On Postcolonialism

At a news conference concerning the war in Iraq, some years ago, then the Defense Secretary of US, Mr. Rumsfeld, left many including myself in utter awe with his response to a question concerning the number of casualties on the Iraqi side. After he gave the details of the lost lives on the American front, referring to the other side, he said something to the effect that they were not counting them. He did not say that he had no knowledge on how many Iraqis’ lives were lost, or that it was not possible for him to know, or that he would learn and get back to the inquirer, rather he simply said that he was not counting them, with an insinuation of callousness in his tone.   

This anecdotal evidence, beyond its literary meaning, speaks to a larger discussion that covers a variety of issues from who is considered human and based on what criteria, to who has discretion over writing human history and production of knowledge. Mr. Secretary’s stance is an emblematic of the dichotomous classification of the Occident and the Orient and what belongs to both, where the former is a human unlike the latter which is considered to be less-than-a-human thus lacks recognition. Furthermore the former stands for the normative value systems that all humans that make up the latter not only “should,” but also “must” aspire to. Here, the American casualties, simply due to the virtue of being an American, rendered worthy of being recognized by name, state and more, while the Iraqis do not even deserve to become a number. This ontological supremacy proposition on part of the Occidental West constitutes the incendiary that fuels the realm of postcolonial studies.

Postcolonialism responds to the hegemony created by the West in the processes of production and dissemination of knowledge. In that, it deconstructs the systems of representation created by Western community of knowers as binary oppositions of West and the other. This involves challenging the view that knowledge can only be acceptable if it does emanate from sources in the West in the way that they find it fit. Postcolonial critique depicts that there are in fact, alternative ways to produce knowledge and science. In that, the critique challenges Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, and the like all of which are various derivations of the Orientalist thought.


Dr. Merve Kavakci-Islam