HULTON GETTY The scene is familiar from the Oscar- winning film of The English Patient. Into a bombed-out mansion in Italy stumble a French-Canadian nurse, a wounded Hungarian with a dark past, another haunted Canadian and an Indian sapper. All meet haphazardly in the closing stages of the Second World War. They torment each other and fall in love, divided by their national differences and yet trying, in the fragmented world they inhabit, to forge a new way of living in which the only maps and boundaries they recognise are the curves of a beloved's body.
The characters in Michael Ondaatje's classic post-colonial novel cross borders and try to lose their national origins. Like their author, who was born in Sri Lanka of Dutch parents and who now lives in Canada, they belong nowhere. They represent a modern sensibility of personal, private migration.
The end of the 20th century is an age of exile and immigration, of global travel and marginalisation. Leading novelists in English - Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison - write about the people who move between cultures and those who are dispossessed. And many of today's important intellectual thinkers come from former colonies. Displacement now allows a privileged perspective.
Post-colonialism began with the influential expose of the consequences of colonialism by Edward Said, the New York-based Palestinian who gave the 1993 BBC Reith lectures on the role of the intellectual. In Orientalism, first published in 1978, he showed that the effects of Western colonialism were not simply political or economic but influenced the very mentality of both colonisers and the colonised. Western ideas about the East actually produced an all-too-powerful stereotype. "Orientalism," he explained, "is a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient." No Westerner really understood the East, according to Said; they simply repeated a set of negative images and called it knowledge.
Since Said's book, the picture of East-West cultural relations has grown more complex. No longer simply a matter of domination and oppression, the buzz words in post-colonial studies are liminality (straddling two ways of understanding) and negotiation. It is almost worse, according to post-colonial critics, to live in the bad-faith of the colonisers' rhetoric and stereotypes than to suffer colonisation. The task, then, is to uncover the distortions of the colonisers' way of thinking.
For some critics, this can be done by trying to see one's position from the other's perspective.
Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University, for example, urges repeatedly that First World privilege should be regarded, paradoxically, as a personal loss because it prevents a sympathetic understanding of other people. So First World people must "unlearn" that privilege. "Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced?" the Calcutta-born professor demands.
Other critics argue that it is at times of colonialism, when cultures come together, that national traditions and prejudices are exposed and subverted. Homi Bhabha, a Parsee Indian from Bombay who migrates between chairs at the University of Chicago and University College, London, is a great believer in the benefits of cross-cultural confrontation. "The very process of colonisation shifts certainties and sureties," he says. "It exposes the fictionality of certain ideas that are said to be universal."
The key post-colonial text or work of art, according to Bhabha, is hybrid, belonging not to one culture nor to the other but exhibiting a bizarre juxtaposition of the two in a way which allows readers or spectators to view both cultures in a detached way.
The late 20th-century interest in this type of creation lies behind some of the most exciting productions of Shakespeare in recent years. This year's season at the Globe Theatre in London includes an Indian Kathakali version of King Lear, while last year's Edinburgh Festival featured an African Julius Caesar. In the past, colonised nations had to learn Shakespeare parrot-fashion in order to imbibe the wisdom of their rulers. Now Caesar can be warned of the ides of March by a traditional African witch doctor in a playfully ironic way which allows both cultural traditions - European and African - to be celebrated and mocked.
This summer, however, while the Globe might show a ShakespeareIndian hybrid, the academic world of post-colonial studies is facing a crisis. After a few years of hegemony, when almost every book of literary criticism published has had to have a reference to race, class or gender in its title, the identity politics business (as it might call itself) has been called to account. Terry Eagleton, the Marxist critic and Oxford don, has savaged A Critique of Post Colonial Reason, Spivak's latest book, in the London Review of Books. Academics are still coping with the intellectual fall-out.
Eagleton criticised Spivak for abandoning mass political struggle, for preferring to talk about the way in which people from the Third World are represented in the West than to intervene practically to improve their situation. "Post-colonialism is a way of being politically radical without being anti-capitalist, and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a 'post-political' world," he says.
Writers have since leapt to Spivak's defence and the letters page of the London Review of Books over the past two months has read like the High Noon of the literary critical world.
Eagleton's intervention may represent a backlash but more probably it marks the last gasp of ideological socialism. Now that left-right politics are dead, the old beliefs in political commitment to a universal revolutionary programme are no longer valid. Only localised political campaigns are possible under global capitalism and, by the same token, only literary criticism which is interested in the personal, rather than mass ideology, seems relevant.
It is the Third World intellectual - Spivak or Bhabha - who is both rooted in a different culture and yet also displaced who can best produce the goods.
Literary power has subtly changed hands, according to Bhabha: "Where once the transmission of national traditions was the major theme of a world literature, perhaps we can now suggest that transnational histories of migrants, the colonised or political refugees may be the terrains of world literature."
Jennifer Wallace is director of English at Peterhouse, Cambridge University.