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Postcolonial Literature

The author Ngugi Wa Thoingos infamously proposed that the use of the English language in the post colonial sect of world literature was tantamount to ‘colonial rule’ and ‘cultural Imperialism’ (Ngugi wa Thoingos, 2008). These claims may seem at first to be extreme and deeply immersed in political reaction. However, when one takes into account the notion that English was the coloniser’s language and not the native language of the colonised this becomes something of a considerable, if still extreme, claim.

The colonies were in fact invaded by an Imperial force who spoke in English and so one can take the view that the use of English language is symbolic of this superiority that was meant to have been eliminated by liberation and independence within the post-colonies. However, Ngugi wa Thoingos does not simply give this as his rationale. Rather, he extends this by separating the historical realities of what he deems the pre-colonised African, the colonised euro-centric African and what he utters forth as the afro-centric African (Ngugi Wa Thoingos, 2008).

Alongside this, he suggests that by using the Imperial language two things become, or already are, apparent that ensure that the mind of the African is kept colonised. Firstly, that the identity of the post colony is conforming to the will of the westernised ‘other’ so as to canonise itself in the image of the west (Ngugi Wa Thoingos, 2008). And secondly, that by using the English language, the culture of the former colony itself will inherit the westernised perspective of history and the process of civility (Ngugi Wa Thoingos, 2008).

We will focus this discussion on these two latter points and bring in a degree of theorists so that we may gain a fuller perspective. It is true to say that in the post colonial cultures of the world English has become a part of the language of many of the communities. Furthermore, it is practiced in the novelisation of the literary pursuits in such regions, which have now found a global audience that also speak, read and consume in English.

This naturally evokes issues relating to the notions of nationality, identity, community, heritage and the likes, which can all be understood as functioning agents of the concept of culture. However, by seeing the role of certain cultures as becoming absorbed into a predominantly western canon of literature known as world literature, all of which is spoken or at least translated into English for the global consumer, one must then accept that a notion of otherness will inevitably become apparent.

That is to say, that the non-western subject will become part of the other culture, symbolic of a stereotyped of that culture due to lack of immersion within that culture. For example, highlighting the role of the non-western subject in relation to the culture they come to symbolise in the eyes of the western self, post colonial critic Franz Fanon details that, ‘I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. In the white world the man of colour encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema…..

I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects….. I took myself far off from my own presence….. What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a haemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood? ‘ (Fanon, 1963, p. 37) This extract reveals the extent to which the post colonial subject becomes the symbolic other of the western subject. In essence, he/she is given as an object that symbolises a whole discourse of an other culture that is presumed in relation to one‘s own civilised culture.

This is indicative of a stereotype that Ngugi Wa Thoingos suggests is at the heart of the western perspective pertaining to the English language. In essence, the source of signification that gives life to this stereotype is founded within the cultural origins of the Imperial language that defines the user in terms of its own historical discourse. This is given some validity by other post colonial critics, such as Edward Said, who indicate the significance of a literal foundation for this source of signification that lies in an existential account of history.

For example, on detailing the construction of the other culture on the basis of the structure of language, Said states that, ‘A few people living on a few acres of land will set up boundaries between their land, its immediate surroundings and the territory beyond, which they call ‘’the land of the barbarians‘. In other words, this universal practise of designating in one‘s mind a familiar space which is ‘ours‘ and an unfamiliar land which is theirs is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary.

It is enough for ’’us’’ to set up these boundaries as in our minds; they become they accordingly, and both their territory and their mentality are designated as different from ours. ’ (Said, 1978, p. 54) Indeed, this gives rationale for Ngugi Wa Thoingos claims regarding the use of English as already ‘culturally centred’ literary vehicle; something that he wishes to challenge (Ngugi Wa Thoingos, 2008). However, this is not necessarily the case in relation to the historical accounts contained within the language.

Essentially, by using this linguistic construction pertaining to the symbolic order of the English language, Said evokes the literal agent for supporting such distinctions between us and them that do not necessarily exist in any philosophical or historical sense, but are instead bound within the use of a language in describing the subject and the other in the present tense. In this, we see a great of justification for Ngugi Wa Thoingos claims and reasoning for his rejection of the English language in post colonial literature that goes beyond a simple case of counter politics.

