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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Four Challenges to Postcolonial Theory

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 07/14/05 at 09:34 AM

At a general level, Theory’s Empire seems to me like a very useful anthology. It gives a voice and venue to a few American critics whose contribution was quite substantial, but who fell from grace after the advent of Literary Theory.

Admittedly, it’s far from a complete text, as the discussions of the book on and off The Valve have already shown. In order to place the contributions from M.H. Abrams or John Searle to the anthology in context, it’s necessary to know (and know fairly well) the full shape of the debates that transpired in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s around Theory. Many prominent literary theorists – Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jonathan Culler chief among them – scarcely fit the stereotype of politically correct, canon-leveling philistine that is often associated with the ‘Theory’ of the early 1990s.

But full contextual documentation is probably too much to ask from an anthology, especially one that has a polemical program alongside its historical, recuperative one. Like other polemical ‘theory’ anthologies, including The Empire Writes Back and Fear of a Queer Planet, Theory’s Empire will be remembered more for its title and for its editors’ introduction than for their specific choices or the arrangement of essays.

Big anthologies like the ones mentioned mark events in the academic life-cycle. But what is the event here? No one is advocating going back to a pre-political or pre-linguistic New Criticism; no, the effects of French theory have been dispersed too widely for that to be feasible, even if it might be desirable for some. Some are talking about depoliticization, and some are arguing for less ‘culture’, more literature. All are legitimate demands, though it might be that what is really wanted is something other than what is asked for – not less politics, but a more balanced and thoughtful kind of politics; not less culture, but a different kind of culture.

Though some reviewers will probably end up seeing this as an anti-Theory event, its significance is probably still up in the air to a much greater degree than as happened with the other epochal anthologies named. The results might end up being rather modest—the general recuperation of earlier generations of scholars who have, in recent years, gone on a kind blacklist for being overly ‘naïve’ or ‘pre-theoretical.’ Some of the ‘boring’ scholarship that was done before 1977 could be very useful to us today, and in the future. I’m often looking for models to help my graduate students (and indeed, myself) learn how to make extended arguments (such as one writes in a dissertation), and M.H. Abrams might be it: it doesn’t get any cleaner than The Mirror and the Lamp

I’ll hold off on further comments on the general shape of the volume for now, since I haven’t read every essay and anyway I doubt I have anything original on that score after so much has already been written by my peers.

In the following essay I’ll make detailed reference to essays four essays that challenge postcolonial theory specifically. The essays by Erin O’Connor and Meera Nanda are from Theory’s Empire. In both of these essays, there is much that is genuine and productive – much to take quite seriously – though there are also troubling instances of rhetorical overreaching. A third essay is “The Postcolonial Aura” (1994) by Arif Dirlik, is generally critical of the term “postcolonial,” the kinds of people who study it, and the work they do. Though Dirlik is probably the harshest general critic of postcolonial theory, by an unusual kind of irony he himself has been drawn into the fold; his work is widely assigned in postcolonial literature and theory courses as well as anthologized in ‘postcolonial studies’ readers. Finally, the fourth essay I will refer to is actually a text that is on the surface quite sympathetic to the postcolonial project. It is Priya Joshi’s introduction to her book, In Another Country, and it levels criticisms against some of the major major voices in postcolonial theory that are as sharp as O’Connor’s, without taking a confrontational tone. I also mention her example as a kind of postcolonial scholarship that succeeds as a research project, avoids the pitfalls and traps often characteristic of ‘postcolonialism,’ and makes useful ‘internal’ criticism of the field.

What does it mean exactly to do a postcolonial interpretation of a literary text? What do you have to believe or be to be a ‘postcolonial intellectual’? Is there a postcolonial ideology?

