This is a term brought into currency by Edward Said who saw Foucault’s notion of a discourse as valuable for describing that system withinwhich that range of practices termed ‘colonial’ come into being. Said’sOrientalism, which examined the ways in which colonial discourseoperated as an instrument of power, initiated what came to be known as colonial discourse theory,that theory which,in the 1980s,saw colonial discourse as its field of study.The best known colonial discourse theorist,apart from Said,is Homi Bhabha,whose analysis posited certain disabling contradictions within colonial relationships, such as hybridity, ambivalence and mimicry, which revealed the inherent vulnerabilityof colonial discourse.
Discourse, as Foucault theorizes it, is a system of statements within which the world can be known. It is the system by which dominant groups in society constitute the field of truth by imposing specific knowledges, disciplines and values upon dominated groups. As a social formation it works to constitute reality not only for the objects it appears to represent but also for the subjects who form the community on which it depends. Consequently, colonial discourse is the complex of signs and practices that organize social existence and social reproduction within colonial relationships.
Colonial discourse is greatly implicated in ideas of the centrality of Europe, and thus in assumptions that have become characteristic of modernity: assumptions about history, language, literature and ‘technology’.
Colonial discourse is thus a system of statements that can be made about colonies and colonial peoples, about colonizing powers and about the relationship between these two.It is the system of knowledge and beliefs about the world within which acts of colonization take place. Although it is generated within the society and cultures of the colonizers, it becomes that discourse within which the colonized may also come to see themselves. At the very least, it creates a deep conflict in the consciousness of the colonized because of its clash with other knowledges (and kinds of knowledge) about the world.Rules of inclusion and exclusion operate on the assumption of the superiority of the colonizer’s Culture,history,language,art,political structures,social conventions,and the assertion of the need for the colonized to be ‘raised up’through colonial contact.In particular,colonial discourse hinges on notions of race that begin to emerge at the very advent of European imperialism. Through such distinctions it comes to represent the colonized, whatever the nature of their social structures and cultural histories, as ‘primitive’ and the colonizers as ‘civilized’.
Colonial discourse tends to exclude, of course, statements about the exploitation of the resources of the colonized, the political status accruing to colonizing powers, the importance to domestic politics of the development of an empire,all of which may be compelling reasons for maintaining colonial ties. Rather it conceals these benefits in statements about the inferiority of the colonized, the primitive nature of other races, the barbaric depravity of colonized societies, and therefore the duty of the imperial power to reproduce itself in the colonial society, and to advance the civilization of the colony through trade,administration,cultural and moral improvement.Such is the power of colonial discourse that individual colonizing subjects are not often consciously aware of the duplicity of their position,for colonial discourse constructs the colonizing subject as much as the colonized.Statements that contradict the discourse cannot be made either without incurring punishment, or without making the individuals who make those statements appear eccentric and abnormal.
SOURCE: ASHCROFT, Bill et al. Post colonial studies : the key concepts. New York: Routledge, 2007. (link