Identity and the Colossal Failure of Contemporary Electoral Politics

Part III of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

In an effort to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion.  I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88).  That this hunch is far from being a demonstrable fact is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’s gradual and probable ascendancy to the pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics–especially at this juncture of history.   It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist, and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi.  Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes!  Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India, and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the United States as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations, and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.


Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (center), with her sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, to her left, at the Simla Conference

Continue reading

The Dominant and the Dominated:  A Short Tribute to Albert Memmi

. . .  with an aside on Frantz Fanon and Edward Said

I read a couple of days ago of the passing of Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born Jewish novelist, political thinker, sociologist, and essayist who exiled himself to Paris after Tunisia’s proclamation of independence in 1956.  At his death, on May 22 on the outskirts of Paris, he was just a few months shy of being 100 years old.  I found myself surprised at reading his obituary in the New York Times, if only because it has been years since anyone had ever even mentioned him; to be brutally honest, having known him of him as a writer who had been most active, as I thought, in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to me that Continue reading

*Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine

(an essay in several parts)

 Los Angeles, 14 May 2018

Prologue:  Today marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel; not any less significantly, and with perhaps even greater implications in thinking about the future of humanity, and the possibilities, slim as they seem at this juncture, of moving towards a world that would embody nobler conceptions of social justice, equality, and human dignity than those that are found to prevail today, Palestinians remember this day as the “Nakba” [also “Naqba”], a catastrophic day when they were dispossessed of their land, their homes, and rendered into refugees.  The plight of the Palestinians continues unabated to the present day.  Today was, in Gaza, a day of terrifying carnage: as the Americans celebrated the opening of their Embassy in Jerusalem, and Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends mindlessly exulted in the relocation of the Embassy as a great day for “peace”, 58 Palestinians were shot dead at and near the border between Gaza and Israel.  It was Tacitus who, centuries ago in writing of Roman expansionism, declared:  “They make war and call it peace.” We have heard, and will certainly hear for some more days, international expressions of “outrage” over the events.  The United States has already blocked a call by Kuwait for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.  Nothing here takes one by surprise; but in the midst of all this, it is the images that have emerged from Gaza which sear the conscience—Palestinian youth organizing tires and setting fire to them to create smokescreens; a young man, Sabir Ashqar, who lost his legs in earlier round of conflict in the Gaza strip a decade ago, using a slingshot from his wheel chair; and kites, prepared with incendiary materials, being flown over agricultural lands in Israel in an attempt to set them on fire.  Is a Third Intifada on its way?


Palestinian protesters fly a kite with a burning rag dangling from its tail, during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) Source:



Targeting IDF [Israel Defence Forces] soldiers at Gaza Border.  Source:

Part One:  Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict

It is nearly a century since a British official, the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, who might justly have been forgotten but for an infamous pronouncement associated with his name, committed the British to assist in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Five years later, in 1922, this commitment was given further impetus when the Mandate for Palestine was authorized under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations.  The seeds of the present conflict between Israel and Palestinians are thus most likely to be viewed as having been sown then, even if Jews still comprised less than ten percent of the population of Palestine; but some commentators might well point to the fact that the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, where Jews were overwhelmingly concentrated, was, in the age of nationalism, perforce calculated to lead them eventually to a more vigorous assertion of the demand for a Jewish homeland.  On the other hand, historians could equally well dispute whether the idea of Israel was, even on the eve of World War II, at all inevitable.  The White Paper of 1939, after all, appeared to be sensitive to Palestinian demands: it held out the promise that the British would withdraw from the Balfour Declaration and place limits on Jewish immigration into Palestine, and that at a time when the position of the Jews in an Europe that would soon be reeling under Nazi attacks was exceedingly bleak. [This history has been ably recounted in Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine (2nd ed., Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Rashid Khalidi, The Iron CageThe Story of the Palestinian Struggle Statehood (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006), among other books.]  However, whatever the precise point at which Jews and Palestinian Arabs became locked in battle, it has become common to characterize their conflict as intractable.  Seventy years to the day since the establishment of the state of Israel, the search for a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestinians does not merely continue, but is likely to strike most viewers of the contemporary Middle East as unattainable.


