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The Royal African Society

African Studies and the Postcolonial Challenge


Author(s): Rita Abrahamsen
Source: African Affairs, Vol. 102, No. 407 (Apr., 2003), pp. 189-210
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society
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AfricanAffairs(2003), 102, 189-210


DOI: 10.1093/afraf/adg019

? RoyalAfricanSociety2003

AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE


POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE
RITA ABRAHAMSEN

ABSTRACT

andesoteric,
is frequently
Postcolonial
dismissed
as tootheoretical
theory
African
and henceirrelevant
to thestudyof contemporary
politicsand
andargues
ofpostcolonialism,
Thisarticlechallenges
thisdismissal
society.
fora moreconstructive
studiesandpostcolonial
African
dialoguebetween
cannotbe regardedas a
thatpostcolonialism
approaches.Recognizing
uniform
or a school of thoughtin the conventional
body of theory,
academicsense,thearticlefocuseson certainkeythemesand problemait elaborates
tizations
of relevance
to contemporary
Africa.In particular,
on postcolonialism's
of power,and arguesthatthe
conceptualization
of the relationship
betweenpower,discourseand political
recognition
to thestudyofAfrican
and practices
institutions
has muchto contribute
a discussionof
are further
through
politics.These insights
investigated
and resistance.
The articleconcludesthatboth
development,
hybridity
froma more
African
studiesandpostcolonial
standtobenefit
approaches
constructive
engagement.
'WHO'S AFRAIDOF POSTCOLONIALITY?' Gyan Prakash asks in a well-known

essay.1A flippant,but not entirelyunjustanswercould be 'Africanstudies'.


More thantwentyyearsafterthepublicationof Edward Said's Orientalism,
the book often creditedwith having spawned the field of postcolonial
studies, such perspectivesoccupy at best a marginalposition in explanationsand investigations
of contemporary
Africanpoliticsand society.By
abound.2 A comprehensive
of
India
contrast,postcolonialinterpretations
account of this curious anomaly would be difficult,and will not be
attemptedhere, but two main lines of criticismunderpin the lack of
Rita Abrahamsenis lecturerin Africanand PostcolonialPoliticsin the Departmentof InternationalPolitics,University
ofWales,Aberystwyth.
She is gratefulforhelpfulcommentsfrom
two anonymousreviewers.The article has also benefitedsubstantiallyfromthe kind and
constructive
assistanceof Michael C. Williams.
1. G. Prakash,'Who's afraidof postcoloniality?',
Social Text14, 4 (1996), pp. 187-203.
2. See, forexample,P. Chatterjee,NationalistThoughtand theColonial World:A derivative
discourse
(Zed Books,London, 1986); R. Guha, Dominancewithout
Historyandpower
Hegemony:
in colonialIndia (HarvardUniversity
Press,Cambridge,MA, 1997); G. Prakash,'Writingpostorientalisthistoriesof the thirdworld:perspectivesfromIndian historiography',
Comparative
Studiesin Societyand History32, 2 (1990), pp. 383-408. I use 'Africanstudies'in thisarticle
to referprimarily
to thestudyof contemporary
Africanpolitics,developmentand international
relations.

189

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190

AFRICAN
AFFAIRS

withpostcolonialtheoriesamongAfricanists.
Firstly,
postengagement
is regarded
withtextucolonialism
as too theoretical
and too preoccupied
to thestudy
to contribute
alityand discourseto haveanything
meaningful
in itsAngloof thecontinent.
The studyof Africanpolitics,particularly
dedihas constituted
itselfas a largely
discipline,
phoneversion,
empirical
catedto assistingand facilitating
the continent's
economicand political
failedto
As timewentby and the fruitsof independence
development.
senseof
this'developmental
an
increased
to
turned
materialize,
imperative'
led to
have
and
since
'African
crisis'
the
the
1980s
of
urgency,
perceptions
callsthatscholarship
to solvingthat
andforemost
shouldbe dedicatedfirst
To thisend,postcolonialism
crisis.3
is deemedineffective.
Secondly,
postis frequently
colonialism
to
perceived be a culturalproductof theWest,
to latecapitalism
and thusof limitedrelevanceto developing
pertaining
countries.
Evenmorepointedly,
as politically
it is oftenperceived
passive,
and perhapsultimately
for
thosedevotedto
and
conservative,
politically
theAfrican
seemstohavelittleto
crisispostcolonialism
solving
accordingly
offer.

and a relucThe resulthas been a marginalization


of postcolonialism,
and
tance to engageseriously
withits centraltenets,its epistemology
as
exist
At
to
seems
methodology. present,postcolonialism
primarily a
usefulnot
extraneous
and
to
the
of
African
position
study
politics society,
so muchfortheinsights
itawardstodefine
itoffers
as fortheopportunities
oneselfagainst
Thisarticleseeksto approachthisbodyofliterasomething.
turein a moreconstructive
and dialogicalmanner.It is notmypurposeto
defendpostcolonialism
as such,noralltheclaimsmadein itsname,inpart
I
and in part
because believethereis no suchunifiedschoolor theory,
I
do
defensible.
because
not thinkthatall of its claimsare necessarily
I
Nor do attempta comprehensive
reviewof,or a 'beginner's
guide'to,
I focuson onlya fewof
Froma richbodyof literature
postcolonialism.4
its conto clarify
centralissues,and aim in particular
postcolonialism's
of powerand
of power.I arguethatthisconceptualization
ceptualization
therecognition
of therelationship
betweenpower,discourseand political
and practices
institutions
havecastnewlighton colonialand postcolonial
understandand thattheyprovidefora morecomprehensive
experiences,
and
are constructed
ingof how past and presentrelationsof inequality
maintained
thancommonly
studies.
foundinAfrican
The articlethusseeksto encourage
withposta moreactiveengagement
colonialtheoryamongstudentsof contemporary
Africanpolitics,and
3. C. Leys, 'ConfrontingtheAfricantragedy',New LeftReview204 (1994), pp. 33-47.
4. Good introductionsto postcolonialismas a fieldof studyinclude A. Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism
Contexts,
Theory:
(Routledge,London, 1996); B. Moore-Gilbert,Postcolonial
An historicalintroduction
practices,
politics(Verso,London, 1997); R. Young, Postcolonialism.
(Basil Blackwell,Oxford,2001).

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AFRICAN STUDIES

AND THE POSTCOLONIAL

CHALLENGE

191

attemptsto give some examples of how postcolonialism'stheoreticaland


of the conconceptualresourcescan expand and enrichour understanding
tinentand the functioning
of modernpower.But whilethisis a call fora
more theoreticallyinformedand engaged Africanstudies, it is not my
suggestionthatthisis a one-wayprocesswhereAfricanstudiesis the sole
for
of an intellectually
beneficiary
superiorfieldof study.On the contrary,
the
oriented
a
more
encounter
with
discipline
postcolonialism
empirically
may help expand its focusand fieldof enquiryawayfroma preoccupation
withthepast and withrepresentation,
towardscriticalanalysesof conteminstitutions
and
of
porary
practices power.
and itscritics
Postcolonialism
Like postmodernism
and poststructuralism,
postcolonialismis not a conventionaltheoryin any traditionalacademic sense of the word, and it
cannot sensiblybe treatedas one unifiedbody of thought.It is, instead,
multiple,diverseand eschews any easy generalizations.For this reason,I
approach postcolonialismnot as a singletheory,but as a set of ideas and
problematizationsof major areas in contemporarysocial and political
theoryof particularrelevanceto Africa.A usefulway into these debates is
providedby postcolonialism'scritics(of whichthereare many).The intensityand sometimesevenvitrioliccharacterof thesecritiqueshavetwomain
sources.Firstly,
criticsreactto postcolonialism'srejectionof metanarratives
and traditionalpoliticalpositionsand categoriessuch as class, race and
nation. Secondly,criticsobject to the oftentheoreticallanguage and the
focus on textand discourses.A briefreviewof the main lines of criticism
will open up the space for the ensuing explorationof postcolonialism's
epistemologicaland theoreticalunderpinnings.
One of themost commondismissalsof postcolonialismis thatit is 'pure
theory',and thatit showsno engagementwiththe 'worldout there'.Postcolonialismis perceivedto be too theoretical,and its languageimpenetrable and esoteric.Arif Dirlik accordinglyaccuses postcolonialwritersof
and 'obfuscation',whileAdebayoWilliamschargesthemwith
'mystification'
Postcolonialismis also perceivedto be almost
'aimlesslinguisticvirtuosity'.5
and discourse,and to be either
singularly
preoccupiedwithwords,textuality
disconnectedfromtheworldof raw politicsand economics,or to mistake
the textualforthe 'realworld'.Benita Parry,forexample,arguesthatpostcolonial writerstend to subsume the social and the political in textual
while Alex Callinicos similarlyobserves an inclinationto
representation,
5. A. Dirlik,'The postcolonialaura: thirdworld criticismin the age of global capitalism',
CriticalInquiry20 (1994), p. 331; A. Williams,'The postcolonialflaneurand otherfellowtravellers:conceitsfora narrativeof redemption',ThirdWorldQuarterly
18, 5 (1997) p. 830.

