Postmodernism, Postcolonialism, and the Historical Voice of Liberation

-Michaël Veremans

“In other words, the essential thing here is to see clearly, to think clearly—that is, dangerously.” – Aimé Césaire

One of the most effective mechanisms of social control under colonialism and neocolonialism has been the imposition of silence. Whether by tangible creative efforts, by effacing and manipulating cultural practice, or by literally cutting out tongues and murdering, the forces of economic hegemony have always sought to suspend and eventually eradicate the history of a colonized people. Contemporary postcolonial authors have initiated a theory of resistance, one that subverts this deleterious reality of empire. By reappropriating the means of creative social production and founding a postmodern sense of identity, these theorists and artists have been able to establish a new historical narrative for liberation.

The discussion will delve into the ideas and strategies of various theorists and authors as they struggle for postmodern liberation from empire, colonialism, and neocolonialism. This discourse will first define empire and the Marxist scope through which all examples below will be analyze, then survey the issue of liberation in early postcolonial theory from Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral, then discover the modes by which the colonial identity is created and manipulated according to Toni Morrison’s Africanist theory, drawing in examples from Césaire’s essay on chosification. It will continue to discuss the liberation theories proposed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ketu Katrak, before provided limited examples through the postcolonial theory of Derek Walcott with an example from one of his plays followed by a argument in favor of magic realism launched by Michael Dash and Alejo Carpentier with limited examples. The discussion will progress to examine three major works in light of the preceding postmodern, postcolonial exposition: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. The paper will conclude by conglomerating a position of freedom of identity and information from oppression and exploitation through the new historical theory of authors Chinua Achebe and Eduardo Galeano.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have identified the aforementioned, sometimes unwitting global social control for profit as “empire” in their book of the same name. Empire has, since its first publishing in 2000, become a seminal work in international Marxism. Empire as a theory is a contemporary, all pervasive hegemony that oversees economic and cultural exploitation by a multinational—i.e. no longer tied to specific sovereign nations as colonialism was—capitalist class. In revolutionary response to these current global trends, Hardt and Negri propose reappropriation the means of physical AND intellectual production.

Their theory of empire, which forms the framework for the following discussion, corresponds to the efforts of an entire generation of literature while openly advocating for creative liberation. In the face of multifarious oppression, many postcolonial authors have fought to reclaim a teleological condition in their immaterial (non-tangible) production of goods such as ideas and works of art. It is through these efforts, freeing the global colonialized voice and expressing the history of the people, rather than the ruling class, that the repressed narrative becomes revolutionary.

The rediscovery of agency and identification of the mechanisms and effects of exploitation serve as the core of postcolonial thought. According to Frantz Fanon, known in particular for his advocacy of postcolonial nationalism, colonialism attempts—to varying degrees of success—to destroy or manipulate the history of the colonized people, it, “… turns to the past of an oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.” (Fanon, “On National Culture.” 37). Fanon shows that this cultural pressure has created a deep sense of historical orientalism, where the history of the people is obscured and a new history constructed for them by a dominant class, stagnating cultural development.

Fanon, in his essay “On National Culture” discusses three stages of the development of postcolonial cultural expression. The first stage is when literature of the colonized reflects directly the notions of the colonizer and the second stage is one of awakening and struggle against the tradition of oppression, both of which occur during the colonial period. Fanon believes then in a third stage of artistic/cultural expression, residing in the postcolonial era, which he calls “revolutionary literature” and which we now see manifesting globally in authors such as Eduardo Galeano, Ngugi wa Thiongi, Derek Walcott, and Aimé Césaire, “It is a literature of combat because it assumes responsibility, and because it is the will to liberty expressed in terms of time and space” ( 41). According to Fanon—and Hardt and Negri in a different context—now more than ever, we have the ability to produce a mobile, mobilized literature, “… the forms of thought and what it feeds on, together with modern techniques of information, language and dress, have dialectically reorganized the people’s intelligences” (43).

The key to immaterial liberation is found in linguistic and communicative freedom, “… the creation of literacy in our communities as a means of confronting the status quo, becoming an avenue for liberation” (Marc Joseph, “Letter to a Young Poet, 14). Revolutionary Amilcar Cabral discussed culture as a verbal, informative force in National Liberation and Culture, pointing out that history is by nature dialectical, a contrapuntal interchange, not a static or hegemonic construction, “… indicates and conditions the type of material relationships (expressed objectively or subjectively) which exists among various elements or groups constituting the society in question… To speak of these is to speak of history, but it is also to speak of culture” (55). History and cultural are inextricably linked.

