*Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

It is nearly an axiom of contemporary thought that we live in a shrinking world, in a world of unprecedented transnational exchanges, the global movement of peoples, flows of goods and ideas, and so on. The world has never seemed smaller, some commentators argue, and clichés about the present situation abound, among them the idea that the world is a ‘global village’; others, in a variation of this argument, speak of a world that is increasingly ‘flat’.   Global village sounds trendy, chic, even sexy and, in some vague way, ethically responsible.  It gives rise to the satisfying idea, which however demands no action on our part, that our humanity links us all.  We may be all connected, in much the bland way envisioned in cell phone ads; at the other end, if one is to take a highly optimistic view of the matter, perhaps the idea of ‘global village’ may be said to have been anticipated in John Donne’s famous observation, ‘No man is an island’.

There are obvious rejoinders, of varying complexity, to the notion that our world has shrunk and that information travels at immense speeds not even remotely imaginable a mere few decades ago.   Visa and passport regimes have been considered tightened, borders have never seemed so hostile and insurmountable, and walls – in Palestine, between India and Bangladesh, along the US border with Mexico, and many others — have come up where they never existed before.  The increasing turn towards biometric measurements and national identity cards points to the fact that surveillance regimes have the world over become normalized.  One wall, in Berlin, came down, but many more have come up in its place. There are, of course, many walls besides those built with brick and mortar, or with electric wiring calculated to leave dead or shock into submission those daring to transgress the law of borders.  It is not even necessary to enter into discussions about whether the Euro will survive over the next decade or two; of more interest is the question whether the EU is at all the harbinger of a freer and more ecumenical world as it is sometimes made out to be.  Free trade agreements offer relatively unhindered movement of goods, but no nation-state will even remotely contemplate the free mobility of outsiders across its borders.  Those living in the Global South can barely indulge in the idea of wanderlust.  (On a recent visit to Germany, the Schengen visa issued to me, a citizen of India with permanent residency in the United States, holding professorships at leading universities in India and the US, specified the exact dates during which I was permitted to be present in the land of former Nazis:  21 to 25 November 2010.  Just how easy is it for those without invitations, immediate family members in the country of destination, professional positions, or reasonably lucrative businesses to travel to the Schengen zone or North America?)  Leaving aside, however, for the present such obvious criticisms of the regnant ideas of the day about our so-called ‘global village’, what would a more trenchant critique look like?

There is much talk of ‘knowledge cities’ and ‘knowledge societies’, and no one doubts that the sum total of our ‘knowledge’ of the natural and social world is much greater than it has ever been before.  But everything hinges on what we mean by knowledge, and what relation knowledge has to awareness, wisdom, perspicaciousness, and insight; moreover, any pride we may feel in our capacity for knowledge is at once moderated when we begin to ask, whose knowledge, to what end, and for whom?  Even as our knowledge of the world has perhaps grown, the means by which we oppress and remain oppressed have grown dramatically.  Oppressive class relations, the military-industrial complex, feudal norms that stipulate the place of overlords and servants, the brutal exercise of sheer military force:  all these have persisted through the advent of modernity.  Nevertheless, there is little if any awareness of the fact that oppression is increasingly exercised through what might be described as the imperialism of categories established by modern knowledge systems.  What are the categories of knowledge bequeathed to us by the social sciences through which we are induced to comprehend the world around us, and how have these categories become nearly impermeable to critique?

One of my earliest books, Empire of KnowledgeCulture and Plurality in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2002; enlarged Indian ed., Sage, 2005), is largely orchestrated around the idea that, if knowledge helps to liberate us, it also enables a more thoroughgoing and rigorous oppression than anything else that we have so far witnessed.  Even concentration camp inmates understood that it was possible to be broken in the body but not in the mind.  From there we move to the more complex idea that the interpretive categories through which we understand the world have shrunk rather than grown, even as disciplines have developed and multiplied and the entire knowledge industry has grown by gargantuan proportions.   The social scientist may object that certain categories are dropped as they are found to be inadequate, false, misleading, or unproductive, but in truth the social scientist establishes an imperialism of categories.  If the idea of the nation-state holds us in captivity, as is obvious to those who have thought about the fact that the nation-state appears to be the only form in which corporate political community is now conceptualized, why should we expect that the categories with which economists and social scientists work, such as ‘development’ and ‘growth’, or ‘poverty’ and ‘scarcity’, to be any less compromised?  The Palestinians and Kurds may simply want ‘freedom’, but why does freedom necessarily have to take the form of a nation-state?  [See Thesis Three, next, for a greater elaboration of this point.]