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192

AFRICAN
AFFAIRS

reduce social processes to questions of semiotics.6At best then, postto say about cultural
colonialismmayhave something(vaguely)interesting
practicessuch as paintings,sculptures,cinemas,atlases and museums,but
is to be
littleof relevanceto the world of social and economic suffering
lament
therefore
from
such
like
Russell
Jacoby,
gained
investigations.
Many,
'how few political insightsor conclusions these emphaticallypolitical
criticism
theoristsoffer',
and assignpostcolonialism
to thedomainof literary
and culturalstudies,- or worse,to thewastelandof incomprehension.7
A second common criticismcontendsthatpostcolonialapproaches are
manner.The
apoliticaland fail to engage withpower in any satisfactory
in
of
such
criticisms
is
the
startingpoint
frequently 'post' postcolonialism,
which seems to indicate a chronologicalperiodizationand linear progressionthroughthe stages of precolonialism,colonialism,and finallyto
those on the political
the postcolonialpresent.For many,and particularly
withWestern
collusive
this
at
best
at
worst
left,
appears
politicallynaive,
and
most
otherexAfrica
The
situation
of
imperialpower.
contemporary
the
of
the
to
standard
colonies,according
politicalleft,is one of
position
in the interand
continued
subservience
neo-colonialism,imperialism,
nationalsystemas expressed,forexample,in thedebt crisisand theerosion
of sovereigntyimplied by the impositionof structuraladjustmentprogrammes.8Accordingly,this relationshipwould be betterdescribed as a
ofimperialism,
continuation
and Ella Shoatmaintainsin herpointedcritique
thata keyeffectof postcolonialismis preciselyto keep at bay moresharply
politicaltermssuchas 'imperialism'or'geopolitics'.9Dirlik'scritiquefollows
similarlines, arguingthat by denyingfoundationalstatus to capitalism,
postcolonialapproachesgloss overglobal imbalancesof power.The world
is rendered'shapeless',and theinequalitiesof globalcapitalismare obscured.
The ideologicallimitationof postcolonialismis hence thatit 'providesan
alibi for inequality,exploitation,and oppression in theirmodern guises
under capitalistrelationships'.10
In some cases, thiscritiqueis takeneven
further
and postcolonialismbecomes an activetool of oppression.Williams,
forexample,assertsthat'postcolonialismappearslikea strongallyof global
6. B. Parry,'Signs of our times:a discussionof Homi Bhabha's TheLocationofCulture',Third
Text28/29(1994), pp. 12-13; A. Callinicos,'Wonderstakenforsigns:Homi Bhabha's post1 (1995), p. 111.
colonialism',Transformation
7. R. Jacoby,'Marginal returns:the trouble with post-colonial theory',Lingua Franca
(1995), p. 36.
September/October
8. For a selectionof views along these lines see, forexample K. Danaher (ed.), 50 Yearsis
MonetaryFund (South End,
Enough:The case againstthe WorldBank and theInternational
inMozamHow theIMF blocksdevelopment
Boston,MA, 1995); J.Hanlon, Peacewithout
Profit.
bique(JamesCurrey,Oxford,1996); B. Onimode (ed.), TheIMF, theWorldBank and African
Debt. Vol.2 (Zed Books, London, 1989); D. N. Plank,'Aid, debt and the end of sovereignty:
Mozambique and its donors',JournalofModernAfricanStudies31, 3 (1993), pp. 407-30.
9. E. Shoat, 'Notes on the "Post-Colonial"', Social Text31/32(1992), p. 99.
10. Dirlik,'The postcolonialaura', p. 347.

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

193

capitalismratherthanitsprofoundfoe'; it is 'an intellectualfacilitatorof a


new mode of colonisation'."
Postcolonialismis also frequentlyattackedforprivilegingthe colonial
experienceand relyingon a sharpdichotomybetweenthe colonial and the
postcolonialperiod. By startingtheirinquirywiththe colonial encounter,
postcolonialanalystsare perceivedto continuethe Eurocentricattitudeof
much conventionalsocial sciencewherethe 'emergingareas' are presented
as 'people withouthistory'.12Critics assert that postcolonialwritersrisk
the perceptionthatnothingworthrecordinghappened before
reinforcing
the arrivalof European explorers,traders,missionariesand settlers,and
that in postcolonialaccounts the colonies become emptyspaces, a void
simplywaitingto be inscribedwithmeaningby theEuropean.Aijaz Ahmad
opposes thisperiodizationof historybecause it 'privilegesas primarythe
role of colonialism',and implies that 'all that came before colonialism
becomes its own prehistory
and whatevercomes aftercan onlybe lived as
infinite
Terence
aftermath'.13
Ranger'scritiquefollowssimilarlines,arguing
that postcolonialismdevelops an essentializedcontrastbetween colonial
Africaand postcolonialAfrica.This colonial/postcolonial
dichotomyis misless
as
'colonialism
was
much
coherent,simpleand
placed, Rangerargues,
lucid than such dualism suggests'.He concludes thatcolonial Africa'was
much more like postcolonial Africa than most of us have hitherto
imagined'.14 The thrustof such criticismsis accordinglythatpostcolonialism is unable to capturethe continuitiesofAfricanhistoryand thatit privilegesthe arrivaland actionsof thewhiteman overindigenousculturesand
practices.
A finalstrandof criticismassertsthat postcolonialismis a variantor
derivativeof postmodernismand hence of verylittlerelevanceto Africa.
This critiquecomes in manydifferent
guises,and also underpinssome of
the above objections.Postmodernismis perceivedas Western,relativistic
and apoliticaland thesecharacteristics
are similarlyseen to dominatepostcolonialism.PatrickChabal, forexample,arguesthatthe postmodernis a
particularlyWesternconditionand while postmodernscholarshipmight
it bears no relationto lifeon
capturesome aspectsof thissocial formation,
theAfricancontinent.For Chabal, Africais best understoodas premodern
and he insiststhatthe continentis currentlyundergoinga process of repostmodernismcan findno application
traditionalization.15Accordingly,
11. Williams,'The postcolonialflaneur',p. 834.
12. The phrasecomes notfroma critiqueof postcolonialism,
but fromEricWolf'sexcellent
of CaliforniaPress,Berkeley,
CA, 1982).
study,Europeand thePeoplewithout
History(University
13. A. Ahmad,'The politicsof literary
Race and Class 36, 3 (1995), pp. 6-7.
postcoloniality',
14. T. Ranger,'Postscript:colonial and postcolonialidentities',in R. Werbnerand T. Ranger
Identities
inAfrica(Zed Books, London, 1996), pp. 273, 280.
(eds), Postcolonial
in Werbnerand Ranger,
15. P. Chabal, 'The Africancrisis: contextand interpretation',
pp. 32-3, 42-3.

