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Postcolonial Studies: A Political Invention of Tradition?

Jean-François Bayart

Over the past few years, and perhaps even the past few months, in the wake of the unrest that hit the French suburbs in 2005, the terms postcolonial and postcoloniality have become common currency in intellectual and political debate. Scholarly and academic circles are no longer immune to the controversy that these terms have triggered.1 However, these words have not been fully explained — indeed, even the simple question of their spelling remains unclear. Should we write “postcolonial” or “post-colonial”? It all depends, says Akhil Gupta: “postcolonial” to describe what comes chronologically after colonization, and “post-colonial” when we need to “think the postcolonial as all that proceeds from the fact of the colonial situation, regardless of temporality.”2 When is the postcolonial deemed to have started? “When Third World intellectuals arrived in the universities of the developed world,” says Arif Dirlik wryly, hardly less ironic than Kwame Anthony Appiah: “Postcoloniality is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: of a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained, group of writers and thinkers who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery.”3

But we can provide a more inclusive definition of the postcolonial, characterizing it, as does Georges Balandier, as “a situation which is actually shared by all our contemporaries” — a definition that tends to identify it with globalization: “We are all, in different ways, in a postcolonial situation.”4 This postcolonial situation would thus be a “total social fact,” like the “colonial situation” invoked by Balandier in his seminal article of 1951; it is a situation that substantiates the importance of the colonial period in the process of globalization undergone in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.5 It is in this second sense that the “comprador intelligentsia” — originating in the Third World and “Western-style,” now with white disciples in its train — sees the “colonial situation” and its reproduction as the origin and cause of contemporary social relations, whether of class, gender, or community membership both in the former colonies and in the former metropolitan centers. Thus French historians have over the past few years focused on deciphering their society through the prism of the colonial legacy by attributing the widely recognized “social divide” ( fracture sociale) to a “colonial divide” ( fracture coloniale) and by postulating a continuity that underlies modes of representation and behavior from the colonial era to the contemporary period. The imaginary figures of Arab and African immigrants to France have been their first objects of analysis, and now they leap on the issue of the suburbs (banlieues). They are tempted to simultaneously reread the history of the republic, or even the revolution, in terms of colonization, which — so they claim — immediately undermined the purported universalism of both these phenomena, being consubstantial with them and paving the way for Nazi totalitarianism or its Vichy accomplices.6 Activists, in their turn, have appropriated these interpretations to mobilize as Natives of the Republic (Indigènes de la république) in the suburbs — a movement of people who are deemed to be first and foremost the children of their formerly colonized parents (or grandparents) and whose actions are a consequence of this.7

A “River with Many Tributaries”

This political and intellectual sensibility claims a kinship with the approach and assumptions of postcolonial studies, which have flourished in Australian, British, and North American universities since 1990 and which originated in different sources.

Postcolonial studies, moreover, are inseparable from a number of social movements through which have been proclaimed, urbi et orbi, the “agency” and the “empowerment” of groups or categories that have recognized themselves as oppressed, such as women, homosexuals, transsexuals, and ethnic minorities, even if this means attacking their “metropolitan” tendencies, as does Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.8

It follows that there is neither any postcolonial theory nor any precise definition of the term postcolonial or post-colonial. Postcolonial studies is heterogeneous, including from the viewpoint of the “critique of postcolonial reason,” as two of its principal heralds, Spivak and Dipesh Chakrabarty, explain convincingly: the former radically rejects the “epistemic violence” of the West; the latter concludes his major book Provincializing Europe by indicating that it cannot be a matter of throwing out Western thought, “a gift to us all,” and that it should be spoken of only “in an anticolonial spirit of gratitude.”9 This “intellectual configuration,” writes the Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe (who is generally seen as part of this movement, though he does not entirely claim it), “is characterized by its heterogeneity” and “is a fragmented thinking — which constitutes its strength, but also its weakness.”10 In particular, postcolonial studies involves a certain ambigu-ity. On the one hand, it has an epistemological aim to “[lay] bare both the violence inherent to a particular idea of reason and the gap which, in colonial conditions, separates European ethical thinking from its practical, political, and symbolic decisions.” This aim is meant to inspire the social sciences in the deconstruction of its constitutive categories. On the other hand, postcolonial studies assumes a normative, philosophical, and even prophetic scope, insisting on “the humanity to come, the humanity that must arise once the colonial figures of inhumanity and racial difference have been abolished.” But the key thing is not to blind oneself to the desire for critical universalism of at least one sector of postcolonial studies, while many people are tempted to see it as a form of nativist thought either to instrumentalize it in their struggles or to discredit it from an academic standpoint. This universalism stems from the experience of the diaspora, whether Indian, African, or Caribbean, but also from intercontinental intellectual exchanges over which Western universities no longer have a monopoly — although undoubtedly some of them are the main institutions of postcolonial studies. And yet neither postcolonial studies itself nor scholarly critique of it have managed to erase an initial ambiguity. In the works of its theorists, the desire for universalism often turns into a discourse of identity, and the status (philosophical or scholarly) of its texts frequently remains uncertain, which makes them difficult to comment on or to use.

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Translation by Andrew Brown, revised by Janet Roitman

This article owes much to my exchange of ideas with Romain Bertrand, who also kindly read and commented on the first draft, and to the remarks and suggestions of Mohamed Tozy and Peter Geschiere. I am, however, solely responsible for any errors, approximations, and questionable judgments that it contains. My thoughts are indebted to the “Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Governance” program conducted by the Fonds d’analyse des sociétés politiques with the assistance of the Research Department of the French Development Agency in 2005 – 6.

  1. See Marie-Claude Smouts, ed., La situation postcoloniale: Les “postcolonial studies” dans le débat français (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 2007).
  2. Akhil Gupta, “Une théorie sans limites,” in Smouts, La situation postcoloniale, 218. Out of consideration for the reader, I will not observe this convention in the rest of this article.
  3. Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 149, quoted in Jacques Pouchepadass, “Le projet critique des postcolonial studies entre hier et demain,” in Smouts, La situation postcoloniale, 187 – 88.
  4. Georges Balandier, preface to Smouts, La situation postcoloniale, 24.
  5. Jean-François Bayart, Le gouvernement du monde. Une critique politique de la globalisation (Paris: Fayard, 2004), translated by Andrew Brown as Global Subjects: A Political Critique of Globalization (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2007), chap. 4; Georges Balandier, “La situation coloniale: Approche théorique,” Cahiers internationaux de sociologie 11 (1951): 44 – 79.
  6. See, e.g., Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Coloniser, exterminer: Sur la guerre et l’état colonial (Paris: Fayard, 2005); Grandmaison, La république impériale: Politique et racisme d’état (Paris: Fayard, 2009); and Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, and Sandrine Lemaire, eds., La fracture coloniale: La société française au prisme de l’héritage colonial (Paris: La Découverte, 2005). “Social divide” was a term Jacques Chirac used during his 2002 presidential campaign.
  7. Sadri Khiari, Pour une politique de la racaille: Immigré-e- s, indigènes et jeunes de banlieue (Paris: Textuel, 2006); Khiari, La contre-révolution coloniale en France: De de Gaulle à Sarkozy (Paris: La Fabrique, 2009). See also Achille Mbembe, “La république désoeuvrée: La France à l’ère postcoloniale,” Le Débat, no. 137 (2005): 159 – 75.
  8. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
  9. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 255.
  10. Olivier Mongin, Nathalie Lempereur, and Jean-Louis Schlegel, “Qu’est-ce que la pensée postcoloniale? Entretien avec Achille Mbembe,” Esprit, December 2006, 117.


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