robert j. c. young on the remains of postcolonialism


Robert J. C. Young, ‘Postcolonial Remains’, New Literary History 43, 10 (2012).

Extract in lieu of abstract:

The postcolonial remains: it lives on, ceaselessly transformed in the present into new social and political configurations. One marker of its continuing relevance is the degree to which the power of the postcolonial perspective has spread across almost all the disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from classics to development theory to law to medi- eval studies to theology—even sociology, under the encouragement of postcolonial-minded scholars such as Arjun Appadurai and Paul Gilroy, has abandoned its former narrow national focus to turn to an interest in globalization in the present. So many disciplines have been, so to speak, postcolonialized, along with the creation of related subdisciplines such as diaspora and transnational studies, that this remarkable dispersal of intellectual and political influence now makes it difficult to locate any kind of center of postcolonial theory: reaching into almost every domain of contemporary thought, it has become part of the consciousness of our era. Inevitably, in each discipline in which it has been taken up, the postcolonial has been subtly adapted and transformed in different ways—in sociology’s turn to globalization, for example, the historical perspective so fundamental to postcolonial studies gets largely removed. But how has the postcolonial itself changed in response to the historical transformations that have been occurring in the last decades, and, even more to the point, how should it change in the future? What conditions and situations have risen to a new visibility? What have been the greatest challenges to postcolonial analysis? And, continuing in the necessary mode of perpetual autocritique, what aspects of its own theoretical framework have limited the reach of its own radical politics?


In the arena of postcolonial studies, settler colonialism has managed, through its invocation of the tradition of colonial nationalism, to affiliate itself to the emancipatory narratives of anticolonial struggles—witness the widely circulated The Empire Writes Back of 1989, which assimilates all forms of colonial liberation into a single narrative of freedom from the imperial metropolis. What this passes over is the degree to which settler colonies themselves practiced a form of “deep colonialism,” a term recently revived by Lorenzo Veracini, which underscores the extent to which the achievement of settler self-governance enforced the subjection of indigenous peoples and indeed increased the operation of oppressive colonial practices against them. In almost any settler colony one can think of, settler liberation from colonial rule was premised on indigenous dispossession. The emancipatory narrative of postcolonialism was not accessible to those who remained invisible within it. Indeed for them, national emancipation produced a more overpowering form of colonial rule, often enforced by a special contract for indigenous peoples distinct from that between settlers and metropolis.

The postcolonial question that remains is how indigenous emancipa- tion, that is the acquisition of land and rights not mediated or already conditioned by the terms of settler emancipation from which indigenous people were excluded, can be achieved. It also becomes clear that the same paradigm of sovereignty through dispossession applies to many nonsettler colonies, where indigenous minorities or historically excluded groups have found the freedom of a postcolonial sovereignty to mean comparable or even worse forms of oppression than under colonial rule, even if the political structure is that of a democracy.

2 Responses to “robert j. c. young on the remains of postcolonialism”

  1. 1 omalone1

    Although this is rather clear, still I struggled with parts of it. For example, are you dismissing the idea of discussing sociological critiques or exorations of globalisation, because they are not rooted in a continous perspective, and connected frameowrk which refuses to fragment the colonial?

  2. 2 Annie

    Was it the intent of the settlers to colonize? This would be an interesting study in America’s history. Most of what is told of is the claims to land, the gold rush, etc. There seemed to be no concern for the indigenous, except to remove them.

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