between theory and practice, between literary and cultural studies, between Marxism and existentialism, between localism and universalism, between personal and public, between self and state’ (1997: 3). Seen this way, postcolonial studies’ radical potential is indexed to its self-perpetuating capacity for rethinking the relationship between theory and practice rather than being generated by the capacity of its own theories to produce and/or be produced by ‘real-world’ material effects.

The field’s troubled relationship to Marxism offers further if not necessarily conclusive evidence of this dilemma. For several Marxists engaging with the field, postcolonial theory has singularly failed in what should amount to its own greatest commitment, the ‘praxis of producing knowledge … in the terrain of popular struggle’ (San Juan, Jr. 1998: 70). Instead, reliant as it is on the eternal equivocations of poststructuralist philosophy, it has performed the elaborate conjuring trick by which ‘the objective asymmetry of power and resources between hegemonic blocs and subaltern groups (racialized minorities in the metropoles and in the “third world”), as well as [their] attendant consequences, disappear’ (San Juan, Jr. 1998: 7). However, even doctrinal Marxists of this kind are not necessarily ‘against’ postcolonialism per se; rather, they tend to see postcolonial theory and practice as being fundamentally disjoined and as lacking the political purchase of more systematic philosophies, like Marxism, which posit a properly dialectical relationship between theory and practice within a ‘coherent and unitary conception of the world’ (Gramsci, quoted in San Juan 1998: 95).

As argued elsewhere (see the General Introduction to this volume), vehement disagreements between Marxists and poststructuralists have been one of the most characteristic features of postcolonial theory from the outset. Some Marxists, like E. San Juan, Jr., view the ideological goals of Marxism and poststructuralism as being incompatible with or even antithetical to one another; while others, like Gayatri Spivak, see postcolonial theory as combining Marxist and poststructuralist elements in the pursuit of sophisticated anti-colonial critique. A balanced view, if one from outside Marxism, is that of Leela Gandhi, who contends that ‘neither the assertions of Marxism nor those of poststructuralism … can account for the meanings and consequences of the colonial encounter’ (1998: ix). Instead, says Gandhi, the ‘poststructuralist critique of Western epistemology and theorisation of cultural alterity/difference is indispensable to postcolonial theory [while] materialist philosophies, such as Marxism, seem to supply the most compelling basis for postcolonial politics’ (ix; emphasis in the original). As such, she concludes, the postcolonial critic has to work toward ‘a synthesis of, or negotiation between, both modes of thought’ in order to stay true to the ‘theoretical and political integration’ to which postcolonial studies is committed and for which it is academically known (ix).

While Gandhi’s formula is admirably clear, it runs the risk of ceding politics to Marxism while attaching theory too closely to poststructuralist philosophy—a questionable dichotomy that several postcolonial theorists, keen as they are to establish (p. 300) theory as itself a kind of politics, have made it their business to contest. Robert Young’s contention, for example, is that postcolonialism—which he appears to see in terms of the suturing of theory to practice—names both ‘a politics and [a] philosophy of activism that contests [contemporary global disparities] and so continues in a new way the anti-colonial struggles of the past’ (2003: 4; emphasis mine). However, whether postcolonial studies is seen as activist or not depends on whether work mostly produced from within the western academy is seen as matching its own perhaps too-ready claims to be interventionist; on whether theory is seen as complementary with rather than supplementary to practice; and on whether both of these are seen as being harnessed to socially emancipatory goals.

This section of the Handbook, strategically placed at its centre, assesses the claim to activism via a multifaceted exploration of the relationship between theory and practice in postcolonial studies, seeking to cover a wide range of its main theoretical concerns. These concerns—racism, sexism, language, translation, memory, the problems of speaking of and for others—are of obvious relevance to anti-colonial struggles of both past and present, and are generally accepted as underpinning the material realities of these struggles; a different case however obtains when the primary object of postcolonial theory is, or at least appears to be, itself. The self-reflexivity of postcolonial theory can be seen of course as beneficial, since an analysis of the terms in which any struggle is conducted is an integral part of the struggle itself. Still—to take one prominent example—there seems to be quite a wide discrepancy between Homi Bhabha’s hypertheoretical notion of ‘critical resistance’ (Bhabha 1994) and the actual resistance practised by anti-colonial freedom fighters and other subaltern insurgent groups.