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194

AFFAIRS
AFRICAN

and yieldno insightson theAfricancondition.In a sharp dismissalalong


similarlines,Dennis Epko observesthat'nothingstops the Africanfrom
viewingthe celebratedpostmoderncondition... as nothingbut the hypocriticalself-flattering
cry of the overfedand spoiltchildrenof hypercapitalism.So whathas hungryAfricagot to do withthe post-materialdisgust
... of the bored and the overfed?'16
In thisview,then,postcolonialismis a reflectionof theWest,or of postmodern societies,ratherthan a reactionto 'external'realitiesin Africaor
The postmodernconditionof
elsewhere.It is, in otherwords,narcissistic.
and
seen
to have givenbirthto postidentities
is
fragmentation diasporic
which
is
in
the
turn
as
colonialism,
attemptof the privilegedfew
perceived
to theorizeand come to termswiththeirownpositionas ThirdWorldintellectualsinsidetheWesternacademe. Dirlikthusdates thebeginningof the
postcolonialto the arrivalof theThirdWorldintellectualin theFirstWorld
of
as the conditionof the intelligentsia
academe, regarding'postcoloniality
the
turn
that
On
a
contends
similar
Chabal
note,
global capitalism'.17
towardsthepostcolonialreflectsmorea need of theWestto come to terms
withitscolonialpast and itsmulticultural,
multiracialpresentthana sincere
to
understand
Africa.
Postcolonialism,then, is
attempt
contemporary
rebukedas more 'a concern about ourselves[Westernintellectuals]than
about thosewho do live in actual postcolonialsocieties'.18What is more,
are perthe politicalimplicationsof postcolonialism,like postmodernism,
its
ceived as nihilisticand 'extremelyconservative'.19
Through critiqueof
unitarycategoriessuch as class, genderand nationpostcolonialismis seen
to abolishthe possibilityof a politicsof emancipation,makingresistancea
itseems,belongstoThird
purelyinternaland individualact.Postcolonialism,
not to thosewitha
Worldglobetrotters
and frivolous
Westernintellectuals,
real concernforpolitics,povertyand injustice.
The'post' inpostcolonialism
There are undoubtedlyvaluable insightsin the above critiques,and it is
not my intentionhere to suggestthatpostcolonialismis above criticism.
As withmost fieldsof study,thereis good and bad scholarship,and it is
16. D. Epko, 'Towards a post-Africanism',
TextualPractice9, 1 (1995) cited in Loomba,
Colonialism/Postcolonialism,
p. 248.
17. Dirlik,'The postcolonialaura', p. 356. K. A. Appiah makes a similarpoint,regarding
as the conditionof a 'comprador
postcoloniality
intelligentsia'.
Appiah,'Is the "post-" in postcolonialthe"post-"in postmodern?',inA. McClintock,A. Muftiand E. Shoat (eds), Dangerous
Liaisons.Gender,
nationand postcolonial
(MinnesotaUniversityPress,Minneapolis,
perspectives
MN, 1997), p. 432.
18. Chabal, 'The Africancrisis',p. 37.
19. R. O'Hanlon and D. Washbrook,'Afterorientalism:culture,criticism,
and politicsin the
thirdworld', ComparativeStudiesin Societyand History34 (1992), pp. 141-67. See also G.
Prakash'sreply,'Can the "subaltern"ride?'in the same volume.

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

195

certainlythe case that some postcolonialwritingsare linguisticallyand


and reflexive,
obscure and ambiguous,overlyself-referential
theoretically
and focusedon textualinterpretation
ratherthanempiricalexploration.But
whilethisis trueof some workpublishedunderthisbroad rubric,it is not
applicable to the entirebody of literature,nor does it mean that postcolonialism's theoreticalinsightscannot be applied in more concrete
settingsor policy-relevant
analyses.Nor is it correct,in myview,to portray
as
postcolonialism apoliticalor concernedwith'wordsonly'.This criticism
stemsfroma misrepresentation
of the conceptionof powerand discourse
within
employed
postcolonialism,and preventsan appreciationof one of
its most crucialpoints,namely,the relationshipbetweenpower,discourse
and politicalinstitutions
and practices.In orderto clarifytheissues at stake
of the
in thisconceptionof powerit is usefulto startwithan investigation
termpostcolonialismitself.
Much inkhas been spilton debatingexactlywhatthepostcolonialmeans
and when it begins,and manyof the criticismssurveyedabove arise from
the fuzzinessand ambiguitiesof the termand the visionof historythatit
employs.While the 'post' in postcolonialismsignifiesthe end of colonialism and imperialismas directdomination,it does not implyafterimperialism as a global systemof hegemonicpower.20Thus, GayatriChakravorty
Spivakmaintainsthat'we livein a post-colonialneo-colonizedworld',while
Homi Bhabha regards postcolonialityas 'a salutary reminder of the
persistent"neo-colonial" relationswithinthe "new" world order and the
multi-national
divisionof labour'.21In short,colonialism,as conventionally
definedin termsof formalsettlementand controlof otherpeople's land
and goods, is in the main over,but manyof its structuresand relationsof
to be
power are stillin place. The post in postcolonialismis not therefore
understoodas a clearlydividingtemporalpost,but ratheras an indication
of continuity.
Postcolonialism,in thewordsof Gyan Prakash,'sidestepsthe
languageof beginningsand ends'.22It seeksto capturethe continuitiesand
complexitiesof any historicalperiod, and attemptsto transcendstrict
wherehistoryis clearlydelineated
chronologicaland dichotomousthinking
and the social worldneatlycategorizedinto separateboxes.
The colonial experienceis neverthelessregardedas crucialto an understandingof contemporary
politics.By the 1930s, colonies and ex-colonies
covered 84.6 percentof the land surfaceof the globe, and colonialism
formeda key transformative
encounterfor both the colonizer and the
colonized.23Colonial power not only changed the ways of imposingand
20. Young,Postcolonialism,
p. 57.
21. G. C. Spivak,'The politicaleconomyof women as seen by a literarycritic',in E. Weed
(ed.), Comingto Terms(Routledge,London, 1990), p. 166., H. K. Bhabha, The Locationof
Culture(Routledge,London, 1994), p. 6.
22. Prakash,'Who's afraidof postcoloniality?',
p. 188.
23. Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism,
p. xiii.

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AFFAIRS

maintainingrule over the colonized, but also changed the terrainwithin


whichAfricanscould respondto domination.24
The globalreachofWestern
imperialpower also broughtnew peoples and places into theworld capitalisteconomy,and compelledthemto remain,evenaftertheirformalindependence,withinthiseconomicsystem.The colonialencounteris thusseen
to marka crucial reorderingof the world,and manypostcolonialwriters
argue thatthe returnto a pristine,unspoiltprecolonialcultureis impossible and have warned againstsuch 'nostalgiaforlost origins'.25Crucially,
however,thisdoes not mean thatthe precolonialcame to an abruptend,
but ratherthe presentis regardedas a complex mix and continuationof
different
culturesand temporalities.
The connectionsbetweenthe past and the present,as well as the interconnectedness,ratherthan the separateness,of the colonial and the postcolonial and the North and the South thus emerge as a key focus of
Ratherthanpointingto fixedtemporaland geopostcolonialinvestigations.
and
graphicalperiods
spaces, postcolonialismdraws attentionto contiand
or whatRobertYoung refersto as
nuities,fluidity interconnectedness,
theeconomic,political,culturaland diasporic'imbricationof thenorthand
the south'.26The constitutive
relationshipof the Northand the South,the
in
which
the
two
way
produceand reinforcetheidentityof each otherboth
in the colonial past and the postcolonial present,are key insightsand
concerns of postcolonial thinking.27
Thus, the meaning of 'Africa' and
'Africanness'cannotbe regardedas fixed,and has no essence. By the same
token,an understandingof the 'West' can onlyemergefroma recognition
of itsrelationship
to the'other'.Duringcolonialism,forexample,theclaims
of 'civilization'came to rest on the deficienciesof 'barbarism',with the
the'civilized'characterof EurodescriptionofAfrican'savages' reinforcing
and
the
natureof colonial rule.This conpeans
legitimizing authoritarian
stitutiverelationshipcontinuestoday,and Achille Mbembe has observed
that'Africastillconstitutesone of the metaphorsthroughwhichtheWest
representsthe originsof its own norms,develops a self-image,and integratesthisimage into the set of signifiers
assertingwhatis supposed to be
its identity'.28
24. See D. Scott,'Colonial governmentality',
Social Text43 (1995), pp. 191-200.
25. G. C. Spivak,'Can the subalternspeak?'in C. Nelson and L. Grossberg(eds), Marxism
andInterpretation
ofCulture(Macmillan,Basingstoke,1988), pp. 271-313; see also K. A. Appiah,
'Out of Africa,topologiesof nativism',in D. LaCapra (ed.), TheBoundsofRace: Perspectives
on hegemony
and resistance
(Cornell UniversityPress,Ithaca,NY, 1991), pp. 134-63.
26. Young,Postcolonialism,
p. 8.
27. Chabal hence misstatesa crucialpointwhen he arguesthatthe postcolonialis 'more a
concernabout ourselvesthan about thosewho live in actual postcolonialsocieties'. Chabal,
'The Africancrisis',p. 37.
28. A. Mbembe, On thePostcolony
of CaliforniaPress,Berkeley,CA, 2001), p. 2;
(University
see also V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention
ofAfrica(Indiana UniversityPress,Bloomington,IN,
1988).