This is because the use of the English language may transform the history and culture of the post colonial subject into the subject of an othered culture. This has been met by a great deal of criticism from the critics and writers of the west, who state that the merge between cultures, languages and schools of thought date back longer than the colonial exploit of Empire building. For example, Ashcroft states in his text The Empire Writes Back that the origins of English itself is comprised of a series of cross cultural components taking influence and merging with the philosophies and cultural traits of many other cultures (Ashcroft, 2002).

In this, he draws on the functional perspective of a shared epistemology that is separated only by different cultural experiences and that makes Ngugi Wa Thoingos claims part of the reactionary politics of the post colony. Although the colonial occupation and many oppressive histories made this something of subjugation, Ashcroft maintains that the new discourses of mutuality and cosmopolitanism are evidence of a sharing and reconciliation between the cultures in a global sense.

This means that the world is still divided into two political discourses of coloniser and colonised. Evidence can be found for this merge in language when we look at the way that regional and colloquial languages, maintained in the locations and discourses of the English speaking nation, are contrasted with more national or international languages pertaining to the conventions of English. In many cases, this form of colloquial language can be used as a resistant force as Ashcroft suggests.

For example, with Scottish independent culture critiquing British rule by use of its colloquial languages. However, this resistance is still seen in relation to the colony itself and in doing so creates the social reality and literal condition of the other. For instance, in this case it would be the conflicting or resistant socio-political other, which would come to construct the meaning of Scottish culture in relation to British rule signified by colloquial language.

Essentially, this would deny any humanity found within the existential reality and/or experience of the subject and so they would be constructed within the text as a politicised and contemporary reactionary other to British culture. Furthermore, this can be seen in Said’s text where he gives grounds for a splitting of the contemporary subject from the mythical history of the post colonial region of the orient. He states that,

‘Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practise in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the orient into western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied – indeed, made truly productive – the statements proliferating out from orientalism into general culture.

’ (Said, 1978, p. 6) In this, Said rejects Ashcroft’s notion of a cross cultural historical perspective based upon mutuality as such a history is never true in the contemporary sense. Essentially, as the subject is always symbolised in the present, yet his own constructed history is given to him/her by the western perspective, then the notion of the western narrative being of a mutual cultural history becomes something of a non-entity.

This is given further validity through what post colonial and African cultural theorist Chinua Achebe reveals as the colonial foil to the European historical process of civility. In this theoretical construct similar in nature to Said’s Orientalism, Achebe situates Conrad’s Congo from The Heart of Darkness as a primitive foil to the civility of Europe in stating that, ‘the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, [is] the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality’ (Achebe, 1988, p.

2). Essentially, not only is the colonial Africa a primitive foil to Europe, but also a place whereby intelligence, refinement and all other forms of what we may deem the civilised subject are stripped and replaced by an animalistic psyche. This pre-colonial and post-colonial narrative that is identified by both Achebe and Said in the discourses of the English language give Ngugi Wa Thoingos much reason to be cynical and outright rejects Ashcroft‘s deterministic view of a bi-polemic socio-political narrative.

In light of the world’s globalising and integrating cosmopolitanism, Ngugi Wa Thoingos claim seems to be something of an idealistic rejection based upon relativism. Essentially, by turning away from the English language that supports a history of cultural integration that has seen cultures merge in a contemporary global sense; and by debasing any author or speaker of English as a Westerner, seems somewhat counter productive and nationalistic.

It is with this that the global and post colonial critic Homi Bhabha emerges with a narrative highlighting the significance of the split subject, the use of vernaculars and the role of a fluid identity unbound by history. In this theoretical approach, Bhabha clearly identifies Ngugi Wa Thoingos claims as the premise of a nationalistic desire to return, or at least to recognise, a sovereign tradition. He states this as,

‘The discourse of nationalism is not my main concern. In some ways it is the historical certainty and unsettled nature of that term against which I am attempting to write of the Western nation as obscure and ubiquitous form of living the locality of culture. (Bhabha, 1994, p. 60) In Bahbha’s view, it is the onus of nationalism and the rejection of culture to dismiss the English language as a means of cultural production.

