Postcolonial issues, Aijaz, Bhabha, Jameson, Easthorpe

This is a posting of an essay written for college in 2015. Any input or constructive criticism welcome


Conor Ryan


Jack Fennell

Option 2: Write an essay based on a critical comparison of any two (maximum four) theoretical essays we have read so far in this course.  Your essay should be based on a project, and it should demonstrate your understanding of the issues raised in our readings and in our class discussions.

Homi K. Bhabha contributed to post-colonial discourse by creating a structuralist framework for understanding the intersection of cultures based on the semiotic. Jameson has argued for an understanding of postcolonial Third-World literature as national allegories concerned with the complexities and contradictions of identity in a postmodern world. This spurred great debate and critics like Aijaz Ahmad have slammed Jameson for his attempt to reduce all third world literature to allegories of national identity, and his methodology, which is taken as polemically reducing all third world literature to first world/third world binary oppositions. Jameson is perhaps more useful for understanding how the material conditions of the present day and individuals have been affected by the past, though his attempts to separate colonialism from moral judgements have been met with a negative response overall. Bhabha created a “third space” where culture can be located: this is useful as it allows the individual’s identity to be understood as fluid and separate from culture, which is achieved through idea types. Anthony Easthorpe has examined Bhabha and the ramifications of hybridity for identity, essentially seeing this as being cultural difference in a Derridian sense.  Jameson’s framework at the very least allows us to understand where the individual fits into the greater social structure.

Discourse, as the name would suggest, implies conversation, though perhaps ‘argument’ would be a more accurate term for describing the vast range of contradictory opinions out there around colonialism and how it has affected the world. From Fanon and Cesaire to Said, there are a vast range of influential theoretical frameworks which can be used to understand the various aspects of the postcolonial world, and it should be outlined early on that multiple approaches can be useful for understanding aspects of the complexities and contradictions of postcolonial identity. A combination of approaches is probably the best way that we can understand a text, as interweaving theory allows for an adaptable understanding of the complexities and contradictions of postcolonial identity. Using elements of Frederic Jameson’s understanding of capitalism and its effects on material living conditions in the third world, combined with Bhabha’s conception of the reproduction of culture, allows us to understand some of the contradictions of postmodern identity in a post-colonial world.

Homi K. Bhabha developed a structuralist framework for understanding complexities and contradictions of identity following decolonization. This is particularly useful as it allows for an understanding of a fluid rather than a static identity based on the position that one finds oneself in following decolonisation. This is based on semiotic analysis. In Bhabha’s own words “my purpose here is to define the space of, the inscription of writing of identity- beyond the visual depths of Barthes’s symbolic sign. The experience of the disseminating self image goes beyond representation as the analogical consciousness of resemblance” (49). He has been heavily criticised for his dense writing style, using his lengthy vocabulary with strange sentence structures and not explicitly condemning colonialism. Though nonetheless he has made invaluable contributions to the fields of literary and cultural theory, locating culture outside of the individual and this “third space” frees the aspects in question from the colonial othering which other polemic methods are often accused of. Creating an approach for understanding the complexities and contradictions of a perspective communicated as symbolic, open to a range of different interpretations. The position the reader reads from affects how they interpret the text: it is impossible to achieve cultural objectivity. When adapting any approach around postcolonial literature and specifically one using Lacanian understandings of how identity is built up, turning the psychoanalytic lens on the interpretation of culture, a distinction has to be made between the inscription of symbol that makes up the text and the culture it supposedly represents.

Postcolonial literature is characterised by use of symbol and multiplicity of identifications, depicting characters existing in societies which have undergone tumultuous changes in history following a violent clash of cultures through colonisation and the subsequent decolonisation in recent history. In Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism Jameson stated that “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (69). The methodology outlined allows for a synthesis of understanding, combining the subjective with an awareness of one’s position within a greater social context, in particular political and social spheres, and specifically highlighting fluid identifications as being important to understanding a newly emerging type of cultural individualism in the Third World and new-found identity in a postmodern decolonised world.

If nothing else, Jameson’s outlook on this point and his way of viewing literature and cultural texts as “national allegories” provoked a series of arguments from a variety of perspectives. Aijaz Ahmad has criticised Jameson’s work for his generalisations and oversimplification of categorizations, making the point that

The mere fact, for example, that languages of the metropolitan countries have not been adopted by the vast majority of the producers of literature in Asia and Africa means that the vast majority of literary texts from those continents are unavailable in the metropoles, so that a literary theorist who sets out to formulate “a theory of the cognitive aesthetics of third-world literature” shall be constructing ideal-types, in the Weberian manner, duplicating all the basic procedures which orientalist scholars have historically deployed in presenting their own readings of a certain tradition of “high” textuality as the knowledge of a supposedly unitary object which they call “the Islamic civilization.” (4).

This implies that orientalism as a phenomena is something that the Western literary theorist is unable to avoid, at least to some degree, and that Jameson’s conception of Third World Literature is impossible in a sense, as he attempts to explain all aspects of the literature to contradictions and complexities of postcolonial identity. Simply put: as a writer of poetry in a language spoken only in the Third World Aijaz is offended by being categorized like this. He sees such an attempt to reduce all third-world texts to a singular purpose as being grossly unfair and shortsighted, hindering the impact of such literature by viewing it through Western eyes in a single totalizing vision. Furthermore, Aijaz has criticised the concepts of”fluidity” and “hybridity” as strategies only viable for “cultural amphibians”.