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

197

andpostcoloniality
Power
relationThe emphasison fluidity,
and constitutive
interconnectedness
of
indicative
is notmerely
shipsthatcharacterizes
postcolonial
scholarship
a flimsy
nordoes itsignify
or 'reflexivity',
passionfor'linguistic
virtuosity'
a lackofconcern
itstemsfrom
withpowerorthepolitical.
On thecontrary,
a deepengagement
ofidentity
withtheroleofpowerin theformation
and
andtherelationship
andpolitical
betweenknowledge
subjectivity
practices.
that
This broaderinterrogation
of poweris one of thefewcommonalities
makesit possibleto speak,if onlytentatively,
of postcolonialism
(in the
singular),and it is also herethatwe see mostclearlypostcolonialism's
and postmodernist
and indebtednessto poststructuralist
relationship
thinkers.
Thisis nottosay,however,
thatthereis onepostcolonial
approach,
orthatpostcolonialism
is reducible
orpoststructuralism.
topostmodernism
Thesetwopointsmerita briefelaboration
theinquiry
into
beforepursuing
and power.
postcoloniality
The inherent
to discussa diversebodyof literadangerof anyattempt
tureliesin constructing
a misleading
of
out of themultiplicity
uniformity
such
voicesthatco-existunderthesamelabel.Postcolonialism
is precisely
a multifarious
modeof analysis,
and
wherewriters
drawtheirinspiration
trafroma widevariety
resources
ofpoliticalandphilosophical
conceptual
ditionsand thinkers.
thatpostcolonialanalysessharea
My suggestion
of poweris not intendedto erase or
broadlysimilarconceptualization
'tame'suchdifferences,
butratherseeksto providea starting
pointfrom
whichto understand
theirvariousmodesand themesofinquiry.
Similarly,
topointtotheaffinities
withpoststructural
andpostmodernist
perspectives
is not to implythatpostcolonialism
or a straightis merelya derivative
forward
of
situations
these
to
theoretical
application
positions postcolonial
and relations.
is to be
Severalauthorshavearguedthatpostcolonialism
from
of
its
because
distinguished
explicit
postmodernism,
primarily
to themarginalized.29
Whilethisviewmightentaila
politicalcommitment
too uniform
and
dismissalof all postmodernist
approachesas relativistic
of
the
or
to
ethical
it
deprived political
important
engagement, points
ofpostcolonialism
ofthe'subaltern'.
torecover
thesubjectposition
attempt
Thatsaid,thedebateaboutpostcolonialism's
'Western'
identity
presumed
ina manner
at
times
obsessed
with
classification
and
appears
categorization
thatrunscontrary
to postcolonialism's
attention
to interconnectedness,
and
constitutive
likeMichelFoucault,
While
thinkers
fluidity
relationships.
Derrida
and
in thepantheonof
Lacan
Jacques
Jacques
figure
prominently
29. Appiah, 'Is the "Post-" in postcolonialism';A. J. Paolini, NavigatingModernity.
Postrelations(Lynne Rienner,Boulder, CO, 1999). I am
colonialism,
identityand international
mindfulof theriskof treatingpoststructuralism
and postmodernismas one and the same,but
a discussionof these'disciplinaryboundaries'is of minorrelevanceto thisanalysis.

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postcolonialism,so do non-Westernwriterslike Franz Fanon, Albert


Memmi and MahatmaGandhi.At thesame time,theWesternoriginofpostis ambivalent.RobertYoung, forexample,has arguedthatif
structuralism
is the productof a singlehistoricalmoment,then that
poststructuralism
momentis not May 1968 but theAlgerianWar of Independence,withkey
figureslike Sartre,Derrida, Lyotardand Cixous all havingstronglinksto
or
Algeria.30To pose the question of postcolonialism's'Western'identity,
the
its poststructuralist/postmodernist
in
to
originis, my opinion, pursue
wrongline of inquiry,as its strengthstemspreciselyfromits hybridcharacter,fromits eclecticmix of theoriesand positions.
One of theinsightsthatpostcolonialismborrowsand developsfrompoststructuraland postmodernist
perspectivesis a viewof poweras productive
of identitiesand subjectivities.An instructivestartingpoint for understandingthis conception of power is provided by the work of Michel
Foucault.31EmergingfromFoucault's thinkingis a 'new conceptualarchiof
tectureof power' that seeks to displace the conventionalidentification
as
with
domination.32
no
Power is
power
longerperceived onlyrepressive,
nor is itunderstoodin purelymaterialor institutional
terms.Instead,power
is productive,and creativeof subjects.It is also intimately
linkedto knowin
the
not
instrumental
sense
that
knowledgeis alwaysin the
ledge,
purely
serviceof thepowerful,but in termsof theproductionof truthand rationality.For Foucault,thepossibilityof a positivist,
objectivescienceis a myth,
and theproblematization
of a particularaspect of human lifeis not natural
or inevitable,
buthistorically
and dependentupon powerrelations
contingent
alreadyhavingrendereda particulartopic a legitimateobject of investigation.The sciencesthendo not merelydescribetheworldas theyfindit,
but insteadconstructit and createthe mannerin whichit is perceivedand
understood.Any object of scientificinvestigationis simultaneouslyits
and therecan be no objectsof knowledgein theabsence of a method
effect,
fortheirproduction.Truth,in short,cannotbe foundobjectively,
but is the
of discourse.
effect
It is importantto note that Foucault's conceptionof discourse is not
Marxist
of traditional
simplya substitutefor'theideologicalsuperstructure'
accounts.Discourses,in theFoucauldiansense,are 'practicesthatsystematically formthe objects of which theyspeak', practicesthat have material
effects.33
It followsthatanalysesinformedby such insightscannot accept
30. R. Young, WhiteMythologies:
and theWest(Routledge,London, 1990).
Writing
history
31. See, in particular,M. Foucault, The OrderofThings:An archeology
ofthehumansciences
(Tavistock,London, 1970); Disciplineand Punish:The birthoftheprison(Allen Lane, London,
Selectedinterviews
and otherwritings(Harvester,London, 1980);
1977); Power/Knowledge:
Studies
in G. Burchell,C. Gordon and P. Miller (eds), The FoucaultEffect:
'Governmentality',
in governmentality
(HarvesterWheatsheaf,London, 1991), pp. 87-104.
32. M. Dean, Governmentality:
Powerand rulein modernsociety(Sage, London, 1999), p. 46.
33. M. Foucault, TheArcheology
ofKnowledge(Tavistock,London, 1972), p. 49.

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at face value any particularcategorizationof theworld.Instead,theyseek


to establishhowcertainwaysof understandingand representing
theworld
became dominantand acquired the positionto shape the mannerin which
a particularaspect of social realityis imaginedand acted upon.
The centralityof 'how' questions also leads to a focus on how human
beings are shaped by power,or by different
techniquesand practicesof
as
various
of
with
government,
types agents
particularcapacitiesand liberties. Foucault's notion of governmentality
characterizesmodernpower as
'the conductof conduct',and drawsattentionto thewaysinwhicha multiplicityof authoritiesand agenciesseek to shape our behaviourbyworking
In particular,powerin the
throughour desires,aspirationsand interests.34
modernage has come to workthroughwhatwe knowas 'the social', or the
constructionof a space of freesocial exchange,and throughthe constructionof a subjectivity
normatively
experiencedas the source of freewill and
rationalagency.35This entailsa radical rethinking
of power,which is no
centred
in
the
or
with
state,
longer
exclusively
capital,but worksthrough
and
at
both
the
local, domestic and the intermicro-strategies practices
nationallevel.
Much postcolonial scholarshipis informed,in one way or another,by
this rethinkingof power, and the concept of discourse and the power/
knowledgenexus have foundparticularresonance in analysesof colonial
and postcolonialrelationships.
Edward Said's Orientalism,
arguablythelocus
classicusof postcolonialism,was inspiredin large part by a Foucauldian
understandingof power/knowledge.
Arguingthatthereis 'no such thingas
a deliveredpresence;thereis onlya re-presence,
Said's
or a representation',
central contentionwas that Orientalismwas a 'systematicdisciplineby
whichEuropean culturewas able to manage - and even produce - the
Orientpolitically,sociologically,militarily,
and
ideologically,scientifically,
imaginatively
duringthe post-Enlightenment
period'.36
In the case of the Orient,knowledgeand powerwenthand in hand, and
therewas no such thingas an innocent,objective academic standpoint.
This is not to say thatknowledgewas produced in advance as an instrumentto justifycolonialism,but ratherthatit is in discoursethatpowerand
34. Foucault,'Governmentality'.
35. On 'the social', see J.Donzelot, The Policingof Families(Pantheon,New York, 1979);
J.Danzelot, 'The promotionof the social', Economyand Society17, 3 (1988), pp. 395-427.
36. E. Said, Orientalism
(Penguin,London, 1979), pp. 21, 3. V. Y. Mudimbe's study,The
Invention
ofAfricamakes a similarobservation,in thathe identifiescomplementary
genresof
'speeches' thatcontributedto the inventionof a primitiveAfrica:the exotictextson savages,
about a hierarchyof
representedby travellers'reports;the philosophical interpretations
'Africa'
civilizations;and the anthropologicalsearchesforprimitiveness(p. 69). The signifier
is, in otherwords,constructedby theWest. Mudimbe uses this observationto reflectupon
the possibilityforan Africanknowledge,or the decolonizationof academic knowledgeon
Africa.

