One narrative of colonialism insists that, however adverse the consequences of colonialism for the peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Polynesia, and so on, it opened up these worlds to the modern West and its scientific, technological, intellectual and political advancements. This argument has seen an extraordinary resurgence over the last two decades, and its advocates point sometimes to the ‘failed states’ of Africa, and at other times to the rise of militant Islam, to suggest that the colonial powers let down their subjects by pulling out too early. Some commentators insist only on the supposed ‘fact’ that the colonized subjects have repeatedly shown themselves incapable of (good) governance; others advance the view that colonialism can productively be understood and condoned as the narrative of provincial and insular cultures being opened up, even if forcibly, to the salutary and progressive influence of the West in all domains of life. Some historians of empire continue to indulge in a similarly puerile exercise, weighing the ‘good’ that colonialism wrought for the darker races against the ‘bad’ that, mostly ‘inadvertently’, was done by a few rotten specimens of the white ruling elites in the colonies. Paul Johnson, Niall Ferguson, and Dennis Judd are among the many commentators and academic dons who have never been in doubt that the ‘good’ easily outweighed the ‘bad’; they have been joined by politicians such as Gordon Brown, who declared on an official visit to Britain’s former East African colonies in 1995 that Britain no longer needed to apologize for colonialism since it had contributed many ‘positive’ values to the lives of its colonial subjects. (Engulfed as we are by apologies, it is for the better that Gordon Brown decided not to contribute to the epidemic.)
We know what the ‘opening up’ of Australia and the Americas, to take two obvious and gruesome examples, meant for indigenous peoples. It is barely necessary to rehearse the histories of genocide, the devastation of lifestyles and cultural inheritances, and destruction of ecosystems that must be understood in their most expansive sense as encompassing complicated relationships between humans, animals, plants, the soil, and the elements. Scholars engaged in postcolonial criticism scarcely need to be reminded of the manner in which histories of European expansion and genocide are inextricably intertwined. The question before us, rather, is whether the theoretical trajectories of the last few decades have not, inadvertently or otherwise, also opened up formerly colonized subjects to the knowledge systems of the West and thereby paved the way for the extinction of the little cultural and intellectual autonomy that might have remained in colonized societies. There is a legitimate question to be asked whether there are ever any ‘pure’ categories of thought, and it may even be that the scientific methods and categories of the West have themselves been deployed to stake arguments about the history and authenticity of a local knowledge tradition (as, some would argue, is true of Ayurveda). Nevertheless, what cannot be doubted is the massive inequilibrium between modern knowledge systems and knowledge systems that remain local, indigenous, suppressed, or marginal. On the liberal view, to take one instance, the West has shown itself to be increasingly accommodating to alternative knowledge systems, and in medicine liberals will point to the growing acceptance of homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, traditional Tibetan medicine, and naturopathy in the US and Europe. But are these merely viewed as complementary systems, or do practitioners of allopathy permit their assumptions about medical care to be seriously put into question by practitioners of other medical knowledge systems?
Let us consider an analogy: Foucault’s History of Sexuality has had a seminal place not only in recent understandings of sexuality in Europe and the Americas but also in the attention being lavished on sexuality in Indian variants of cultural studies. As in economics and anthropology, the assumption persists that Foucault has furnished a universal template for the study of sexuality, even if notions of femininity, masculinity, sexual conduct, the care and practices of the body in India may not be amenable to his cultural histories. Fortuitously, another bespectacled bald man, this one in India, had an abiding interest in sexual practices. I have in mind, quite surprisingly, Mohandas Gandhi. Unlike the two bald men fighting over a comb, Jorges Luis Borges’s memorable description of the squabble between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands, Gandhi and Foucault would, I suspect, have disagreed over much that is truly substantive for our understanding of human sexuality. I wonder when the history of sexuality in Europe will be opened up to the penetrating gaze of the sexual practices of Gandhi, who had firm and deeply rooted ideas about the public and the private, masculinity and femininity, the violence of sex and the sex of violence, and the joys of sexuality without sex.
Though it is now an axiom of modern thought and sensibility that the moral imperative of the day is to enhance cultural cooperation and comprehend the various ways in which the world is shrinking, it is rather the case that conditions for even remotely equal exchanges and flows do not exist. In the present state of affairs, keeping in mind the enormous iniquities in the world system, little diminished by the alleged erosion of American power or the ascendancy of China, and nowhere better manifested than in the fact that modern knowledge systems are generally derived in toto from the West, there can be no more desirable outcome than to reduce certain contacts, for instance between the Global North and the Global South, and repudiate certain conversations. In the totalizing conditions of modern knowledge, we have the intellectual, political and moral obligation, at least from the standpoint of those living in the Global South, to increase incommensurability. To deny the South this choice, to compel it to enter to the stream of world history the teleological center of which remains the Euro-American world – Fukuyama’s bland “end of history” being a case in point — notwithstanding all the critiques of recent decades, would be the clearest sign of surrender to a resurgent colonialism masquerading as the harbinger of the familiar universalisms of freedom, progress, development, and the like.
See also previous posts in this series: