Friday, January 11, 2019

Colonialism/Postcolonialism by Ania Loomba

Colonialism/Postcolonialism is a comprehensive survey of postcolonial theory and thinking The author, , is a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written several books on colonialism, India and Shakespeare. The edition of the book that I read was updated in 2015. This book is used as a kind of a textbook in a lot of postcolonial classes. However, the book is very readable, contains the author’s opinions, and it is essentially a work of social and political philosophy. Thus, I would not call it a textbook. The issue of colonialism and postcolonial theory has come up on this blog as well as with other people that I know both in real life and on social media. In addition, people who I know both in real life and on social media profess to believe in at least some of the tenants of postcolonial theory. Thus, I wanted to read a basic introduction to the subject. 

Loomba does a good job of outlining the fundamentals of the postcolonial position. She explains what the various thinkers in the field have postulated. She also talks about the important books and other writings that have influenced the ideology. She covers the main points as well as the various controversies within the belief system. She also usually makes clear what her own positions on these issues are. While this is my first book whose subject is postcolonialism, based upon opinion pieces that I have read and based upon conversations both in real life as well as online, it seems that this book is a fairly accurate representation of the ideology.

As per Loomba, the philosophy starts with the idea that European colonialism had a profound effect on this world. Both colonized and colonizing nations were and still are affected. The effect is still profound. The effects of colonialism reach into the major building blocks of civilization. In fact, things like capitalism, science, certain value systems, the literary cannon, etc. are the products of colonialism.

Something that runs throughout this book is the point that capitalism is harmful to all humanity and it is based upon racism. While explaining the views of some theorists of postcolonialism, Loomba writes, 

“racism not just as an effect of capitalism but as complexly intertwined with it.”

As is true for many aspects of the modern world, capitalism in its current form is seen as being the result of the colonial system.

“we could say that colonialism was the midwife that assisted at the birth of European capitalism, or that without colonial expansion the transition to capitalism could not have taken place
Globalism is similarly criticized and its origins attributed to the colonial system.  

Marxism is portrayed as a superior and beneficial system. In addition to Marxism, postmodernist philosophy is also extolled. Political and social postmodernism, at least here, is the questioning of basic social systems, basic value systems and the origin of what people consider truth.  Since science, art, modern value systems, etc. is seen as all subjective and to a great degree the products of colonialism and the West, the basic tenants of these systems are questioned and ultimately rejected as being the results of colonialism.  I want to emphasize that it is clear that all of this goes beyond just rooting out possible bias and flaws in these systems. Instead, the entire systems are put into question and “decolonization” is advocated (Loomba herself seems to go easy on literature and just advocates that people add more diverse authors to their book selections).   

A good example of this critique is the postcolonial approach to science. Loomba explains how postcolonial thinkers point to the fact that in the past, supposed scientific thinking was used to justify racist and imperialist beliefs. Therefore, science is believed to be changeable and based on ideology. The scientific method is viewed as malleable and is not really the path to solid truths. I am somewhat oversimplifying here, there are pages and pages within this book that delve into this and go into a lot more detail and nuance than I am going into. 

The ultimate postmodernist argument manifests itself when the entire concept of anti – colonial struggle and nationalism is seen as a creature of western colonial thinking by some theorists!  The author writes, 

“Nationalism also engages in a complex process of contesting as well as appropriating colonialist versions of the past. Anthony Appiah has accused nationalists in Africa of making ‘real the imaginary identities to which Europe has subjected us.  Nativists, he says, are of the West’s party without knowing it, and in fact ‘few things … are less native than nativism in its current forms’

For some of its theorists, postcolonialism is used to examine all belief systems, cultural trends, etc.  If the belief system is deemed as colonial in origin, it is rejected as being harmful to humanity. I like to call theories and belief systems that try to tie everything together as universal. 

There is a lot more to postcolonial theory presented here. There is important concept known as “hybridity,” which exams the mixing of native culture and ideas with colonist concepts. Also, the role of women and feminism is examined. Non - Marxist and non - postmodernist forms of feminism are criticized and Marxist and postmodernist forms are championed by the advocates of this philosophy. 
I would like to step back for a moment and share a few observations on the current state of discussion and ideology that is out there. Having read some opinion pieces on this issue as well as observing and participating in a few discussions on this set of issues on social media, I think that it is fair to say that there are roughly three major positions relating to colonialism out there. First, there is the postcolonial position as outlined above. Then there is what I will call the conservative position, which is that at least some aspects of colonialism were beneficial to the colonizers and the colonized.  Then, there is what I will call the traditional liberal position, which is that colonialism was wrong for all sorts of reasons. However, the fact that it was wrong is no reason to throw out such positive things about civilization as science, regulated capitalism, our worldwide consensus on values, etc. I take this position. This is all part of a larger rift that has developed in the left between postmodernists and traditional liberals (my terminology is imperfect here. Some of the  terms that I have used do not have generally accepted meanings. Liberalism, conservatism, postmodernism and “the left” all have different meanings in different parts of the world and in different contexts. I am trying to describe certain beliefs and trends that do not yet have agreed upon names). In this the book Loomba expresses her personal criticism of both the traditional left and the conservative views. 

