Millennium Post

Making postcolonialism fashionable again

Historical revisionism has generally been limited to either Marxist analogues or persistent nationalist reviews, a common trend in recent times both among sympathetic scholars and centre-right politicians out to revise the education system. In this confusion, Vivek Chibber's new book
The Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital brings a largely ignored theory into public light. Prominent figures belonging to this school of thought including,  Gayatri Chakrvorty Spivak, have forwarded arguments on the native or aboriginal identity, while others like Romila
Thapar have traced its roots to outdated theories like the ‘oriental despotism’ discourse that seems to plague western ideas on the subject to this day.

This point of view, brought alive by the West’s utilitarian ethics, was largely (mis)guided by the imperial zeal to legitimise the harrowing condition of the colonised people and rob them of their unique histories and socio-cultural experiences.

Postcolonialism borrows from two earlier theories put forward by the colonial masters in the 18th and 19th centuries – the seemingly ethical and completely deliberate idea of the 'White Man's Burden' and its counterpart 'White Man's Duty' or the ‘civilising mission’. Firmly premised upon racial inequality, within which, academic thinktanks such as the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) still have a solid grounding, colonialism and its ideological justification betray hints of cultural anxiety and the larger fears of race and xenophobia in general.

The idea of the ‘civilising mission’ could be traced to ecclesiastical teachings and social experience of the crusades. Many postmodernists have taken refuge in its essence – a prominent example being that of VS Naipaul whose lifelong panning of the post-independence Indian experience and reducing the scope of its social revolutions to a word favourite of the British masters – 'mutiny' – is noteworthy.

The Subaltern School, on the other hand, evokes the dynamic view that places importance on the individual and often solitary experience – an approach that is not pivoted on the economic relations of the day, and, in turn, tones down the might of the legitimising force of Western colonialism, the Industrial Revolution.

It also neglects mass-scale religious campaigns, like the unity of Germanics under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire. Chibber argues that postcolonial theory still has residual anxieties along this line and it is an adherent of the Utilitarian notions of history.

A particular example was the imperialist idea of the 18th century transformation from natural or segregated economy to a highly stratified one.

This is, namely, the transition from feudalism to capitalism – the epitome of progress that would usher in later the age of European enlightenment. Western scholars, in a bid to conduct comparative analysis of societies, were obsessed with finding a period of transition among cultures of Asia.
Those that failed this litmus test, were subsequently designated as having a history of despotic rule.

Thapar has said in her work that the Utilitarians believed that Indians lacked the notion of linear time. They contended that the Hindu civilisation, or as they labeled one-third of the collective historical experience of South Asia, was used to a highly rudimentary notion of a cyclical consciousness of time, deeply rooted in its mystical culture.

This view was blown out of proportion in the Western academia in the early days of colonisation by the so-called Orientalists – the deviants of European schools who favoured the highly exotic Vedic experience under a rising trend of Romanticism and escapist philosophy.

In order to vilify what they had learnt earlier, they began depicting native cultures of Asia in highly opulent and floral manner, representing the polar opposite of western ideals of logic, science and rationalism. For Chibber, postcolonial theory was a response to these two fancy theories, of blind idealisation on the one hand, and absolute demonisation on the other, thus resulting in terribly skewed perspectives on the native or Afro-Asian cultures.
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