Post-postcolonialism: The Poetic Gaze and the Angst of the Ghosted and the Grotesque

The Poetic Gaze is one of the most important concepts in post-postcolonialism. I developed post-postcolonialism as part of my PhD work at the University of Ibadan, following my dissatisfaction with the perennially-Westward arrows of the postcolonial theory. My views on the theory were first presented in Munich, Germany, at the Fourth Postcolonial Narrations conference in 2016 in a paper entitled ‘Post-postcolonialism: Theorising on the Shifting Postcolonial Paradigms in African Fiction’. The theory’s thesis is that the idea of dominance is mutative and ever shifting, and that in the case of Africa, colonial dominance has been replaced with Africa’s leadership dominance. This implies that colonial agency keeps waning, replaced by the agency of African leadership at all levels of society. The theory advocates that African leadership should be interrogated with little or no colonial agency since this new leadership has since assumed self-hood. In this essay, I intend to explain the workings of one of the theory’s most important tools, the Poetic Gaze.

Let me begin by stating that the gaze, ordinarily, is such a powerful thing. Many in/explicable things happen when people exchange looks; and these things speak of the communicative potency of a gaze. A look into someone’s eyes can reveal a wide range of emotions and meanings. Sadness, happiness, scorn, hunger and desperation, can all be communicated through looks. You can tell if someone likes or hates you by looking into their eyes at certain moments during a conversation. You were taught as a child to always look into the eyes of the person you are conversing with, not only as a mark of respect and attention, but also because certain words have more meaning when interpreted with the eyes that speak them, and not with the mouth that say them. Most importantly, it was believed (of course, not until most African politicians arrived at the scene) that it was difficult for a person to lie and keep the gaze; he was bound to look away, as the gaze could not stand being so blatantly abused. This explains why lovers usually rely on the gaze when falling in love. To determine if the love is true, they must look into the eyes of the lover. Ever heard of love at first sight? Call it sight, appearance, instinct, vision or gaze, love relies on them all. It is impossible to love what one cannot see or has not imagined.

The gaze can also be a very frightening thing. What the average new comer in public speaking fears most are the gothic-like eyes of the expectant and watchful audience. S/he is then often advised to look at their foreheads, not their eyes, so as not to be unsettled by them. The Gaze is such a powerful thing. In most horror movies, the makeup usually targets the eyes of the monster to make it as grotesque as it is possible, apart from the distortion of other corporeal features. The unsuspecting audience is frightened out of their wits as the normal human eyes are tiktoked into something grotesque and gruesomely unsettling. It is in horror movies that we get to know that vampires, witches and other monstrosities in nature evolve from the conventional and the ordinary. Thus, in the gothic, the normal soon transforms into the paranormal. The mechanics of the genre is reinforced by this toing and froing between the beautiful and the monstrous. In most cases, these transformations occur in or around the human optics; either the eyes of the villain are made grotesque to scare the audience or the other characters, or the audience’s eyes are made to see, to gaze at as it were, the grotesquerie of the hitherto conventional corporeal.

No matter how you want to look at it, the human gaze, even in its most ordinary level, is packed with power and meaning. A gaze can instill hope; it has the power to comfort, heal and console. The gaze also has the power to condemn, demean, dismiss, ravish, cut and even annihilate. The question then is, if the ordinary human gaze is imbued with so much power, what then happens when the gaze is troped? A gaze is troped when it has been poeticised; hence, a troped gaze is the poetic gaze. A troped gaze functions outside its human level of signification, as it is not only metaphoric and symbolic, it is, most importantly, structurally linguistic. The poetic gaze is a device, a tool box in the mechanics of post-postcolonialism. The deployment of the gaze in post-postcolonialism is done without prejudice to how it is deployed in the framework of cultural poetics, where it serves the task of typifying the view of storified human events, as can be exemplified in Clifford Geertz’s thin and thick description,1 or in the high and low magnification of Harré and Moghaddam.2 The poetic gaze is a theoretical trope of huge semantic import in the post-postcolonialist critique.

The poetic gaze derives its operationality from its essence and function in all ordinary, extra-literary and extra-textual human relationships. For lovers, it is usually the barometer with which to gauge the level of commitment or involvement. Parents do use it as a lie-detector in child-rearing. In criticism, the poetic gaze is at once a structuralist, deconstructionist self-reinventing tool. Its structuralist leaning arms it with the knowledge as well as the politics of the binary systems, while its deconstructionist orientation allows it to search, discover and question all forms of dominance in the binary system. I am aware, by the way, that some critics have begun to question the continuous existence of the binary system in a transformed and hybrid post-postmodern world. However, my belief is that the binarisation of human discourses will endure for many a thousand years, unless we somehow find a way to move society away from its currently stratified mode. The capitalist society is noted for its inequalities and hierarchical structures upon which the binary system has been built. Thus, while the poetic gaze acknowledges the facts of cultural impurities that have characterised human discourses in recent times, it continues to dismantle these structures in order to uncover hidden dominances for scrutiny.  

