Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 13 November 2019


Abstract and Keywords

As a multidisciplinary field, postcolonial studies encompasses a wide range of perspectives drawn from environmental studies and religious studies, for example, or history, geography, political science, anthropology, sociology, and modern languages. However, there is disagreement on whether it is an interdisciplinary field. This article explores the interdisciplinarity of postcolonial studies by considering the specific contributions that both established and emerging disciplines have made to the field. It also looks at the debates within those disciplines about the validity of postcolonial theories and methods as well as the vocabularies on which they draw. It argues that postcolonial studies today must recognize “alternative modes of social organization in a world facing unprecedented challenges.” It also discusses the value of literature in postcolonial studies as well as the field’s relationship to history and modernity. Finally, it discusses the disagreements across the disciplines such as postcolonial theory and imperial history, and their tendency to treat each other with suspicion, reflecting a wider “anxiety of interdisciplinarity” in universities.

Keywords: postcolonial studies, interdisciplinarity, disciplines, postcolonial theory, literature, history, modernity, universities

Postcolonial studies is increasingly acknowledged to be a multidisciplinary field, taking in a number of new disciplinary perspectives drawn from, e.g., environmental studies and religious studies, as well as consolidating the forms of disciplinary knowledge now generally accepted as contributing to it: those belonging to any one or combination of literary studies, history, geography, modern languages, political science, anthropology, sociology. Whether it is an inter disciplinary field is, however, moot and to date there has been considerably more achieved by individuals with training in a similar discipline than in the type of work, more common to the sciences than the humanities, done in collaborative research teams. To some extent, it could be said, postcolonial studies to date has been more inter discursive than inter disciplinary, i.e. it has been characterized by the work of individual humanities researchers who draw on the knowledge and protocols of, without necessarily having intellectual training in, other fields.

This recognition frequently obtains within a field that has historically been alert (though not always as alert as it claims to be) to the limitations of its own methods. Gayatri Spivak, for example, has repeatedly voiced her belief that postcolonial studies ‘cannot be fully contained within English’ and ‘should yoke itself to other disciplines’, but she has been equally firm in disclaiming her own expertise as, e.g., a historian, a philosopher and a South Asianist (1999: 198, 267). Thus while Spivak, like many postcolonial critics and theorists, is eager to combat disciplinarity as what she sees as being an exemplary manifestation of the academic division of labour, she is keenly aware of her own disciplinary grounding, and conscious too that much of what passes as postcolonial interdisciplinary practice amounts to little more than ‘neutralizing the vocabulary from another discipline and taking to describe yet again what happens between reader and text’ (1990: 55).

While Spivak’s is by no means an isolated case, the postcolonial field at large still tends to confuse ‘interdisciplinarity’ with its non-identical semantic correlates, ‘intertextuality’ and ‘interdiscursivity’, and those instrumental forms of institutional cooperation that some see as characterizing interdisciplinarity proper are belied by both the ‘textual excesses’ of humanities studies and the ‘continuing inhibitions’ of the social sciences towards an analysis of the aesthetics of cultural forms (Wolff 1992: 714; see also Huggan 2002). Semantic distinctions of this kind are less important, no doubt, than the quality of the work that continues to be produced by postcolonial scholars, but they still cast doubt on routine claims to interdisciplinarity in the field. Some postcolonial scholars go further still, claiming that traditional disciplinary regimes have been complicit in the imperial enterprise, and that to challenge disciplinary boundaries is, at one level, to challenge (p. 419) the divisive tendencies of imperialism itself. Consider, for example, Edward Said’s bold claim that the traditional academic disciplines represent ‘an extension of the imperialism that decreed the principle of divide-and-rule’ (1997: 142), or his no less provocative view that a ‘decentered [critical] consciousness’ is needed to combat the ‘paradigmatic fossilization’ of disciplinary regimes (1997: 139).

Said’s is utopian thinking of a kind described by Ato Quayson (2000) as ‘synoptic interdisciplinarity’—the attempt not only to produce synthetic theories that have the capacity to cross particular disciplines, but also to work towards a counter-traditional model of knowledge that effectively combines them all. Over and against this, Quayson posits ‘instrumental interdisciplinarity’—the need for cross-disciplinary dialogue in the identification and confrontation of problems and issues considered to be central to their field. It is important to recognize that ‘synoptic’ and ‘instrumental’ forms of interdisciplinarity—as can be seen in Said’s work—are not mutually exclusive, but a discrepancy still remains between general, ‘post-disciplinary’ claims to new knowledge and those free-ranging, broadly ‘interdiscursive’ borrowings and collocations that are particular to the postcolonial field.

