Postcolonialism and Postmodernism – Ato Quayson


The Nigerian literary academic Ato Quayson in  his book Postcolonialism – Theory, Practice or Process? (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000) has the following to say in his chapter titled “Postcolonialism and Postmodernism” (for complete text see Ato Quayson ):

The terms postcolonialism and postmodernism are both extremely elusive to classify, and the attempt to bring them together might be thought only to further compound the difficulties. In fact, for some commentators such as Nigerian Denis Ekpo, postmodernism is nothing but another stage in the West’s crisis of consciousness:

The crisis of the subject and its radical and violent deflation – the focal point of postmodern critique – are logical consequences of the absurd self-inflation that the European subjectivity had undergone in its modernist ambition to be the salt of the earth, the measure and master of all things. For cultures (such as ours) that neither absolutized, i.e. deified, human reason in the past nor saw the necessity for it in the present, the postmodern project of de-deification, de-absolutization of reason, of man, of history, etc., on the one hand, and of a return to, or a rehabilitation of, obscurity, the unknown, the non-transparent, the paralogical on the other hand, cannot at all be felt like the cultural and epistemological earthquake that it appears to be for the European man. In fact, it cannot even be seen as a problem at all. . . . [W]hen such a being settles for the indeterminate, the paradoxical, the strange and absurd, it is probably because he bears no more resemblance to the man as we know him, especially here in Africa; he is a post-man whose society, having overfed him and spoilt him, has delivered him over to irremedable boredom. Nothing therefore, stops the African from viewing the celebrated postmodern condition a little sarcastically as nothing but the hypocritical self-flattering cry of the bored and spoilt children of hypercapitalism. (Ekpo, 1995)

For Ekpo postmodernism has to be seen as the hubristic consequence of a desire to dominate the world, one that, linked to the universalizing rationality of science and anthropology, has to face its own unraveling when confronted by the loss of empire. 

I would like to suggest that postmodernism can never fully explain the state of the contemporary world without first becoming postcolonial and vice versa. The first thing to note is the need to simultaneously factor images, tropes, and texts into specific sociocultural domains while at the same time attempting to alienate them from themselves by reading them against other images, tropes, and texts that do not seem to share historical similarities. The purpose of this would in my view be not only to “read awry,” as Slavoj Zizek (1991) puts it, but to force the phenomenon under analysis into a mode of alienation or estrangement from itself by means of which it would be made to deliver a truth-value that ramifies far beyond its own domain of circulation.

Following the insights about the proliferation of perspectives that postmodernism offers, it is useful to try and fill out as many dimensions of context as possible, even when these might seem to contradict each other at various points.

The reading postcolonialism and postmodernism together is of course to try and grasp the social life of ideas, whether these inhere in images of fashion, as was the case in the Sekyi and Morrison texts, or in popular cultural images of otherness, as was observed in the example from The X-Files.

Thus the images of otherness in The X-Files were related in our account to general problems of the surveilling of immigrants and racial others in the West. The key thing would be to read such images alongside other socially relevant configurations.

The fear of being thought prescriptive and hegemonic is one that most people no longer think worth risking in a world of pluralism. I happen to think otherwise. Recognizing that there is much destitution, poverty, and sheer despair in the world, it seems to me increasingly imperative that the risk of appearing prescriptive is one worth taking if one is not to surrender completely to a debilitating anomie brought on by the comprehension of persistent social tragedies.

Those who lose their limbs to landmines, are displaced due to refugee crises, or merely subsist in the intermittent but regularly frustrated hope that the world can become a better place, cannot wait for complete moral certitude before they take action to improve their existence. It is partly in the implicit (and often real) alliance with those who, to appropriate a phrase from Julian Murphet, “keep running all the time simply to keep pace with events,” that we ought to take courage to make ethical judgments even in the full knowledge that we may be proved wrong. To this larger picture, and in the service of this larger affirmation we ought to commit our critical enterprises. Both postmodernism and postcolonialism have a part to play in this.


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