According to Bhabha, the way in which the culture of signs and meanings occur is in this split between the subject’s present existential state and how this identifies with the emergence of historical narratives within the text. He calls this process of identification one of ambivalence rather than one of subjugation or resistance. Further, he suggests that the narratives themselves are to be read in terms of the ambivalent context of the subject. Speaking of the significance of the language in the post colonial and global text, Bhabha states that it must be seen as,

‘more around temporality than about historicity: a form of living that is more complex than ‘community‘; more symbolic than ‘society’; more connotative than ‘country’; less patriotic than patrie; more rhetorical than the reason of state; more mythological than ideology; less homogeneous than hegemony; less centred than the citizen; more collective than ‘the subject’; more psychic than civility; more hybrid in the articulation of cultural differences and identifications than can be represented in any hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism.

‘(Bhabha, p. 25) Here, the notion of a third way emerges in relation to the many subjectivities of the split subject. In a sense, the subject becomes an agent of the discourse and is never bound to it in terms of identity, making the agent fluid and the experiences of the subject transitive in the many issues and subjective experiences that house the subject within the text. Highlighting the role of literature and literary theory within the process of the English language and its political narratives, Bhabha states that,

‘If one is aware of this heterogeneous emergence (not origin) of radical critique, then – and this is my second point – function of theory within the political process becomes double edged. It makes us aware that our political references and priorities – the people, the community, class struggle, anti-racism, gender difference the assertion of an anti-imperialist, black or third perspective – are not there in some primordial, naturalistic sense.

They make sense [only] when they come to be constructed in the discourses of feminism, Marxism. ’ (Bhabha, 1994, p. 25) In this, we find the mergence of the un-politicised vernacular that neither Ashcroft nor Ngugi Wa Thoingos could identify. Further, we see how this is incorporated within the post colonial text and the discourses of English. By offering a narrative in English based upon the colonial vernaculars that have emerged through different historical discourses, Bhabha reveals that the subject also emerges.

This is through the ambivalent experience of the post colonial condition, which is bound within the discourses of English. Essentially, the subject can write back with a somewhat unique sense of identity that does not belong to any historical discourse and is always searching for identification and relation in their subjective experiences. Essentially, the notion of a socio-political counter is not married to the subject’s cultural identity as it is neither fixed nor rigid to any point in the text.

Therefore, the subject can utilise the many discourses and traditions pertaining to the English language by questioning such notions as belonging, cultural identity, splitting and home. This means that the premise of Ngugi Wa Thoingos claims are founded upon the very nationalistic, political and reactionary perspective that he sought to escape from. In summary, it would appear from our discussion that Ngugi Wa Thoingos has good cause to be cynical towards the post colony’s use of English.

It would also appear at first glance that his claims go further than being a simple case of reactionary politics. This is because there is much evidence for the euro-centrism in the use of the English language and the English based canon pertaining to world literatures. Further, it would seem to be the case that the post colonies are constructed in an imaginary image of Europe and the post colonial subject can become a representative of a European object or foil.

However, it would also appear that the vision of a post colonial subject that is free of the English language, and thus the global domain, is the subject of a nationalistic tradition that is deeply immersed in reactionary politics. Due to this, the nationalistic and independent post colonial subject is not genuinely bound in culture, nor can have any relation to the cultures of the Diaspora or the generations who, through migration, have become the fluid cosmopolitans of global literature that challenge the notions of other and the stasis of the fixed western self.

Therefore, it would appear that through rejecting English outright that Ngugi Wa Thoingos is determined to split all contact with the western world and indulge a nationalistic and separatist literary tradition on the basis of an idealised national cultural and historical tradition. Bibliography Achebe, C. , (1988) Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987 Cambridge University Press Ashcroft, B. , (2002) The Empire Writes Back New York: Routledge Bhabha, H. , (1994) The Location of Culture New York: Routledge.

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