A further slippage arguably exists between what might be called, after Julie Thompson Klein (1990), ‘additive’ (multidisciplinary), ‘integral’ (interdisciplinary), and ‘transcendent’ (transdisciplinary) approaches, though such distinctions imply a progressivist route to the ‘post-disciplinary’ to which most postcolonial critics—wary as they are of all forms of progressivist logic—would be unlikely to subscribe (and a route that Klein herself demonstrates is neither as smooth nor as desirable as it seems). Thus, while grand claims continue to be made about postcolonialism’s potential to undermine the authority of the disciplines—to challenge the disciplinary imperialism of institutionalized knowledge systems—it is more usual to find work that combines different disciplinary knowledges in ‘additive’ rather than ‘integrative’ terms. Similarly, the methodological eclecticism of postcolonial theory, ‘far from gesturing towards the “post-disciplinary” curriculum, sometimes amounts to little more than simulacra of institutional transgression, to a series of sparsely conceived but expansively celebrated “border crossings” in which ideas and methods, freely borrowed from other more or less established fields and subjects, are retooled to meet the requirements of anti-imperialist critique’ (Huggan 2002: 263). It would therefore be fair to say that the field of postcolonial studies has tended so far towards ‘synoptic’ rather than ‘instrumental’ models of interdisciplinarity, i.e. it has registered ‘the collective desire for cross-disciplinary modes and procedures of analysis rather than [being marked] by genuinely collaborative initiatives of the sort pursued by affiliated educational programmes or task-oriented ‘think-tanks’ and research teams’ (Huggan 2002: 263).

Whether this balance will shift is too early to predict, though there is recent evidence of team building, while postcolonial scholars are responding—grudgingly in some cases—to the increasing pressures being placed on the academy to work in tandem with, as well as demonstrate accountability for, the various regional, national, and international communities it ostensibly serves. Reasons for their reluctance are not hard to see given the present climate of economic rationalism, which has amplified fears that intellectual autonomy might be at threat, that collaborative work might be more easily manipulated, and that interdisciplinarity, far from being rewarded, might become ‘the siren-song (p. 420) university management uses to lure departments and other larger administrative units into [a variety of] Machiavellian cost-cutting schemes’ (Huggan 2002: 245).

On the other hand, it is increasingly recognized that many of the world’s most pressing problems today cannot be solved either by scholars working in isolation or scholars working within single disciplines; collaborative work seems urgently to be necessary, whether or not the more abstract commitment to interdisciplinarity is met. Aware of these competing demands, and alert to the slippery rhetoric that underlies them, this section of the Handbook understandably steers a cautious path between ‘synoptic’ and ‘instrumental’ views of postcolonial interdisciplinarity, looking both at those more narrowly defined kinds of problem-solving that require going beyond single disciplinary formations, and at those broader issues that may even involve a radical testing of the boundaries of disciplinary knowledge itself. At the same time, the section also looks at the specific contributions that disciplines, both established and emerging, have made to postcolonial studies, and at debates within those disciplines about the validity of postcolonial theories and methods and the vocabularies on which they draw. Finally, it looks at debates across the disciplines, some of which—postcolonial theory and imperial history for instance—have tended to treat each other with suspicion, reflecting a wider ‘anxiety of interdisciplinarity’ (Coles and Defert 1998) across the university sector at large. These arguments can be territorial and petty; but behind them is the larger question of how to make university study more relevant to the world in which we live without surrendering to policy-driven instrumentality—and this is a question that no socially committed scholar, postcolonialist or not, can afford to ignore.

For Diana Brydon, in the opening chapter of the section, postcolonial studies today needs to recognize ‘alternative modes of social organization in a world facing unprecedented challenges’. This shift entails a move away from the binary theoretical models and nation-based imaginaries that informed earlier, determinedly oppositional versions of postcolonial studies towards more interactive critical practices based on transnational alliances and networks; it also requires the consolidation and expansion of cross-disciplinary forms of cultural critique. As Brydon suggests, the current social, economic, and environmental challenges posed by neoliberal globalization—those attached to climate change for example—urgently require the overhauling of traditional discipline-based postcolonial models and the intensification of dialogue between the academy and other knowledge producers. These challenges also require a rethinking of the spatial configuration of postcolonial studies in keeping with a growing awareness within the field that the old binaries—east and west, west and non-west, even the more economically oriented north and south—no longer hold. Two intriguing conceptual possibilities Brydon explores are ‘tidalectics’ (which works according to a maritime rather than terrestrial grammar) and ‘planetarity’ (which acknowledges a world system characterized by a high degree of multiplicity and intermixture); while further opportunities are supplied by indigenous knowledges and perspectives that have more often been invoked than actually implemented—an admonitory view that squares with Mount and O’Brien’s later chapter in the section, and with several other chapters (Smith and Turner in Part II, for instance) in the Handbook as a whole.