I should place two of my cards on the table up front: I think postcolonial theory is badly over-extended, and is being applied in ways that make little sense, including in historical eras that predate the modern concept of Empire, or Nation. It’s hard, for instance, to understand where people are going with ‘postcolonialist’ Medieval studies or Early Modern studies, since the British empire only really only dates from the late 19th century. Another card: I have serious doubts about the pedagogical usefulness of the style of writing characteristic of Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I am – I try to be – a Saidian.

1. Erin O’Connor

Erin O’Connor’s “Preface to a Post-postcolonial Criticism,” (Project Muse link) which first appeared in Victorian Studies 45.2 (Winter 2003), makes critiques that are apposite to both the problem of overreaching and the problem of rhetorical style and substance. It is an essay that makes some strikingly good points about the problems with a certain kind of theorizing, points which I think every graduate student interested in the field should probably consider. But it is also an essay that is guilty, sometimes egregiously, of over-assertion, as well as a kind of polemical rhetorical aggressivity that is distinctly counter-productive to O’Connor’s stated desire for a less politicized academic environment.

I will evade some of the questions of the basic correctness of the characterizations in O’Connor’s essay, and instead focus for the moment on two of the smaller aspects of her “Preface,” which neither Patrick Brantlinger nor Deirdre David brought up in their respective responses in Victorian Studies. One is her claim that major figures in postcolonial theory – epitomized by Spivak – argue via epigrammatic generalizations rather than through empirical evidence or strong historical grounding. It seems to me the claim about generalizations is demonstrably true, both in Edward Said’s Orientalism and in much of Gayatri Spivak, especially in “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” I am also inclined to accept O’Connor’s characterization of the drift towards studies of Empire in Victorian Studies, though I speak as a non-Victorianist, and do not wish to trespass across period boundaries. I fear of being lumped in with the “Victorientalists” O’Connor accuses of launching a “hostile takeover” of her field, as follows:

The end result of Spivak’s hostile takeover of a genre, a history, and a criticism is thus finally to encourage territorial thinking within literary studies. My own response to the essay serves as a salient example. To this day I feel a personal affront when I read or teach Spivak’s essay, an uncomfortable sense that someone from outside has dared to tread on my field with such infinite condescension, has dared to pass judgment on the critical practice of Victorian studies, and, moreover, has dared to do so with so little ultimate authority—the authority provided by a singularly skimpy and partial reading of a single novel that presumes to call itself a reading of an entire genre, culture, and politics; whose claim to cultural analysis is, in other words, that of sheer bravado alone. There is a majesty to it, one that can only be called imperial (calling Victorian literary studies imperialist is, after all, Spivak’s own colonizing gesture). It is a move that casts the field as a fundamentally backward area, incapable of governing, or thinking, for itself, and hence in need of enlightenment from beyond. And it is a move whose power is revealed by the fact that we have yet to see it for what it is.

There is a legitimate point here, but for me this is not a very admirable paragraph. O’Connor uses her enemy’s tool exactly the way her enemy uses it. She gains no moral ground through this (perhaps, as Brantlinger suggests, it is meant as satire), and runs the risk of an unbecoming kind of proprietary isolationism (“my field,” and “hostile takeover” are gatekeeper phrases, which sound strange coming from a younger scholar).

Having said that, we can go on to address O’Connor’s substantial complaint about about Spivak and Jane Eyre, which is the disproportionate impact of the essay on the scholarship that has followed:

