Hello, welcome to Postcolonial Space I’m here again today trying to explain two more concepts relevant to post-colonial studies and those are authenticity and essentialism and I’ve grouped them together because they are sort of interconnected.
So, first of all, talking about the questions of authenticity: any time that we claim for the natives or the colonizers a certain kind of natural authenticity of a culture or a collectivity or of individual self we are attributing to ourselves or to our culture some natural authentic qualities and the question of authenticity emerges even in normal conversations I mean you are going somewhere you see an Indian restaurant and you ask your friend is it authentic? The moment you invoke that question what you are arguing is or assuming is that there is a natural authentic Indian or Pakistani food and your comparison of this restaurant’s food would be to that authentic ideal. Most of the times we all assume that anything that is authentic is actually the real thing and then we can plot things that are less authentic against it. Deep down we assume that there is something naturally authentic about a culture or about a person or about certain character traits and then make our judgments about the authenticity of it based on that assumption not realizing that most of the times the question of authenticity itself is discursively produced and authenticity itself is culturally produced.
let’s take some examples from politics. Now if you’re in Pakistan or in Afghanistan and if you have encountered some Taliban literature or even other religious organizations’ literature they always point to a certain authentic Muslim identity and they posit it as natural that has always been there but what they’re trying to do is retrieve what they think is the identity of an authentic Muslim and then take that as a stable unchallenged assumption about questions of Muslim authentic identity and judge all the others against it. Now, that retrieval itself is not natural after all it is textual. How do you find out how Muslims lived in eighth century what kind of behaviors, what kind of mode of dress, how did they pray? I mean you don’t Intuit it you read about it that means that that retrieval itself is deeply structured or deeply discursive but when you retrieve something like that from a fourteen hundred years ago even though the retrieval itself is textual and structural you offer the retrieved object or concept as authentic. So that’s the question of authenticity. In other ways, sometimes it’s also used in metropolitan cultures in some form of exoticizing of the other, right so people will talk about “oh these are authentic Chinese dishes”, these are authentic Indian fabrics; these are authentic Pakistani carpets or Afghan rugs. So what they have in mind is this romanticized idea of a culture which might have existed a thousand years ago but which can still be attributed to those cultures in modernity.
That is why I am discussing essentialism alongside authenticity: because deep down when we invoke the concept of the authentic or any claims to authenticity then we assume a certain kind of essentialism. And what is essentialism? That there are essences to things just as we as human beings in that cartesian sense might have an essence in reason that cultures will have their essences and in most of the times essence is the very irreducible part of any object. So, if we assume that cultures have essences, they are essential, and that they are natural then we can attribute unchanging qualities to a particular culture and people. That was one of the biggest tools in colonialism because the discourse of colonialism relied on certain essentialisms, assuming that natives are by their nature not trustworthy; they are primitive they are anti- democracy or whatever and so when you posit an essence then you can attribute to the object of that essence that positing certain fixed and unchangeable qualities. So, therefore, to me any claims to a cultural authenticity or individual or collective authenticity are always inextricably linked with essentialism.
Now, I have heard people speak about the need for essentialism in postcolonial theory. But I disagree with that because if you posit essences in articulating native acts of agency or identity then you are also laying yourself open to the others the Europeans and the Americans essentializing of your culture so you can’t have it both of both ways: you can’t say this is essential Pakistani identity and then when someone essentializes your culture with attributes that are negative you can’t turn around and say well you are imagining a fixed essence of Pakistani people.
Now, the question of essentialism in postcolonial studies you know actually got really prominent recognition when Gayatri Spivak in one of her interviews talked about strategic essentialism. Now, remember she actually in her later work has constantly refuted any claims to an existing permanent essential essence in postcolonial theory but what she argued was that at some point if you are arguing against the colonial powers your argument can employ sometimes a strategic essentialism. It may imagine a monolithic nation or a culture: Indian culture, Pakistani culture, Egyptian culture. So that’s the strategic use of essentialism but it should be done with the knowledge that it is a strategic use and going from there if you look at all postcolonial movements in most of the cases the resistant postcolonial movements used a certain kind of essentialism: they imagine their own past most often in fixed terms they retrieved it and then they said this is who we are as people and this is why we are different from our colonizers and hence we need our own freedom. But there are problems with that as well, because when you invoke an essence in a nationalist movement that essence then comes to haunt you. For example, the Algerian freedom movement, a lot of people died in it and it invoked in certain Islamist terms what constitutes a male identity, what constitutes a female identity and since the National Movement was based in that even though the major parties were leftists, you know 30 years later when they go to the polls the essence of the nation that was posited as deeply Islamic and fixed in this Islamic interpretation of collective selves that repressed part of the National essentialist imagining comes to haunt the nation. So, the problems then are when you invoke a certain kind of cultural essence of collective essence or individual essence to forward a claim a counterclaim to colonizers bear in mind first of all to check whether or not that essential claim about your culture was created by the colonizers also keep in mind that when you argue in essentialist terms the counter arguments that already posit certain essences in the postcolonial cultures will also come into play that’s why people like Said, Bhabh and others constantly talk about constructiveness of history and discursiveness of history, because what they are trying to challenge in colonial discourse is the idea of essential attributions of great unchanging historical essences to the colonized cultures. Similarly about authenticity, Chinweizu has a wonderful chapter in his book Decolonizing the African Mind where he talks about a kind of a strategic essentialism because what he’s saying is that in order to retrieve a pure African identity, African nations must jettison their Arab influence their Muslim influence and then their European influences and then through a so-called cultural act of cleansing retrieve purely African cultural histories, African cultural norms etc. But even Chinweizu doesn’t want to go and retrieve an ossified African essence; he also in the same chapter argues that this retrieval is meant to cleanse Africa of the foreign influences but the retrieval must then create African nations which are consistent with modernity. They might go and retrieve their own modes of production, their own ways of doing things but they can’t be anti-modern or pre-modern; they have to do that as modern industrialized nations so that’s one form of essentialist retrieval of an authentic cultural authentic history. But as I said, both are problematic terms.
So, to conclude essentialism was employed by the colonizers to assign certain fixed negative attributes to the native cultures and the native’s essentialism was then also strategically mobilized by the natives themselves to posit a certain idea of their own historical existence and their politics and essentialism even now is used at both ends of the global divide. You know, the North Atlantic region people still attribute certain essential traits to people on the so-called periphery and then people within the postcolonial nations also go and retrieve certain cultural essences and try to articulate that this is what it means to be a Pakistani. This is what in the entire movement right now in India is a movement of those kind of essences to go and retrieve an authentic Hindu identity. The thing to keep in mind is that whatever is retrieved is not natural, is discursive but it’s assumed to be essential and authentic. So, use both the terms with these caveats in mind that they are not stable terms and both of the terms can and have have been used against the colonized people by the colonizers and if not carefully used can now harm your own scholarly and cultural arguments within the larger debates of culture and politics.