I disagree with a lot of postcolonial theory as outlined in this book. However, Loomba has convinced me that because of its scope, colonialism did have a bigger effect on history and the world than it is usually ascribed to. Furthermore, Loomba makes a strong case that colonialism is still influencing the modern world. There is also a lot here about colonialism and imperialism as these things relate to racism that also ring true.

I strongly disagree with Marxist thought and economics. Though this one post is insufficient to delve completely into the issues of capitalism, free markets. Marxism, etc., it seems clear, based on history, that Marxist systems have led to human misery in all sorts of ways. It also seems clear that capitalist systems, when properly regulated and supplemented with government programs, have improved the human condition immeasurably. Furthermore, regulated capitalist systems have led to free societies that are far from perfect, but they help nations move towards societies that  protect the rights and help empower minorities, women and non – conformists of all sorts.  I am very aware that all capitalistic modern societies have a long way to go. I also believe that when capitalism is unregulated as well when it is abused in certain ways, it can lead to terrible exploitation and suffering. On the other hand, Marxism inevitably leads to such suffering. 

I also believe that the postcolonial and postmodernist reasoning in regards to truth, science, value systems, etc. is flawed. The postmodernist take on science is a good example. If the goal of postmodernism was to eliminate bias in the way that the scientific method is employed, or to decrease discrimination aimed at women and minorities in the field of science, then I would be more receptive. However, these belief systems challenge the basic tenets of science. The scientific method, when employed correctly, is the only road to the truth about how the universe works.  The fact that biased people have misused science is no reason to reject the scientific method. Instead, it is reason to identify and root out bias. 

I also do not agree that science and other institutions scrutinized by these theories are the products of colonialism. Such reasoning seems very simplistic. In addition, a lot of what the postcolonialists attribute to the West, such as science, modern ethics, etc. have roots in cultures from every corner of the earth.  

If a nation, be it American, European, African, Asian, etc., “decolonized” like some theorists espoused, it would rip apart civilization. It would result in death and suffering. Science and certain institutions are key drivers of freedom, equality and eliminating oppression. The postcolonial theorists would have us dismantle these systems. Radical social engendering experiments have a long history of leading to calamity. One needs to look no further than the disastrous revolutions that have occurred in Russia, China and Cambodia, to name a few. 

Loomba mentions climate change and its relationship to capitalism. Once again, I think that a society that rejects scientific thinking and acts as inefficiently and wasteful as previous Marxist societies have done would be in no position to combat climate change. I believe that a reevaluation of certain aspects of how we do capitalism may be necessary to counter climate change. However, eliminating it is not the answer. 

I have to note the fact that postcolonial studies is considered an accepted academic pursuit. Many universities offer degrees in the subject.  I have perused multiple reading lists for graduate students and I have chatted with several students on social media. Unfortunately, the field seems to be an echo chamber. There are few mainstream liberal views, and much fewer conservative views, entertained. There are books that approach colonialism from such viewpoints, yet I could find none on any of the academic reading lists. In this book, Loompa portrays such views as adversarial to postcolonial studies. Even more concerning; In 2017 a conservative article on colonialism was withdrawn after the author faced death threats and harassment. Details of that incident can be found here.

My position here has little to do with agreement or disagreement with this set of ideas. If postcolonialism is to be considered a field of study, it should at least include exposure to different viewpoints. I would like to think that I would feel the same way had I agreed with most of the tenants of this ideology. Because of the one-sidedness of this, I would not call postcolonialism, as presented in this book, as a field of study, instead it is a set of beliefs or ideology. There is nothing wrong with being an ideology. There are sets of ideas that I mostly agree with. However, I think that it is disingenuous to call this a field of study and it should not be taught as such. For postcolonial studies to be considered its own field, it needs to entertain more diverse viewpoints. 

Ultimately, based on the views outlined in this book, I disagree with the basics of this thought system. However, Loomba cannot be faulted for outlining the basics of these beliefs. In fact, she does an excellent job of explaining the complexities of all this. With that, I disagree with many, but not all, of her own opinions. They say in for a penny, in for a pound. I think that I may read one or two of the “classic” postcolonial texts out there. Some of these books appear to be more personal than this book and I may find more common ground in them. I also plan to read at least one or more conservative takes on colonialism. I actually recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the basics of postcolonialism. It is an excellent introduction. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

7 Years Old

Babbling Books is seven years old today!  As always, I want to thank the Blogging Community and all the folks who read and comment on my blog. You all are the reason that posting about books is worth it. 

Seven years has gone fast. What I originally envisioned for my blog I have realized. I wanted to talk about books. Books are about ideas and are sometimes about opinions and controversial issues. Thus, I wanted to express opinions. I did not want to shy around controversial issues. I had hoped that people would come to my comments section and not be afraid to express their opinions, even if they disagreed with me.  All these things have come to pass. 

Of course, not everything is perfect. I do not post as often as I would like to. Early on, I participated in a lot more group reads and events. As of late I have refrained from posting as often as I would like and from participating in group events. This is because my life outside of the blogging world has been very busy. Nevertheless, my blogging continues and I hope for less hectic future days when I can blog more and participate in the blogging community more. Some bloggers have expressed the feeling that they have gotten burned out or tired of blogging. I feel no such thing thus far. Perhaps the fact that I do not post nearly as much as I would like to has helped me to avoid burnout. Either way, I hope to be around for a while longer.

I hope that 2019 is a great year for everyone’s reading and blogging life. So once again, happy reading everyone!