Spivak was right about what would happen if her “‘facts’” were remembered. They have indeed not only been remembered, but have become the guiding premises for much subsequent work on Jane Eyre, which has tirelessly dedicated itself to filling in the gaps in Spivak’s sweeping history. There are Spivak-inspired studies of Jane Eyre’s relationship to Jamaica, to India, to Ireland, and to Africa; to colonialism, to Orientalism, and to racism; to slavery and to sati. Together, they comprise a massive effort of retroactive documentation. Indeed, reading postcolonial readings of Jane Eyre since 1985 is virtually synonymous with watching Spivak’s reading gradually get consolidated as scholars quietly assume the role of providing the context and the close reading Spivak left out. Committing themselves to supplying the evidence to uphold Spivak’s broadest conjectures (to producing the narrative of literary history she desires), rather than to questioning the [End Page 222] viability of an argument that is made without the benefit of evidence, scholars not surprisingly wind up producing readings that replicate Spivak’s rather than generating substantially new ones. Indeed, what is most peculiar about postcolonial work on Jane Eyre is how uniformly it tends to bolster Spivak’s argument, so much so that even critics who take issue with some of Spivak’s premises do so in ways that enable her most basic claims to remain intact. Susan Meyer, for instance, argues that Jane Eyre questions the ideology of imperialism before finally upholding it, a thesis that differs from Spivak’s only in order to fine-tune it. Building on Spivak’s work rather than testing or challenging it, critics have set out to defend (by developing) a version of literary history that they have effectively accepted on faith.

What exactly is it that has been accepted by these scholars ‘on faith’? Is it the presence of the theme of Imperialism in nineteenth century literature? That does seem like a ‘fact’, though its centrality is both debatable and questionable; a recent book called The Absent-Minded Imperialists by Bernard Porter does just that; it is possible to ask this question narrowly, without going to the general politicization of literary study. See my earlier post, as well as Manan Ahmed’s less sanguine response to that book.

Contra O’Connor, one could interpret the work that’s substantiated Spivak’s “conjectures” as a positive development, rather than further evidence of the slavishness of academic taste. Some of that work may be second-rate in one way or another (“readings that replicate Spivak’s”), but it might also be argued that the evidence that has been supplied, and the building that has followed has filled out the historical gaps. It would have been helpful if Spivak herself had done that work, but it is not inherently a weakness that postcolonial Victorian studies has, in the wake of Spivak’s essay, amassed a sizeable volume of historically-minded scholarship focusing on the representation of Empire in the novels of the period.

More broadly, I question O’Connor’s disdain for inductive reasoning, generalizations, and conjecture. As anyone who has ever struggled with arguments about literature must know, literary studies has never conformed to the modern ‘scientific method.’ One generates viable arguments and new forms of literary knowledge via routes that are often tangled, using reasoning that may be equal parts inductive and deductive, as well as through through conjectures (that are eventually substantiated), generalizations (that are hopefully true), and partial initial knowledge (that is later filled in). It may drive scientists insane to say it, but a literary critic has to have some sense of what she or he expects to find before writing a question or filing a proposal. (That said, a literary critic must also be willing to accept that the results of any given idea may turn out to be negative. That, at least, is one place where our methodology ought to overlap with those of scientists and mathematicians more than it does.)

2. Priya Joshi

In his otherwise surprisingly glib and condescending response to O’Connor’s essay in a subsequent issue of Victorian Studies, Patrick Brantlinger nominates as counter-examples some scholars whose works are reviewed in the very same issue of Victorian Studies in which O’Connor’s essay first appeared. One of those is Priya Joshi’s In Another Country (Columbia, 2002), on which Brantlinger was complimentary enough that I picked up the book.

Joshi’s book does everything that O’Connor says post-Spivakian “postcolonial” Victorian studies can’t do. It is based on a significant amount of empirical data studying a very particular historical phenomenon, the circulation of English books in colonial India in the second half of the nineteenth century. It tells us something new about reading practices and patterns of the consumption of English novels in India that shows some surprising patterns, which don’t correspond to the broad generalizations about ‘mimicry’ or ‘epistemic violence’ that have been described by postcolonial theorists like Bhabha as characteristic of the colonial Indian encounter with the English Book.