(p. 421) Like many postcolonial critics, Brydon is committed to the view that postcolonial studies must intervene in the world—as throughout her work, she insists on the dialectical relationship between theory and practice—but she is disappointed at the same time that it has not achieved the political purchase, within let alone beyond the academy, that its potentially transformative insights deserve. Part of this failure, she suggests, is down to the privileging of individual over collaborative achievement—hence the academy’s exaggerated rewarding of the ‘lone scholar’—while part also owes to the privileging of academic over other kinds of knowledge production—hence the academy’s frequent reluctance to engage with civil society. However, the chapter ends on a more hopeful note by suggesting that as new dialogues between different knowledge producers begin to emerge, and as new revolutionary energies in today’s globalized world begin to manifest themselves, there will be further opportunities for the implementation of ‘non-traditional’ practices, and for the featuring of new locations—possibly even new knowledges—in postcolonial cultural work.

This balance between institutional scepticism and individual optimism is maintained in John McLeod’s capacious chapter on the value of the literary in postcolonial studies, a value seen by some as diminishing even though many—probably most—contemporary postcolonial critics would still recognize that it is vitally necessary to uphold. McLeod rightly insists on the diversity of postcolonial responses, not least by creative writers themselves, to imaginative literature, which has not always been ‘crudely oppositional in its spirit [or] progressively political in its cause’. This diversity—not always recognized in the field—then becomes the basis for his measured discussion of postcolonial literary studies as a discipline (perhaps the formative discipline in so far as many of the so-called ‘first wave’ of postcolonial critics were literary scholars). McLeod’s tracing of the disciplinary development of postcolonial literary studies is largely appreciative, stressing the role it has played in analysing the discursive as well as material effects of colonialism and the particular forms colonialism has used to perpetuate itself; but he also sees the limitations of emphasizing the discursive at the possible expense of the material, and the literary over other representational forms. Similarly, he shows how the more recent shift to diasporic and ‘migrant’ writing has granted new and exciting forms of imaginative access, but has also had the less positive side-effect of turning an institutionalized ‘postcolonial literature’ into a complacently ‘cosmopolitan and indeed bourgeois affair’.

McLeod’s account draws attention to some of the problems involved in seeing postcolonial literary studies as a dominant discipline: the reduction of a vast and heterogeneous field into a palatable canon; the mistaking of textual innovation for political radicalism; the downplaying of popular cultural forms. Postcolonial literature, he insists, should not be seen as intrinsically radical, nor should postcolonial literary critics automatically congratulate themselves on their own radicalism; but it still has transformative potential and the capacity to destabilize assumptions about ‘literature’ and ‘the literary’ themselves. Postcolonial literature is many things and should not be reduced by disciplinary mechanisms to one or other institutionalized version of ‘postcolonial literature’; however conceived, ‘postcolonial literature’ needs to take its place ‘within a wider cultural terrain’. The chapter ends, notwithstanding, by reasserting the capacity of postcolonial (p. 422) literature—literature in general—to ask awkward questions; and perhaps its primary value is, paradoxically by taking us away from it, to bring us closer to and open up possibilities for critical reflection on the world we only think we know.

While literature, until quite recently, has been integral to most institutional versions of postcolonial studies, the same cannot necessarily be said of history, which has had a somewhat troubled, at times fractious, relationship to the postcolonial field. At the beginning of his chapter, the American-based British imperial historian Dane Kennedy recalls the confusion—consternation even—with which imperial historians first greeted postcolonial studies, an attitude that has gradually shifted if not definitively changed. Most of the rest of the chapter is taken up with an informed overview of this shift, taking in the work of—among others—the Subaltern Studies Collective, diverse feminist historians, and historical anthropologists, and dividing this work into three broad thematic categories: identity, geography, and epistemology. Taken together, much of this work falls into the loose category of the ‘new [British] imperial history’, which has sought to show how ‘the domestic realm was … shaped by its imperial interests and colonial dependencies’ (see also Part I of this volume). Kennedy lauds the efforts of these historians, but also shows that their views and methods have been far from uniform, the response to their work not always positive, and the innovative value of their research sometimes overdrawn. His is an equally mixed view of the debate between historians and historical geographers around the spatial dimensions and implications of empire, though he gives due credit to the attempt to account for subaltern peoples whose interests are often divorced from those of the state; to those ‘transnational processes that [lie] beyond the grasp of national histories’; and to the general trend towards a ‘decentring’ of empire that acknowledges its dispersal across multiple sites. He also points out, though, that the decentring of empire may not be sufficient to account for the wide variety of local power struggles that have taken place within it, while the postcolonial critique of nation-centred history might itself be accused of being western-centred in its orientation.

