Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Postcolonial Theory

from Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, ed. Margaret Schaus (Routledge, forthcoming 2006).

Postcolonial Theory

Jeffrey J. Cohen

Postcolonial theory typically analyzes the conflict and accommodation that unfold in the wake of conquest and other kinds of cultural admixture. It stresses the enduring economic and social disparity that is likely to result when a powerful nation annexes land belonging to others, transforming that territory into a colony or frontier and rendering its inhabitants a subaltern people. Often inspired by a strong sense of social justice, postcolonial critics explore the violence inherent in the colonial encounter, but do not argue that some "pure" state of aboriginality might be recovered in the wake of profound cultural clash. Postcolonial criticism has therefore developed a sophisticated vocabulary for describing hybridity, the conflictual interpenetration of cultures that results from colonial contact and that transforms both colonizer and indigene. Though it never uncritically celebrates this turbulent fusion of differences, it does find in hybridity the potential for subversion of the unjust systems that are likely to be imposed in the wake of conquest. Postcolonial criticism stresses the impurity of both present and past. It critiques the mechanisms (social, legal, literary) through which dominated groups are unequal or disparaged and dispossessed. Postcolonial theory has always been sensitive to the ways in which power is distributed unevenly across gender lines. Some of the most important work undertaken within the field studies the effects of the postcolonial upon subaltern women.

Postcolonial cultural studies is useful to the study of the western Middle Ages. As the historian Robert Bartlett has argued, Europe did not appear from some void but emerged slowly, via conquest that extended borders and assimilations that attempted to render emergent nations internally homogeneous. Europe, in a word, had to Europeanize itself in custom, language, law, religion -- an inherently colonial project with profound repercussions on gender. In the course of the Middle Ages some peoples were absorbed and vanished as part of this process, while others were dehumanized and abjected. Thus the English could assume their natural superiority over the "bestial" Welsh, allowing them (to their minds) an evident right to the dominion of the whole of Britain. Medievalists working in a postcolonial vein have dedicated themselves to studying how such enduringly uneven access to power and privilege came about; how myths of origin and manifest destiny buttressed emergent communities; and what price was paid by people who (like the Irish, Welsh, and Jews in Britain) found themselves resident in some denigrated category or who were, because of their mixed descent, suspended between mutually exclusive communities.

Medievalists have made extensive use of the work of Edward Said, whose Orientalism developed a sophisticated model for exploring how the west fantasizes its own version of the East (an exotic geography that is typically gendered feminine); Homi Bhabha, who offers a postmodern approach to hybridity; Gayatri Spivak and Dipesh Chakrabarty, who have persuasively argued against assuming eurocentric models of history. More recently, postcolonial theories derived from the analysis of the Caribbean and U.S.-Mexico border have also appeared. Some medievalists like Geraldine Heng are also well-known postcolonial critics.


Biddick, Kathleen. The Shock of Medievalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. The Postcolonial Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

Ganim, John M. Medievalism and Orientalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Holsinger, Bruce W. "Medieval Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and the Genealogies of Critique," Speculum 77 (2002):1195-1227.

Ingham, Patricia Clare and Michelle R. Warren, eds. Postcolonial Moves: Medieval Through Modern. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Kabir, Ananya and Deanne Williams, ed. Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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