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200

AFFAIRS
AFRICAN

knowledge are joined together.37Said provided a compelling demonstrationof how the West had managed to establishan authoritativeand
dominantknowledgeabout the Orientand itspeoples, and arguedthatthe
study of the Orient was ultimatelya political vision whose structure
promoteda binaryoppositionbetweenthe familiar(theWest/us)and the
strange (the Orient/them).The Orient, in other words, is revealed as
centralto European self-understanding
and identity,and thisin turnhas
The
contemporaryconsequences.
primarysignificanceof Said's study,
however,is perhaps that,by drawingattentionto the intimacyof power
and knowledge,he made a firststep towardschallengingthe hegemonic
narrativesof theWest,a processwhichhas been referred
to as 'the Empire
in
back'
an
to
that
constructthe
destabilize
the
discourses
writing
attempt
'other'.38
Orientalism
drawsprimarilyon travelwritingsand literarytexts,and this
focushas been continuedin manysubsequentstudiesof colonialdiscourse
inspiredby Said.39 Given postcolonialism'soriginand continuedlocation
withindepartmentsof literatureand culturalstudies,this is no surprise.
But if reflectionson Shakespeare'sCaliban or Conrad's Marlow were all
postcolonialanalyseshad to offer,criticswould perhapsbe justifiedin dismissingthemas politicallylimited.A focusof discourse,however,does not
dictatea purelytextualor literaryinclination.Foucault's conceptionof disof language and regards
course,itwill be recalled,stressesthe materiality
discourseas a practicelike any other.One of Foucault's keyconcernswas
to identifythe materialand institutionalconditionsof possibilityof discourses,and theirmaterialeffectsand the practicestheymade possible.
Severalstudieshave made use of thisapproachto discourseto cast light
on thepracticesof colonialpowerand thusmake colonialdiscourseanalysis
more than 'just anotherformof literarycriticism'.40Such studies draw
attention
to the'worldliness'of discoursesand maketheconnectionbetween
discoursesand particularpoliticalpracticesand social experiences.Stressing the disciplinaryaspects of power Megan Vaughan,while criticalof
certain aspects of Foucault's thinking,shows how medicine in colonial
Africaconstructed'the African'in particularways thatwere intrinsicto
37. It shouldbe mentionedthatSaid at timescomes veryclose to describingOrientalismas
a misrepresentation
or an ideological construct,and as such his interpretation
differsfrom
Foucault's morematerialapproachto discourses.Said deriveshis theoreticalframework
from
both Foucault and thewritingsof AntonioGramsci,a combinationwhichhas led to charges
thatOrientalism
is theoretically
inconsistent.
The barrageof criticismsand responsesto Orientalismis testimony
to the importanceof Said's text.For an excellentreviewof the debates see
Young, Postcolonialism.
38. E. Said, Cultureand Imperialism
and
(Vintage,London, 1993); B. Ashcroft,G. Griffiths,
H. Tiffin,The EmpireWritesBack: Theoryand practicein post-colonial
literatures
(Routledge,
London, 1989).
39. See, forexample,Ashcroftet al., TheEmpireWritesBack; P. Hulme, ColonialEncounters:
Europeand thenativeCaribbean1492-1797 (Methuen,London, 1986).
40. Young, Postcolonialism,
p. 394.

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

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the operationand maintenanceof colonial power.41Roxanne Lynn Doty


demonstrates
therelationship
betweenrepresentational
practicesand actual
in
colonial
how
various
and
shows
policies
disciplinarypractices
Kenya,
designed,forexample,to 'get the nativesto work' constructedparticular
in a wide-ranging
kindsof identitiesforthecolonialpopulation.42Similarly,
of
Renaissance
to the 1990s,
the
socio-medical
science
from
investigation
AlexanderButchartdemonstrateshow the Africanbody has been created
and transformed
as an object of knowledge,and how these changingconstructionshave in turn renderedthe Africanamenable to analysis and
domination.43
Miningmedicine,to take but one example,helped fabricate
that
theAfricanmineworkersas visibleobjectspossessingdistinctattributes
disease.
in
and
for
health
their
provokedparticularstrategies
management
Such studiesillustratehow colonial powerresidednot onlyin the state,
orwithcapital,but operatedthroughmicro-technologies
at specificlocations
to conditionand constitutethe mindsand bodies of the colonized.Power,
in otherwords,is not onlyrepressive,
but also productiveof subjectivities
and identities.This formof discourse analysisaccordinglydemonstrates
how intellectual,economic and politicalprocessesworkedtogetherin the
formationand maintenanceof colonial power,and how ideas and institutions,knowledgeand powercannotbe understoodseparately.
Powerand thecritique
ofdevelopment
This reconceptualizationof power has not onlyhelped to broaden our
understandingof colonial relations,but has also generatedpowerfulcritiques of currentpoliticalstructures,institutionsand practicesof power.
This is particularlythe case in the fieldof development,and an importThe
antworkin thiscontextis ArturoEscobar's Encountering
Development:
makingand unmakingof thethirdworld.44
Employinga Foucauldian connexus and the politicsof representation,
ceptionof the power/knowledge
Escobar shows how developmentand its opposite, underdevelopment,
are not self-evident
or preordainedcategories.Instead,theyare discursive
41. M. Vaughan,CuringTheirIlls:ColonialpowerandAfricanillness(StanfordUniversity
Press,
Stanford,CA, 1991). A similaranalysisof colonial India is providedby D. Arnold,Colonizing
theBody:Statemedicine
of California
and epidemic
diseasein nineteenth-century
India (University
Press,Berkeley,CA, 1993).
42. R. L. Doty,ImperialEncounters
(MinnesotaUniversityPress,Minneapolis,MN, 1996).
43. A. Butchart,TheAnatomyofPower:Europeanconstructions
oftheAfricanbody(Zed Books,
London, 1998).
44. A. Escobar, Encountering
The makingand unmakingof the thirdworld
Development.
(PrincetonUniversity
Press,Princeton,NJ,1995). For relatedcritiquesof developmentsee J.
Crush (ed.), Powerof Development
(Routledge,London, 1995); J.Ferguson,TheAnti-Politics
Machine(MinnesotaUniversity
DevelopPress,Minneapolis,MN, 1994); A. Gupta,Postcolonial
in themakingofmodernIndia (Duke University
Press,Durham,NC, 1998);
ments:Agriculture
D. Slaterand M. Bell, 'Aid and the geopoliticsof the post-colonial:criticalreflectionon New
Labour's overseasdevelopmentstrategy',
and Change3, 2 (2002), pp. 335-60.
Development

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AFRICANAFFAIRS

constructs,particularwaysof seeingand actingupon theworldthatreflect


not onlythe conditionstheydescribebut also the constellationsof social,
economicand politicalforcesat thetimeof theiremergence.This does not
entail a denial of the material condition of povertyor the disparities
betweenrichand poor,butrathera challengeto theirconceptualizationand
the politicalpracticesthattheymake possible.With the problematization
of 'underdevelopment',
which is frequentlydated to PresidentTruman's
in
social realitybecame orderedintonew categories
1949,
inauguralspeech
such as underdeveloped,malnourished,illiterate,etc. This established
ThirdWorldcountriesas objectsof intervention,
and normalizedthe right
of the North to interveneand control,adapt and reshape the structures,
practicesand waysof lifeof the South. Developmentdiscoursethushelps
in theThirdWorld in orderto remodelit accordlegitimizeinterventions
to
Western
norms
of
and whenevera
ing
progress,growthand efficiency,
new problem of underdevelopmentis identifiednew practicesof interventionare devised to rectify
the deficiency.In thisway,developmentcan
be regardedas analogous to the realm of 'the social' in domesticpolitics,
as throughits interventions
the underdevelopedsubject becomes known,
and
categorized,
incorporatedinto statistics,models and graphs,whichin
turnlegitimatepracticesand facilitatetheemergenceof thedeveloped,disciplinedsubject.
The disciplinaryaspects of developmentcan be illustratedthroughthe
sudden inscriptionof democracyas a necessaryconditionfordevelopment
assistance in the early 1990s.45The so-called good governanceagenda,
spearheadedby theWorldBank and adopted by mostbilateraldonors,was
heraldedat thetimeof itsemergenceas a radicalbreakwitha development
traditiontaintedby its frequentsupport for the strongor authoritarian
state,due both to a pervasiveCold War logic and to a convictionthat
democracywas suited only to industrializedsocieties.The conventional
explanation of the change in developmentdiscourse was accordingly
twofold.On the one hand, the West was 'freeat last' fromthe perceived
need to turn a blind eye to the domestic excesses of AfricanCold War
allies.46On the otherhand, the good governanceagenda was seen as the
resultof a learningcurvewithindevelopmentthinking.In the words of
theWorld Bank, 'Historysuggeststhatpoliticallegitimacyand consensus
are a preconditionfor sustainabledevelopment'.47On closer inspection,
45. For a more detailed analysis,see R. Abrahamsen,Disciplining
Democracy:Development
discourse
and goodgovernance
inAfrica(Zed Books, London, 2000).
46. J.A. Wiseman,'Introduction:The movementtowardsdemocracy.Global, continental,
and stateperspectives',in J.A. Wiseman (ed.), Democracyand PoliticalChangein Sub-Saharan
Africa(Routledge,London, 1995), p. 3; M. Clough,Freeat Last? US policytoward
Africaand
theendoftheCold War(Council on ForeignRelationsPress,New York,1992), p. 2.
47. WorldBank,Sub-SaharanAfrica:Fromcrisistosustainable
(WorldBank,Washinggrowth
ton,DC, 1989), p. 60.