‘Epistemological’ approaches to empire, Kennedy suggests, are perhaps best suited to analysing these specific power relations, to checking the Eurocentric and historicist biases that still generally obtain within the discipline, and to teasing out complex connections between ‘imperial’ and ‘modernizing’ projects in India, Africa, and elsewhere. At the same time, he notes—like several other contributors to this volume—that key terms such as ‘modernity’ and ‘development’, along with key methodological processes such as ‘historicizing’, have multiplied and ramified to the extent that they risk being emptied of meaning; and adds the obvious if still salutary caveats that (1) historical approaches to different regions may require different methods, and (2) imperial historians, whether influenced by postcolonial theory or not, remain divided to the bone on method (cf. equal and opposite views of the archive as a ‘neutral repository of information’ and as a ‘creation and instrument of the state’: see Stoler in Part I of this volume). Kennedy thus understandably calls for caution, but he still reiterates the importance of postcolonial theory to imperial history while emphasizing—as a check against self-congratulatory postcolonial presentism—that the economic, military, and political manifestations of (p. 423) empire that were the focus of ‘pre-postcolonial’ versions of imperial history will never go out of date.

In the next chapter, the Australian-based political scientist Barry Hindess makes explicit what is strongly hinted at in Kennedy’s essay: that understandings of modernity and the politics of temporality underlying it are central to postcolonial concerns. Indeed, one of the foundational aims of postcolonial studies is to challenge what Hindess aptly calls, at the beginning of his chapter, the ‘temporalizing pretence’ that some of us belong to the present while others have yet to reach it. Much of what follows is given over to different instantiations of this pretence, one of the categories being that of the developmental understanding of human progress which, buoyed by the discoveries of the Enlightenment, has been a ‘general feature of western thought’, surfacing again more recently in disparaging western accounts of the Islamic world (see the essays by Mignolo and Sayyid in Part I of this volume). Particular attention is given to the ‘temporalizing pretence’ as this has been applied to Australia’s Aboriginal people, who continue to be assumed, partly following Weber’s linkage of traditionalism and irrationalism, as not being fully rational and therefore less fully modern than ‘we’ are—a distinction long since used, in a variety of contemporary and historical contexts, to justify colonial rule.

Underlying the continuing mistreatment of Aboriginal people, Hindess persuasively suggests, is the Eurocentric myth of a western-centred modernity that provides one of the most obvious historical and philosophical targets of postcolonial critique. Hindess shifts focus, accordingly, to the 2000 study Provincializing Europe, probably the most influential recent example of such critique, citing its author Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument to the effect that while the ‘so-called European intellectual tradition is the only one alive in the social science departments of most, if not all, modern universities’, it is as ‘inadequate’ as it is ‘indispensable’, its inadequacies being particularly marked by its penchant for historicist thought. For Chakrabarty, historicism refers primarily to Europe as an originating presence, such that ‘historical time [is conceived to be] a means of the cultural distance … assumed to exist between the West and the non-West’. According to this historicist model, people in the ‘non-west’ are always behind their western counterparts; history effectively happens ‘for the first time’ in the west. Like Chakrabarty, Hindess sees historicism as informing ‘much of the current work of major development agencies, the international human rights regimes, and other aspects of the west’s interactions with the non-west’. Historicism clearly informs the disciplinary protocols of social science (and their practical consequences for social and cultural policy) as well; however, Hindess recognizes that, as ‘inadequate’ as social science is, it still carries the capacity both to ‘promote prejudicial observation’ and to ‘provide a partial remedy for such prejudice’, as can be seen—to some extent at least—in the varied case studies he draws from the present and the past.

Hindess’s critical account of historicism is taken a stage further in Ananda Abeysekara’s provocative attack on postcolonial studies’ lack of critical reflection on its own methods, not least as these pertain to the relationship between the occult processes of historicization and one of their most visible end products, critique. For Abeysekara, postcolonial studies can be understood as a ‘broad-based discipline’ in so far as it deploys the (p. 424) methods of historicization—but herein also lies its greatest problem, for these methods imply a separation from their subject, embedded in turn in the notion of critique, which paradoxically impedes historical thinking at large. Abeysekara’s issue with postcolonial studies is thus not so much that it has failed to account for the institutional effects of its own disciplinary status, but that it remains insufficiently attentive to the metaphysical underpinnings of its own methods—it is not ‘disciplinary’ enough.