Where O’Connor – and others – see a a distressing uncritical tendency in postcolonial Victorian studies, Joshi shows herself to be ready and willing to criticize a famous postcolonial scholar (Gauri Viswanathan), whose book Masks of Conquest might be said to follow some of the ‘bad’ patterns O’Connor associates with postcolonial theory. Here is Joshi:

To an extent, Viswanathan is right in defining her inquiry as narrowly as she does. Indian responses are in fact complex and rich, requiring volumes to do them justice. Anything less would be irresponsible. However, her insistence that the story of British power and rule, beleaguered and paranoid though it may be, can be told on its own monochromatic terms without illumination, insight, or even reflection from the most direct source and recipient of its paranoia and rule is an awkward one. Perhaps recognizing this as she explains her refusal to include Indian voices in her study, Viswanathan’s syntax with its repeated and contorted negatives suggests that she too is less than fully persuaded by her logic: ‘to record the Indian response to ideology is no more an act of restoring the native’s voice as not recording it is to render him mute.’

Joshi sounds like she’s using kidgloves with Viswanathan here, but in fact the final sentences are pretty damning. With a more polemical tone she might be made to sound somewhat similar to O’Connor: Joshi sees Viswanathan as using an elaborate theoretical vocabulary to explain why she’s doing in her scholarship what she says the British Empire did with language and literature. Though Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest is much more substantial and historically committed than Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts” essay, it is nevertheless undeniably a book with a ‘big argument’ about colonialism in the vein of both Said and Spivak:

Drawing upon many of the insights and opportunities Viswanathan’s important work has made available, this study differs from hers in both impulse and inclination in two significant ways. First, it resists the tempting and often easy Manicheanism that accounts for empire and its complex, clotted history with the disarming simplicity of ruler-ruled, colonizer-colonized. Insisting that each party inserted and imposed itself in unexpected quarters of the other’s domain, I see each side of the colonial encounter illuminating the other in multiple and irrefutable ways. No account of colonial India can do it justice without taking into direct account the presence and practices of the British, much the way that a story of Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can never be complete or even fully accurate without acknowledging and addressing her colonies and their inadvertent and considerable presences within her. While this remark may appear a truism today in a world that has indigenized the dialectic of master and slave into a glib mantra, it is one worth restoring to status when reading arguments such as those Viswanathan advances in her meticulous study of British ideology that nonetheless ignores Indian responses altogether. (6-7)

After taking on Viswanathan’s “easy manicheism,” Joshi also marks the ways her empirical evidence tells a story that is sharply different from the broad generalizations about mimicry (Bhabha) or ‘imagined communities’ (Benedict Anderson) that are so familiar to anyone who has read a little in the field. Mimicry has little to with the actual historical constitution of an Indian reading public, and much, much more was going on at the Calcutta Public Library than the straightforward establishment of a national print-culture.

It’s important to say that not everyone is as good as Joshi. But it’s also worth remembering that we wouldn’t have this excellent work of scholarship without the broad generalizations produced by the earlier generation of postcolonial intellectuals. It is true that Spivak is of limited utility as a close reader of 19th century texts, both in “Three Women’s Texts” and in the the much expanded and updated version of the essay that appears as the “Literature” chapter in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. I find Spivak to be every bit as opaque (“densely intriguing,” as O’Connor sarcastically puts it) on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – whose connection to imperialism never quite materializes in the Critique of Postcolonial Reason – as she is on Jane Eyre.

I cite Joshi primarily to show that postcolonial scholarship can be much more effectively self-critical than Erin O’Connor imagines. I also believe that Joshi’s work represents the kind of scholarship on Empire in the Victorian period that might meet with the approval of someone like O’Connor. It makes small, limited claims, rather than sweeping ones. It is the product of a great deal of data collection, both in the British Library and in various libraries in India. And it makes an original argument about reading habits in India in the 19th century that call into question many received postcolonial ‘generalizations’ about relations between colonizer and colonized.

3. Arif Dirlik

What Joshi does not do, however, is challenge the field itself. But in a sense it’s already been done: one of the most outspoken critics of “postcolonialism” as a field is the historian Arif Dirlik, whose 1994 essay “The Postcolonial Aura” was still being avidly discussed when I started my Ph.D. work in 1996.

Among the many criticisms that strike home in Dirlik’s essay, the harshest (or most effective, depending on one’s perspective) has to be the one that suggests that postcolonialists see the world in ways that resemble the interests of the United States and the European powers much more than they do their peers at home:

[T]he term postcolonial, understood in terms of its discursive thematics, excludes from its scope most of those who inhabit or hail from postcolonial societies. It does not account for the attractions of modernization and nationalism to vast numbers in Third World populations, let alone to those marginalized by national incorporation in the global economy. Prakash seems to acknowledge this when he observes that ‘outside the first world, in India itself, the power of western discourses operates through its authorization and deployment by the nation state-- the ideologies of modernization and instrumentalist science are so deeply sedimented in the national body politic that they neither manifest themselves no function exclusively as forms of imperial power’. It excludes the many ethnic groups in postcolonial societies (among others) that, obviously unaware of their hybridity, go on massacring one another. (Postcolonialisms, 568)

Of course, Dirlik’s Marxism are every bit as unpopular among English-speaking Indian intellectuals as the writings of Bhabha and Partha Chatterjee. Dirlik’s is hostility to free market capitalism in the rising era of post-Cold War globalization—in many ways, the true ‘rhetorical moment’ of his essay – goes against the dominant drift of policy making throughout the developing world. If Dirlik is delivering a devastating critique of out-of-touch expat-Indians in the American academy who question the discourse of ‘modernity’ even as their compatriots clamor for modernization at home, he is also in some sense out of step with the internal questioning of the socialist drift of Nehruvian economics that has begun to emerge, even in the Indian left.

But Dirlik’s most important point is that “postcolonial” may not have any denotative value at all. It is, instead, much more closely tied to a power-play within humanities departments (and English departments specifically) within the American academy that began in the late 1980s, and which continues today:

What then may be the value of a term that includes so much beyond and excludes so much of its own postulated premise, the colonial? What it leaves us with is what I have already hinted at: postcolonial, rather than a description of anything, is a discourse that seeks to constitute the world in the self-image of intellectuals who view themselves (or have come to view themselves) as postcolonial intellectuals. That is, to recall my initial statement concerning Third World intellectuals who have arrived in First World academe, postcolonial discourse is an expression not so much of agony over identity, as it often appears, but of newfound power. (Postcolonialisms, 569)

In short, ‘postcolonial’ doesn’t represent ‘third world’ (i.e., historically post-colonial) interests, so much as it does the interests of the scholars who advocate it. It isn’t sufficiently descriptive of the current, evolving reality, which is for Dirlik rapidly evolving into a new ‘transnational division of labor’ dominated not by the vestigial effects of European colonialism as by the present effects of Capital. ‘Postcolonial’ is nothing more than placeholder in the American academy.

Strong stuff; Dirlik makes one want to throw out the term ‘postcolonial’ entirely. It’s worth considering: why not? He’s not discrediting the field of inquiry as a whole, but rather the terms on which it has heretofore been conducted. Following Dirlik, one might displace surveys of “postcolonial literature” with more narrowly defined courses, such as “Diasporic literature,” “Literature of migration,” “Literature of Development,” or, following Amitava Kumar, “World Bank Literature.” Such courses – which might in many cases wear their politics on their sleeves – probably wouldn’t satisfy someone like O’Connor, who wants literary studies depoliticized.  Indeed, what Dirlik wants from postcolonial theory is more overt, non-flip floppy politicization, not less. Even if not everyone will share his aims, however, Dirlik’s non credo is valuable because it reminds one how fragile, and possibly false, ‘postcolonialism’ in fact is.

