*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)



*Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The French feminist Luce Irigaray speaks for many intellectuals when she voices the opinion that “the dominant discipline in the human sciences is now history.”  The likes of Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom argued that the Yoruba had never produced a Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, or Shakespeare, but no insult is calculated to arouse as much anger indeed outrage as to suggest to a people that they have no history.  Eric Wolf captured this idea in his book, Europe and the People without History:  however else colonized people may have been perceived by their vanquishers, they were often rendered as people bereft of history.  India, a prominent colonial official and intellectual wrote in 1835, had a “history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”   If this was true of an ancient civilization, one that had even aroused the admiration of some of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals and writers, could it at all be doubted that Melanesians, Polynesians, Africans, Australian Aboriginals, and many others were a people ‘without history’?

Irigaray speaks of history becoming predominant in the present.  History had, however, become ascendant much earlier, certainly by the early part of the nineteenth century as I have already hinted.  When, to continue briefly with the case of colonial India, James Mill and Thomas Macaulay sought in the first half of the nineteenth century to demonstrate that Indians were not much given to rational thinking, they adduced as evidence the lack of interest in history among Indians and the sheer inability of Indians to deliver even simple chronologies.  Europeans marveled at the fact that the only historical work produced by pre-Islamic India, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a 12th century chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, enumerated kings that were said to have ruled for three hundred years.  If any Indian was disinclined to believe the European charge against Indians, all that was required was to flaunt Gibbon, Hume, Macaulay and later Ranke before the skeptic and ask if any Indian text could even remotely meet the standards of historical reasoning that had become commonplace in Europe.  As I have written elsewhere at great length, in the History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India [rev. ed., Oxford UP, 2005], nationalist intellectuals took it as their brief to respond to the colonial charge.  Thus the nationalist response remained oblivious to the consideration that Indians may very well have disavowed any intellectual or social interest in history, except that they did so for very good reasons and never saw it as a lack.  I suspect that our forefathers generations ago would have been astounded by the idea that a sense of history should be construed as a sign of a people’s capacity for rational thinking or the maturity of a civilization.

The relationship between history and the nation-state has been well established.  No sooner is a nation-state born than an official version of the history of the nation in the making is authorized.  Postcolonial studies’ practitioners have sought to show how all such histories are partial, often as oppressive as the colonial histories that they seek to supplant.  One response has been to ensure that those who were written out of history – women, religious and ethnic minorities, and so on – are written back into histories.  That such enterprises may be nothing more than ‘additive histories’, barely questioning the template of dominant histories, is also well understood.  The resurgence in ‘world history’ in the United States has been another response, and its many defenders and practitioners have been fired by the noble sentiment that the history of the world should no longer be, as it has been so often, the history of the West.  They also presume that world history is the best antidote to national history (and, in the US, to proverbial American insularity), though here, as is often the case, what is good for the West is presumed to be good for the rest of the world.

There have been other, yet more sophisticated, responses to the problem of history.  Dipesh Chakrabarty has made a case for ‘provincializing Europe’, though the gist of his argument is, in many respects, encountered in Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism, published in 1917; he has also argued, quite rightly, that the reference point for histories, even those of India, Africa, or Latin America, somehow always remains Europe.  But Chakrabarty remains unwilling to disavow the language of history:  not only are all critiques of history made within the space of history (but such is the case for critiques of the nation or of modernity), but he views a sense of history as empowering, indeed as a necessary tool of ‘citizenship’.  The incapacity of historians to make any substantive contribution to contemporary debates, even those revolving around the question of ‘historical truth’ and questions of evidence, was driven home when, in 1992, the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque, was destroyed by Hindu extremists.

My point, then, is three-fold, suggesting in what manner we need to go well beyond the framework of postcolonial studies with respect to the question of history.  First, a more radical reading of the particular ways in which a sense of history may be unproductive or disempowering is needed.  One may have some form of historical awareness and yet not be committed at all to the sense of history: if the adage, ‘a nation that has no history is a happy nation’, is at all to be intelligible, it can only be so on the supposition that the task of forging a nation is a bloody one, and history is almost always complicit in such an enterprise.  The historian need not be pulverized by the thought that such an argument is calculated to make her or him obsolete.  Secondly, we shall have to enter into a more sustained conversation with other modes of accessing the past, among them myth.  If the choice word of abuse for the Marxist critic is ‘romantic’, for the historian it is surely ‘myth’.  And, yet, who would want to settle for the historical narrative of the origins of a city – for example, Bengaluru [Bangalore] or Mumbai — when the myth is so much more interesting or richer?  Thirdly, if a persistent case has been made for remembering, an equally persistent epistemological, cultural, and philosophical case has to be made for forgetting.  It may well be that certain forms of forgetting are yet ways to remember the past, but the postcolonial critique of history cannot be said to have even remotely ventured in this direction.

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

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

*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