Cultural, in this case, constitutes a web of communication, and this must be seized as a means of resistance, “The liberation of productive forces… most appropriate to the evolution of the liberated people necessarily opens up new prospects for the cultural development of the society in question, by returning to that society all its capacity to create progress.” (56). Creative social production is parallel to economic production in ensuring liberation, united and mutually dependent. Therefore, the “multitude”—Hardt and Negri’s synthesis of the people—of the world must unite in utilizing global means of expression to revolutionize cultural representation in a cosmopolitan world.

Since the end of the Cold War, postmodern empire has been enforced globally through capitalistic ventures, military action, or media infiltration, seeking to perpetuate a sense of timelessness within colonized populations. This is accomplished by diminishing, replacing, and/or entirely eradicating the colonized groups personal historical narrative— their place in the past, present, and thus the future, but also their essential right and natural ability to communicate, especially through artistic media. Thus, the first task of the revolutionary is to identify and more fully understand ontologically/semantically empire and its mechanisms of oppression.

Hardt and Negri have explained the oppressive structure of empire during the colonial period as, “The negative construction of non-European others is finally what founds and sustains European identity itself’ (Empire, 124). In this way, the foundation of colonialism/neocolonialism is directly reliant on economic/cultural exploitation of an Other—the Africanist to Toni Morrison and the Orientalist to Edward Said. These theorists argue that be infusing their negatively conceived identity with agency, colonized peoples are able to find liberation, “Adopt the negative pole that they have inherited from the European dialectic and transform it into something positive, intensifying it, claiming it as a moment of self-consciousness” (130). The essential struggle is then to “set history into motion” (130).

Toni Morrison, in her seminal pamphlet on Africanism—a contemporary American theory of Orientalism—entitled “Playing in the Dark,” discusses both the invisibility (a trope noted by authors such as Ralph Ellison and Arundhati Roy) and silence (a trope noted by authors such as Assia Djebar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) that marginalized cultures are subject to within empire. In relation to race she states that, “To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.” (Morrison, “Playing in the Dark,” 10). She is referring here directly to the struggle of race in America, but by extension she is discussing all forms of cultural censorship levied on an exploited people, “It was one of several torture of the European colonized state that the colonies made it an offense, punishable by death, for folks of color to be in possession of noise making instruments” (Marc Joseph, “For Pop”).

The level of societal oppression faced worldwide has driven countless artists to recognize openly the historical destruction imposed by empire. Antagonizing for an alternative in the radical self-affirmation of négritude, Aimé Césaire, uncovers the inherent flaws in capitalism as a humane system, “… capitalist society, at its present state, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics” (“Discourse on Colonialism,” 174). Morrison states that, “The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive” (“Playing in the Dark,” 17), meaning that the underwriters of empire, the pillars of hegemony are utterly dependent on non-dominant groups for not only economic gain, but for their own sense of ontological self. She extends this trope to any marginalized group treated by hegemonic literature as socially dangerous and thus excluded, informing the reader that they must be aware of this truth in order to rebel.

Césaire has explained this notion of Otherness in terms of what he called chosification. Oppressed classes have been cut off from the means for liberation by an intense campaign of economic and cultural fetishism and disenfranchisement, “No human contact, but relations of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production.” (Césaire, “Discourse on Colonialism,” 177). In strict Marxist terms, he paints capitalism and its colonial cultural components as having “thingified” marginalized populations as modes of economic production—essentially exploited slave and wage-slave labor—for financial gain. In doing this, empire has assumed the non-entity of these peoples while atrophying their cultural means of communication in the process.

One limited response to this destructive hegemony has been the rise of national liberation ideologies, which leads to the same problems they seek to solve in an already globalized world directed by a postmodern flow of intellectual and physical commodities. The faith invested in developing a nationalistic identity, often based on pre-colonial conceptions of society, eventually spurs the creation of a more diverse and subtle exploitative system, “While this nationalism seeks to liberate the multitude from foreign domination, it erects domestic structures of domination that are equally severe” (Hardt, Empire, 133). In deconstructing this early postcolonial notion of immaterial reappropriation, Hardy and Negri show that a controlling class doesn’t become less brutal under different national sovereignty because the destruction imposed by empire transcends borders.