What is striking about Dirlik’s essay at a general level is the way it has, over the years, been assimilated by very field whose legitimacy it doubts. A number of my “postcolonialist” colleagues at other universities regularly teach the essay as a rejoinder to the standard “postcolonial theory” essays in classes on literary theory (or dedicated “postcolonial literature and theory” courses). And Dirlik’s essay is included in a recent anthology called Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism, which by its title looks like a collection that believes in responding to contradictions by simply pluralizing everything (“Hybridities” “Differences” “Sexualities” etc). But it’s a rather different – and better – kind of collection, which contains some important primary source materials alongside some more familiar voices (like Spivak’s).

4. Meera Nanda

With the fourth essay we can return to Theory’s Empire, with Meera Nanda’s “Postcolonial Science Studies: Ending ‘Epistemic Violence.” This is an excerpt from Nanda’s important book, Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India, which consistently and directly attacks the effect of postmodern questioning of scientific values and methods in Indian society.

Two of Nanda’s points here pose a significant challenge to postcolonial theory. One is the idea, widely substantiated in postcolonial scholarship (and not just by neo-nativists like Ashis Nandy) that western science is part of the apparatus of colonial dominance, which must therefore be questioned or even rejected in the interest of decolonization. Secondly, Nanda argues that the postcolonial challenge to the authority of “reason” is not a merely academic issue. The terms of the postcolonial critique are distressingly close to the rhetoric of the Hindu right as they attempt to broaden their presence and entrench themselves institutionally at Indian universities and in public life more generally.

Nanda can fairly be accused of a somewhat high-handed approach to postcolonial scholarship, but she makes some legitimate and very salient criticisms. Take the following paragraphs:

‘Postcolonialism,’ in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, is a project of ‘provincializing Europe,’ showing that what the West claims as universally valid categories are actually provincial ideas of Europe which have acquired the status of universal truths because of Europe’s economic and military power. Universal truths, like language, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, are only ‘[provincial] dialects backed by an army.’ If truth does not represent a reality outside of discourse, alternative, non-Western truths, if backed by the required trappings of power, can become alternative universals.
How is this task of provincializing and decolonization accomplished? The short answer is by deconstructing the universality of modern science. In this deconstruction, postcolonial theory joins hands (wittingly) with the social constructivist and feminist critiques of science, on the one hand, and (unwittingly) with the right-wing defenders of Hindu science, on the other. (577)

In the first paragraph, Nanda makes a point about Dipesh Chakrabarty that is indeed valid, but not without a certain amount of reductivism. For while her characterization of Chakrabarty’s theoretical interest is correct, she neglects to mention that the project of ‘provincializing Europe’ Chakrabarty envisions is also meant quite literally: what would it mean to think of world history without Europe at the center of the story? Nanda is right to zero in on Chakrabarty’s dependence on Foucault, which leads Chakrabarty to make claims that I too find hard to swallow:

Usually, or at least in South Asian studies, the Marxist or secular scholar who is translating the divine is in the place of the student who knows well only one of the two languages he is working with. It is all the more imperative, therefore, that we read our secular universals in such a way as to keep them open to their own finitude, so that the scandalous aspects of our unavoidable translations, instead of being made inaudible, actually reverberate through what we write in subaltern studies. (Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 90)

Nanda, as a militant secularist, has no interest whatsoever in the “scandalous aspects of our unavoidable translations” (meaning, presumably, the traces of non-western logic or feeling that enter the work of secular South Asian scholars). And as a moderate secularist, I find myself politely skeptical about the prospect of introducing my “secular universals” to “their own finitude.” Not all distant relatives need to know each other.

In the passage quoted above, Nanda also makes a jump from what is in effect a political point in Chakrabarty – about space and historiography – to ‘deconstructing the universality of modern science,’ which is not at all what Chakrabarty’s book sets out to do. Admittedly, the slippage in this paragraph from the point about politics/Europe to the point about science might be a function of the redaction of Nanda’s argument, but a similar discounting of the subtleties to be found in the works of writers like Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee is also unfortunately prevalent in the fully extended argument to be found in Prophets Facing Backwards.