How did a category such as ‘literacy’, if I may take another example, become so normalized as to become sacrosanct?  The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, usefully, that though the word ‘literate’ was first used in the English language around 1432, the word ‘literacy’ only entered the language in 1883.  [See the essay on literacy by Barry Sanders in Ashis Nandy & Vinay Lal, eds., The Future of Knowledge and CultureA Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century (Viking Penguin 2005).]  There have always been literates and illiterates, but ‘literacy’ as an evaluative scale, used to judge one nation-state in relation to others, only came into use in the age of eugenics.  To reiterate: even though military domination, class relations, and other familiar structures of hierarchy may not have diminished, increasingly oppression will be exercised through the imperialism of categories established by modern knowledge systems.  The corollary is that our conceptual categories have, contrary to received opinion, shrunk dramatically.  The implications of this are all the more frightening to contemplate when we consider that the Global South cannot even remotely claim intellectual autonomy since the practice of the social sciences is borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the West.

See also previous and subsequent posts in this series:

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)




9 thoughts on “*Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

  1. Pingback: *Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history « Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  2. Pingback: *The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue) « Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  3. I want to make two points in response:

    First, I am not entirely sure that the categories are as hegemonic as the essay seems to suggest. The universities of the global south might be borrowing their science entirely from West Europe and North America, but universities in the global South don’t command the same kind of authority in the South as they do in the North. For instance, what M N Srinivas, or Andre Beteille might argue or believe remains confined to a very very small section of India or South Asia. I guess one of the most powerful institutions in the business of vending the categories of modern western knowledge are schools through the education board approved textbooks, but again their reach and their capacity to foist an imperial system seems limited to me. Isn’t it far more likely that these categories are largely being domesticated, i.e., translated out of shape by a large number of people? The ‘vikas’ that Himanshu Kumar and Bela Bhatia, and even the Maoists seem to talk about is not the development of the World Bank at all. Lastly, if indeed people are translating categories out of shape, then can we really call the categories imperial?

    Second: There are many non-Western categories alive and kicking in India (and in the South) and performing their own oppressions. I do agree with you that post colonial theory by and large is uncritical about the categories it trades in, but it also often can be too uncritical about ‘indigenous’ categories. For instance, post colonial theory fiendishly delights in finding ethnocentricism in Euro-American texts, but rarely is the same criticism leveled against the texts of ‘indigenous knowledge’. If Americans can be faulted for the belief in their own pre-eminence, why not the Dongria Konds, who incidentally also seem to harbor notions of pre-eminence, per some anthropological texts? Does post colonial theory exonerate indigenous texts because these texts have already been viciously ridiculed by colonial scholars and therefore some respite is in order? Or because indigenous peoples were not launching missiles on most of the world? I’m genuinely curious.


  4. Very interesting post and a thought provoking comment by Aniket.
    For the West Imperialism is seen as a development from synoecism, in India the Presidency Towns worked in the opposite way for most Indians- as a dioecism, a fractured social existence, an internal exile from an increasingly irreal ‘native place’.
    To say the ‘Imperialism of categories’ is already political, to have subscribed to a pre-fabricated Weltanshaaung- unless one has a narrative of a development, or deviation, from a ‘synoecism’ of categories’. But, this is something the West does very thoroughly- if speciously- by pretending that all genealogies go back to Periclean Athens and Tacitus’s Rome.

