Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Ok, so here is a rather rough draft of the paper mentioned in the post below....

What is the Function of the Post- in Postmodernism and Post-colonialism? a deconstructive reading of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Is the Post- In Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?”

Nicol Hammond

While the title of Appiah’s essay, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” (1991) suggests an inquiry into the relationship between postmodernism and postcolonialism, it in fact appears as more of a critique of the position of cultural production from the ‘periphery’ in the west, most specifically, North America. Nonetheless, Appiah does make an attempt to answer the question he poses in the title near the end of the paper, when he writes that “Postcoloniality is after all this [Postreal writing, postnativist politics, a transnational rather than a national solidarity … optimism]: and its post-, like that of postmodernism, is also a post- that challenges earlier legitimating narratives” (1991: 353) (italics are the author’s). In this answer, then, Appiah suggests an agreement with Rice and Waugh, who write that “Postmodernism is … expressed theoretically across a diverse range of theoretical discourses and involving: a focus on the collapse of grand narratives into local incommensurable language games or ‘little narratives’; a Foucauldian emphasis on the discontinuity and plurality of history as discursively produced and formulated, and a tendency to view the discourses of Enlightenment reason as complicit with the instrumental rationalization of modern life” (2001: 325). In general, then, Appiah suggests that postmodernism and post-colonialism are characterized by a challenge to, even rejection of, metanarratives, a definition commonly accepted by adherents and critics of the theoretical movement (see, for example: Butler, 2002; Lyotard, 1986; Said, 1993; hooks, 1991).
Given this definition, then, it would stand to reason that the catalogue of the Perspectives: Angles on African Art exhibition, which Appiah quotes as claiming that
field aesthetics studies … have shown that African informants will criticize sculptures from other ethnic groups in terms of their own traditional criteria, often assuming that such works are simply inept carvings of their own aesthetic tradition” (exhibition catalogue, Center for African Art, New York, 1987: 9. Quoted in Appiah, 1991: 337)
stands outside of the postmodern critical tradition in that it suggests both that the aesthetic judgments of certain contributors to the catalogue stand outside of the contextualizing perspectives of their familiar culture, and that a western aesthetic idiom can be applied universally to artworks produced in Africa, as Appiah suggests. On the other hand, however, Appiah claims that in the contributions of David Rockefeller to the catalogue are “surely a microcosm of the site of the African in contemporary – which is, then, surely to say, postmodern – America” (338). How these apparently contradictory perspectives are reconciled is unclear if one is only to consider Appiah’s suggestion that the post- in postmodernism, like the post- in post-colonialism, is “after [Postreal writing, postnativist politics, a transnational rather than a national solidarity … optimism]”. The problem with this construction lies in the little word “after” which suggests, in a standard teleological interpretation, that postmodernism exists only once modernism, with its constructs of objectivity and universalist metanarratives, has passed. Appiah’s example of the exhibition, however, suggests that modernist metanarratives and postmodern conceptions of art coexist in American society. It is apparently irreconcilable conflicts of this nature which have led to the denial by critics of postmodernism of the possibility of the existence of a postmodern condition.
Appiah’s construction of postmodernism is in direct conflict with his example of the place of African cultural production in postmodern American society. He claims that “‘postmodernism’ is a name for the rejection of that claim to exclusivity [which characterizes modernism]” (342), a state of affairs that, were it in force, would make the co-existence of modernist and postmodernist concepts impossible. Appiah’s construction is not, however, entirely concurrent with other theorists’ constructions of postmodernism; a set of definitions that allow such contradictions to co-exist. Barth wrote in 1980 that postmodernism was essentially a “continuation but modification of cultural modernism” ( Barth, 1980, quoted in Rice and Waugh, 2001). The benefit of this definition lies in its suggestion that the post- in postmodernism does not suggest “after”, but rather “a modification of”, modernism.