This brings us to ‘Hindu science’, where I think Nanda makes a point that is both brilliant and quite necessary, and that is that the play of postmodernist science studies, which seems like a safe diversion in the relatively sedate and stable academic environment of the United States, is in fact quite dangerous in a place like India:

The problem, however, is that what appears as marginal from the point of view of the modern West is not marginal at all in non-Western societies which haven’t yet experience a significant secularization of their cultures. Local knowledges that Western critics assume to be standpoints of the ‘oppressed’ are, in fact, deeply embedded in the dominant religious/cultural idiom of non-Western societies. Using local knowledges to challenge Western science may, however, dubiously, illuminate the blind-spots of modern science in the West. But in non-Western societies themselves, such an affirmation of the scientificity of local knowledges ends up endorsing the power of the dominant cultural-religious institutions. Even worse, while the left-wing critics of science invoke local knowledges ‘strategically’ in order to fight what they see as the bigger evil, that is, the West,k the right wing can use the same logic and invoke the same local knowledges much more ‘authentically’ and ‘organically,’ for it can mobilize all the traditional religious piety and cultural symbolism that go with local knowledges. (TE 579)

Here I think Nanda is on sure footing. Indeed, I’ve seen this exact phenomenon in play in public statements by a prominent advocate of ‘Vedic science’ named Rajiv Malhotra, by day a New Jersey businessman, but by night a tireless critic of American scholarship on Hinduism, as well as the chair of a foundation that offers grants to scholars interested in studying aspects of Indian Science/Vedic Science/Hindu Science/whatever. In some of his many essays published on the portal Sulekha, Malhotra has quoted postcolonial theorists like Edward Said and Homi Bhabha.

I don’t know quite what postcolonial theory should or could do or say in response to this development. After all, no one is really responsible for how their works might be appropriated. If Malhotra finds Bhabha’s discourse of ‘hybridity’ to be an asset to his idea that the principles of western science and the ancient Hindu scriptures ought to be blended together, why is that Bhabha’s responsibility?

I can say, however, that both Spivak and Bhabha were almost shockingly remiss in responding to the rise of communalism in India in the early 1990s. While Indian historians and social scientists have been speaking of nothing other than the problem of secularism for nearly a decade, Spivak and Bhabha seemed to wander a bit over the map, with essays about the Grameen Bank, UN concepts of Human Rights, and so on. (Spivak has published an essay or two on ‘religion’ over the years, but has not, as far as I know, responded directly to the recent debates on Indian secularism.)

On the other hand, the appropriation of discourses of ‘hybridity’ and ‘strategic essentialism’ by the Hindu right that Nanda refers to is surprisingly plausible and, as I have mentioned, real in at least one instance.

Conclusion – some thoughts on thinking more carefully.

The best response I can think of, which might be a response generalizable to all of the critics named in this essay, is for postcolonial theory to reconsider its massive ambitions. In making huge claims about knowledge, epistemology, ontology, etc., it has written itself a ticket to academic superstardom. But it also risks overreaching and through overreaching a severe vulnerability to the external criticisms of O’Connor, Nanda, and Dirlik (all fair), as well as possible misuse by people like Malhotra (foul).

In scholarship, it seems important to encourage thinking that is thoroughly historically grounded and richly textured. For studies that follow Joshi’s in looking at patterns of consumption and other related cultural phenomena, it is important to rely on empirical evidence as much as possible. In parallel, there should also be greater emphasis on artful close readings, which are currently considerably under-valued (it is commonplace for postcolonialists to dismiss certain kinds of writing as ‘simple close-reading’ as opposed to ‘Theory’).

