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. 


Patrick Murtha said...

A thoughtful take, with which I am in substantial agreement. My own position is somewhere between the liberal and conservative, probably leaning towards the latter (although in contemporary politics, I would consider myself left-center). I also lean towards the deterministic position that THE PAST COULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED DIFFERENTLY.

Additionally, I believe that not all cultures are “created equal” - that certain cultures, for all their flaws, have more substantial contributions and achievements in the overall ledger, and are in that sense more “advanced”; and that some are indeed more “primitive”. For example, aboriginal Australian cultures were never going to succeed in competition with technologically advanced European cultures. What happened in Australia was certainly tragic, but was very predictable.

Post-colonialism can be very simplistic. Racism, slavery, and misogyny, for example, were characteristic of some colonized cultures as well as of colonizing cultures.

Brian Joseph said...

thanks for the good word Patrick and thanks for stopping by. The question of whether the past could have been different or not is such an interesting philosophical question. I must think about it. Perhaps it is a good topic for another post.

Without doubt some cultures seemed to be more on track to develop technology. I agree, many of the cultures that were colonized were just as repressive, some mores then the Europeans. Loomba actually acknowledges that in this book and talks about debates among Postcolonial theorists that this train of thought has sparked.

Patrick Murtha said...

Yes, that is a really good topic, amd I am glad that she acknowledges it. My own position is that no one’s hands are clean. I’ll tell you what had a major impact on my thinking - teaching for a year in South Korea. I thought that I understood a little about racism, being an American. But the racism of East Asian cultures towards each other blew my mind. It is not based on skin color. It is based on the simple fact of belonging to another culture. And it is INTENSE. The European Union may face some issues, but it EXISTS; I can assure you, there will never be an Asian Union, because they all HATE one another. (They are not keen on black people either, but that's another story.) Living in Korea changed my perspective on these issues.

mudpuddle said...

fine analysis, Brian... a complicated subject whose tenets are indeed predisposed to an "echo chamber" effect... it's always important to obtain or discover another pov, but initially there inevitably are bloopers and illogical assertions... hence the inclusion of science as a major contributor/enhancer of colonialism. as you indicate, the discipline, if such it is, will surely benefit from a more rigorous approach that will accrete over time...

Sue Bursztynski said...

I suspect I might find this book not really to my taste, but you certainly seem to have got plenty out of it. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Whispering Gums said...

Thanks for this post Brian. There's way too much here for me to take in and comment on in one reading, but I describe myself, like your first commenter as left-centre.

Just a couple of observations. I call myself wishy-washy, which means I tend not to adhere to any single idea and feel suspicious of those who view the world through a single ideology. I see the world very much in terms of greys, rather than black and white. Until proven otherwise, I like the idea of capitalism moderated by a just dose of socialism.

As for post colonialism, of course I agree with some of its tenets. Colonialism has done some terrible things - and is probably still doing it in some parts of the works - but to accord it sole responsibility for beliefs/doctrines/practices like racism and capitalism seems rather bizarre to me. I don't think I'll read the book, so I greatly appreciate that you did for us!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Patrick. The world is indeed full of bad things. These things have been universal between cultures and throughout history.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle. I hope that The Postcolonial evolve to a point where it is more diverse. Right now, the rift thaf I mentioned within the left is leading a lot of traditional liberals to push for it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - The book is indeed full of theory and philosophy. I suspect that for a majority of readers, it would not hold interest.,

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - The world is indeed full of greys. It makes sense to be wishy warshy in a lot of ways. It is very true for capitalism, it works best with a strong does of government intervention.

The university of postcolnial thought does seem hard to defend..

CyberKitten said...

Brian, Kudos for reading and indeed finishing this book. From your review I doubt very much if I would've made it all the way through!

There are SO many problems with the arguments the book puts forward its hard to know where to start. For example (as you pointed out) its crazy to think that Science can be 'decolonised' or even 'de-capitalised' and that somehow it's essentially biased to produce the results it does.....

Arguing that Colonisation is inherently bad and always leads to damaged societies (paraphrasing somewhat) is clearly nonsense too. After all the USA is was founded by Colonialists and did quite well for itself?

As a Socialist I certainly don't give Capitalism a free ride and hold the ideology to be responsible for many of the ills in the world but colonialisation isn't either the basis for or the result of Capitalism. The idea of Empire, which is really what we're talking about here, is based on power. In the Age of Empires Europe, for a whole host of reasons, had power and much of the rest of the world didn't. That meant when explorers 'discovered' other lands they could force unequal trade deals or topple governments to get there way. Yes, this eventually enable Western Powers to have cheap imports at others expense but European Capitalism would have begun and flourished without them.

Your final comments are both illuminating and not a little chilling. You find the truth of things by listening and debating many viewpoints - they're not called perspectives for nothing! Without at least entertaining other points of view you can hardly get a rounded view of things.

Thanks for giving me a book to avoid. I need more of those!!