In light of this construction, then, a return to the topic of Appiah’s essay raises the question ‘is postcolonialism a “continuation but modification of” colonialism?’ Appiah suggests that James Baldwin, a black author who draws attention through his writing to the conditions of black Americans, was also the only co-curator whose choice did not treat Africa as primitive. Appiah points out that Baldwin’s choice is postmodern in the sense that it addresses the work “in terms of [his] own … criteria” (339), thus “torpedo[ing] Vogel’s argument for her notion that the only ‘authentically traditional’ African … unlike the rest of the cocurators … will use his ‘own … criteria’”. He suggests, however, that Vogel’s idea that an African artist is unable to objectively judge the work in question, while the other curators are, is a symptom of postmodernism which excludes those not educated in postmodern theory. He does not recognize her oversight as part of a modernist condition that regards a western aesthetic sensibility as universally applicable. And he does not appear to recognize that this state of affairs, in which one black curator’s opinion is taken as more objective than another’s, is possible only in a post-colonial situation, in which a limited recognition of the racism that made colonialism possible encourages the serious inclusion of a black contributor, while that same racism is apparent in the primary curator’s interpretation of another black curator’s contribution. post-colonialism, in this context, is proven to be fundamentally a continuation of colonialism, but with some modification.
Appiah suggests that post-colonialism is characterized by a “clear[ing] of space” (342), a response to the comodification of culture. He connects this to constructions of postmodernism which operate around the construction of difference. While it is understandable that the postmodern condition, which functions around a decentering, a shift from metanarratives to a vindication of multiple narratives, functions around constructs of difference, it is also justified by its vindication and celebration of difference. Chaterjee has suggested that the colonial project functioned as "...the normalizing rule of colonial difference” (quoted in DeHay 2006), or in other words, the construction and entrenchment of notions of difference. This differs from the postmodern recognition of difference, however, in that colonialism uses difference to entrench power inequalities, and the domination of one group over another. The distinction between postmodern difference and colonial difference is the use of the latter for purposes of subjugation, and the former, for the opening of possibilities. Postmodernism makes the possibility of variation, difference, change, and hence ‘play’ both valid and desirable. Similarly, post-colonialism broadens the possibilities for cultural production by validating multiple cultural modes and markers in contexts in which they would not previously have been possible.
Rather than critiquing Vogel’s use of the word neo-traditional in terms of post-colonialism and postmodernism, Appiah suggests that neo-traditional, in the sense in which it is used in the exhibition catalogue in question, is in fact no different from notions of the ‘traditional’, a construct which he justifiably connects with modernism. I would suggest, however, that the notion of ‘play’, as characterized by Derrida (1966), makes the incorporation of a bicycle and western dress in the Yoruba statue included in the exhibition a justifiable inclusion in an exhibit of African perspectives. While other pieces in the exhibit are selected for their resonance with western styles of design and architecture (Appiah, 337 and 338), the man with the bicycle suggests the extent to which western culture has been incorporated into African culture in an era after the advent of colonialism. This incorporation and reinscription subverts notions of difference between the west and its other, while simultaneously questioning the validity of the exhibition of primitivist representations of Africa in an era after the intermingling of culture, an era of post-colonialism. While the colonial project inscribed difference, and delegitimated culture that was not that of the colonizer, modernism delegitimated non-western culture by constructing it as primitive. Postcolonialism, on the other hand, equalizes different cultures by providing the opportunity for western culture to be exhibited on an equal footing with African culture. The man with the bicycle can be viewed as a sort of tongue-in-cheek response to primitivist constructs of African art. The artist, and the curator, play with the notion of Africa, the west, and traditional culture.
While Appiah suggests that “Postcoloniality has become … a condition of pessimism,” (353), I would suggest that it is rather a condition of possibility. Postcoloniality may exist in a space after “postreal writing, postnativist politics, a transnational rather than a national solidarity”, but it does not necessarily exist in a space in which these things are possible. Postcolonial theorists may react against realism, nativism and nationalism, but the fact that such resistance is necessary suggests that these states still exhist. the postmodern condition, however, makes these practices essentially less sinister in that it destroys their ability to function as metanarratives. If nationalism and transnationalism, realism and post-realism, nativism and post-nativism can co-exist, neither can claim the state of transcendent, or objective, truth. Despite his conviction that post-colonialism is a condition of pessimism, a conviction that is disproved by the proximity of the concept to the fundamentally playful concept of postmodernism, I would concede that he is correct in his suggestion that the post- in both concepts functions as a challenge to earlier legitimating narratives. It is, however, possible for this challenge to exist only because the conditions being challenged continue to exist. The battle is over when the enemy is gone.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 1991. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” in Criticl Inquiry 17. Chicago: The University of Chicago.