    I don’t know that Post Colonialism as a project, was doomed from the start. What if it had thrown up someone with a little intelligence? I am aware that the Academy is very scrupulous in taking precautions against this sort of thing- but was there really no institutional gate-keeper who couldn’t have been bribed or black-mailed to let an intelligent little person into this particular play-pen?


  5. This is a very interesting point. The imperialism of categories has had such an imprint in the popular culture as well that it can even be seen in science fiction films and TV series such as Star Trek. Even aliens from other planets are expected to have the same social categories and teleological trajectory of history as Europe! It is quite interesting that many Hollywood films dealing with aliens often depict them as genocidal colonizers or otherwise antagonistic, while many Bollywood films with aliens do not do this. One may think it could be the reverse given the histories of the two places. How people in different cultures would react if humanity did, indeed, make contact with an extra-terrestrial species would indeed say a lot about their cultures.


    • Hello Akash, I must say that I have not given much thought to science fiction as somehow I have not been able to get interested in it. I shall have to mull over your comments as they may open up a new line of inquiry for me. I refer, in particular, to the distinction you draw between the treatment of aliens in Bollywood and Hollywood. Satyajit Ray was very interested in science fiction and you may know that he accused Steven Spielberg of having plagiarised from his script “The Alien” which Ray had sent to him; some years after that, Spielberg made E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial. But I don’t know if Ray’s science fiction is distinct and I would like to know more about Indian science fiction films. Cheers, Vinay


  6. Sir ji,

    With due respect, I find it somewhat bizarre that extremely privileged people, such as yourself, Ashis Nandy, and the few others who promote this argument, who have had the privilege of having the best education, the best healthcare, and all the amenities that come with an upper class life can argue that categories such as literacy or infant mortality are unimportant or “Western imported”. It seems you may not have grasped the pain and defeat caused by something like illiteracy. I have linked a video by Dr. Michael Parenti below in which he discusses this with respect to Cuban socialism. In my view, the categories you refer to are not a matter of geographical region (and in any case, what constitutes a “Western category” or a “Western” anything is beyond me, frankly) but of premodern and modern time periods. It is indeed true that we need new categories to understand our social world in the modern era and that some categories from previous time periods will no longer be useful: that has happened to countries the world over, not just in the Global South. This genre of anti-imperialism is not really anti-imperialism. It is, rather, what happens when elite diasporic intellectuals become so disconnected from the material ground relaties in their home countries that they promote a pseudo-radical conception of anti-imperialism that is utterly irrelevant to real people.

    Michael Parenti on the Cuban Revolution


    • I regret to say that you have not understood the argument advanced in the essay. The argument is that there is a difference between literacy and being literate: literacy is an enumerative measure, a modality of modernity and a way of creating hierarchies. People have always been literate or illiterate but the notion that we judge a civilization by its literacy is a relatively modern idea and one that needs to be investigated and critiqued. I am not making an argument that people should not be literate, or should not be able to read and write, though I would also ask you to recognize that many people who are literate are ignorant in other ways and those who are literate are not necessarily wise. Indeed, they are seldom wise. Your charge, therefore, namely that privileged people such as myself or Nandy do not want others to get educated, is absurd and patently false.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. There are many controversial points in this article that one could argue for. For example, the assertion that “ oppression is increasingly exercised through what might be described as the imperialism of categories established by modern knowledge systems” calls our current acceptance of modern academia into question. People involved in education and politics may have different opinions on this topic depending upon their perspective. A lot of the knowledge in the world is based on Western knowledge, which means that Western countries control the prevailing mindset and decide what categories of knowledge are important for the rest of the world. This in itself is a form of imperialism because it doesn’t allow smaller countries to contribute to the knowledge base. For example, the author mentions literacy and describes how literacy was not considered important until eugenics started. Eugenics was what Hitler used in his attempts to create a superior white race by selectively removing what he thought were less desirable qualities in people. It was historically used against minorities, the mentally ill, and the poor, who were considered to have the “bad” qualities. Similarly, one could argue that the imperialism of categories affects minorities and smaller nations in the same way, forcing them to adapt to Western knowledge systems and methods to be considered worthy in the eyes of the Western world.


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