Language and Post-colonialism

While reading Slemon’s article, I could not help but draw the connections between his argument and my case study. Although there is debate as to what “post-colonial” actually means, the article looks at a lot of theories that we have already discussed in class. The gist of the article looks at discourse, which can be related to Foucault and the power of discourse and also deconstruction. He discusses the relations between colonialism and imperialism and refers to Said who used imperialism to mean “the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory” (101). Immediately, I thought of Britain’s hegemonic power as a colonizer of Kenya and Tanzania and the residual effects that exist today…i.e. the use of English language. This also refers to the “post-colonial” condition, which describes a global situation, rather than the political status of European empires. Yet, this leads to the formation of binaries such as colonizer/colonized, white/black, oppressor/oppressed. Throughout Slemon’s article, we are consistently trying to overcome the numerous debates over the “uses and abuses” of post colonial critical theory.

Slemon discusses literature, specifically focusing on literary studies whereby the “Anglocentrism that dominated English departments curricula and cannons” fueled the discipline of post-colonial studies. He discusses the “search for identity” and the idea of “realism.” He states: “…one of the most insistent concerns of post-colonialism is the locating of English language-use in a history of imperial expansion. If language carries a naturalizing drive, one must remember where that language, that notion of the natural is coming from, and question whose interests it is serving” (106). Thus, who’s interests is the use of English in Kenya and Tanzania serving? Colonial powers? More broadly, the elite–i.e. white, men? He continues: “…the imperial imposition of European language on non-European peoples binds post-colonial peoples to an uninterruptable condition of ironic relations with the real world” (107). This forces us to ask the question of what is real for Kenyans and Tanzanians if their language has been imposed on them? Clearly, this is indeed theoretically speaking, for all humans can think on their own–yet, how has English as an imperial language binded these African countries to a European country?

Slemon even references Ngugi, who I talked about in an earlier post. Slemon argues that literary writing might contribute to a “way out of disempowering cognitive legacies of imperialism”—a project of “decolonizing the mind” as Ngugi calls it. Ngugi is a perfect example; he resorted to writing in his mother tongue (Kikuyu) instead of writing in English. For him, that was real. Writing in Kikuyu was his form of resistance. As Slemon states (and as Foucault would believe as well), language is a medium of power. There is a need for a counter-discourse and “native” resistance.

This resistance stems from the subaltern groups (Gramsci!). Slemon states: “…subaltern peoples under colonialism are neither fully subjected to power nor fully agential, in the sense of having full self-knowledge, and will, and purpose–they somehow live out their lives between these two concepts of social subjectivity, and the historian’s job is to describe that social location” (110). Thus, history writing must be taken into account–who write the history of the subalterns? Not the subalterns! This relates to the text Slamon refers to by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

There are numerous lectures by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and I came across this one, which I think encompasses a lot of what we talk about in cultural studies–identity, power, discourse–and how they relate to “language in the modern world.”

[youtube HxyigzfSyBY]


This entry was posted in Allison, Individual Research Journal. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply