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The Rise of Postcolonialism

The field of postcolonial studies has been gaining prominence since the 1970s. Its origins are manifold. An important publication was Orientalism, published in 1978 by the literary scholar Edward Said. Using Foucault’s then brand new theory of power/knowledge in combination with the concept of ‘hegemony’ by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, Said argued that the great interest of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French and British scholars in the Orient had long-lasting social and political consequences. He argued that such studies offered a specific Western style of thought, Orientalism that aimed at dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. Orientalism, Said argued continued to structure American Middle East foreign policy in the 1970s.

Another important strand of postcolonial studies emerged at British and Indian universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Strongly influenced by the ‘new’ social history and the history ‘from below’, the founding members of Subaltern Studies (some of them became member of the Warwick History Department) rejected all mechanical and economistic forms of Marxism. Instead they relied heavily on the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci which, although written in the 1930s, were only being re-discovered at the time.



Seminar Readings:

Said, Edward, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London, 1978), Introduction: pp. 1-28; Knowing the Oriental: pp. 31-49. (see:

Guha, Ranajit, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, Subaltern Studies, No.1 (1982): pp. 1-8. (see:


Seminar Readings

Overview: CWHT, ch. 21.


Seminar Questions

What are some of the central claims of postcolonial history writing?

‘Subaltern studies main contribution was to question how historians read.’ Discuss.

Why was the work of the subaltern studies collective taken up by historians working on areas other than India?

To what extend is it possible to hear the voice of the subaltern?

What are the possibilities and problems of a 'decolonized' curriculum in the study of academic history writing?

Was Said’s Orientalism a critical history in the sense of Foucault?

What is Said’s conception of power in Orientalism?

What was the subaltern studies group working for and what against?

What was the understanding of power Guha uses?

To what extend was Subaltern Studies merely a new form of ‘history from below’?


 Essay gobbets


‘Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient-dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’ (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978)



‘In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action.’ (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978)


‘…European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate an even underground self.’ (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978)



‘Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.’ (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978)


Part of the main plan of imperialism... is that we will give you your history, we will write it for you, we will re-order the past...What's more truly frightening is the defacement, the mutilation, and ultimately the eradication of history in order to create... an order that is favourable to the United States. (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978)


‘The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire.... The Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear the figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emenate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe.’ (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978).


‘What we must eliminate are systems of representation that carry with them the authority which has become repressive because it doesn't permit or make room for interventions on the part of those represented.’ (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978)



‘This inadequacy of elitist historiography follows directly from the narrow and partial view of politics to which it is commit­ted by virtue of its class outlook.’ (Ranajit Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, 1982)


‘What clearly is left out of this un-historical historiography is the politics of the people. For parallel to the domain of elite politics there existed throughout the colonial period another domain of Indian politics in which the principal actors were not the dominant groups of the indigenous society or the colonial authorities but the subaltern classes and groups constituting the mass of the labouring population and the intermediate strata in town and country—that is, the people. This was an autonomous domain, for it neither originated from elite politics nor did its existence depend on the latter.’ (Ranajit Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, 1982)


‘It is the study of this historic failure of the nation to come to its own, a failure due to the inadequacy of the bourgeoisie as well as of die working class to lead it into a decisive victory over colonialism and a bourgeois-democratic revolution of either the classic nineteenth-century type under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie or a more modem type under the hegemony of workers and peasants, that is, a ‘new democracy'— it is the study of this failure which constitutes the central problematic of the historiography of colonial India.’ (Ranajit Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, 1982)





Further Readings


Ashcroft, Bill; Gareth Griffiths; & Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Studies: Key Concepts (London, 2013). See especially the entry on ‘discourse’ . 70-73) (Library Online Resources).


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Fiffin (eds.), The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London and New York: Routledge, 1989. (In many ways this publication kicks off the postcolonial enthusiasm in history writing)


Baxi, Upendra "'The State's Emissary': The Place of Law in Subaltern Studies", in Subaltern Studies VII, pp. 247-264


Chakrabarty, Dipesh, ‘Conditions for Knowledge of Working-Class Conditions: Employers, Government and the Jute Workers of Calcutta, 1890-1940’, in Selected Subaltern Studies.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, ‘Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference (Princeton, 2007).

Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian' Pasts?’ Representations, 37 (1992): 1-26.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, ‘A Small History of Subaltern Studies, in ibid., Habitations of Modernity (Chicago, 2002), pp. 3-19.

Chatterjee, Partha , ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question’, in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds., Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 233-253.

Guha, Ranajit, ‘Discipline and Mobilize’, in Subaltern Studies VII, pp. 69-120.


Guha, Ranajit, ‘The prose of counter-insurgency’ , Subaltern Studies II (1983), pp. 159-220. (online).

Hardiman, David, 'Adivasi Assertion in South Gujarat: The Devi Movement of 1922-23', in R.Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies III (1984).

Herman, David. “Edward Said.”Prospect Magazine. <> 20 Nov. 2003. 11 October, 2013.

Huggan, Graham (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Howe, Stephen (ed.), The New Imperial Histories Reader (London: Routledge, 2010).

Iggers, Georg G., A Global History of Modern Historiography (London, 2008), pp. 284-90.

Hamdi, Tahrir Khalil, ‘Edward Said and Recent Orientalist Critiques, Khalil Arab Studies Quarterly 35, 2 (2013).

Majumdar, Rochona, Writing Postcolonial History (London, 2010).

Moore-Gilbert, Bart, ‘Postcolonial Theory Contexts, Practices, Politics’ (London, 1997), Chapter 2: Edward Said, Orientalism and Beyond, pp. 34-73.


Pandey, Gyanendra, ‘The Colonial Construction of 'Communalism': British Writings on Banaras in the Nineteenth Century’, in Subaltern Studies VI, pp. 132-68.

Schwarz, Henry, and Ray,Sangeeta (eds.), A Companion to Postcolonial Studies (2000).

Said, Edward, ‘Orientalism Reconsidered, Ed. Brydon. Vol III. (2001): pp.846-861


Spivak, Gayatri C., ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana & Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271-313.

Stephens, Julie, ‘Feminist Fictions: A Critique of the Category 'Non-Western Woman' in Feminist Writings on India", in Subaltern Studies VI, pp. 92-125; Tharu, Susie, ‘Response to Julie Stephens", in Subaltern Studies VI, pp. 126-31.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015): particularly chapter 1 (pp 1-30) and chapter 3, pp. 70-107. (e-book)

Turner, Brian, ‘Edward W. Said: Overcoming Orientalism, Theory, Culture, and Society 21, 1 (2004): 173-177.

Young, Robert, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016) – BOTH chapter 1 (pp. 1-11) and chapter 5 (pp. 57-69). (e-book)