The colonizer’s discourse as it emerges in Memmi’s "The Colonizer and the Colonized" and in Bhabha’s "Signs Taken For Wonders"

Essay, 2012

8 Pages, Grade: A


We should not, however, delude ourselves … by thinking that if only the colonizers would have been more generous, more charitable, les selfish, less greedy for wealth, then everything would have been very much better than it is now – for in that case they would not have been colonizers.’

Prospero and Caliban, O. Mannoni

The colonizer’s discourse as it emerges in Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized and in Bhabha’s “Signs Taken For Wonders.”

While considering the colonizer’s discourse in works by Memmi and Bhabha one should start with the explanation what is the meaning of the term discourse is and why is it important to postcolonial studies? In a traditional sense, discourse can be understood as more formal speech or narration. One of the scholars, who was interested in discourse in no strictly linguistic meaning, was Foucault; to a certain degree Foucault revolutionized the concept of discourse, since he stopped to perceive discourse as an act of speech and emphasized it as an area of social knowledge. In that sense, discourse is perceived as highly important, because it links the notions of power and knowledge – ‘those who have power have control of what is known and the way it is known, and those who have such knowledge have power over those who do not’.[1] Undoubtedly, the abovementioned relations are extremely important in the patterns of interaction among the colonizer and the colonized. Moving to the colonial discourse, the theorist who virtually invented this area of study and revealed its influence was Edward Said; he discussed the ways in which colonial discourse constituted a powerful instrument of an ultimate power. The second best known theorist concerned with the colonial discourse is Homi Bhabha, who analyzed it in several of his works, including ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’.

As far as the colonial discourse is concerned, the fact that needs to be highlighted is that of the power itself; it is the dominant group of the society that imposes not only knowledge and truths but also discipline and standards on the group that is dominated.[2] Worth to notice, the colonizer regards its culture – including language, art, history, social and political structure – as a superior to that of the colonized; hence, the impression of the need to nurture the colonized is reinforced and it leads to imposing it on the indigenous society. The adjectives commonly ascribed to the colonized are: primitive, weak, poorly developed, savage, uncouth, uncivilized, etc. Certainly, it is the colonizer that “educates” and “civilizes” the “brute”; rejecting the accusation of exploiting the colonized and the resources in its possession, the main reason for the colonization is to develop the colonizer’s empire for the domestic politics. The importance of improving the colony with the use of the trade and other tools suppresses the real motives.

Bhabha attaches major importance to the written text, since to a high degree it constitutes an instrument of the colonizer’s control over the colonized other; through the use of an “English book” – a symbol of ultimate authority – the colonial power is able to influence imagination, motivations, ambitions as well as behavior of the colonized. Certainly, the “English book“ is considered a greater authority that the experience and the knowledge that the colonized other possesses itself.[3]

In his essay Bhabha performs a careful analysis of the discovery of the “English book“ presented in the Post-colonial works, where the it stands for English culture itself. The scenes that are juxtaposed are: Marlow’s discovery and reading of Towson’s piece in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and a young Trinidadian’s discovery and reading of the same book presented in V. S. Naipaul’s The Return of Eva Peron. The “English book” is presented as ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, a powerful tool used to spread and propagate the colonial power and colonial ideology. Bhabha aptly notices that the ‘English book’ may stand for the colonial dominance, however, when translated and repeated by the colonized, does not constitute an effective instrument of the colonial discourse anymore; since it becomes a mimicry of the original, it loses its power and converts into a deeply ambivalent concept far from being fixed and authoritative. Thus, we have the Bhabha observes that:

The discovery of the English book establishes both a measure of mimesis and a mode of civil authority and order. If these scenes, as I have narrated them, suggest the triumph of the write of colonialist power, then it must be conceded that the wily letter of the law inscribes a much more ambivalent text of authority. For it is in between the edict of Englishness and the assault of the dark unruly spaces of the earth, through an act of repetition, that the colonial text emerges uncertainly (...) consequently, the colonial presence is always ambivalent, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference.[4]

The notion of mimesis and mimicry appear to be an issue of extreme importance in Bhabha’s essay. Mimicry constitutes a substantial term in the colonial discourse, since to a high degree it describes the relationship between both parties: the colonizer and the colonized. The colonized is in a way invited to adopt the culture of the colonizer because of the discourse used. Although the colonizer sways the colonized into adopting his (the colonizer’s) values, habits and institutions, those are never replicated by the colonized, in a sense that they never constitute the exact copy of the “original”. The poor copy of the colonizer’s culture that comes into being in the process of this mimicry may constitute a significant threat to the colonizer, since the imposed values may appear to be a grotesque parody of those intended. Hence, the mimicry exposes the limitations of the colonial authority and the destabilizing force to the colonial discourse through its cultural uncertainty. As Perry explains it: ‘the argument is not that the colonized possesses colonial power, but that its fracturing of the colonialist text by re-articulating it in broken English, perverts the meaning and message of the “English book”’.[5]

The implication is, thus, that the mimicry of the “English book” results in the changing of it meaning. This leads to the production ‘hybridity’ – one of the most complex terms in the postcolonial studies – which Bhabha accounts for in these words:

Hybridity is the sign of the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixities; it is the name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the production of discriminatory identities that secure the ‘pure’ and original identity of authority). Hybridity is the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects. It displays the necessary deformation and displacement of all sites of discrimination and domination.[6]

In the process of hybridization transcultural firms are created – they combine the elements of the colonizer’s culture as well as the elements of the culture of the colonized. It can take many forms: we can observe hybridization on a linguistic level (changes in the language used, appearance of pidgin and creole), cultural level (adopting customs of the colonizer), political level (adopting institutions and political systems of the colonial power), etc. In a sense, the concept of hybridity constitutes a problematic notion within the colonial discourse; since it is rearticulated by the colonized it undoubtedly changes into the parody and pastiche.[7] The form that is created neither fully belongs to the colonial power nor to the colonized.

If the effect of colonial power is seen to be the production of hybridization rather than the noisy command of colonialist authority or the silent repression of native traditions, then an important change of perspective occurs. It reveals the ambivalence at the source of traditional discourses on authority and enables a form of subversion, founded on that uncertainty, that turns the discursive conditions of dominance into the grounds of intervention. It is traditional academic wisdom that the presence of authority is properly established through the no exercise of private judgment and the exclusion of reasons, in conflict with the authoritative reason. The recognition of authority, however, requires a validation of its source that must be immediately, even intuitively, apparent.[8]

Another key issue in the work by Bhabha is the notion of ambivalence; in colonial discourse it influences the way the colonizer and the colonized interact. For Bhabha, the ambivalence that is present in the colonial discourse disturbs the master-slave relationship. On the one hand the colonizer wants the colonized to mimic customs of the colonial power, on the other hand, however, the exact replicas of the colonizer would be a threat to the power-holders. Paul Fry gives a historical example of the ambivalence of the colonizer towards the colonized. Warren Hastings who was interested in “going native” in Saidian terms knew a great deal about the Orientalized other: he knew local languages, dialects, customs; at the same time was wielding with an iron grip of authority power over the colonized other. He himself embodied the ambivalence in not giving an inch as to actual control of authority, while at the same time seeming to become one with the colonized. On the other side we have an example of Charles Grant, a supervisor of East India Company at the beginning of 19th c. Grant had insisted that a standard of English bible should be implanted, and imposing Englishness on the indigenous group should constitute clear agenda of colonization. Ambivalence constitutes a highly complex term that combines the feeling of attraction and repulsion between the colonizer and the colonized.[9]

The second author that is to be discussed in this essay is Albert Memmi with his work The Colonizer and the Colonized; in his book the author explores the psychological effects of the colonization on both parties involved: the colonizer and the colonized other. Contrary to Bhabha, Memmi explains the colonial discourse in less scholarly terms, basing on his experience as a Tunisian Jew. In his book Memmi aptly notices that the basic reason for colonization is to make profit from the indigenous society, as the colony is ‘a place where one earns more and spends less. You go to a colony because jobs are guaranteed, wages high, careers more rapid and business more profitable. The young graduate is offered a position, the public servant a high rank, the businessman substantially lower taxes, the industrialist raw materials and labor at attractive prices’. Thus, living in a colony gives opportunities to the colonizer that were refused to him in his home country.

Despite the act of propagating beautiful ideas of bringing light to the heart of darkness (in Joseph Conrad’s terms), the colonizers lack in fact cultural or moral mission of the invasion. As Memmi claims, the moment the colonizer enters the foreign country, he creates a place where he can enjoy privileges which the colonized is deprived of; he becomes a usurper. Moreover, when the colonizer notices the impact of the colonization he can adopt two different attitudes: he can either become a colonizer who refuses to accept the leadership and advocates changes, as he truly believes that his interests will increase only if those of the colonized are secured; or he can become a colonizer who accepts his leadership and perceives himself superior and the ruler of the colonized other.

The colonizer who refuses recognizes the injustice and the oppression imposed on the colonized by the imperial rule and remains unwilling to belong to the oppressive system. However, since it is ‘not easy to escape mentally from a concentrate situation, to refuse its ideology while continuing to live with its actual relationship’,[10] the colonizer who refuses is undoutedly dominated by the colonial rule and as long as he remains under this corrupting influence, he gradually involved in the exploitation of the colonized. By living in the colony, he profits from it and simultaneously is a part of the machinery of the exploration:


[1] Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, ed. by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2000), s.v. discourse

[2] Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts., p. 10

[3] ‘Issues and Debates: Introduction’, in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, ed. by, Bill Ashcroft, Bill Griffins, and Helen Tiffin (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 9

[4] Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, ed. by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffins and Helen Tiffin, (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 29

[5] Benita Parry, ‘Problems in Current theories of Colonial Discourse’, in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, ed. by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffins and Helen Tiffin, (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 43

[6] Bhabha, p. 34

[7] Parry, pp. 41-42

[8] Bhabha, p. 35

[9] Paul Fry, ‘Post-Colonial Criticism’, Lecture (New Heaven: Yale University, April 2009)

[10] Memmi, p.20

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The colonizer’s discourse as it emerges in Memmi’s "The Colonizer and the Colonized" and in Bhabha’s "Signs Taken For Wonders"
University of Malta
Postcolonial Criticism
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Emilia Wendykowska (Author), 2012, The colonizer’s discourse as it emerges in Memmi’s "The Colonizer and the Colonized" and in Bhabha’s "Signs Taken For Wonders", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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