Empire in Asia

A New Global History

After Colonialism

Book Cover

Book Title

After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Post-Colonial Displacements. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995

Author

Prakash, Gyan (ed.)

Synopsis

Prakash’s collection of essays aims to shake the history of colonialism loose from the binary categories that have been taken for granted by scholars—for instance, colonizer/colonized, or civilized/barbarian. Prakash notes that these categories have been accepted as historical facts, and therefore limit our conception of colonial history as an artificially linear trajectory from early European expansion to the post-World War period. He therefore urges a re-examination of these categories and to throw open colonial studies for realignment. Such refashioning has already begun to take place, fittingly at the sites of colonialism. With the influx of scholars from former colonies after decolonization, a new array of sources of knowledge, which Prakash points out are heterogeneous and cannot be forced into a linear storyline, has been made available. They have released the field of colonial studies from previous geographical and disciplinary boundaries, and have even ventured beyond scholarship into areas such as comparative literature. Through a thematically ordered series of essays, Prakash proceeds beyond the construction of categories and calls our attention to traditionally marginalized or silenced agents in colonial history.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The first few essays bring to the foreground actors who have traditionally been left out of the field. Edward Said and Stephen Feierman give voice to the colonized peoples of Asia and Africa, challenging the notions of the “people without history” and of the origins of civilization radiating out of Europe to the rest of the world. The middle section is an analysis of colonial strategies to contain the anxieties resulting from contact with non-European peoples: notably, the tensions arising from cultural differences. The book closes with a study of how displacements caused by colonial discourse have shaped forms of knowledge, and how the aforementioned colonial categories have been normalized and cemented.

Because the essays are theoretical in nature, there is no specific time period or geographical boundary. However, case studies include the Haitian Revolution, Dutch colonial efforts in Formosa, and the Zionists in Palestine.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Prakash writes in his introduction that colonial history is fundamentally unstable, and has revealed its weaknesses in the aftermath of colonialism. The functioning and usage of colonial power has blurred the lines defining the concepts and categories its agents have drawn for themselves. Prakash aims to stir the water in order to further challenge the domination of these categories and provide a more accurate, less short-sighted historical account—or accounts—of the peoples influenced by colonialism vis-à-vis each other.

For instance, in the first section of the collection, Said’s The Methodology of Imperialism and Feierman’s Africa in History both point to how scholarly fields such as history and literature have centered on European trends and completely ignored parallel African, Asian or American developments. They both tackle the equation of the non-European with the derogatory terms of “culture” (as opposed to “civilization”) and of European with “progress” and “modernity”. They argue that the terms and concepts through which we frame history have been defined by the European experience in ignorance of equally legitimate developments elsewhere; as a result, anything not European is assumed to be either insignificant or inferior. By bringing this trend to attention, Said and Feierman aim to give full weight to historical narratives originating outside of Europe.


Annotated by Jennifer Yip