Palestinian protesters burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018.  (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) Source:

If the Israel-Palestine conflict is scarcely the only conflict of our times, it nonetheless has an exceptional character, indeed a poignancy peculiarly its own.  The late Edward Said, lionized as one of the leading intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, was perhaps the most well-known advocate (barring Yasser Arafat) of the Palestinian cause for at least two decades before his death in 2003.  In left circles and even among many of those who are content to describe themselves as liberals, Said came to be celebrated as the conscience of our times.  He often remarked that, in the United States at least, “the last permissible racism—and by permissible, I mean it’s okay publicly in the media and elsewhere—is to be racist against Arabs”.  This is from an interview in 1987 with Matthew Stevenson of the Progressive magazine, Madison; five years later, while speaking to Richard Kearney in Dublin, Said gave it has view that respected writers such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and David Pryce Jones could openly and without any consequences speak of “Arabs and violent and depraved people”, but something similar “could not be written about any other ethnic cultural group in the world today.” [These interviews are collected in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics and Culture:  Interviews with Edward W. Said (London:  Bloomsbury, 2004).]  Moreover, among the Arabs, the Palestinians appeared to Said to bear the brunt of an oppression which had the tacit and often explicit approval of all sectors of the establishment.


In Memoriam Edward Wadie Saïd: a Palestinian National Initiative poster at the Israeli West Bank wall. Photo: Justin McIntosh; Source: Wikipedia Commons.

It would be churlish, I think, to quibble with Said on the question of whether Arabs are subject to opprobrium unlike any other group in the world.  We have only to recall that a billionaire publicly described Mexicans as “rapists” and “killers” and got rewarded for his egregious indeed revolting behavior and rank racism by being elected to the most powerful office in the world.  Whatever one’s view about the state of Israel, I daresay that in many countries of the world it is still perfectly respectable to indulge in the vilest anti-Semitism and get away it.  The attacks on Jewish cemeteries in scores of countries should be enough to disabuse one of the idea that Arab Muslims represent the last frontier in the effort to rid the world of racism and ethnic hatred.  One could go in this vein; and yet there may be a modicum of truth in Said’s suggestion, considering that Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, do not seem to have the goodwill of a great many other people around the world.  Putting it rather differently, many states—and here I speak of countries where the majority population is not Muslims—have proceeded to treat their Muslim populations as second-class citizens on the supposition that other countries will not be excessively bothered by such acts of discrimination and, on occasion, outright violence.  Myanmar scarcely took a risk in purging the country of its Rohingya population:  there was the customary hue and cry over the ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslims, but the country’s leaders calculated, and not without reason as events have shown, that the world would not be much bothered by the dispossession and killings of the Rohingya.  What Said did not say, though he may have intended to convey as much, is that there is not much will in what is called “the international community” to prevent violence against Muslims.

However, there is another, more serious, criticism to be made of Said.  For all of his sensitivity to injustice and oppression, sometimes he barely seemed capable of seeing beyond the conflict over Palestine.  He gave a number of interviews in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide, but this macabre set of events, leading to some 800,000 deaths in a little over three months, appears not to have left any impression on him:  there isn’t the slightest mention of Rwanda, in interviews peppered with thoughts on racism, violence, statelessness, and so on.  If “the Holocaust”—and it is often spoken of in the singular, as if any attempt to pluralize the conception of the holocaust was itself tantamount to diminishing the suffering of the Jews (and its many other victims, among them homosexuals, gypsies, and the ‘mentally retarded’)—has become the paradigmatic instance of a descent into barbarism, an evil that utterly escapes comprehension, then to Said and some others the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians appears uniquely to embody the pain of all those who have been displaced from their lands and who now face brutal odds against a nation-state armed to the teeth.  The conflict over Palestine has gone on so long that exhaustion has set in; a few years ago, many people ceased to  apprise themselves of the latest twists and turns in what used to be called the ‘peace process’, and which is now all but finished.