To Césaire, pre-colonial society was normatively anti-capitalist, but he advocated that the postcolonial revolution must seek a postmodern struggle for consciousness to grapple with the global oppression of empire. His potent message in Cahier D’un Retour au Pays Natal is unmistakable in its radical suggestion, “I would rediscover the secret of great communications and great combustions… Whoever would not understand me would not understand any better the roaring of a tiger” (Césaire, Cahier, 43-45). The people may be dehumanized (chosified) but they will not be robots, rather tigers in the throws of négritude poised to seize their exploited energy and information technology for their own creative liberation.

Communication then, most of all, is the key to globalizing the struggle of the multitude, “I commence to make art in order to make sense… I use performance to make history. This is my pathway to resistance” (Marc Joseph, “Letter to a Young Poet,” 15). Having identified the antagonists of international tragedy and chosification, any postmodern revolutionary movement must reclaim their humanity and then their inviolable connection to their brothers and sisters in opposition to oppression worldwide. “Who could not feel the subterranean currents of unrest?” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood).

Hardt and Negri echo the essential struggle for language in their theory of telos as a means of cultural development through literature. Reclaiming voice, expressing unfiltered native culture is absolutely vital to the revolutionary process of establishing purpose, “… today all of labor power (be it material or immaterial, intellectual or manual) is engaged in struggles over the senses of language and against capital’s colonization of communicative sociality” (Hardt, Empire, 404). This teleological struggle forms the body of contemporary postcolonial literature and the criticism surrounding it.

When a postmodern, hybrid language such as Creole or Jamaican patwah are expressed in literature and spoken word art, voices are actively reclaimed. According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his essay “The Language of African Literature,” language wass one of the primary areas of immaterial production where colonialism asserts control, “The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation” (265). Given that “language is culture,” natal expression is a vital component in personal liberation, “When expressed, this language can be most empoweringly subversive” (Katrak, “Decolonizing Culture,” 241). Releasing the colonialized voice leads to the development of the creative teleological reappropriation of immaterial production.

In order to mobilize voice, the multitude must next seize the means of communicating their creative conception of liberation. Hardt and Negri champion the “the right to communicate, construct languages, and control communications network” (Hardt, Empire, 410)—the aesthetic goal of all revolutionary literature as an immaterial social production. These forms of expression are not only subversive forces within empire, but also constitute the creative consciousness of a vast sector of that empire according to Thiong’o, “Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication… How people perceive themselves affects how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production of wealth” (“African Literature,” 267). In that same essay he concludes that postcolonial writers should reconnect themselves to the revolutionary tradition by writing African literature in African languages, rather than the language of the colonizer. This expression of cultural telos is not to create linguistic division, but rather to explore the creative postmodern space of a native experience and consciousness.

The radical expression of historical narrative reclaims voice irrevocably while encouraging cultural sustainability, which is then extended to revolutionizing the economic sector. Postcolonialism finds its most powerful expression of telos in knowing the past and agitating for a better future for generations to come, “They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it, that revolutionary literature is a filial impulse, and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor” (Walcott, “Muse of History,” 329). Caribbean playwright Derek Walcott describes postcolonial/postmodern authors as creating a tradition out of revolution that opposes the forgetful objectivity of empire. He likens slavery with amnesia, a suspended consciousness that reflects the current opiated state of consumers in capitalist America, disconnected from the world and from its history. The path is being laid for a new historicism.

In his play, Pantomime, Walcott seeks to directly address the colonial history of slavery and exploitation through the interactions of a young Tobagan hotel server and former calypso artist, Jackson, and the English hotel owner, Harry Trewe. As the two prepare a pantomime about the canonical, Orientalist text Robinson Crusoe, Trewe becomes distraught because Jackson chooses to inject the oblivious castaway narrative with a semblance of telos, “We’re trying to do something light, just a little pantomime… but if you take this thing seriously, we might commit Art, which is a kind of crime in this society” (Pantomime, 40). Trewe was under the false assumption that the conversation of oppression could be subsumed by the entertainment value of the panto, “For them history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory” (“Muse of History,” 329). By deconstructing the Crusoe pantomime in the context of two dialectically opposed theatre styles—classical and Creole—Walcott also explores the nature of cultural oppression, even after many of the vestiges of colonialism have been peeled away.