Butler, Christopher. 2002. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DeHay, Terry. 2006. A Post-colonial Perspective.

Derrida, Jaques. 1966. Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

hooks, bell. 1991. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics Turnaround. Boston: South End Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1986. The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh (eds). 2001. Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition. London: Arnold.

Said, Edward. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. Chatto & Windus.

Sarup, Madan. 1993. An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Atlanta: University of Georgia Press.


I have a paper for an anthropology course due at the end of the week that deals with the relationship between concepts of Postmodernism and Post-colonialism. I have started by reading through and considering the wikipedia entry on Postmodernism:

The way I understand it, Postmodernism is about dealing with the dislocation caused by contemporary society. Place, history and identity are all much more flexible and less influential than before, because technology has allowed people to exist in multiple spaces, including virtual spaces, like the internet. Postmodernism allows one to engage with history, society, technology, or whatever, without becoming defined by any of them. Postmodernism also places more value in the judgments and interpretations of the audience, thereby diminishing artistic and scholarly privilege.

Ok, but later in the entry, under the introduction, they suddenly begin discussing how postmodernism sees knowledge as closely linked to context and place, and yet less fixed. Is the less fixed part simply less bound to metanarratives, or does more closely bound to context etc. Mean that knowledge is determined by interpretation, which can change according to who is doing the interpretation, and there own context?
Perhaps its a combination of both.

Or perhaps the real issue is that because knowledge is so contingent on subjectivity, postmodernism is not about gaining knowledge at all, but purely about deconstructing perceptions of knowledge. Great, That leaves the way open for endless possibilities, but also endless deconstruction. If you constantly break down knowledge systems, what do you replace them with?

Hyperreality: Is that simulated reality, as in a reality created by mass media, or is it a reality which incorporates physical reality, but allows for alternatives?

Ok, so postmodernism is all about the negotiation and construction of individual realities which exist only for a specific set of circumstances. Localization.

Postmodernism and critical theory. I need to look this up separately.

If Postmodernism has its origins in anti-establishment thought, then where do universities, as one major proponent of postmodern theory fit into the theories framework. Are postmodern academics incapable of legitimate postmodern practice?

The idea of play in language: if the reader's associations and assumptions are more important than those of the author, than surely the audiences reactions to and associations with music are more important than what the composer intended. Therefore, if a piece doesn't gain an audience, is it meaningless? What does that say about some of the thoroughly inaccessible music composed in the name of postmodernism?

Postmodern conceptions of art are rather liberating. The whole concept of Postmodernism seemed a little nihilistic and distressing when I started this, but it is starting to seem more like an opening up of ideas and possibilities. Perhaps my dislike for the idea before came from its association with Dadaism, and my negative experiences of it.

Under the heading "Deconstruction" is the suggestion that the purpose of deconstruction is to "undermine the frame of reference and assumptions that underpin the text or the artifact". Perhaps it is pedantic, but I have a problem with the word "undermine". Deconstruction is about suggesting alternatives, not bashing the given. The idea that deconstruction undermines a set of assumptions is what has given it a bad name. In certain circumstances, the end result of a deconstructive reading may be the undermining of less legitimate universalisms, but the point is not overtly to create such a situation.

I like the idea of "play", which is mentioned under the sub-heading "postmodernism in language", but I don't really agree with the way that the "obscuritanism" argument is addressed. Quite frankly, I think that play in writing that obscures meaning rather than reveals alternatives or contingencies is simply poor writing. And it does happen all too frequently, usually in the context of self-consciously post-modern writing. Perhaps the best examples I have seen of an effective "play" occur in the writings of John and Jean Comaroff. They write clearly and explicitly, but suggest contingency by using clever puns that make one think twice about the real meaning of their words. It keeps the reader one step away while still remaining engaging.

Ok, so that is it for now. Perhaps not desperately helpful to my present project, but it's a start. Will update as I progress

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