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Post-colonialism; diistortion of history?

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6/1/2013 8:40:44 PM
Posted: 3 years ago
Recently I've been mulling over the extent to which post-colonialist views / critiques of history distort (or influence) our conception of history, specifically with regard to the history of countries who were formerly colonies. Given DDO's understanding of various related fields, I thought that DDO might be able to illuminate some of the finer points behind the various arguments. Here's some of my initial thoughts on postcolonialism: (bear with me for a bit!)

Post-colonialist critiques arose out of a rejection of European "meta-narratives" of modernisation, imperialism and colonialism. These critiques sought to attack the former image of colonialism as fairly harmless, and did so by putting individual perspectives at the centre of colonialism; people began to be the focus of post-colonialist history. To use this oversimplified springboard:

One outcome of postcolonialism has been the view (of some) that only indigenous people should be writing their own histories. If memory serves, Chinua Achebe advocated such a thing. On that note, post-colonial critiques of Heart of Darkness seem to me to be unjustified, and an active attempt to attack a reasonable description of history. Conrad"s work was an accurate discussion of imperialism, yet it was savaged by post-colonialist critiques. I digress though. I think that limiting who can write history is a view which necessarily distorts history and in this case results in too substantial a focus being placed upon "the virtues of the fragmentary, the local, and the subjugated" . I do wish to note though that some Western historians may have difficulty in writing history from an Indigenous perspective. For instance, a historian named Howard Petersen struggled to discuss Aboriginal history in an Indigenous manner. As he says "The integration of these stories into a western historical narrative is highly problematic... Aboriginal perceptions of the past and explanations about why certain events occurred do not sit easily within western historical chronology and its understanding of cause and effect."

My second critique is, to my mind, my strongest one " postcolonial scholars seek to reinterpret the colonial perspective through discussing indigenous perspectives. However, former colonies as a general rule have a strong oral tradition. The strengths and weaknesses of oral history are a debate in themselves, but oral history can"t hope to match up to a written tradition that has a strong epistemological foundation. That"s part of what I was talking about with regards to Petersen.

That"s a brief overview of my (evolving) thoughts on the matter. I"m trying to tentatively create an idea of what history should focus on, as well as how post-colonialism affects history. So:

How does post-colonialism influence, correct or distort our prior conceptions of history? Are the changes beneficial or not? These are bold questions beyond my amateurish dabblings. If I may add, I"m also drawing on the literary theory of post-colonialism, with books like Heart of Darkness and The Quiet American (and post-colonialist critiques of such) both featuring in my thoughts.

I"d be most grateful if DDO could dissect my thoughts. As I said, I"m trying to evaluate the extent to which post-colonialist critiques of history distort the history of former colonies. Any accessible articles, books or other resources you know of would be a great boon and help to me. I"d be most interested to hear your thoughts, your recommendations... your insight. I"ve presented a fairly one-sided (and incoherent) argument. How would you assault it?
"Tis not in mortals to command success
But we"ll do more, Sempronius, we"ll deserve it
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6/3/2013 1:41:47 PM
Posted: 3 years ago
I think that I will start a separate thread that relates to this. The problem with most history writing is that the context is lost, and the recreation of it is almost always lacking. Some of it is deliberate and some is not, but I will give you an example of where history is rewritten through contextual reassessments. Benedict Arnold is considered the ultimate traitor, he is the icon of American traitors, and his name is synonymous with the word traitor. Truth is, he thought all of his actions to be for the good of the country that he loved, and the cause of freedom that he cherished. Arnold hated the French, and when he saw the French influence in the war he became quite concerned that the colonies would simply switch to being run by France, a papist power that was forever at odds with the British. Now you have to understand that those fighting the British were former British subjects, and were from a British background, and were quite proud of being of British descent. They had British culture and language and heritage, and identified themselves as Anglo. The idea that the American colonies would fall to the French was unthinkable, and it was that fear that pushed him to the side of the Brits.

However, the fact remains that he switched sides in the midst of battle, and such an action had to be condemned, so the colonialist Americans, or whatever they were considered in the midst of the war, had to label him as a traitor, and make him an icon of treason. Whereas, in reality he was a great war hero, who was dedicated to the cause and switched sides in an effort to save the colonies from being French.

Context is everything in history, and it is often the first thing that is lost.
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6/3/2013 3:22:31 PM
Posted: 3 years ago
I was hoping more people would participate in this thread before I chimed in, as I most certainly do not harbor an expert opinion on this subject.

To go straight at the title of the OP, I would ask what is history, and by what means would it be distorted? Is there such a thing as "objective" history? Or, is it a matter subject to opinion?

I would say that history is subjective, and it would be subject to the interpretation of the historian. In this sense, one who agrees with the historian would find history to be relatively "objective", while those that disagree would find history to be "distorted".

My (extremely limited) understanding of post-colonialism is that it arose post-WWII, and that Heart of Darkness was more a description of European colonialism and thus not post-colonial. IMHO this is extremely important because WWII signaled a new paradigm in global geopolitics - that of the American hegemon. All other systems became subsumed under this paradigm, to include European colonialism. What resulted was a harsh critique of European values, ostensibly to highlight the moral superiority of America, but more IMHO to solidify American control over Europe. It is under this rubric of American subjectivity that I think comprises of most modern history.

Post-colonialism would fall under this American critique. Indigenous peoples are prioritized, because that would weaken the colonial ties to Europe of these peoples, thus making Europe more susceptible to American influence. America itself has an extremely limited experience with colonialism (we outright exterminated the natives, or wholly assimilated them a la Hawaii), so America would not be affected by such a critique. This plays to America's advantage in this new geopolitical reality.

Britain, America's closest European ally both culturally and politically, is also relatively unaffected by this reality. Gigantic states like Australia and Canada still follow the British Crown, because these states were less colonies of subjected indigenous peoples than actual extensions of the British people, generally speaking because Britain applied the same kind of marginalization that America applied to the former indigenous population.


On readings, lol, after doing a cursory search, I stumbled upon readings that I was assigned to read in college as optional works and never got around to doing so. Antonio Gramsi seems to be the biggest name in this field and most relevant to your inquiry, at least from the Marxist perspective I was instilled with at Cal.
At 8/9/2013 9:41:24 AM, wrichcirw wrote:
If you are civil with me, I will be civil to you. If you decide to bring unreasonable animosity to bear in a reasonable discussion, then what would you expect other than to get flustered?