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Much contemporary theory silently abandons this focus, and inexplicitly (indeed, most often unknowingly) substitutes at best a notion of a colonialism of civil society, at worst a purely discursive conception of colonial power. The former focuses on interest groups, religious bodies, educational institutions and so on, while almost invariably failing to specify the relationship of their projects to colonial state power. Insofar as it is at all theoretically explicit, other than about its relations to earlier literary theory, it takes much of its inspiration from the later Foucault, with his rejection of attention to the state as privileged source or instance of power.
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The whole idea of colonial ‘collaboration’ is also intensely contested. A key argument in much modern scholarship on European empire – perhaps especially that rather loosely identified by critics as a conservative ‘Cambridge School’ of imperial historiography – is that colonialism depended crucially on it. Collaborative bargains were not only inherent in the imperial relationship, but the nature of these bargains determined the character, and the longevity, of colonial rule. Again, ideas and ideology had little to do with it.
Yet this relative dearth of theoretical elaboration coexists with a remarkable effervescence of controversy and – especially, perhaps, since the 1980s – with influences coming from numerous academic disciplines, milieux and indeed theoretical traditions. If theory-building within imperial history as such has been sparse, the impact of various kinds of theory drawn from elsewhere on it has been ever more substantial and contentious.
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A seemingly minor linguistic curiosity has marked study of imperial and colonial history. Between the 1980s and (approximately) lunchtime on 11 September 2001, the concepts of empire and imperialism were in apparent steady decline, that of colonialism and its ‘posts’ on the rise, across all sectors of this pre-eminently global and transdisciplinary territory. Since then, the trend has been reversed. Empire, imperial history, and indeed supposed ‘lessons’ from that history for the global present, are back in fashion.
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The very core terminology of the subject(s) is deeply contested. Keith Hancock, seen by many as the greatest of all historians of the British empire, famously proclaimed that imperialism is ‘no word for scholars’.() A distinguished historian of early modern Ireland, Steven Ellis, suggests that whether the British-Irish relationship was a colonial one is merely ‘a matter of opinion, since colonialism as a concept was developed by its modern opponents and constitutes a value-judgement which cannot be challenged on its own grounds.’()
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Much colonial and postcolonial theory has exhibited a tendency to see colonial power as an all-embracing, transhistorical force, controlling and transforming every aspect of colonised societies. The writings and attitudes of those involved with empire are seen as constituting a system, a network, a discourse in the sense made famous by Michel Foucault. (Though the notion of ‘colonialism as a system’ goes at least as far back as Sartre, and I would argue for Georges Balandier as the crucial precursor for much which today is mistakenly hailed as new in the field.) It inextricably combines the production of knowledge with the exercise of power. It deals in stereotypes and polar antitheses. It has both justificatory and repressive functions. And, perhaps above all, it is a singular ‘it’: colonial discourse and by extension the categories in which it deals (the coloniser, the colonised, the subject people, etc.) can meaningfully be discussed in unitary terms.
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Some current writing in this vein thus treats colonialism as homogeneous and all-powerful, and also often uses the term to denote patterns of domination, or even merely of transregional contact, which preceded, succeeded or indeed were substantially disengaged from periods of actual conquest, possession and rule. Calling all these sorts of things ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’ at worst systematically denies or underrates historical variety, complexity and heterogeneity.