No, history doesn’t have to forgive or forget and Walcott proves this by writing the living narrative of the colonialized and enslaved into the play Pantomime and into the Crusoe panto itself in the words of Jackson, “Here I am getting into my part and you object. This is the story… this is history. This moment that we are now acting here is the history of imperialism” (40). After confounding the hotelier by projecting his own savage, Orientalist imagination on him, Jackson expresses his own reaffirmed cultural/linguistic agency—ending the play with a song that encapsulates the narrative in his favorite style. He then transforms this linguistic freedom into economic empowerment, demanding a raise in the last line of the play.

The genre group known as magic—marvelous, fantastic—realism has been especially apt in dealing with the postcolonial condition via postmodern means. Theorist Michael Dash champions magic realism in particular because it is a genre primarily concerned with liberating history through affirmation of the subjective experience while remaining entirely socially responsible. Exploited peoples, no matter the level of oppression faced, can still be driven by creative forces, “The only thing they could possess was their imagination and this became the source of their struggle against the cruelty of their condition” (Dash, “Marvellous Realism,” 151) This colonial conditions forms the roots of magic realism, a teleological literature of revolution, fighting  “myths of ‘historylessness’” to establish “A literary aesthetic and reality based on the fragile emergence of the Third World personality from the privations of history.” (151).

Some of the earliest writers on magic realism were quick to identify and remedy the deleterious misconceptions heaped upon Africanist characters in literature. Cuban intellectual juggernaut Alejo Carpentier concerned much of his work with identifying oppression and encouraging creative liberation. The King of This World, for instance, is about the Haitian revolution, which rocked the slave-holding colonial world. In his symphonic novel The Lost Steps, Carpentier restores the agency in native music to its holy heritage, “They were looking for barbarism in things that had never been barbarous when fulfilling their ritual function in the setting for which they were designed” (254). In The Lost Steps, voice and history are one, struggling for liberation in the face of stifling empire,

… the only human race to which it is forbidden to sever the bonds of time is the race of those who create art, and who not only must move ahead of the immediate yesterday… but must anticipate the song and the form of others who will follow them, creating new tangible witness with full awareness of what has been done up to the moment. (278)

Artists must, therefore, be vitally connected to their own sense of history as well as the global narrative, which are the tools of creative liberation.

With its clear and active sense of telos, magic realism follows Ketu H. Katrak’s revolutionary aesthetic, “Social responsibility must be the basis of any theorizing on postcolonial literature as well as the root of the creative work of the writers themselves.” (“Decolonizing Culture,” 239). There is a veritable tradition of revolutionary writers who seek to expose and rectify the crimes against the multitude committed by colonialism and neolcolonialism. Through reappropriation of the immaterial means of creative production, writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o call for true liberation, anticipating a future literature of the multitude.

In grandiose steps, blazing trails in the marvelous realist tradition, Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes an entire family history over the course of a hundred years as it grapples with internal turmoil and an external world that’s rendered at once beautiful and hostile by his Spanish prose. Hundred Years of Solitude exhibits Fanon’s notion of the muffling nature of empirical hegemony at various instances where a postmodern economic system is introduced to the focal isolated village Macondo and the history of the book, so meticulously constructed, is eradicated through enforced silence and mass murder.

Marquez begins the novel with a personal narrative that is juxtaposed with a historical event, namely the execution of Liberal military leaders in civil war torn Latin America. This poetic recollection introduces the postcolonial trope of threatened history, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (Marquez, Solitude, 1). This moment of tender reflection of the revolutionary military leader before the firing squad is echoed again and again throughout the novel like a historical plumb, but metaphorically it concerns a personal narrative on the verge of extinction. Aureliano Buendia, through recollection, initiates a personal historical narrative before he is silenced, to be remembered or forgotten (132), forming the telos of Hundred Years of Solitude.

After the fertile basin around Macondo is surveyed by a United States “lepidopterist”—Mr. Brown—a North American fruit company reminiscent of Chiquita and United Fruit brings its operations to Latin America, a land already extirpated from the ravages of European colonialism. The exploitation is immediately evident in the poor conditions and constant urge to strike among the workers. It is evident that the banana company has come to Macondo to initiate neocolonial oppression that eventually extended to social and political control (232). Later, when the control mechanisms of the company are exposed and a strike breaks out, the banana company reverts to violent means suppress its own brutal history and the voice of the workers that have borne witness to that history.

