Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History

Synopsis

In this closely integrated collection of essays on colonialism in world history, Frederick Cooper raises crucial questions about concepts relevant to a wide range of issues in the social sciences and humanities, including identity, globalization, and modernity. Rather than portray the past two centuries as the inevitable movement from empire to nation-state, Cooper places nationalism within a much wider range of imperial and diasporic imaginations, of rulers and ruled alike, well into the twentieth century. He addresses both the insights and the blind spots of colonial studies in an effort to get beyond the tendency in the field to focus on a generic colonialism located sometime between 1492 and the 1960s and somewhere in the "West." Broad-ranging, cogently argued, and with a historical focus that moves from Africa to South Asia to Europe, these essays, most published here for the first time, propose a fuller engagement in the give-and-take of history, not least in the ways in which concepts usually attributed to Western universalism--including citizenship and equality--were defined and reconfigured by political mobilizations in colonial contexts.

Excerpt

The burst of scholarship on colonial studies in the last two decades— crossing the disciplinary boundaries of literature, anthropology, and history—has begun to fill one of the most notable blind spots in the Western world’s examination of its history. Yet there is something strange about the timing: scholarly interest in colonialism arose when colonial empires had already lost their international legitimacy and ceased to be viable forms of political organization. Earlier, when colonialism was an object of mobilization, scholars and intellectuals were most captivated by the drama of liberation movements and the possibilities of “modernization” and “development” for people whom colonialism and racism had excluded from the march of progress.

Part of the impetus behind the recent research and writing on colonial situations has been to ensure that this past is not forgotten. But the colonial past is also invoked to teach a lesson about the present, serving to reveal the hypocrisy of Europe’s claims to provide models of democratic politics, efficient economic systems, and a rational approach to understanding and changing the world, by connecting these very ideas to the history of imperialism. Such concerns have led some scholars to examine thoughtfully the complex ways in which Europe was made from its colonies and how the very categories by which we understand the colonies’ past and the ex-colonies’ future were shaped by the process of colonization.

Yet a significant part of this body of work has taken colonial studies out of the history whose importance has just been asserted, treating colonialism abstractly, generically, as something to be juxtaposed with an equally flat vision of European “modernity.” This side of the field has focused more on stance—on critical examination of the subject position of the scholar and political advocate—than on process, on how the trajectories of a colo-

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