The need to distinguish between these groups is more important than ever in the context of today’s ‘war on terror’ in which theoretical differences can have huge practical consequences, and whether one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist is in part a philosophical question to resolve (see Morton’s and Hazbun’s chapters in Part II of this volume). Similarly, national issues of race and cultural difference, whether acknowledged as such or not, have a broad bearing on the current (ill) treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in a number of contemporary western societies that are given to rephrasing the ‘problem’ in uniquely practical terms. Further complications arise when the response is or is perceived to be ‘emotional’—as if the language of affect somehow short-circuits the need for rational analysis or is incompatible with it; or as if all that is needed is to present complex socio-political issues in the uncontroversial language of ‘common sense’ (see Culler’s definition of theory above). Such ‘common-sense’ arguments for oppression are integral to the colonialist mindset, and—as Ngũgĩ implies—it is arguably the greatest task of postcolonial criticism to ‘unthink’ the biases of colonialist thought. The essays in this section seek, accordingly, to unpack the profoundly practical implications of attitudes that are wont to present themselves as ‘non-theoretical’, thereby re-establishing postcolonialism’s theoretical credentials. However, they remain alert at the same time to the practical limitations of what is after all primarily an academic discipline, and to the dangers—different versions of the theory/politics nexus notwithstand-ing—of simply substituting theoretical insight for political work.

(p. 301) Elleke Boehmer’s opening chapter sets the tone by suggesting that one way of going beyond the manufactured theory/politics divide might be to focus on the historical figure of the anti-colonial activist-intellectual, whose life may then be read as an exemplary instance of ‘resistance theory … produced on the job’. Her chosen focus is on Nelson Mandela as twentieth-century-spanning anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, and, later, democratically elected leader of his own country: both a multifaceted man and an inspirational embodiment of the democratic and liberationist values inscribed within the morally exemplary ‘anti-colonial life’.

Mandela’s life is simultaneously used as a representative case of what Boehmer calls the practical ‘antecedents-in-resistance’ of postcolonial theory and as an experiential counterpoint to academic works within the postcolonial field, notably Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin’s now-dated but still-influential 1989 primer—itself nominally designed to bridge theory and practice—The Empire Writes Back. Contrary to Lazarus (see his chapter in this section), Boehmer reads Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin’s book as belonging to a celebratory historical moment that might help account for its heady enthusiasm for the supposedly subversive properties of postcolonial literature, though—closer in spirit this time to Lazarus—she also reiterates standard criticisms of the book’s lack of historical depth and its potential ‘deradicalization’ of the very ‘resistance it reads and for which it wishes to enlist respect’. The Empire Writes Back, Boehmer suggests, skates over the pain of situated anti-colonial struggle while also failing notably to account for ‘the irregular penetration of colonial capital across the globe’. These are familiar criticisms; less orthodox is the view that Mandela’s life can be used, not necessarily to invalidate Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin’s theories, but to provide a working instance of them in the wider context of postcolonialism’s ‘radical antecedents within anti-colonial struggles across the world’.

In charismatic anti-colonial leaders like Mandela, Boehmer suggests, there are no clear boundaries between intellectual and political interests, and theory is wedded to practice within the framework of an overarching moral vision (though one by no means opposed to the use of violence for revolutionary ends). Boehmer reads in Mandela a complex mixture of retaliatory and reconciliatory impulses—‘chameleon skills’ equally adapted for the forging of populist solidarities and the outflanking of political foes. Mandela is seen, accordingly, as an incarnation of the ‘supremely tactical postcolonial leader’ and as a compelling case of ‘postcolonial theory-in-practice’, in which anti-colonial resistance is both lived and thought, and theoretical/practical forms of liberationism are strategically brought together to assert what Boehmer calls—echoing to some extent the upbeat message of The Empire Writes Back—an empowering, African-centred postcolonial humanism for our times.