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

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thegoodgovernance
however,
agendaappearsto be lessofa radicalbreak
withthepast,inthatitreproduces
thehierarchies
ofprevious
development
theories
the
and
delivered
from
Third
is
be
World
still
to
reformed
whereby
of
its current
such
the
West.
represtage underdevelopment
Through
by
sentational
retainthemoralhighground,
industrialized
countries
practices,
therightto administer
to theSouth.
development
The mannerinwhichdemocracy
thegoodgovernis constructed
within
ance discoursehas disciplinary
as intiis
constructed
effects.
Democracy
to
connected
liberal
in
this
alternative
economic
and
mately
way
policies,
ofdemocracy
aremarginalized
The goodgovernandsilenced.
conceptions
ance agendaalso servesto shieldtheWestfromdemocratic
The
scrutiny.
richcountries
and
democareautomatically
able
to
as
democratic
regarded
ratizeAfricaas partof thelargerdevelopment
thegood
effort.
Moreover,
countries
within
constructs
as
relevant
governance
only
agenda
democracy
and notwithininternational
Domesticrelations
institutions
and relations.
mustbe democratized,
butinternational
relations
are leftuntouchedand
In thisway,the
fromthereachofthegoodgovernance
discourse.
protected
of
counrewrites
and
reinvents
the
goodgovernance
agenda
right Western
in Africain thepost-Communist
triesto intervene
disera.Development
course can be seen as part of the global governanceof the African
andoneofthewaysinwhichpresent
and
structures
international
continent,
relations
of poweraremaintained
all
and reproduced.
Despite itsproclamationsin favourofdemocracy,
then,contemporary
development
policies
Seen in this
undemocratic.
helpmaintaina worldorderthatis essentially
theconceptofdiscipline
is notreducible
to 'ideology'orto econcontext,
fromthisunification.
omics,butunitesthemandderivesitsforceprecisely
The discipline
ofthegoodgovernance
to produce
agendaworksmaterially
Western
thathelpmaintain
processesand formsof politicalsubjugation
hegemony.
also producesnew identities,
Throughits interventions,
development
newsubjectivities
and newwaysof seeingand actingupontheworldboth
at thestateandattheindividual
level.AkhilGupta'sbrilliant
studyofrural
lifein Indiashowshowunderdevelopment
has becomea formof identity
in partsof thepostcolonial
world.According
to Gupta,whopeoplethink
theyare,howtheygotthatway,andwhattheycan do to changetheirlives
havebeenprofoundly
ideologiesand practices
shapedbytheinstitutions,
of development.48
in otherwords,is not merelya
Underdevelopment,
structural
locationin theglobaleconomy;
itis also an identity,
'something
thatinforms
of
KamranAli'sethnography
people'ssenseofself'.Similarly,
a family
USAID and internationally
planning
campaignin Egyptinvolving
fundedNGOs suggests
thatone of thepotential
outcomesof theproject
48.

Gupta, Postcolonial
Developments,
p. ix.

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AFRICAN
AFFAIRS

is the productionof a newlyatomized 'modern' subject,a new, but still


'Egyptian',citizen.49These studiesonce again drawattentionto the interconnectednessof theworld,the 'imbricationof the northand the south',
and show how the powerof developmentcannotbe understoodmerelyin
repressiveor economic terms,but must take account of the manner in
whichit produces subjectsand identities.
Hybrididentities,
different
futures
The understandingof poweras not merelydomination,but also as productiveof subjectsand identitiesthroughvariousmicro-technologies
and
withinpostcolonialrelations,explainsin largepart the focuson hybridity
reflectsonlythepriviism.s0Whilecriticsarguethatthenotionof hybridity
leged conditionof the diasporicThird World intellectual,of the Spivaks,
Bhabhas and Appiahs of thisworld,postcolonialwritersassert that the
hybridconditionappliesto everyonewithinpostcolonialsocieties- and to
all otherpeoples forthatmatter,as thehistoryof all culturesis thehistory
of culturalborrowings.51
As Young points out, hybridity
was firstplaced at the heart of postcolonial studiesby Ashis Nandy's analysisin TheIntimateEnemy:Loss and
recovery
of selfundercolonialism.52
Nandy's startingpoint is the (controversial) propositionthat'colonialismis firstof all a matterof consciousness and needs to be defeatedultimately
in themindsof men'.53The focus,
in otherwords,is on the psychological,and not onlyon the economic and
marksboth the
political,aspects of colonialism.The notion of hybridity
continuitiesof colonialismand its failureto fullydominatethe colonized.
In termsof continuity,
identitiesand subjectivities
wereprofoundly
reshaped
by the colonial experienceand accordinglycolonialismfindscontinued
of practices,philosophies,and cultures
expressionthrougha multiplicity
impartedto and adopted by the colonized in more or less hybridforms.
Hybriditythus draws attentionto theway in whichthe colonizerand the
colonized are forgedin relationshipwith each other.Nowhere are these
mutuallyconstitutiveidentitiesbetterillustratedthan in Franz Fanon's
49. K. A. Ali, 'The politics of familyplanningin Egypt',Anthropology
Today 12 (1996);
K. A. Ali,'Making "responsible"men: planningthe familyin Egypt',in C. Bledsoe, S. Lerner
and J. Guyer (eds), Fertility
and theMale Life-Cyclein the Era of Fertility
Decline (Oxford
UniversityPress,Oxford,2000).
50. See, forexample,Bhabha, TheLocationofCulture;Said, Cultureand Imperialism.
51. Said, Cultureand Imperialism.On a similarnote, Chinua Achebe, reflectingon his
childhoodand the competinginfluencesof Christianity
and Africantraditionalbeliefs,writes
thatwe 'lived at the crossroadsof cultures.We stilldo today.'C. Achebe, Hopes and Impediments:Selectedessays1965-1987 (Heinemann,London, 1988), p. 22.
52. Young, Postcolonialism.
A. Nandy, The IntimateEnemy:Loss and recovery
of selfunder
colonialism
(OxfordUniversityPress,Delhi, 1983).
53. Nandy, TheIntimateEnemy,p. 63.

