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Metropolitan anxieties: a critical appraisal of Sartre’s theory of colonialism

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Within postcolonial studies there is now a well-established wariness of the Eurocentric or metrocentric tendencies of postcolonial theory itself. For some the charge that postcolonial theory continues to interpret the history and culture of non-European societies through European frames of reference can be traced to the provocative theory of colonisation developed by French philosopher, novelist and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre. We subject Sartre’s theory of colonialism to critical scrutiny and question this claim. We locate Sartre’s philosophical works and political activism against the backdrop of a twentieth-century Parisian intellectual life marked by fierce struggles over the future of Marxism. Sartre’s metrocentricism was tempered by his tortuous efforts to write existentialism into the Marxist canon, a theoretical endeavour that led him to replace Marxism’s eschatology and linear teleology with a series of circular histories based on the complex ways in which separate anti-colonial movements spiral off following their own contingent, creolised and anarchic trajectories. Sartre’s desire to contest and rethink rather than submit to and seal metrocentric framings of colonialism and anti-colonialism derived from his weddedness to a historicised phenomenology of existence as spatial. Critical interrogation of the complicity of postcolonial theory in the global march of metrocentric ontology affords both geography and postcolonial studies a new impetus for dialogue. Any project that aspires to a transcendence of metropolitan modes of knowing must first better understand the situated production and complexities of such modes of knowing. Before scrutinising how the colonising tendencies of postcolonial theory might best be handled, there is a need to map historical geographies of the different theoretical projects and practices that have emerged in different metropolitan locations and at different times.

Keywords: Marxism; Sartre; colonialism; existentialism; metrocentricism; postcolonialism; spatiality

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Department of Geography National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Co Kildare, Ireland 2: Department of Geography, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6, Email:

Publication date: July 1, 2011


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