Yet, while many other conflicts have been forgotten, or are struck from our conscience on account of their remoteness to our experience, Palestine has implanted itself firmly on our conscience.  It may be that the Palestinians are a gifted people, and not all oppressed peoples can claim the good fortune of having poets of the likes of Mahmud Darwish:

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.  [“Identity Card”, 1964]

(to be continued)

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see:

*Thesis Eight: Postcolonial Thought and Religion in the Public Sphere


Proposition:  A more ecumenical conception of the future must contend with the question of religion in the public sphere

I do not think it can be doubted that postcolonial thought has displayed a stern reluctance to engage with the question of religion or, more broadly, the language of transcendence.  Let us acknowledge, in the first instance, that the very template of ‘religion’ comes from the canon of Western thought; more precisely, ‘religion’ the world over was sought to be remade in the template of Protestant Christianity.  The nineteenth century also saw the establishment of an hierarchy of religions; even the notion of world religions, as the work of Tomoko Masuzawa [The Invention of World ReligionsOr, how European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (2005)] suggests, served to enforce the idea of European modernity in the guise of pluralism.  Though a “religion” such as Hinduism could be accommodated within the Aryan-Semitic divide, it posed distinct problems for many of its adherents, many of whom unwittingly or tacitly accepted the notion of Protestant Christianity as representing the acme of an authentic and proper religion.  To become a proper religion, and be viewed as one, having, that is, the notion of a singular savior, a single book, and a clear and unambiguous theology, became the aspiration of many modernizing Hindus as well.


To admit all this is only to say that we must begin with a deep recognition of the limitations attached to the idea of ‘religion’.  Moreover, in speaking of religion, one is already severely compromised into using a language that cannot fully describe the various modes in which peoples experience the divine, the transcendent, the notion of the after-life, or, even, the ethical life.  But once we are past this admission, the problem persists:  it is all but clear that postcolonial theory had almost nothing to say about the place of religion in the public sphere, and that too at a time when the world over religion was making inroads into politics and the everyday life of communities.  If there is a larger and entirely legitimate question about how postcolonial thought was positioned in the public sphere, it is in the realm of religion that postcolonial thought proved to be wholly inadequate.  This lacuna is most evident in the work of Said himself:  insofar as he engaged with the question of religion, he did so by talking about the representations of Muslims in the western world, whether in the media or in works of scholarship.  He adverted, as well, to the rise of religious fundamentalism or rather we should say extremism; to the extent that he acknowledged religious belief, it is only the perversion of such religious belief that came to his attention.  Said’s critical scholarship is equally an illustration of his steadfast indifference to religious works, theological treatises, the religious life, the nature of religious practices and rituals, or even the philosophy of religion.


This indifference to religion, in Said and many other postcolonial thinkers, can be described in part as stemming from their fear that religion claims dominion over “universal ideas”.  The postcolonial scholar has always found it easier to engage with works that fall under the rubric of ‘reason’ (in all its registers, from ethical reason to the brute instrumentalization of reason).  Said’s response was to put into place a critical humanism that he hoped would serve, in the manner of religion, as a template to generate competing universal ideas.  It is in this rather odd fashion that we can think of Said as a religious thinker.  But, more to the point, the consequences on the part of secular and postcolonial scholars of abandoning the public sphere are there to be seen – in, to take three examples, the dramatic rise of Christian evangelicals and their forging of a worldwide network, the ascendancy of the Hindu right and its heady if often inadvertent embrace of what were once colonial conceptions of Hinduism, and the numerous manifestations of violence in Islam.  Postcolonial secular scholars never had anything that can remotely be described as an adequate response; and they never even contemplated the possibility that perhaps the greater ethical response from a committed non-believer is to come to the defense of religious belief.

See also the previous posts in this series:

Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

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

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

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

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


*Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

In a trenchant and famous critique of Edward Said to which I have previously alluded, the Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmad drew attention to what he described as postcolonialism’s fetish with the idea of exile.  Ahmad had in mind the fact that the most compelling figures in Said’s intellectual landscape – among them Conrad, Adorno, Auerbach, Mahmud Darwish, C L R James, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz — lived as exiles.  Said placed himself squarely in that lineage, but went much further in his claim that modern Western culture was fundamentally a creation of exiles.  Said advanced this claim in yet another,  perhaps more compelling, language:  modern culture, he wrote, could be described as the product of a conflict between the ‘housed’ and the ‘unhoused’.  Ahmad’s criticism that Said and postcolonial intellectuals who have fetishized the idea of exile are quite oblivious to their own positions of immense privilege is not without some merit, but can we locate a different and less acrimonious point of entry into this question?  There are obvious and pertinent considerations that remain tacit in Ahmad’s critique.  We are living in an era characterized not only by the mobility of émigrés and exiles, but by nearly unprecedented movements of masses, such as domestic and sex workers, political and economic refugees, stateless persons, immigrants, and so-called undocumented aliens.  The intellectual émigré is surely member of a miniscule minority, but does such an admission suffice as a basis on which Said might be critiqued?