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

205

statement
that'theNegrois not.Anymorethanthewhiteman.'54
haunting
Thewhiteman'sself-perception
andcivilized
the
as moral,rational
required
of
of
the
as
and
the
notion
barbaric
and
uncivilized,
image
negro
hybridity
inthiswayhelpstobreakdowntheessentialized,
between
binaryopposition
thecolonizedand thecolonizer,
betweenblackandwhite,selfand other.55
Fromthisperspective,
no essentherecanbe nopureorunsullied
identity,
tialopposition
betweenthecolonizerand thecolonized,56
and thisin turn
hasimportant
forhowpostcolonialism
implications
contemporary
envisages
as
as
Whereasformany
well
politicaldynamics,
trajectories.
possiblefuture
nationalists
is experienced
loss of traditional
as a regrettable
hybridity
cultureand identities,
to recover
ancientcultural
oftenleadingto attempts
and
is
for
writers
practices symbols, postcolonial
hybriditynotinherently
it
nor
does
of the colonized.Instead,
the
total
domination
bad,
signify
the
of
failure
colonial
signifies
hybridity
powerto fullydominateits
and
shows
their
WhereSaid's Orientalism
resilience.
and
subjects,
creativity
at timesseemsto exaggerate
theability
oftheWestto producetheOrient,
Homi Bhabha'streatment
of hybridity
thatthe colonized
demonstrates
werenotpassivevictims
whoseidentities
ina one-way
werenarrated
process
The ambivalence
cultures
and practices,
ofhybrid
bycolonialauthority."
thewayinwhichtheyare'almostthesame,butnotquite',is forBhabhaa
to resistdomination.
signof theagencyof thecolonizedand theirability
A clueto understanding
as a potenofhybridity
Bhabha'sinterpretation
tialsiteofresistance
and subversion
is to be foundin themannerinwhich
it breaksdownthe symmetry
of theself/other
distinction.
Accordingto
of difBhabha,theexerciseof colonialauthority
requirestheproduction
- betweenthewhitemanand theblack,forexample.Hybridferentiation
thisdifferentiation,
as whatis disavowed
ity,however,
bycolonial
disrupts
thusrulesout
different.
poweris repeatedback as something
Hybridity
thatis,thedifferences
colonial
thatwererelieduponto justify
recognition,
observable.Masteryis constantly
power are no longerimmediately
butalwaysincomplete,
Hereinliesthemenaceof
asserted,
alwaysslipping.
andmimicry;
itdisclosestheambivalence
attheheartof colonial
hybridity
discourseand has the potentialto disruptits authority.
From the 'incan engendernew formsof beingthatcan
between',hybrididentities
unsettle
andsubvert
colonialauthority.
Morerecently,
thenotionofhybridityhas beeninvokedas a measureof local agencyin thefaceof globalization.Hybridity
is seentosignify
and
thecreative
adaptation,
interpretation
54. E Fanon, Black Skin,WhiteMasks (Pluto Press,London, 1986), p. 231.
55. Bhabha, TheLocationofCulture,p. 116.
56. Bhabha, TheLocationofCulture.
57. See, in particular,the essay 'Difference,discriminationand the discourse of colonialism', in E Baker,P. Hulme, M. Iversenand D. Loxley (eds) ThePoliticsofTheory(University
of Essex Press,Colchester,1983), pp. 194-211, and LocationofCulture.

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206

AFFAIRS
AFRICAN

transformation
of Westernculturalsymbolsand practices,and showsthat
colonizedpeoples are not simplypassivevictimsin the face of an
formerly
Westernculture.58It has also cast lighton the importanceof
all-powerful
the postcolonialwithinindustrializedcountries,especiallyin termsof the
politicsof diasporas.In the case of black Britain,forexample,Paul Gilroy
has shownhow black cultureis being activelymade and remade,and how
the cultureand politicsof black Americaand the Caribbean have become
'raw materialsforcreativeprocesses,whichredefinedwhat it means to be
Britishexperiencesand meanings'.59
black,adaptingit to distinctively
In terms of political choices, the notion of hybridity
serves to refute
and
cultural
that
to
advocate
a
return
political
positions
'origin'or 'tradition'.
This view underpinsSaid's incisivecritiqueof negritude,
whichhe regards
as not onlyreinforcing
the imperialhierarchiesbetweenthe colonized and
the colonizer,but also as proposingan essentializedidentityor 'Africanness' thatis not onlyimpossible,but also, politically,
potentiallydangerous
and damaging. Said suggeststhat thereis much to be gained fromnot
remainingtrappedin such emotionalcelebrationsof one's own identity,
and in this way postcolonialism'sfocus on hybridityis a warningboth
and againstthedangersof essenagainstnativistpositionssuch as nigritude
tialism.It seeks to move beyond fixedidentities,by drawingattentionto
theirfluid and constructedcharacter,and offersthe 'possibilityof discoveringa worldnotconstructedout of warringessences'.60
Recognizingthe hybridcharacterof postcolonial societies does not,
however,mean thatnationalityor local identitiesare unimportant.
Hybridityis not, as Williamsargues,'the ultimatedenial of origin,subject,race,
class and indeed nation',61but recognizesthat local identitiesare not
exhaustiveand thatappeals to fixedidentities(even ifnationalor local) can
contain theirown dangers.'Doesn't the idea of pure cultures,in urgent
need of being keptfreefromalien contamination',Salman Rushdie asks,
'lead us inexorablytowardsapartheid,towardsethniccleansing,towards
the gas chamber?'62
The questionhas a chillingrelevanceforAfrica,where
it is preciselyin the name of such unifiedidentitiesthat the continent's
mostviolentpost-independencepoliticalprojectshave been conceivedand
58. See, forexample,B. Ashcroft,
Post-Colonial
(Routledge,London, 2001);
Transformations
in the latertwentieth
J. Clifford,Routes:Traveland translation
century(Harvard University
Press, Cambridge,MA, 1997); R. Robertson,'Globalization.Time-space and homogeneityin M. Featherstone,S. Lash and R. Robertson(eds), GlobalModernities
heterogeneity',
(Sage,
London, 1995).
59. P. Gilroy,ThereAin't No Black in theUnionJack:The culturalpoliticsof raceand nation
and doubleconsciousness
(Unwin,London, 1987); P. Gilroy,TheBlackAtlantic:
(Verso,
Modernity
London, 1995); E. Akyeampong,'Africansin the diaspora: the diaspora and Africa',African
Affairs99, 395 (2000), pp. 183-215. See also the essays collected in the ReviewofAfrican
PoliticalEconomy92 (2002).
60. Said, Cultureand Imperialism,
p. 277.
61. Williams,'The postcolonialflaneur',p. 827.
62. Quoted in Ashcroft,
Post-colonial
Transformation,
p. 25.

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

207

thegenocidesand conflicts
in Rwandaand Burundiproviding
legitimized,
themostbrutalreminder
oftheeasewithwhichidentity
appealscan degenerateintomurderous
the
hatred.63
postThrough emphasison hybridity
visionofthe
colonialism
seeksto advocatea moregenerousandpluralistic
wherethepossibilities
claimsareminimized.
foroppressive
world,
identity
in many
As such,it speaksdirectly
to thecontemporary
politicalsituation
African
countries.
Thepossibilities
inthepostcolony
ofresistance
In postcolonial
is intimately
connectedto resisthybridity
perspectives,
in
in
that
it
of thesubaltern
the
and
ance,
signifies creativity adaptability
thefaceofpower,and demonstrates
as wellas
thatthecolonialencounter
in termsof a
North-South
cannotbe understood
relations
contemporary
with
A
of
domination
and
one-way
relationship
power-over.preoccupation
resistance
is a defining
Its commitment
featureof postcolonial
literature.
to themarginalized,
orthesubaltern,
is frequently
invokedto differentiate
aimof manypostfrom
the
and
stated
postcolonialism postmodernism,64
colonialwriters
is togivevoiceandmakevisiblethosewhoarenotnormally
heardorseen.In thewordsofPrakash,
seeksto 'undothe
postcolonialism
its
Eurocentrism
of
the
West's
the
institution
trajectory,
producedby
of
the
subaltern
the
In
common
with
other
as
appropriation
History'.65
schoolof Indianhistoriography,
seek to recoverthe
theseperspectives
of
and retellhistoryfromcountersubjectpositions the marginalized
intheessay'Can thesubaltern
As Spivak'sanalysis
hegemonic
standpoints.
this
is not so mucha case of speakingon behalfof the
speak?'shows,
but ratheran attempt
to markthespace of thesilencedin
marginalized
66
conventional
back'totheEmpireis initself
imperial
history.This'writing
a formofresistance,
a wayofdestabilizing
narratives
thehegemonic
through
has
whichtheWesthasconstructed
theother.67
In thisway,postcolonialism
and act
to refigure
theconceptual
attempted
spaceinwhichwe understand
createthespaceforalternative
upontheworld,and thereby
waysofbeing
and acting.
Postcolonialism's
and ubiquitous
ofpoweras productive
understanding
has clearimplications
fortheinvestigation
of resistance.
We havealready
thus
seen how Bhabhalocatesambivalence
in hybridity,
and resistance
63. See, for example, R. Lemarchand, Burundi:Ethnicconflictand genocide(Cambridge
UniversityPress, Cambridge,1994); G. Prunier,The Rwanda Crisis1959-1994: Historyof a
genocide(Hurst,London, 1995).
64. Appiah,'Is the "post-" in postcolonialism';Paolini,NavigatingModernity.
65. G. Prakash,'Postcolonialcriticismand Indian historiography',
Social Text31/32(1992),
p. 8.
66. Spivak,'Can the subalternspeak?'
67. Said, Cultureand Imperialism.