In Neil Lazarus’s polemical chapter, ‘liberation’ is also the key term, but it is interpreted very differently than in Boehmer’s essay. Without attacking Boehmer’s celebratory left-liberalism directly, Lazarus—one of postcolonial studies’ most combative Marxists—suggests that the field’s primary commitment to ‘the pursuit of liberation after the achievement of political independence’ (Robert Young’s on-the-face-of-it unobjectionable phrase) has not necessarily been reflected in what he sees as its (p. 302) dominant ‘Third Worldist’ tendencies, which if anything have ‘roll[ed] back the challenge represented by “Third World” insurgency at the peripheries’. This is in keeping, Lazarus provocatively contends, with the general move against anti-colonial nationalism and revolutionary anti-imperialism in the immediate post-independence decades (the 1970s and 1980s) and ‘the demise of the [liberationist] ideologies that had flourished during the decolonizing years’.

Postcolonial studies, Lazarus suggests, is not necessarily anti-liberationist, but ‘anti-anti-liberationist’ in the modified sense that many of its practitioners see the liberation movements of the decolonization era as having been rendered anachronistic by globalization, and the idea of the ‘Third World’ as a genuine political alternative as having become obsolete (for a dissenting view, see Boehmer; also some of the essays in Parts II and V of this volume). ‘Third Worldism’, Lazarus insists, has little in common with that earlier politico-historical project; instead, it signals a decisive conceptual shift towards post-nationalist and post-Marxist ways of understanding a world structured in the interests of capitalism—a world often mystifyingly encoded in terms of ‘north– south’ relations or, even more problematically, the dominance of the ‘west’. Like Diana Brydon (see Part IV of this volume), whose politics he no more shares than Boehmer’s, Lazarus sees the insufficiencies of these obfuscatory geopolitical categories and their flagrant inadequacy in the face of the new liberation movements—notably those associated with the ‘Arab Spring’—of our age. These movements, he argues, belong to ‘a long and as yet unbroken counter-history [the counter-history of resistance to capitalist imperialism] that postcolonial studies in its incorporated form wrongly supposes to have come to a close around 1975’.

Whereas for Lazarus the conspicuous inequalities of the contemporary globalized world still require—require more than ever—a rigorous class analysis, for Susan Bassnett they focus attention rather on those translation processes—social and cultural rather than narrowly linguistic—that have accompanied ‘a marked increase of mobility for populations that had previously been more constrained’. These practices involve both literal and metaphorical forms of translation embedded within, e.g., Homi Bhabha’s influential work on migrant discourse or James Clifford’s equally well-known notion of ‘travelling cultures’, though Bassnett—issuing a salutary warning not always heeded by either Bhabha or Clifford—highlights the problem of using a ‘primarily linguistic concept in a broad “cultural” sense’. Broad-based ‘cultural’ understandings of translation, Bassnett insists, may overlook the harsher realities of language contact (e.g. the ‘ethnocentric violence’ that often accompanies translation from one language to another), though, over and against this, she also stresses the transformative potential contained within and disseminated by translated texts.

Bassnett’s chapter makes it clear that postcolonial translation studies, understandably enough, has tended to focus on translation in the context of unequal power relations and assumptions of cultural superiority; indeed, as she points out, the ‘colony can itself be seen as a translation of … a “superior” original that had come into being somewhere else and at another point in time’. Translation, however, can equally serve the cause of decolonization, e.g. in the subversive ‘cannibalist’ theory/practice of the early (p. 303) twentieth-century Brazilian modernists, or in the various, potentially liberating possibilities offered nearly a century later by cross-linguistic and cultural exchanges within what Emily Apter intriguingly calls a global ‘translation zone’ (Apter 2008). Bassnett ends, on this last note, with some largely optimistic thoughts on what she calls, after Bachmann-Medick, the ‘translational turn’ in the humanities in general: a turn represented, for example, by the self-consciously inclusive ‘planetarity’ of World Literature (though what some critics see as the reinscribed ‘Anglo-globalist’ hegemony of World Literature might well be worth a chapter in its turn; Arac 2002; Huggan 2011).