To the extent that the ‘nation’ remained, if only as the subject of critique, the fundamental operative category in postcolonial writings, the idea of home went unexamined.  Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home?  That little-noticed passage in Said, where he characterizes the problem of modern culture as the conflict “between the unhoused and housed”, helps to push his insights further.  The death, less than two years ago, of Samuel Hallegua, a Jew whose family had been resident in the coastal city of Cochin for a little more than four centuries, brought home to me the problem of ‘home’ in modern thought.  Every scholar of global Jewish history admits that, in India at least, Jews never encountered the slightest trace of anti-Semitism. Nathan Katz, author of Who Are the Jews of India?, writes candidly that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well.  They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.” He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world:  “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”  Yet, in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, there was an exodus of Indian Jews to the new Jewish state. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel.  But is it really all that ‘natural’ that the modern nation-state should be construed as the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and should we effortlessly concede that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs?

In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, perhaps new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition.  Some of them, it is certain, would also have experienced a sense of loss – not just a feeling of nostalgia, but even discrimination as they found themselves representing strands of Judaism all but foreign to other Jews.  Their children and grandchildren will perhaps not be privy to such sentiments.  But what of Mr. Hallegua’s contemporaries?  If they desired the comfort of numbers, what enabled Mr. Hallegua, who never left Cochin, to resist that easy temptation?  Should we conclude that he was less enterprising than his peers and less willing to take the risk of dislocation?  Or should we entertain the possibility that Mr. Hallegua, in his own quiet manner, was registering a dissent against the ethos of modern political and social identity?  The Hindu, in reporting the death of Mr. Hallegua, quoted him as saying of India, “It has been more than tolerant.  The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests.  My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns.  But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism.  The country accepted us as we have been.  I’m a proud Indian.  I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.”  With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of Indian independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state prevailed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern political arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ triumphed – as it has so often in our times.

I do not wish to say that Mr. Hallegua heroically mounted a resistance to the arithmetic of modern politics; but he nevertheless refused to give this arithmetic his endorsement.  He did not speak the language of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, and he refused to be drawn into thinking that identity is reducible to some primordial markers of religion, ethnicity, and the like.  Or, let us put it this way, Mr. Hallegua had an expansive conception of the politics of home.  He may even have recognized Israel as the longed-for home, but perhaps it was the home to which he could not or would not return.  He may have refused to idealize Israel; or, if he did, he could have thought that it would be best to hold up the idea of Israel and yet have no truck with the reality of a nation-state predicated on the notion of religious identity.  What is  certain to my mind is that new paradigms in the aftermath of postcolonialism will have to help us resist the debilitating arithmetic of modern politics.

See also previous posts in this series:

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

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

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

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

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

*Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

The enterprise of making a nation is fraught with violence.  People have to be not merely cajoled but browbeaten into submission to become proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  Overt violence may not always play the primary role in producing the homogenous subject, but social phenomena such as schooling cannot be viewed merely as innocuous enterprises designed to ‘educate’ subjects of the state.  One of the most widely cited works to have put forward this argument with elegance and scholarly rigor is Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, where one learns, with much surprise, that even in the Third Republic “French was a foreign language for half the citizens.”  The making of France entailed not only the modernization of the rural countryside but creating, often with violence, proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  The making of the United States offers another narrative of the role of violence in the production of the nation-state, with the extermination of native Americans long before and much after the ‘Revolutionary War’ constituting the most vital link in the long chain of violence that marked the emergence of the United States.

Postcolonial thought, attentive as always to the politics of nation-making and nationalism’s complicity with colonialism, bestowed considerable attention on the various phenomena that can be accumulated under the rubric of violence; however, it had almost no time to spare for a pragmatic, ethical, or even philosophical consideration of nonviolence.  The violence of the nation-state may have always been present to the mind of postcolonial theorists, but generally this was reduced to the violence of the colonizer.  One thinks, of course, of Fanon, Cesaire, Memmi, and many others in this respect.  In those works that have underscored the complicity of nationalist and imperialist thought, a principal motif in the work (say) of Ranajit Guha, the violence of indigenous elites also came under critical scrutiny.  [See, for example, Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, or his programmatic note on subaltern studies in Volume I.]  It is characteristic of most social thought in the West that it has been riveted on violence – here, postcolonial thought barely diverged from orthodox social science, mainstream social thought, or the general drift of humanist thinking.  Nonviolence is barely present in intellectual discussions.  We see here history’s continuing enchantment with ‘events’; nonviolence creates little or no noise, it merely is, it only fills the space in the background.

One of the many genuine insights at which Gandhi arrived was the recognition that the practitioners, theorists, and ardent believers in nonviolence in Europe and America had become entirely marginal to dominant intellectual traditions of the West.  The Tolstoy who turned to anarchism and nonviolence was seen as having betrayed the finest humanist traditions that he had once embodied; Thoreau was dismissed as a freak; and Edward Carpenter was reduced to obscurity.  That the supreme novelist of 19th century Europe, feted and celebrated not only in aristocratic and learned circles but in the much wider and emerging public sphere, should have turned to philosophical anarchism, renouncing his own works and embracing a political view of Christianity that put him in the path of confrontation with the church, is something that passed the comprehension of Tolstoy’s contemporaries.  Gandhi was similarly inclined to view Christianity as a firm repudiation of Christ’s teachings on nonviolent resistance, though what role Tolstoy had in shaping Gandhi’s conception of Christianity remains uncertain.

The point cannot be reinforced enough:  nonviolence has never had any salience in Western thought, and postcolonial thought has in this respect scarcely deviated from the intellectual traditions of the West.  Once we leave aside Indian scholars such as Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy, for whom Gandhi perforce has had an inescapable presence, we find that postcolonialism in the Western academy never had the slightest truck with the histories and practices of nonviolence.  The fetish for violence manifested itself in a sustained interest in Fanon among postcolonial theorists; but Gandhi has long seemed, shall we say, unsexy in the extreme.  The case of Edward Said is instructive:  though he had gotten in the habit of furnishing lists of anti-colonial thinkers and texts to his readers, Gandhi remained singularly uninteresting to him.  It is informative that in a voluminous collection of interviews with Edward Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan and published in 2004, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. appears twice:  but where King is remembered around the world chiefly and justly as one of the chief architects of the civil rights movement, the preeminent prophetic voice of an aggrieved black America, Said mentions him both times only (and I should say without any just cause) as an unequivocal supporter of Zionism.  Many have pointed to the fact that the oppression of the colonizers was much more visible to Said than the resistance to colonial rule; but, even within the canvas of resistance, the idea of nonviolent resistance, and its histories, was not even remotely on Said’s horizon.  Nonviolence has been a gaping hole in postcolonial thought, and this alone points us to the irrepressible and uncomfortable truth of the deep structuring of violence in the entire edifice of modern Western thought.

See also related previous posts:

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

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

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

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

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

Postcolonial theory, it has been argued, has run its course.  This is the premise of a meeting held recently in Berlin.  Some scholars have underscored the importance of poststructural thinkers in the shaping of postcolonial theory; others point, in particular, to the publication of Said’s Orientalism (1978) as the foundational movement of postcolonial studies; and yet others have been drawn to such intellectual developments as ‘Subaltern Studies’, often seen as the form in which postcolonial studies took its most distinctive shape in India.  As is true of nearly every field of intellectual inquiry, fractures and fissures gradually opened up within postcolonial studies.  One of the founding members of ‘Subaltern Studies’ and among the most eminent scholars of Indian history, Sumit Sarkar, effected a departure from the Subaltern Studies collective less than a decade after its inception with a stinging critique of postcolonial studies.  He charged it with being ineffective, as incapable of any ‘real’ intervention in a world where the last pockets of resistance to neoliberalization policies and capitalism’s surge had apparently been abandoned by the early 1990s, and as so enamored with its own languages of interpretation and intellectual concerns as to be spectacularly insensitive to questions of material culture and political economy.