When the workers of Macondo strike, the government sends in troops at the behest of the banana company to restore order and keep the trains that transport commodities moving. Acting on behalf of American economic interests the troops first finish cutting, packing, and shipping the last crop of bananas before mowing down the striking workers in a holocaust of gunfire, “They were penned in, swirling about in a gigantic whirlwind… as the edges were systematically being cut off all around like an onion being peeled by the insatiable and methodical shears of the machine guns” (311). By killing the thousands of striking workers, the banana company, an agent of empire, erases its own history with casts the denizens of Macondo into oblivion—suspending time in Macondo for ten years thereafter, symbolized by a smothering rain.

Jose Aracdio Segundo, the sole survivor of the massacre, is transported out of this narrative time on a train carrying the dead bodies of the massacred workers to the ocean, but he jumps out and runs back to Macondo to communicate the destruction wrought by economic hegemony. The workers are shown to be the true commodities here, chosified to death. The sea that the victims’ bullet ridden bodies are consigned to and the deluge of rain that follows are developed metaphors for imposed forgetfulness, history washed away.

An extensive and brutal desaparecido campaign following the massacre virtually disappears the entire episode of exploitation from the consciousness of Macondo and the rest of the world. Death squads try to kill Jose Arcadio Segundo, but he is rendered literally—and ironically—invisible, a ghost to the establishment. Thanks to his endurance, the banana company’s presence in Macondo rots away with the stagnant rain. He survives the victims vocally to the memories of his ancestors, “’Always remember that they were more than three thousand and that they were thrown into the sea’” (359), thus entering the massacre into the book itself. In this way, Jose Arcadio Segundo is a postmodern revolutionary, seizing his voice and the means of communication to staving off “the privations of history.”

Both sovereign Asian and colonial English powers have cast the “untouchable” class of India to a state of historylessness, which has, in turn, been reflected on the entire colonial consciousness. Arundhati Roy’s 1997 unrivaled subaltern novel The God of Small Things is precisely about this phenomenon of imposed silence as a pair of twins—Estha and Rahel—in postcolonial India experiences it. In the novel, Paravans form the lowest rung of local society, and they are arbitrarily condemned to oblivion, “… Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would no defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint” (Roy, Small Things, 71). This untouchable caste is defined by people’s historian Eduardo Galeano: “The outcasts, one in five Indians… are called ‘Untouchables’ because they contaminate: damned among the damned, they cannot speak to others, walk on their paths…” (Mirrors, 9). Similarly, Morrison posited that the postcolonial Africanist would destroy the history and identity of the metaphysically exploited.

Roy speaks out against the “taboo” against untouchables in various ways as a trope for the oppression levied on all working people by capitalist empire. The metaphor of Mammachi’s banana jam is particularly potent. It is declared illegal by the food administration because of its ambiguous legal classification (30), much like the marginalized untouchables. But the most outward example of the oppression of dominant society can be found in the forbidden love between (touchable) Ammu and (untouchable) Velutha that forms one of the final cruxes of the novel—a struggle against “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much” (Roy, Small Things, 33).

Like the Buendia family house in A Hundred Years of Solitude, the History House in Roy’s novel becomes a trope for the perception of history in the novel. The History House, once a family colonial rubber estate is now a tourist destination where the history of India is festishized—native huts are recreated and sacred cultural expressions chosified for the profit of the hotel owners. The tourists who stay there are treated to native performances, which are capitalist bastardizations of their cultural counterpart, “In the evenings (for that Regional Flavor) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances. So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated.” (121). The kathakali dancers must forget or change the stories that they tell with each body movement, destroying the history of an entire people for money.

According to Hard and Negri, empire attempts to trivialize culture by taking the common and fetishizing it, editing the Kathakali performances then capitalizing on it: “In each process the communal possession, which is considered natural, is transformed at public expense into a second and third nature that functions finally for profit” (Empire, 301). Cultural expression for the Kathakali man is his form of immaterial production and as a creative laborer he is being exploited and silenced, “… trapped outside the History House, and have their dreams re-dreamed” (Roy, Small Things, 134) The dancers are seen later in the novel repenting ecstatically for the socio-economic pressure that has corrupted their creative production for the entertainment of empire, but it isn’t their fault.