 The post-postcolonial critic must be armed with the poetic gaze as s/he approaches a text. It must constantly be borne in mind that the poetic gaze is a critical gesture that questions, cuts and divides through hegemonic power bases no matter how seemingly small or insignificant they may be. It is the eye and mind (mind’s eye) of a post-postcolonialist critic. It constantly pries into all oppressed or seemingly oppressed structures in the post-postcolony in order to reveal its dominance or hegemonic elements. In my 2016 paper, I deployed the Poetic Gaze to expose dominance and selfhood at the macro level of power structures in Africa. For instance, the poetic gaze stares at Africa’s Otherness to uncover the hegemonic nature of its Leadership, which makes it split that Otherness into Leadership (a new selfhood) and Followership (the new Other). But it should be understood that power and its structures continue to duplicate themselves as one goes down the hegemonic ladder. Of course, the poetic gaze pursues them, because in the end everyone and every single structure will be interrogated and made to reveal its hegemony. So if you feel that you are the oppressed, the Poetic Gaze is watching you and will be coming to search you!

This way, everyone becomes a power structure because everyone holds a position of power in the schematics of the post-postcolonial theory. By way of example, I would like to use the family structure of a patriarchal African setting to demonstrate how the poetic gaze investigates dominance even in micro power bases. In a typical patriarchal family in Africa, you are likely to have a father (the patriarch/self), a mother (Other) and (a) child/ren (Other), in that order of power hierarchy. It should be noted that, placed alongside a larger structure, this father who sits at the top of the power base in the family might be the Other. But in this family sphere, his alterity shifts and he becomes the preferred and the powerful. He is assumed to be higher than the mother (wife) and the children, all who are expected to kowtow to him. At this point, the relationship between husband and wife is highly unbalanced in its politics, and gendered in its sociological orientation. The critic examining this relationship would need to be schooled in the dynamics of gender studies, especially as peculiar to African feminism. Let us say that the father is poetically absent; maybe he has travelled. The mother now has the sole command and responsibility over the children. This relationship even though regulated by love, as is the one between husband and wife, is quite hierarchical and political. The critic examining this relationship should be an expert in the critiquing of the adult-children dialectic. For me, the critic should be an infantist, because it is in infantism that the problematics of the adult-child binary system is exposed. However, the relationship has a post-postcolonial implication because power is involved at the micro level of hegemonic discourse. Let us assume that this patriarchal family has three children, two males and one female. Is there any power dynamics among the children? The response is in the affirmative. Let us say that the first male child is 17 years old, the second is 15 years old, while the female child is 10 years old. You would have already realised that power discrimination based on age is at play here. Where the mother is poetically absent, the first male would take charge. He would expect the others to obey him because he is the oldest. The others might even look up to him because he is the ‘big brother’. It is then seen that the power structures always tend to duplicate themselves down the hegemonic ladder.   

  Let me then briefly return to the macro level of power discourse and render an account of how the poetic gaze functions. I take it that all human stories are regulated by relationships. The gaze itself is a major function of human relationship. I argue that colonialism was a form of relationship; one that existed between the West and the East, the colonisers and the colonised, the whites and the blacks, the metropolis and the province, the centre and the periphery, the occident and the oriental, the Self and the Other. In post-postcolonialism, the poetic gaze always scrutinises the oppressed structure to uncover hidden dominance or hegemony. Thus, its attention is always on the subject that claims alterity. In this case, the East, the colonised, the blacks, the province, the periphery, the oriental and the Other are the subjects that claim alterity. In the case of Africa, the scrutiny of the poetic gaze reveals that its leadership has long assumed selfhood and ought to be interrogated with little or no colonial agency and culpability. In sum, the Other can turn out to be the grotesque who once claimed godhood before it was held to account and made to unveil its monstrosity. The angst signifies anger and anxiety rolled into one, and it is seen in the Other’s resistance at being questioned in order to be designated a power base. Marriage to oppression is a safe way for the oppressor to operate without being brought to book. But now, there is no more hiding place. We all have to change in order for this continent to move forward.

 I would like to rest the matter here and refer you to my 2019 paper on how the post-postcolonial is critiqued in terms of the duplication or the mutation of the binary structures. In subsequent essays, I would like to attempt a transformation of some of the existing postcolonial concepts into post-postcolonial ones by examining how they should function in the theory.  


  1. Bressler (1994) and Dobie (2009), on the issue of thin and thick description in cultural poetics.
  2. Harre and Moghaddam (2006), on the issue of high and low magnification in the critique of history.

Related Posts

One thought on “Post-postcolonialism: The Poetic Gaze and the Angst of the Ghosted and the Grotesque

  1. nice post there buddy i love to see more of this post, some time you can come check out my site as well

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!