On the other hand, there is the view, which has a large number of adherents, that (to borrow from the language of the meeting’s concept note) “postcolonial studies have been proven extremely effective for the humanities.”  Phenomena that were formerly at the margins have been brought to the forefront; those who were left out of the narratives of history, and of the nation-state, have struggled, often successfully, to make themselves heard.  The master narratives of the Enlightenment are no longer accepted uncritically, and it is widely recognized – though postcolonial theory has been scarcely alone in coming to this awareness – that many of the universalisms taken for granted are particularisms, often of an insidious sort.  One could continue in this vein.  Even among the adherents of postcolonial studies, however, there is a growing recognition that exhaustion has set in, the questions put on offer are predictable, and that one is only likely to encounter regurgitation of familiar arguments.

I shall, in successive posts, put forward nine theses (preceded by a prologue) that do not so much enter into this debate as they attempt to suggest that the practitioners of postcolonial studies, for all their achievements and insights, were entirely evasive about some fundamental questions.  We should be thinking of ‘ecumenical futures’ which, however, are not possible without a rather different intellectual framework for understanding the nature of oppression in contemporary society and the place of modern knowledge systems in consolidating intolerable forms of inequality between the Global South and the Global North and even within the Global North.  Indeed, the dominant strands of contemporary theory, since from around the 1970s, have, I think it can reasonably be argued, been largely insensitive to most of the considerations raised in the posts that will follow enumerating the theses.

Prologue:  Before we speak of ‘postcolonial fatigue’, we should perhaps be asking whether everyone is suffering from this fatigue in equal measure.  Curiously, even if practitioners of postcolonial studies often saw themselves as heavily indebted to the insights of Derrida and Foucault, postcolonialism had few adherents in the French academy and the enterprise remained largely confined to the Anglo-American world and perhaps the wider Anglophone academy.  How far this has to do with ‘French exceptionalism’, and with the sense (embodied, to take one infamous illustration, with the Law of 2005, previously referenced on my blog) that French colonialism left behind a glorious inheritance, albeit one squandered and trivialized by formerly colonized subjects, is an interesting question in itself.

However, there is little reason to suppose that postcolonial studies were as pervasive even in the American or English academy as is sometimes assumed to be the case.  True, nearly every American university or college of some standing had resolved, some years ago, to hire at least one postcolonial scholar, but postcolonial scholars remained in a wholly distinct minority, even if on occasion they managed to attract a disproportionate amount of attention.  In similar fashion, it is possible to argue that the authors most frequently referenced by postcolonial scholars – Conrad, Kipling (usually ‘Kim’), Forster, Fanon, Achebe, Rushdie (generally ‘Midnight’s Children’), among others – were joined by other authors over the years, but nevertheless postcolonial scholarship turned on a rather small sliver of original (and most commonly literary) texts.  I recall, fifteen years after Said had published Orientalism, meeting the chair of the department of English at a small college in Michigan who had never heard of Said; more to the point, however pervasive the writings of Said, Spivak, Bhabha, or James Clifford in departments of English (and, for reasons that are obvious, in anthropology, a discipline originating under colonialism) among a small coterie of scholars, the practitioners of many other disciplines proceeded in their work in complete indifference to postcolonial studies.  Once one moves outside the domain of the academy, there are far more unsettling questions about the at best tenuous relationship of postcolonial studies to the wider public sphere.  The three decades that postcolonial studies has flourished in the American academy are precisely those where the US has engaged in rapacious conduct around the world, from its illegal mining of Nicaragua’s harbours to the Gulf War of 1991 and, more recently, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One can be certain that postcolonial studies, even if some of its practitioners occasionally deluded themselves into believing that their interventions and interpretations were calculated to make a difference in the ‘real’ world – and, yes, one might legitimately ask how ‘real’ is real, and why literature should not be construed as being just as ‘real’ as the nitty-gritty stuff on the street – made no difference to the outcome of US foreign policy.  The gist of all this should, in any case, be transparent:  before we convince ourselves of a postcolonial fatigue, perhaps we should seriously ask if postcolonial studies traveled as far as is sometimes alleged.

Next — Thesis One:  Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of ‘history’

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