Just as Bassnett gauges the implications of translating from one text to another—an intersemiotic rather than strictly interlinguistic process—Michael Rothberg looks at the implications of translating from one time to another; at the multiple and multidirectional ways in which memory refashions relationships between the present and the past. Memory studies, like translation studies, is of growing importance to postcolonial criticism, with a recent raft of monographs—making up lost time as much as recovering lost memory—seeking to engage with disparate memories of the colonial past. Memory addresses the ‘post’ in postcolonial, which is usually acknowledged as registering both continuity and break (see the General Introduction to this volume), by considering what Rothberg calls the ‘disjunctive temporalities of colonial legacies—colonialism’s ability to colonize not just space, but time as well’. The back-and-forth movements of memory prove useful for disrupting the linear narratives of progress with which, e.g., Enlightenment versions of modernity have been associated; and for recuperating and reinvigorating the anti-colonial struggle, e.g. by rereading archives of imperial dominance (as Ann Laura Stoler does in her opening chapter in Part I of this volume) or by reinstating, without necessarily romanticizing, pre-colonial pasts effectively erased by colonialism’s claiming of the grand narrative of History for itself (as Kennedy and Hindess do in their respective chapters in Part IV).

Much of the ‘memory work’ done in postcolonial studies—which, as other chapters in this volume make clear, is by no means limited to or dominated by imperial historians—has inevitably been traumatic given both the destructive nature of colonial encounter and the inescapable fact that violence ‘fundamentally shapes the temporality of modern memory’ itself. However, postcolonial memory studies also has an opportunity, not least through Rothberg’s own excitingly innovative work on multidirectional memory, to forge unexpected solidarities in the face of destruction and violence. As Rothberg insists, memory ‘constitutes one of the [most] significant fronts in the struggle against empire’. As many of the best-known anti-colonial intellectuals of the decolonization era were quick to recognize, collective memory—especially cultural memory—is a highly effective weapon in combating the violence of colonial erasure and in counteracting those forms of strategic amnesia that often go hand in hand with it; in confronting what Rothberg calls, after the great Martinican intellectual-activist Aimé Césaire, the colonial ‘forgetting machine’. This struggle, which continues apace today, takes in a wide variety of textual and medial forms, as well as an extensive range of different ways of and strategies for remembering; it also brings together different ‘communities of remembrance’, as in Rothberg’s fascinating account of the triangulated memories associated with the (p. 304) Holocaust, the Algerian war of independence, and the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

In keeping with the remit of the section, Rothberg insists throughout on the activist potential of cultural memory, its ability to create oppositional solidarities both in the short term and in long-term struggles carried out over generations. While he makes no mention of those more recent liberation struggles in North Africa and the Middle East that have been popularly associated with the ‘Arab Spring’, it is clear that these too have worked with the cross-fertilizing properties of memory, and with the transnational and transcultural dynamics that are a feature, not just of the contemporary world order, but of the intertwined histories of empire itself.

Like Bassnett and Rothberg, Simon Featherstone draws attention to a subfield within postcolonial studies that has arguably been neglected until recently: the study of popular culture. Featherstone’s wide-ranging chapter begins by reading Edward Said’s high-handed dismissal of popular culture—‘[it] means nothing to me except as it surrounds me’—as symptomatic of a general scepticism in postcolonial studies towards ‘the capacity of popular material to sustain cultural and political interrogations’: a scepticism, it has to be said, that has sometimes been matched by those relatively few to have worked in postcolonial popular-cultural studies, e.g. the sport historians John Bale and Mike Cronin, who peremptorily see postcolonial literature as ‘subjective … placeless and contrived’.

Featherstone, looking for a balance between these two views, sees the assumed opposition between literary ‘subjectivity’ and popular ‘performativity’ as a major impediment to understandings of the place of popular culture in postcolonial studies, turning initially to the Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C. L. R. James—who was equally at home writing about French-Caribbean revolt and Anglo-Caribbean cricket—to show how ‘high’ and ‘popular’ cultural interests may fruitfully intersect. James’s inclusiveness, Featherstone convincingly suggests, is a useful rallying call for a postcolonial critical practice that incorporates all cultural activities, whether textual or performative, and for a properly democratized postcolonial cultural studies in which popular culture, in challenging methodological priorities and assumptions, can act as a ‘creatively intrusive presence in the field’.