A postmodernist approach is useful for understanding a variety of contexts, and the Marxist standpoint that Jameson writes from is particularly useful as it focus on culture and how it is affected by the systems of organised and globalised capitalism. Ideal types as viewed Ahmad are useful in a sense as the stereotype is something that social actors aspire to, an unachievable extreme to incorporate elements of. Polarising cultures is useful in a sense for understanding their clash during colonisation, which can’t be dismissed. Perhaps further clarification is needed to understand what Jameson is doing here, and how his ideas around Third World literature fit into a greater understanding of the world. In the first chapter of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Jameson states that

The conception of postmodernism outlined here is a historical rather than a merely stylistic one. I cannot stress too greatly the radical distinction between a view for which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available and one which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism: the two approaches in fact generate two very different ways of conceptualising the phenomenon as a whole: on the one hand, moral judgments (about which it is indifferent whether they are positive or negative), and, on the other, a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present of time in History (VI).

The attachment of moral judgements to post-colonial literary theory is in a sense unavoidable, as the topics and issues raised elicit an emotional response from a variety of sources who have been affected by a colonial past. however, it is all too easy to get bogged down in condemning colonisation, and its consequences.

The problem that Ahmad has here is that he sees the approach as being fundamentally rooted in binary oppositions: the theorist cannot escape a polemic bias when understanding literature if attempting to reduce all third-world literature to allegories of national identity.

Since, however, Jameson’s own text is so centrally grounded in a binary opposition between a first and a third world, it is impossible to proceed with an examination of his particular propositions regarding the respective literary traditions without first asking whether or not this characterization of the world is itself theoretically tenable, and whether, therefore, an accurate conception of literature can be mapped out on the basis of this binary opposition (5).

Certainly, reducing a text to be understood solely using binary opposition between first and third world would indeed box texts into a rigid understanding that would only be accurate for some texts at best. It is more than likely that third world literature would incorporate elements of both, and perhaps a synthesis of theory is needed to understand the position that such third-world texts can hold.

However, we have to at least acknowledge some hybridity, that cultures are not entirely separate, but rather based on ideal types. If nothing else this can be used to understand some effects of the greater social and political factors which affect the individual and the world of texts which communicate a subjective perspective. The “third space” or intersection of culture that creates a position to speak from is often misunderstood. Bhabha said that “This is not a form of dialectical contradiction, the antagonistic consciousness of master and slave, that can be sublated and transcended. The impasse or aporia of consciousness that seems to be representative of the postmodernist experience is a particular strategy of Doubling” (49). Anthony Easthorpe focuses on hybridity, specifically on how it relates to identity, and how Homi Bhabha uses and interprets this term with a multiplicity of uses: “Bhabha’s hybridity is essentially Derridean difference applied to colonialist texts – the presence of a dominant meaning in a dominant culture can be called into question by referring to the hybridity or difference from which it emerges” (343). While Easthorpe assumes that this definition of hybridity is a strategy for liberation, this observation may not strictly be true. A full understanding of this concept is useful as it is adaptable to the potentially infinite and diverse range of people and situations in a postmodern and post-colonial world.

Fredric Jameson was also influenced by structuralism, and aware of poststructuralist theorists like Lacan and Derrida and the tools that such literary critics are provided with. Any cultural object or text can be potentially understood through multiple theoretical frameworks entwined and interweaving. Jameson’s methodology for understanding the position of postcolonial literature, and particularly the third world, needs close reading for a proper understanding, as to take the writing at face value would be to miss the point. As he states

Let me try to state this distinction in a grossly oversimplified way: one of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power: in other words, Freud versus Marx(69).

This oversimplification helps to identify the theoretical legacies that Jameson builds upon, but it is misleading at first glance- though certainly Marxist and Freudian theory there is specific influence from Althusser and Lacan on redefining the very understanding of ideology to link the unconscious psyche of the subject with the actual living conditions experienced. Importantly, this is also based on semiotic analysis and would be based on an evolving and ever changing identites rather than static orientalism. Simply put, this approach helps to understand the individual’s place in society in a post modern world.

Postcolonial identity is fluid and complex, being characterised questions of authenticity, ethnicity and nationality. The use of symbol has been extensively charted across the postcolonial literary canon, an interesting aspect of the literature itself is the use of predominantly western forms to explore colonial themes which have become characterised by a barrage of cultural influences in different shapes and forms. Frederic Jameson and Homi K. Bhabha write from two very different perspectives, though they are comparable in some regards the approaches they take being useful to understanding of the individual as being subject to cultural clashes of colonialism as a barrage of symbol in a postmodern world. Both have being heavily criticised, spurring contentious debate in academic spheres but are at the very least adaptable and compatible for understanding different aspects of the texts studied. A postmodernist approach to understanding of the postcolonial world is useful as it helps the critic to make sense of an imperfect world, any approach is ultimately limited but we can use theoretical frameworks to understand various aspects of the texts in question


Works Cited


Ahmad, Aijaz.  “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and “National Allegory” Social Text, Autumn No. 17 (1987), 3-25


Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge. 1994. Print.


Easthorpe, Antony. “Bhabha, Hybridity and Identity” Textual Practice 12(2), 1998, 341-3


Jameson, Fredric. “Third-world literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”  Social Text, Autumn No. 15 (1986), 65-88. Web.


Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press. 1991. Web.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s