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, this is a subject colonialism/postcolonialism that I don't know enough about and thank you for explaining it so well. I sense from your review that though I would disagree with this author on alot, her book does a good job in laying out her position. I know so little regarding how the British, the French, the Dutch etc ruled during the centuries that they colonized Asia and Africa, although colonization itself is always wrong. I tend to be a bit of an anglophile but I think that in Britain's rule of India for example there was an interaction and exchange of cultures between the two countries at least during the later parts of the 19th and early twentieth century. No justification for Britain colonizing India but its always seemed to me that Britain wanted to learn about and be open to being influenced by the countries they ruled as opposed to other colonial powers who simply took over. We see that in books such as A Passage to India, Jewel in the Crown etc.

JacquiWine said...

A very thoughtful post on a complex subject, not one I know very much about I'm afraid. That said, I do admire the fact that you've taken the time to analyse the positions presented by the author, and to outline your own views on these points. As Sue observed above, it seems as if you got a lot out of the experience of reading this book, just by thinking through the issues it raised.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Cyberkitten – I really particularly disagree with the postmodern take on science.

I get the critique on colonialism. I think that one could find benefits to most large historical trends, , but nevertheless, it was unjust and I think that it led to a lot of suffering.

Your comments about the European colonists having more power then the indigenous peoples reminded me of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. He tries to get to the root as to why Europe was more technically advanced. He ultimately attributes it to the climate, botany, and zoology of the various continents.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I agree, despite the fact that I believe that colonialism was wrong, there were complex interactions that were not all negative. To Loompa's credit, she gets into this.

Indeed, despite my disagreement with some ideas, Loompa really does a good job explaining a complex subject.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui - I did get a lot out of this book. I think that one can get a lot out of reading things one disagrees with.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Really impressive review in its thoroughness and objectivity. I would not have gotten through the book because of it's obvious slant.

Your points comparing colonialism to Marxist regimes is right on and I also deplore the very one sided bias that is going on in places that are supposed to be havens of critical thinking.

I think the certain ideologies become a religion for some people and they are blindly fundamentalist in their adherence to it.

Have a wonderful week.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I do disagree with much of the thinking behind Postcolonialism but this was a good description of the thought system. Some diversity of opinion would do the belief system some good.

Have great week!

Violet said...

OUCH! As you know, I studied PoCo at uni, so to read that you don't think it's a legitimate field of study? Arrow to my heart! Hahaha.

Fair enough that you don't agree with the tenets of PoCo. I'm not big fan of the Enlightenment and capitalism. Holding different ideologies makes for interesting discussions. :)

The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft (ed.) is a good collection of excerpts of important PoCo texts, if you ever come across it.

I wonder if you'll be reading up on postmodernism next? *heh*

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Violet- Not wanting to shoot an arrow at you, more like a frisbee launchesd in your direction :) Seriously, a little disagreement is good. Thanks for The recommendation. I am thinking that I will approach postmodernism soon by starting with Foulcart and Derrida. As for Postcolonialism not being a field of study, I just want to see more diversity of opinion.

James said...

I am impressed with your thorough review and admire your willingness to explore views with which you primarily disagree. I consider myself a classical liberal with views similar to those of Hayek and would find it difficult to wade through a book like this one. Another thoughtful analysis of Imperialism (colonialism) can be found in Hannah Arendt's magisterial tome, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I am trying to read more things that I disagree with this year. I am familiar with the Classical Liberal worldview. I fit more closely into what in America is labeled as liberal. I find that these liberal views to mw more and more in conflict with postmodernist thinking.

I must read Hannah Arendt soon.

Judy Krueger said...

I learned much from your review. I have thought long and hard about colonialism because of My Big Fat Reading Project, reading books (mostly novels) set in my lifetime. Also now that the formerly colonized countries are producing literature that finally get translated into English, I have heard the voices of the colonized. It is this big tangled mess of conquest and economically driven views of the world that play a big part in climate change as we experience it now. An endlessly complicated history of events which did not just begin in Europe. Think of Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Japanese, the Chinese. It is curious to think about how government and business, which after all are made up of people, adopt the prevailing views but I think mostly those views are self-serving and based on excesses of power and greed. So you set my thoughts on a ramble and that is good!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - I think that it is a great thing that folks from all over the world are now producing books that are readily available to all. You raise good point, the repression and injustice that went along with colonization were not invented by Europeans, they are ingrained in human history. What I think id significant is that the Europeans had enough power to colonize much of the world for a period of time and thus have a profound effect on so much. Without a doubt folks will adapt what is popular in order to benefit thems

Tracy Terry said...

My goodness! You do review some deep books.

Once again thank you for such a thoughtful and considered post. Possibly not a book I'd read but I love that I always come away from Babbling Books with something to think about.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy - I do delve Rgsbks into some crazy stuff! I love exploring ideas. Glad to hear that my posts get the mental juices flowing.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,

There is a lot to contemplate in this post re colonialism and postcolonialism. It's interesting that this book is used as a textbook, although you call it "a work of social and political philosophy", and say that it's "an excellent introduction" to postcolonialism. Now I'm eager to learn more. Thanks for your honest and thoughtful commentary about this book!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - This being used as a textbook is interesting. It seems a good introduction to the subject but it also continues a lot of opinions.