Walcott’s Pantomime reflects this economic exploitation of native communication lucidly, given that the Crusoe adaptation, which Jackson is writing at Trewe’s behest, is itself for the entertainment of foreign tourists in the hotel. Empire constitutes hostility to historical movement, a timelessness that can be resisted only by the radical reappropriation of narrative, personal and historical. At the finale end of The God of Small Things, the twins consummate the pressure of their history, much akin to Aureliano Babilonia and Amaranta Ursula in Marquez’s text where incest means certain oblivion for the race “condemned to one hundred years of solitude” (422). But for Roy, the culmination of the twins’ relationship is a healing action, the intimate understanding of a history of oppression with a hope for the future.

In Petals of Blood (title taken from Derek Walcott’s poem “The Swamp”), Ngugi wa Thiong’o represents several of the common tropes and motifs that accompany the control of artistic information as an extension of economic exploitation as well as exhibiting communities struggling against those stilling pressures. Thiong’o acknowledges the widespread immaterial oppression in Kenya specifically as a result of capital interests, “Seeing that he [the African man] was still fighting back, they brought priests and educators to bind his mind and soul so that these foreigners could more easily take his land and its produce” (Petals, 281). Once the native soul was bound, debts were levied, land was taken, and a new oppressing class of Kenyans replaced the European power structure without eliminating divisions forged by the colonialists, “The national bourgeoisie serves to mediate the underdevelopment imposed on African by imperialism” (Fogel, Africa in Struggle, 122). This miseducation, exploitation, and their results form the fatal narrative of the novel.

Thiong’o opens up a discursive on the deleterious pedagogy of colonialist powers and their shaping of postcolonial consciousness through his main protagonist, Munira, the sole trained teacher in a one-horse village in the Gikuyu highlands called Ilmorog. Munira vacillates between being critical of the education establishment and being almost enamored with its institutional rigidity, despite the historical dissonance of the education. Even his former instructor Cambridge Fraudsham, a figure championing native education and Cabral’s theory of national identity, upholds old notions of stifling sovereignty, “We had to grow up strong in God an Empire” (Thiong’o, Petals, 35). Here empire is taken to mean the imperial British and colonialism in general, but it also symbolizes the broader neocolonial control construct and immaterial repression outlined by Hardt and Negri.

Empire strips a colonialized people of their own history and identity in order to subjugate them economically, a condition that Thiong’o explains: “Our present-day historians, following on similar theories yarned out by the defenders of imperialism, insist we only arrived here yesterday.” (80). This is a clear immaterial example of neocolonialism taking advantage of imperial infrastructure to oppress rather than liberate the people from capitalism while at the same time destroying native history and beginning it at a new point: European colonization. Thiong’o is speaking here of his own people the Gikuyu, Africans who have been disoriented from their own local identity through capitalist hegemony, “The Gods of Africa and the Gods of other lands have wrestled for the mastery of man’s soul and for the control of the result of man’s holy sweat.” (81). This Senghorian spiritual consideration for liberation also serves as a blueprint for struggle of the multitude worldwide against exploitation.

As Kenya underwent economic development after independence, exploitation became even more rampant than ever, taking a very deep cultural route to oppression. Countless examples in Petals of Blood illustrate this phenomenon. The fascistic business interests of certain Kenyan politicians appropriate one of the strongest symbols of community and spirituality in the book, a ceremonial alcohol taken from the theng’eta plant, for private profit “Nderi was Riera [Kenyan politician], was convinced that Africa could only be respected when it had its own Rockefellers… KCO would serve the interests of the wealthy locals and their foreign partners to great similar economic giants” (223).  The Theng’eta Brewery goes from being locally owned to belonging to an “Anglo-American international combine” that employs African directors from the capitalized KCO (the governing bourgeois social body) in order to maintain the exploitative status quo. Hardt and Negri identify the process by which multinational investment schemes override the bounds of any one sovereign nation national sovereignty in the economic postmodernization of empire.