Nor has postcolonial studies been vigilant enough to the implications of its own secular legacies: not for the first time, Said is seen here as a foundational figure. By putting Said’s work into dialogue with that of diverse philosophers and religious-studies scholars, Abeysekara suggests, following Gil Anidjar, that the ‘Christian secularized religion’ that was one of the original—if not always acknowledged—critical targets of Orientalism has historically been ‘rooted in [western] democratic capitalism and its attendant inequalities, e.g. those around gender, ethnicity, and race’. Abeysekara then goes even further by positing a link between the Christian history of self-critique and Derrida’s ‘promise’ of democracy—a ‘promise’ which, despite its continuing connection with histories of racism, exclusivist nationalism, and sexual inequality, cannot simply be withheld. Maintaining this promise requires an alternative to historicization; it also demands a much more vigilant attitude to critique and its attempt to separate its own object of analysis (e.g. religion) from itself. This calls for, among other things, thinking about religion, religious studies and, by risky extension, postcolonial studies ‘otherwise’, positioning them ‘at the limit of [their] own internal critique’ rather than assessing their ‘critical traditions’. Abeysekara does not deny the value of historical critique, but—like Brennan in Part I—he argues strongly for the need to understand postcolonial studies genealogically rather than historically, seeking to account for the metaphysical implications of its methods and laying less stress on the field’s institutional ‘development’ than on its scattered, at times contradictory, disciplinary effects.

The closing chapter in the section, by the Canadian scholars Dana Mount and Susie O’Brien, returns us to the scene of McLeod’s earlier chapter by considering literature as the disciplinary dominant of postcolonial studies, but then strategically aligns literary studies with environmental studies, one of the newer—and itself internally differentiated—disciplines to enter into the postcolonial fray. Mount and O’Brien skilfully chart the ongoing conversation between literary and environmental studies in terms of indigenous cultural politics, the rise and development of western (colonial) environmentalism, the not always friendly dialogue with feminism, and intensifying debates around consumption, climate change, sustainability, genetics, and human/animal rights. These variegated elements are seen as embodying the cross-disciplinary work that postcolonial studies is capable of producing, but—characteristically—they produce aporia of their own, e.g. the continuing American bias of ecocriticism, the corresponding neglect of alternative voices, and the tacit reinforcement of white privilege and other forms of ‘environmental racism’ in a hotly contested research field.

Implicit in Mount and O’Brien’s work are several of the issues raised in other chapters in this section: how to convert textual politics into ‘politics proper’ (Brydon, McLeod); (p. 425) how to broaden constituencies for, as well as participants within, postcolonial critical projects (Brydon, Kennedy); how to counteract western ideologies of progress and development (Hindess); how to make postcolonial studies more aware of its own disciplinary procedures, as well as more politically efficient (Hindess, Abeysekara). Above all, Mount and O’Brien ask a question that resonates, not just through this particular section but through the Handbook as a whole, one that has obvious ramifications for both the disciplinary and cross-disciplinary practice of postcolonial studies: how to make the field more inclusive in a general sense, confirming the value of non-human as well as human life-worlds; and how to ensure in the process that it remains fully committed to ‘the [twin] goals of social and environmental justice, [which] can only be voiced as one’.


Coles, Alexia and A. Defert (eds) (1998). The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity. London: Blackdog Publishing.Find this resource:

Huggan, Graham (2002). ‘Postcolonial Studies and the Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity’, Postcolonial Studies, 5.3: 245–75.Find this resource:

Huggan, Graham (2008). Interdisciplinary Measures: Literature and the Future of Postcolonial Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.Find this resource:

Klein, Julie Thompson (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.Find this resource:

Quayson, Ato (2000). Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice, or Process? Cambridge: Polity Press.Find this resource:

Said, Edward W. (1997). ‘Orientalism Reconsidered’, in B. Moore-Gilbert, G. Stanton, and W. Maley (eds), Postcolonial Criticism. London: Longman, 131–42.Find this resource:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1990). The Post-Colonial Critic. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Wolff, Janet (1992). ‘Excess and Inhibition: Interdisciplinarity in the Study of Art’, in L. Grossberg, P. Treichler, and C. Nelson (eds), Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 706–18. (p. 426) Find this resource: