With dialectics, the mob comes to the top. footnote1

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Frantz Fanon, or at least his American translators, famously wrote of a dying colonialism.footnote If today we hear of a dying postcolonialism, it is because no amount of parsing can rid the term of its many ironies. Alongside the ‘post’ of a supposed aftermath lies the metallic reality of a penetrating, if at times indirect, imperialism—still deepening in Puerto Rico and Palestine, and recently expanding into significant new territory in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine, replete with their pro-Western juntas and complicit local satrapies. Colonialism, it seems, is not altogether dead. The immiseration wrought by capital continues to express itself in broadly cultural, not only military or financial, ways, displaying all the hallmarks of that older system of resettlement and re-education. Quite apart from the Western dominance of global news, entertainment and trends in higher education, a massive diaspora of semi-permanent legions of Western tourists, expatriate fun-seekers, missionaries, mercenaries, academic theorists, real estate speculators, and diplomatic ensembles, all make the late-nineteenth-century era of the Berlin Treaty look comparatively underdeveloped.

The term ‘postcolonial’ is constitutively troubled, then, since it carries with it the strategic temporizing of its inception—the incongruity of its discursive tones and themes, in contrast with a rather blunter reality of imperial propaganda, foreign torture chambers and the stealing of others’ lands. Against this stark backdrop, the debates prompted by Vivek Chibber’s magisterial Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital seem a little narrow.footnote2 To lay bare the inner workings of the influential academic field known as ‘postcolonial theory’, as he sets out to do, would first require clarity about this catachresis at the core of its idea—some account of how the earlier traditions of anti-colonial thought suddenly, and violently, became postcolonial in a hostile takeover in the metropolitan academy of the mid-1980s.

Postcolonial studies emerged uncertainly, without even a settled name, primarily within academic departments of literature. In retrospect, certain signature events appear now to have helped call it into life: the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, the conference on ‘Europe and its Others’ at Essex University in 1984, and the special issue on ‘Race, Writing, and Difference’ from Critical Inquiry (1985), the most prestigious American journal in the humanities. As the postcolonial began to coalesce around a number of related themes, its brief acquired consistency: to expand university curricula in order to include non-Western sources, to uncover and promote historical acts of native resistance, and to challenge the misrepresentations of imperial history, forging a new vocabulary to contest Eurocentrism. On all of these grounds, the initiative proved very successful and its effects—not only in scholarship but in mainstream publishing and the arts—have, over the years, been largely positive.