The limitations of looking at the postcolonial as a historical period

This is my last blog entry before I go on parental leave. Hope to be back with more posts in January 2023!

My academic home, the Department of Urban Studies, has for several years organized the Open Urban Seminars and during the pandemic, the tradition continued in a combination of online and face-to-face events. In December last year, I had the great pleasure of attending one of these seminars: a fascinating lecture titled Swedish Saint Barthélemy: Colonialism, Slavery, Slave Trade and Colonial Amnesia given by the historian Fredrik Thomasson. Thomasson presented findings from his latest book in Swedish, Svarta Saint-Barthélemy: människoöden i en svensk koloni 1785-1847. In the late eighteenth century, Sweden became a slave-holding nation when it purchased from France the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy. Swedish Caribbean colonialism is an under-researched topic and Thomasson has done an impressive job of going over newspaper articles of the time and documents from the French National Colonial Archives, such as ship manifestos and court papers, to expose a dark chapter in Sweden’s history. This has been important since, according to Thomasson, Sweden has traditionally held a self-image of a nation untainted by the dehumanizing and violent practices of slavery and colonialism.

While I celebrate Thomasson’s contribution to widening our understanding of colonial history, there were certain arguments during his lecture that made me think about the limitations of conceptualizing the “postcolonial” merely as a historical period. It appeared to me that this approach runs the risk of preventing us from understanding that colonial practices and ways of thinking continue to have impacts on the present. I can see that the study of history does not necessarily need to reflect on the present, but a non-critical understanding of postcolonialism or the “postcolonial” can affect the methods with which history is studied and how knowledge is produced. Let me explain. The definition of  “postcolonial/post-colonial” has been one of the central debates within postcolonial studies (cf. McLeod, 2010). The discussion has centered around the following: Does the concept only refer to a historical period (that is to say what comes after colonialism)? Or does it describe a context in places that were former colonies? Or is the “post” being used in the sense that colonial relationships no longer exist (that is to say, a condition that exists beyond the colonial)? Or is the concept meant to describe a world system where colonial practices and legacies continue to play out even now in the present regardless of the “independent” status of a former colony?

Thomasson’s understanding of postcolonialism during his lecture seemed to be one based on the perception of a historical period of time that is defined by a country’s independent status from a former colonial power. This became clear to me when, for example, Thomasson mentioned that the island of Dominica is even “decolonial” because the nation has been independent for several years now. In my view, this limited understanding of “postcolonial” (or “decolonial” in this case), runs the risk of studying history through a colonial way that reproduces Eurocentric bias – despite the best intentions. This thought came to my head when a member of the audience asked what other sources could be consulted to understand the history of Saint Barthélemy. Thomasson recommended reading the accounts written by Christopher Columbus of his “discovery” of America. While I understand the difficulties of having limited resources when studying the past of certain regions, it is also important to treat certain sources with a grain of salt. (My intention is not to claim that Thomasson is unaware of this, but only to comment on the arguments developed and answers given during the lecture I attended). As argued by scholars such as José Rabasa (1993) in his book Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism, European accounts of the American continent were shaped by prejudice, a perception of superiority, a sense of fear and wonder, and a lack of ability to understand knowledge forms and ways of being outside a Christian worldview. For example, the Caribbean was named as such by European explorers because they believed the region was inhabited by lustful cannibal women (Braham, 2016). The region was also named the “West Indies” because Columbus’s misconception that he had reached India when he stumbled upon what came to be known as America. The idea of America was also a European creation: an exotic and feminized landscape that could be named and penetrated, and that perhaps even held the Earthly location of paradise (O’Gorman, 1995; Rabasa, 1993).

An obvious question comes to mind: what are the limitations of studying a historical period through Eurocentric categories and sources? (By Eurocentric I mean, biased and bounded by a worldview that believed in the supremacy of knowledge and customs from Europe). What do we lose when the other side, in this case, the conquered, does not get to tell its side of the story? José Rabasa, for example, has attempted to bridge this gap by exploring an account of the Aztecs and how they experienced the Spanish conquest in Tell me the Story of How I Conquered You. While I understand the context of the Caribbean is different, I wonder (as a scholar that is not a historian) if there are any methods to recover the histories and voices of the colonized? (Echoing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous Can the subaltern speak?) Are there strategies that can be put to use to understand history avoiding the trap of Eurocentric bias? The answer might lie in understanding the “postcolonial” beyond a historical period.

  • Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 17–48.
  • McLeod J (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. 2nd editio. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • O’Gorman E (1995) La Invención de América. Mexico, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
  • Rabasa J (1993) Inventing America. Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism. Duncan: University of Oklahoma Press.

Featured image: “abstract world map” by fronx is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How do we navigate Eurocentrism? Reflections from teaching postcolonial urban studies

For the past four years I have been teaching a lecture on postcolonial urban theory within The Urban Question—a first-semester course in the international Master’s Program in Urban Studies. In this lecture, I try to explain the relationship between the postcolonial and its impacts on both the urban condition and the production of urban knowledge. (Meaning: the traces of Eurocentrism in how we learn about and teach urban studies today). I encourage students to reflect on examples of postcolonial conditions in their own countries—regardless if their country has an official colonial past or not. This opens a series of interesting reflections and questions. Last year, a student asked if trying to tackle Eurocentrism meant being at odds with the aims of modernity, for example, democracy. A few years ago, a student from Turkey wondered: what happens when ultra-nationalist governments hijack the emancipatory aims of postcolonialism to oppress their own populations by arguing “Western” notions, for example, LGBTQ rights, are “colonial” and therefore have no place in their society?

These important questions are at the heart of postcolonial and decolonial debates and are precisely two points that Kanishka Goonewardena and Tanja Winkler touched upon during their interventions in A Non-Occidentalist West: Learning from Theories Outside the Canon, workshop #1 of the Dislocating Urban Studies Series (which was also a PhD course in which I contributed). Pointing out that not all critique of the West that comes from the global South aims towards emancipatory goals, Kanishka wondered: What forms of critique of Europe and the West are then valid? What is the nature of critique of the West? While Kanishka was thinking about the ultra-nationalist governments in India and Sri Lanka, his point had echoes of the question the student from Turkey had posed in my class. Tanja, in turn, reflected how the concerns of the left had been hijacked by the intellectual political right but for negative purposes. For example, the post-structuralist concern that “all knowledge is important” had been twisted to dismiss science, support regressive standpoints, and promote undemocratic contexts. This reminded of the first student’s concern that postcolonialism could be wielded as a tool to attack democracy.  

While we have not been able to settle these debates in class, the discussions around them have stayed with me because of the important question that they raise: how do we navigate Eurocentrism? In Kanishka’s view, we need to have a dialectical understanding of binaries, (for example, center-periphery and north-south), in order to engage with thinkers that are genuine internationalists in the sense that they are not constrained by their geographical locations. The point is to look at the global North and global South as locations that both contain centers and peripheries. For Tanja, our epistemic tools need to be reclaimed. Adding to this, a source of guidance for me has been the work of Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2010) and his intervention A Non-Occidentalist West? Learned Ignorance and Ecology of Knowledge. Arguing that it is meaningless to carry out epistemological divisions across north/south, de Sousa Santos instead proposes engaging with thinkers that are anti-colonial and anti-capitalist, regardless if their work can be labeled as “Western.” In his view, there is much to learn from theories that, even though were produced within Western modernity, can nevertheless offer tools to fight capitalism and colonialism. At the end of the day, as Aníbal Quijano (1992) argues through his work on coloniality of power, what we are trying to dismantle is the colonial side of modernity, not necessarily modernity itself.  

I am eager to hear what questions students raise this year.

  • Quijano A (1992) Colonialidad y Modernidad/Racionalidad. Perú Indígena 13(29): 11–20. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601164353.
  • Santos B de S (2010) A Non-Occidentalist West?: Learned Ignorance and Ecology of Knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society 26(7–8): 103–125. DOI: 10.1177/0263276409348079.

Featured image: “Perpetual Ocean – Gulf Stream” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0