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208

AFRICAN
AFFAIRS

showinghow resistanceoperateswithina structureof power and how it is


not alwaysor necessarilyin a directrelationshipof oppositionand polarity
(colonizer/colonized,
white/black).Instead, resistanceis frequentlymuch
moresubtle,and as partof therecoveryof subalternsubjectpositionspostcolonial investigations
have oftenfocused on 'historiesfrombelow' and
of
forms
resistance
ratherthan revolutions,armed strugglesor
everyday
large-scale political opposition. James Scott's explorationsof everyday
formsof resistance,forexample,demonstratesuperblyhow the subaltern,
despite oppression,frequentlyavoids and mocks power through'hidden
and veiledformsof practicalresistance.68
transcripts'
By drawingattention
to such resistance,Scott revealsthe agencyand subjectivity
of the subalterneven in conditionsof extremedomination.
Givenpostcolonialism'spervasivescepticismof meta-narratives
and universaltruths,such local-levelmicro-struggles
take on a particularimportance as theymay give rise to alternative
ways of organizinglife.A crucial
becomes
to
local-levelstrugglescan bring
what
extent
questionaccordingly
about social and politicalchange.For Scott,the 'weapons of theweak' are
not onlymeaningfulin the sense thattheyeffectchange in people's daily
lives.These 'weapons' are also crucial to the constructionof a resistance
culturethatmayeventuallybecome capable, at certainhistoricalmoments,
of acting as a catalystof broader, more openly oppositional liberation
movements.'When thefirstdeclarationof thehiddentranscripts
succeeds',
he writes,'its mobilizingcapacityas a symbolicact is potentiallyawesome.
At the level of tacticsand strategy,
it is a powerfulstrawin thewind.'69
The picture that emerges fromAchille Mbembe's interpretationof
power and resistancein postcolonial Africa is much more pessimistic
regardingthe capacityof such struggles.70
Accordingto Mbembe, power
in the postcolonyoftenhas a strikingly
grotesqueand obscene character,
as witnessed,forexample,in the excesses of state ceremoniesand official
of itsleaders,theirostentatiousdisplayofwealth,
parades,the glorification
and so on. Ordinarypeople are not fooled by or passive objects of this
obscene displayof power and wealth,but regularlymock and ridiculeit
through,for instance, vernacular rewritingsof party slogans, through
gossip, and throughpopular cartoons. Mockery and ridicule,Mbembe
argues, enable ordinarypeople to avoid the repressivereactions that
68. J. Scott, Weaponsof theWeak:Everydayformsof resistance
(Yale UniversityPress, New
Haven, CT, 1985); J. Scott, Dominationand theArt of Resistance:Hidden transcripts
(Yale
UniversityPress,New Haven, CT, 1990).
69. Scott,Dominationand theArtofResistance,
p. 227.
70. Mbembe, On thePostcolony.
It is perhapsworthquotingMbembe's harshindictmentof
conventionalpoliticalscience and developmenteconomics forhaving'underminedthe very
Africaneconomic and politicalfacts'.'Mired in the demands of
possibilityof understanding
whatis immediately
useful',thesedisciplinesare concernednotwith'producingknowledgein
general,butwithsocial engineering',Mbembe argues(p. 7).

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AFRICAN STUDIES AND THE POSTCOLONIAL CHALLENGE

209

outrightrebellionand politicaloppositionwould invite,while at the same


timemakingthe state'lose its might'and '[rendering]it powerless'.71But
unlikeScott,Mbembe appears to leave littleroom foreffective
agencyon
behalf of the subaltern.Althoughmockeryand derision may demystify
of the
power,'it does not do violenceto the commandement's
[theauthority
which
the
material
base.
At
on
best
it
creates
of
state]
potholes indiscipline
commandement
stub
its
toe.'72
may
Mbembe's conclusionsregardingthe possibilitiesforchange are much
more pessimisticthan both Scott's and Bhabha's, and as such show that
thereis no common 'postcolonial'positionon resistance.Two keygeneral
insights neverthelessemerge from these analyses. First, postcolonial
approachesillustratethe inadequacyof the conventionalbinaryopposition
between dominationand resistance,and show how resistancecannot be
idealized as pure oppositionto the orderit opposes, but operatesinstead
inside a structureof power that it both challengesand helps to sustain.
Secondly,postcolonialperspectiveshave drawnattentionto the epistemic
aspectsof colonialand postcolonialpowerand violence,and in thiswaythe
targetof resistancehas been problematized.The solutionis no longerto be
foundsimplyin 'seizing'statepoweror the means of production.Instead,
postcolonialism'sprojectcan be describedas both materialand epistemological,in thatit entailsa recognitionthatchangeof economicand political
structuresof dominationand inequalityrequiresa parallel and profound
and effects.
and psychologicalunderpinnings
changeof theirepistemological
- orBhabha at theForeignOffice?
Conclusions
The harsh,everydayrealitiesof lifeforthe majorityof people on the
Africancontinentlend an urgencyto Africanstudies, a deep-feltand
sincereaspirationto make scholarshiprelevantand not simplyan activity
of the ivorytowers.This sense of urgencyand the desire to contribute
solutionsto the'Africancrisis'in turnexplainto a largeextentthemarginal
positionof postcolonialperspectiveswithinAfricanstudies,whichare frequentlyunderstoodas too theoreticaland as pertainingprimarilyto postmodernWesternsocieties,ratherthanpoor Africancountries.This article,
however,has arguedfora moreactiveengagementwithpostcolonialtheory
and I have tried to demonstratethat,althoughthere is no single postcolonial methodologyand political stance, this does not mean that the
critics'charges of political quietude or irrelevanceare justified.On the
contrary,I have argued thatpostcolonialism'sconcernswiththe relationship betweenpower and knowledge- and practicesand institutionsprovide theoreticaland conceptual resourcesof particularpertinenceto
71.
72.

Mbembe, On thePostcolony,
pp. 108, 109.
Ibid.,p. 111.

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210

AFRICAN
AFFAIRS

Africanpolitics.By makingexplicit,forexample,the forms


contemporary
of rationality
and the assumptionsthatunderpin'common sense' and that
permeatelanguagesand practices,postcolonialismnot onlyhelpsto expose
the contingencyof the currentsocial and politicalorder.It also provides
crucial insightsconcerningthe maintenanceand reproductionof current
relationsand structures,
and throughthiscritiquepostcolonialperspectives
can help generatepossibilitiesfor transforming
social and political conditions.
This argumentchallengesthosewho regardpostcolonialism'sreluctance
to providea politicalmanifestoor a programmeof action as an indication
of itspoliticalirrelevance.It is certainlytruethatpostcolonialism,likemost
and postmodernsentiments,is
perspectivesinformedby poststructuralist
of
deeply suspicious programmaticpoliticalagendas and manifestos.But
thisdoes not necessarilyrepresenta wholesaleretreatfrompolitics,nor is
it automaticallyvulnerableto what are by now somewhathackneyedaccusationsof nihilismor irresponsibility.
Rather,it can representan attempt
to understandformsof struggleand practicesof contestationthatcannot
be fullycaptured frommore conventionalperspectives.Foucault commentedin relationto his ownworkthat'My pointis not thateverything
is
but
that
as
bad.
is
the
same
which
is
not
bad,
everything dangerous,
exactly
If everything
is dangerous,thenwe alwayshave somethingto do. So my
position leads not to apathybut to hyper-and pessimisticactivism.'73A
postcolonialapproachto Africanpoliticsmightwell take thisas its credo.
This criticalprojecthas much to offerAfricanstudies,and if the fieldis
genuinelyto addressthe'Africancrisis'it needs to embraceand includethe
postcolonialproject.While it is true thatto date postcolonialismhas not
been particularlyconcerned to generatepolicy-relevantconclusions for
foreignministriesand departmentsof development,this does not mean
that its theoreticalinsightsare devoid of political relevance,or that its
methodologicaland conceptualresourcescannot be put to workin more
It is at thispointthatthe postcolonialperspective
empiricalinvestigations.
can also benefitfromthe encounterwithAfricanstudies,as a moreempirical focus can help give postcolonialismmore contemporaryrelevance
of currentrelationshipsbetweenpower,discourse
throughinvestigations
and politicalinstitutions
and practices.Throughsuch an engagement,both
postcolonialperspectivesand theircriticsmay have much to learn from
each other.

73. M. Foucault, TheEssentialWorks1954-1984,Vol. 1. Ethics,Subjectivity


and Truth(ed. P.
Rabinow) (The New Press,New York,1997), p. 256.

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