A Short Review of Loomba’s Colonialism/Postcolonialism

ColonialismPostcolonialism is a critical social theory which explores European imperialism and its aftermath. Ania Loomba’s Colonialism/Postcolonialism is a somewhat dense and convoluted introduction to the field. Readers familiar with contemporary critical theory will recognize its core concerns reflected in postcolonialism’s discussion of hegemonic power, oppression, and liberation.

Historic origins

By far, the most interesting part of the book is Loombia’s discussion of the historical origins of postcolonialism. According to Loombia, the discipline must be situated first within the context of “intellectuals and activists who fought against colonial rule and their successors [who] challenged and revised dominant definitions of race, culture, language and class” (p. 39). The second context is the “‘revolution’, within ‘Western’ intellectual traditions, in thinking about… language and how it articulates experience, how ideologies work, how human subjectivities are formed and what we might mean by culture” (p. 39).

Her elaboration of this second component will sound very familiar to anyone who has studied Marxism or critical theory. She writes:

“Ideology does not, as is often assumed, refer to political ideas alone. It refers to all our ‘mental frameworks’, our beliefs, concepts, and ways of expressing our relationship to the world… In The German Ideology… Marx and Engels had suggested that ideology is basically a distorted or a false consciousness of the world which disguises people’s real relationship to their world… [because these ideologies] reproduce the interests of the dominant social classes” (p. 44). Of course, some groups are socially situated so that they have a more accurate view of social reality: “Georg Lukacs [argues that] ideology is not always false consciousness; its validity or falsity depends upon the ‘class situation’ of the collective subject whose view it represents. Thus, bourgeois ideology expresses the distorted nature of capitalism, whereas the proletariat is capable of a more scientific view which grasps its real nature” (p. 46).

Continuing this trajectory, “Gramsci [suggested] that while ideology in general works to maintain social cohesion and expresses dominant interests, there are also particular ideologies that express the protest of those who are exploited. The proletariat or oppressed subject possesses a dual consciousness — that which is beholden to the rulers … and that which is capable of developing into resistance” (p. 47) “It was in trying to understand these questions that Gramsci formulated his concept of ‘hegemony’… the ruling classes achieve domination not by force or coercion alone, but also by creating subjects who ‘willingly’ submit to being ruled. Ideology is crucial in creating consent, it is the medium through which certain ideas are transmitted and more important, held to be true” (p. 48).

Skipping past the work of Althusser, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Derrida, brings us to the French postmodernism Michel Foucault and his conception of “discourse” which is “central to critical theory and postcolonial criticism” (p. 55). “‘Discourse’… is a whole field or domain within which language is used in particular ways [and] is rooted (as is Gramsci’s or Althusser’s notion of ideology) in human practices, institutions and actions…Discursive practices make it difficult for individuals to think outside them–hence they are also exercises in power and control” (p. 56). “Thus the concept of discourse extends the notion of a historically and ideologically inflected linguistic field–no utterance is innocent and every utterance tells us something about the world we live in… For historical study [this view] meant that claims to objectivity and truth would have to be tempered…both feminist and anti-colonial movements needed to challenge dominant ideas of history, culture and representation. They too questioned objectivity in dominant historiography… they too broke with dominant Western, patriarchal, philosophies… Anti-colonial or feminist struggles emphasised culture as a site of conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. The decentring of the human subject was important to them because such a subject had been dominantly theorised by European imperialist discourses as male and white. They also paid attention to language as a tool of domination and as a means of constructing identity” (p. 57-58).

Loomba shows how ideas about “colonial discourse” informed Edward Said’s Orientalism which, along with Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Wretched of the Earth, is one of the seminal works of postcolonialism. Said’s book is informed by the “Foucaultian insight” that “Knowledge is not innocent but profoundly connected with the operations of power” (p. 60). “Said’s project is to show how ‘knowledge’ about non-Europeans was part of the process of maintaining power over them; thus the status of ‘knowledge’ is demystified, and the lines between the ideological and objective blurred” (p. 61). “Said argued that knowledge of the East could never be innocent or ‘objective’ because it was produced by human beings who were necessarily embedded in colonial history and relationships” (p. 62). While Said seems to limit this skepticism to the “human and social sciences” (p. 64), others take it much farther. Martin Bernal, for instance, “questions the objectivity of not just the writing of history but of all knowledge produced in Europe during the colonial era” (p. 78).

Rejection of relativism

As seen in the last section, postcolonialism, and the broader critical tradition of which it is a part, rely heavily on postmodern critiques of “objectivity” to the extent that many Christians assume that critical theory must be a form of relativism. However, that’s incorrect. While critical theorists aim to destabilize and deconstruct oppressive narratives, they simultaneously maintain that critique must be oriented towards the production of a good and just society. In this way, contemporary critical theory is based on an underlying moral realism: “social justice” is an objective good.