This economic oppression occurs side by side with the increasingly crippling practice of oathing by the KCO, by which ethnic divisions are created, unjust debt introduced, and no form of socio-political redress made available (328)— in other words, silence. Many of the adult characters of the novel, are forced into one such ceremony, known as “tea at Gatunda” (105), where they are force fed a dissonant historical doctrine, written by the African directors of the Theng’eta brewery. The oath takers are encouraged to “donate” money and support the economic development of the KCO. The blatant exploitation of landowners and laborers is blamed on farcical intertribal resource competition when in fact the multinational capital class is the only source of dearth in the country (102). Thus, business interests can be witnessed directly creating cultural division to maintain profits.

When the focal village of Ilmorog becomes a large industrial city, the citizens are alienated and exploited on even more intimate cultural levels. An utamaduni tourist center is set up near the New Ilmorog industrial park that is described in the same culturally exploitative terms as the History House tourist hotel in The God of Small Things,

“Women go there to sing native songs and dance for white tourists… they are paid… well… that’s another story… anyway, I went there and found Nderi wa Riera… and the German I once met in Nairobi… He is one of the owners of this tourist village, with huts built as they imagine our huts used to be before the Europeans came. Our utamaduni… a museum… for them to look at.” (346-347)

The female protagonist Wanja goes from brewing theng’eta to catering to wealthy businessmen as a Madame. This tourist center begins to seem more like a brothel than a cultural establishment, exploiting the townspeople while fetishizing their own culture. The brewery directors do not compensate the Gikuyu the culture that is being marketed and production of the traditional theng’eta becomes a legal monopoly. The humiliation and disenfranchisement of colonialism continues after the British remove their colonial presence (but not their investments) and the characters of Petals of Blood find different ways to fight against this indignity.

Thiong’o’s subtle liberation philosophy can be gleaned from the ruminations of his main characters—as long as there is a dominant voice in history and a subjugated voice, there will be violence and exploitation. He is not concerned with returning to a pre-colonial past as a remedy for oppression, but definitely conveys the important of returning to a sense of cultural agency in democracy, “There was a time when… we made up our own words and sang them and we danced to them, But there came a time when this power was taken from us… Those out there can also, for a change, dance to the actions and words of us that sweat…” (138-139). He seeks a more plural, democratic, humanist solution to the hegemony of empire. What the desperate Ilmorog delegation agrees on before setting out to the capital to demand their share of social justice—they must develop their voice.

One character seems to manage to break past cultural degradation and economic exploitation by seizing the Césairian tiger’s roar is the young student/Theng’eta brewery worker Karega. He pursues a dialectical understanding of history as a starting point for the development of a creative resistance movement based on reappropriated information. After becoming disillusioned with the history he is taught at school, Karega struggles towards an unfettered “vision of the future rooted in a critical awareness of the past” (237). In their correspondence, the activist Nairobi lawyer encourages him to look past single-sided, simplistic renderings of history (such as the one stunting African history) and to be, above all else, critical and creative, “… China was saved, not by singers and poets telling of great past cultures, but by the creative struggle of the workers for a better day today” (358). They broke the bonds of cultural sedation by banning the production and sale of opium, a major cash crop of the former British Empire.

Karega’s commitment to social justice and the liberation of his fellow workers at the Theng’eta plant manifests itself as he seizes the potency of language and history. He resists by immaterial means, namely by writing and distributing pamphlets that, among other, things, champion the rights of the people to their land, presenting to fellow workers a teleological history of liberation. Thiong’o provides the reader with an example of cultural revolution in its early stages with Petals of Blood, founded in freedom of information, “‘I have been reading a lot about what the workers and peasants of other lands have done in history’” (404). This serves as a radical message to the postcolonial, postneocolonial reader—revolution becomes not a single act, but a perpetual tradition, “… Mau Mau was only a link in the chain in the long struggle of African people through different times at different places” (165). This struggle can be extended to all colonized people and all marginalized people across the globe within the context of empire’s economic caste system that spares not even Western countries.

The most important thing for an oppressed people to reclaim is their sense of identity and self-worth. This is achieved in many ways—culturally, spiritually, economically—but it must be achieved. This has been the primary goal of all of the texts treated in this discussion, but particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things, and Petals of Blood, where in each novel, the protagonist must struggle for their identity under a capitalist regime of empire. This resistance cannot follow national lines, as Cabral advocates, but must be a movement of global connectivity, a unified communicative action, a seizure of the means of creative production, the solution championed by Hardt and Negri.