Featherstone’s own examples come from the areas of sport (international competitive athletics) and Caribbean popular music (reggae), the former of which is used to open up a subtle performative critique of the values and meanings of late-imperial British ‘body culture’, and the latter of which raises the possibility of an organic or vernacular intellectualism, shaped though never fully determined by global communications networks, through which anti-colonial liberationist politics and black diasporic consciousness can be rearticulated in the non-orthodox practices of ‘symbolic atonement’ and ‘spiritual dissent’. Featherstone finds in the work of Bob Marley and one of his successors, the Jamaican dancehall artist Buju Banton, viable alternatives to more orthodox forms of emancipatory postcolonial rhetoric, though he remains critical of both musicians’ endorsement, whether implicit (Marley) or explicit (Banton), of the ‘illiberal gender politics of Rastafarianism’ and of the tendency of the cultural industries that support (p. 305) them to distil their wayward creativity into more readily marketable, internationally recognizable forms. The issues surrounding Banton’s work, in particular, suggest the need for cultural performances of all kinds to be ‘taken seriously even when they are evidently problematic or seemingly irrelevant to the major questions of power’; they also demonstrate the potential of music—and of performance cultures in general—not only to open up the acknowledged range of oppositional postcolonial cultural practices, but also to generate new, possibly unexpected, vernacular theories of their own.

In Featherstone’s essay, both race and gender—but especially race—are factors in twentieth-century discursive constructions of the Kenyan athlete and the Jamaican musician, respectively. Pooja Rangan and Rey Chow’s chapter looks more broadly at tropes of race, and the persistence of racism, in the production of postcolonial cultural identities, from the anti-racist polemics of Fanon and Memmi through the poststructuralist turn of Gates and his contemporaries, to biopolitical considerations of contemporary genetic manipulation inspired by, among others, Foucault.

For several generations of postcolonial thinkers, racism has obdurately served as a structure of power and injustice, forged in a crucible of colonial relations stretching from the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’ to the present day. For both Fanon and Memmi, racism is first and foremost a pathological condition that entraps colonizer and colonized alike, while for Gates and others (who certainly would not deny this pathology) racial alienation is underpinned by language, for which it functions as ‘both the medium and the sign’. Returning to the scene of Boehmer’s opening chapter, Rangan and Chow draw on the example of South African apartheid—‘racism’s last word’, as Derrida melodramatically describes it, which goes beyond race to demonstrate the complicity between social acts of exclusion and those formative exclusions that constitute the basis of language itself. Foucault, like Derrrida, is seen as an important interlocutor with theories of race and racism, though Foucault’s approach moves away from the poststructuralist emphasis on language to look at the ways in which power—including the power to define and police racial identity—is disseminated across a series of institutional sites. Foucault traces a link between racist biopower and neoliberal economics (see Gopal’s chapter in Part II of this volume), which can be seen in such diverse practices as the self-help industry, the medicalization of consumer bodies, and the racialized designation of less-than-human ‘intruders’ (see Farrier and Tuitt’s discussion of refugees and asylum seekers in Part II) and ‘enemies of the state’.

In this last context, Rangan and Chow give credence to what Balibar and Wallerstein collectively call the ‘new racism’—those racisms born of globalization and the post-independence reversal of population flows between the metropoles and the colonies, both of which processes have increasingly created the ‘division of humanity into a single political space’. Culture rather than biology is the index of the new racism, with the notion of ‘cultural difference’ lying at the heart of, e.g., both ostensibly liberal European projects of citizenship and integration and their demonstrably illiberal counterparts, which are often ranged against those cast as inassimilable or threatening to traditional-minded European national polities despite mounting global evidence of the erosion of the nation state (see Schulze-Engler in Part V of this volume).

(p. 306) In ‘cultural differentialism’ of this kind—as visible in the US as in Europe—the earlier colonial dynamics that inspired Memmi and Fanon fan out across a series of increasingly deterritorialized settings in which the violence of racialization, normalized in a similarly wide variety of institutional contexts, becomes part-and-parcel of the ‘mechanisms through which [people] inhabit [their] positions as subjects and enter into [the] relationships of exchange’ that characterize everyday social life. This sobering thought returns us at the end of the section to some of the controversies that had animated the previous two parts: the lingering presence of the colonial past; its spectral reformulation in the guise of globalist neoliberalism; and the maddening persistence of racially discriminatory attitudes towards designated ‘others’ in all walks of social and political life. Postcolonial critics are not alone in making these points, nor—with some notable exceptions—do they offer a cure for the diagnoses they present. But they remain alert to theories which, whether academically treated or not, are anything but academic in their practical implications; and which, for better or worse, have the capacity to determine the mechanisms and procedures of everyday life.


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