This commitment to social justice explains how postcolonialists can navigate seemingly deep conflicts within their project of decolonization. Perhaps the clearest examples in this book are found in tension between feminist and postcolonial ambitions. On the one hand, postcolonialists affirm that Western nations attempted to impose Western norms on indigenous cultures. (That’s bad.) Thus, the postcolonial scholar’s goal is to undermine this hegemony. (That’s good.) However, many of these indigenous cultures were highly patriarchal to begin with. (That’s bad). Feminists scholars work to undermine these indigenous patriarchal systems. (That’s good). Yet feminism itself is a highly Eurocentric movement. (That’s bad). So reform should come from within indigenous cultures themselves. (That’s good). Yet many indigenous women actually support patriarchal practices. (That’s bad).

Clearly, the postcolonial feminist is in a bit of a bind: feminists want to dismantle partriarchal (but indigenous) norms, while postcolonialists want to dismantle egalitarian (but imperialist) norms. Yet this bind itself shows that critical theory is not relativistic. Listen to Loomba’s comment:

“Urvashi Butalia shows that often women themselves were key in circulating the very ideas (of female chastity, honour and the necessary of securing these even through violence) that ensured their victimization (Butalia 2000). Such work is important in questioning the assumption that women are necessarily more peace-loving or more alienated from the dominant discourses of sexual honour or communal identity, even as it highlights how they are the ones whose bodies and identities are most manipulated in the service of such discourses…The crucial point here is that often women themselves are key players in the fundamentalist game… women are objects as well as subjects of fundamentalist discourses, targets as well as speakers of its most virulent rhetoric. For postcolonial, third world and anti-racist feminists, the task is to walk the tight-rope between the sectarian demands of religious, national or race-identity, and majoritarian discourses of female emancipation or liberation” (p. 219-220)

The last sentence is crucial. Postcolonial feminists walk a tight-rope precisely because they can capitulate neither to the demands of European feminism nor to the demands of indigenous anti-feminism. A true cultural relativist would simply shrug and insist that Western nations shouldn’t meddle with indigenous cultures, patriarchal or not. But because critical theorists are committed to social justice for women, the poor, and all other marginalized groups, that’s something they cannot do.

Connection to Literary Theory

In my early days of reading about critical theory, I was often confused by the fact that the term seemed to be used in two different ways: to refer to a literary theory and to refer to a social theory. The two disciplines seemed to overlap and share dependence on a few key figures (Derrida especially), but they were -after all- ostensibly very different. I later realized the connection, but Loomba spells it out very nicely:

Colonialism, according to these ways of reading, should be analysed as if it were a text, composed of representational as well as material practices and available to us via a range of discourses such as scientific, economic, literary and historical writings, official papers, art and music, cultural traditions, popular narratives and even romours” (p. 102-103).

In other words, just as critical literary theorists seek to interpret literary texts and discover their significance, critical social theorists seek to interpret cultural “texts” (buildings, art, traditions, etc.) and discover their significance. For this reason, it makes some sense that Loomba is not a sociologist or historian, but a professor of literature at UPenn. This connection also explains why the book repeatedly turns to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Brontë’s Jane Eyre for insight into European-colonial relationships.


Although the book had its bright spots, it felt disjointed, reading more like a sprawling, topical PhD dissertation than a text. Still, the section on the historical development of postcolonialism was excellent and illuminating.

Other interesting quotes:

“The construction of vast numbers of people as inferior, or ‘other’, was crucial for constructing a European ‘self’ and justifying colonialist practices.” (p. 113)

“In an influential article, Etienne Balibar [says that Europe] is witnessing a kind of ‘neo-racism’ or a ‘racism without race’ (1991a: 17) This form of racism, which is currently directed at (largely Muslim) immigrants into Europe ‘does not have the pseudo-biological concept of race as its main driving force’. It believes that Muslims are culturally, rather than biologically, different than Christians” (p. 122-123).

“Islamophobia or anti-Semitism indicate ‘racism without race’ or neo-racism. This posits ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ as binary opposites, instead of organically interconnected and historically changing concepts which have both always been central to the ideologies of human difference. As Sandra Harding argues, ‘nature’ is also a cultural category and cannot be conceptualized other than through the cultural assumptions of any given society (2006: 7-8, 73)” (p. 129).

“On the whole, the experience of postcolonial women’s movements has underlined that the fight against state repression, sexual violence, racism, for better working conditions and freedom of sexual orientation cannot be pitted against each other, but need to be simultaneously addressed.” (p. 222)

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