To achieve international cohesion among those kept ignorant by empire, those muffled by the capitalist class, humanity must develop a sense of hybridity. Hip hop theorists such as Danny Hoch would call this principle the remix, where many different cultural elements, spanning the history of those cultures are combined with socially responsible spoken word through the latest music technology (the turntables or mixing boards). More than a postnégritude, postmodern music form, hip hop is the language of the global disenfranchised, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, because they are all divisions informed by economic oppression. Hip hop music and literature are the drums that beat in the forests of Haiti, beckoning revolution, awakening the Toussaint l’Ouverture in all of us.

Language must be reclaimed from the structure of economic exploitation, which sampling does, which hip hop struggles to do, defying copyright laws constantly. Caribbean musician Harry Belafonte was quoted as saying, “’Y’all gotta define yourselves. Until you do, they will.’” (Hoch “Hip-Hop Aesthetic,” 363) Meaning that the search for a postcolonial identity, initiated by Aimé Césaire’s négritude, must continue and be revolutionary in the face of empire. Like the Creole language, which Walcott and Katrak defend in their essays, the remix is a positive convergence of culture on a cosmopolitan level for the information age. This is the postmodern construction of identity.

If what Hardt and Negri hypothesize about empire is true then revolutionary creativity must attempt to destroy the timeless, voiceless state imposed by empire and to developing a teleological history. Postcolonial literature in itself, as a means of social production, is liberatory. The new identity it creates and the voice it contributes to cultural cosmopolitanism, “The real revolutionary practice refers to the level of production. Truth will not make us free, but taking control of the production of truth will” (Hardt, Empire, 156). Seizing the means of creative production, as Karega does, continually serves to decenter empire and extend liberation, which is not a single movement but an ongoing state of struggle under empire.

Chinua Achebe openly advocates for resistance through the artistic expression of a new historicism in his essay “Politics of Language,” and warns against idealizing the reconnected past, “… those who would canonize out past must serve also as the devil’s advocate, setting down beside the glories every inconvenient fact” (27). Galeano’s global people’s narrative, Mirrors, follows this philosophy, communicating the “truth” by means of mass publishing and international distribution. It depicts the productive class in action through subjective narratives, releasing the voice of all those who have been repressed by hegemonic history and wrangling global narratives to form a neomarxist telos. The postmodern postcolonialist is entrusted with the perpetual subversion of the destruction of culture and stifling of personal and social expression for profit.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “The Politics of Language.” Post-Colonial Studies Reader 2nd ed. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Piffin. New York: Rutledge, 2006.

Cabral, Amilcar. National Liberation and Culture. (Handout)

Césaire, Aimé. Cahier D’un Retour au Pays Natal. The Collected Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

—. Discourse on Colonialism. (Handout)

Dash, Michael. “Marvelous Realism.” Post-Colonial Studies Reader 2nd ed. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Piffin. New York: Rutledge, 2006.

Fanon, Frantz. On National Culture. (Handout)

Fogel, Daniel. Africa in Struggle. Seattle: Ism Press, 1982.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hoch, Danny. “Toward a Hip-Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip-Hop Arts Movement.” Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. Ed. Jeff Chang. New York: BasicCivitas, 2006.

Galeano, Eduardo. Mirrors. New York, Nation Books, 2008.

Joseph, Marc Bamuthi. “For Pop.” YouTube.

—. “(Yet Another) Letter to a Young Poet.” Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. Ed. Jeff Chang. New York: BasicCivitas, 2006.

Katrak, Ketu. “Decolonizing Culture: Toward a Theory of Post-Colonial Women’s Texts.” Post-Colonial Studies Reader 2nd ed. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Piffin. New York: Rutledge, 2006.

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: Penguin Group, 1967.

Morrison, Toni. “Playing in the Dark.” New York: Random House, Inc., 1992.

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Random House, Inc., 1997.

Thiong’o, Nugugi wa. “The Language of African Literature.” Post-Colonial Studies Reader 2nd ed. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Piffin. New York: Rutledge, 2006.

—. Petals of Blood. New York: Penguin Group, 1977.

Walcott, Derek. “Muse of History.” Post-Colonial Studies Reader 2nd ed. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Piffin. New York: Rutledge, 2006.

—. Pantomime. (Handout)

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One Response to Postmodernism, Postcolonialism, and the Historical Voice of Liberation

  1. Marla says:

    silence is the great oppressor—glad you found your voice!! ~Mom

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