It has been argued that postcolonial thought only became possible owing to the presence of intellectuals and academics from formerly colonized countries in the metropolitan capitals of the West (or, more narrowly, in the better American research universities). Leaving aside for the moment the critique leveled by Aijaz Ahmed against Edward Said, which (in part) focuses on Said’s supposed fetishization of ‘exile’, and leaving aside also the question of whether the relationship between the metropole in the West and the capitals in the global South has really changed all that much over the last few decades, we might try to pursue another implication of the post-colonial location of intellectuals from the global South in the global North.
Why, we should perhaps ask, must the West mediate between the conversations that the people of Asia or Africa might have amongst themselves? Postcolonial studies may have familiarized South Asians with the writings of Ngugi, Achebe, Walcott, and Jamaica Kincaid, and Africans with the writings of Kipling, Forster, Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, and Arundhati Roy, but the mediation of the academy in the US and UK has been central to nearly all such enterprises. As a historian whose canvas extends considerably beyond India, for instance to the worldwide Indian diaspora, it took me very little time to come to an understanding of that peculiar phenomenon which is termed comparative history. Comparative history has generally meant nothing more than comparing Latin America with the West, China with the West, Japan with the West, Africa with the West, and so on. For European scholars without much of an interest in Europe’s former colonies, it has generally meant extending the canvas from one nation-state in western Europe to several, to encompassing France, England, Germany, Italy, and so on, with an occasional foray into the dreaded territory of the Slavs. The pattern is unmistakably clear: in comparative history, one axis remains the West, and the other is determined either by the scholar’s national origins or area of interest. Just as the United States found it unacceptable that its services and mediation should have been rejected when Turkey and Brazil last year sought to negotiate directly with Iran over the question of its compliance with the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty), so the historian is baffled when the Euro-American world is not explicitly or at least tacitly present in the enterprise of comparative history.
It is transparent that when humanists and especially social scientists from China, India, and Africa speak to each other, if at all they do so, their discourse is invariably mediated through the West. The matter may be put this way: however impressive the rise of China, whatever the consequences of its increasing military reach, its creation of a blue seas navy, and its economic penetration of the world, what kind of categories has it contributed to the edifice of modern knowledge? Which Chinese philosophers, social scientists, literary critics, or humanists have become part of the ‘indispensable’ canon? English is the language of international social science, but if Foucault, Badiou, Derrida, and countless others can be translated from French into English and Chinese, just as Habermas, Adorno, and Benjamin can be translated from German into English, Chinese, and French, why is it that Chinese social science or philosophy is unavailable in English (not to mention Indian languages)? Or, as is much more likely, is it not the case that Indians, Chinese, Africans and Iranians tacitly understand that to read each other is, in each instance, effectively to read someone who is merely replicating some model of the economist or theory of the anthropologist from the West? If nearly all social science in the global South is derivative, why bother at all reading each other?
In 1931, the journalist Edgar Snow, renowned at one time for his accounts of China, was on a visit to India. He described himself as being “impressed with the amazing fact that these two countries, with the oldest continuous civilizations, with close religious and cultural ties, and which between themselves hold about half the men and women of the world, had such poor means of communication between them.” That Snow was adverting not merely to the poor technological, transportation, or communication networks as these are ordinarily understood is transparent from what follows: “Their cultural centers”, Snow wrote, “were farther from each other by existing land routes than either one was from Europe or America – just as far apart, in fact, as in the days when Buddhism was carried over the Himalayas to the Chinese Empire.” The model for this insensitivity may well have been the bhadralok intellectual from Calcutta, who – throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into a couple of decades after India’s attainment of independence — always found London much closer to Calcutta than Bombay, Pune, Surat, Madras or Hyderabad. Beastly Delhi was nowhere on his horizon.
It has not always been this way. China, the east coast of Africa, southeast Asia, the Gulf states, and India were all part of an Indian Ocean world before the coming of the Europeans. Afghanistan may be a byword in Europe and the US for backwardness, relentless patriarchy, and the tyranny of the Taliban, but Afghan rulers left behind a legacy of cultural refinement in north India centuries before the commencement of India’s relations with European powers. It may be argued that the Bandung conference of 1955 sought to capture some of this legacy, and one could also speak, in this vein, of various (failed) attempts at Asian–African solidarity, but the imperative of South-South contacts cannot be met only by enhanced contacts between the nation-states of the global South or by officially orchestrated cultural exchanges. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) may be doing a commendable job in sponsoring folk dances of Mongolia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, even if these are performed in largely empty auditoria, but these cannot substitute for the liveliness of interactions that stem from a political awareness of the real meaning and implications of South-South exchanges. A more far-reaching view of the necessity of civilizational dialogues, attentive to a wide range of structures of thought and feeling, will have to be entertained.