Thirdly, I don’t believe in depoliticization, but I do think the postcolonial treatment of politics can be more balanced, more thoughtful, and above all, more in touch with current political realities. As Nanda’s interventions suggest, there is more than one way to be a progressive Indian intellectual. Whether it’s in the domain of an easy embrace of everything hybrid (there are reactionary hybridities, too), or in the uncritical acceptance of anti-science environmentalism (Arundhati Roy and the Narmada dam), substantial debate is often lacking. To actually work through these problems, very close and detailed study is required. Some (like the ‘big dam’ question) are going to have to remain beyond the scope of even the most adventurous literary scholar’s range. I should add that I think the pro-globalization, pro-liberalization, and pro-capitalist side of the debate has been severely underrpresented in ‘postcolonial’ scholarship to date. 

Finally, with these various ideas for more careful thinking, I would suggest taking greater care in pedagogy: courses on ‘postcolonial literature’ or ‘global literature’ tend to end up almost comically thin. Courses that are more thematic and narrow (’diaspora’) tend to work better, and afford greater intellectual coherence. Alternatively, one might move towards greater regional or sub-regional focus, even if that leads to an Area-Studies-esque marginalization. Not everyone is going to be interested in something as narrow as the Nigerian Novel or Afro-Caribbean Poetry, but it’s only at that level of geographic and generic specificity that we teachers of what is now called ‘postcolonial literature’ can break the cycle of vast generalizations, insulting tokenism, and overstuffed syllabi, and give students something more serious to think about.


From Nanda, I think that one arrives squarely back to Chomsky.  From his “Rationality/Science—From Z Papers Special Issue”:

‘I’m afraid I didn’t learn much from these injunctions. And it is hard for me to see how friends and colleagues in the “non white world” will learn more from the advice given by “a handful of scientists” who inform then that they should not “move on the tracks of western science and technology,” but should prefer other “stories” and “myths"--which ones, we are not told, though astrology is mentioned. They’ll find that advice a great help with their problems, and those of the “non white world” generally. I confess that my personal sympathies lie with the volunteers of Tecnica.’

By on 07/14/05 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One small thought I had on O’Connor’s essay--I’ll try to have some big thoughts about your overall response a bit later--is that I was surprised in some ways to see Spivak characterized as the origin of the cottage industry set up around linking Jane Eyre to empire, which shows in a way just how complicated the genesis of these things can be. I think most of us end up agreeing that the highly standardized form of the argument that the “empire was everywhere”, especially as used with Jane Eyre, quickly became banal, mediocre and factually incorrect. Bernard Porter’s The Absent-Minded Imperialists extends O’Connor’s critique on this point at great and convincingly length. But in my disciplinary neck of the woods, Catherine Hall was often cited as the point of origin for this claim rather than Spivak, and what Hall had to say often generated a somewhat different kind of scholarly result--much more like Antoinette Burton’s excellent work than the banality of postcolonial literary criticism.

By Timothy Burke on 07/14/05 at 12:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Exactly - what Rich said. I re-read that Chomsky article a few days ago and had exactly that thought - the passage quoted reminded me strongly of Meera’s work.

(For anyone who wants more Meera, there are several articles by her at B&W.)

By Ophelia Benson on 07/14/05 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One bit of ‘value added’ in the Nanda (i.e., something Chomsky might not have thought of) is her observation that today ideas like hybridity can serve the interests of the ruling class (or religious majority) in India.

And Tim, that’s an interesting point about Catherine Hall—I haven’t seen those debates (could you suggest a starting point?).

Do most academics really agree with the idea that the Empire wasn’t everywhere and everything in 19th century England? I think that is still a powerful fantasy.

By Amardeep on 07/14/05 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep: excellent piece. If you want to follow up the response to Catherine Hall (on which I agree with Tim) you could do worse than check out the very decent roundtable on Civilising Subjects in the Journal of British Studies, 42:4 (October 2003). There are three excellent comment pieces which deal with most of the major issues which have come up since, then a good response from Hall.

By rob on 07/14/05 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I definitely did not mean to suggest that Nanda does not go beyond Chomsky—she surely does in some respects.  I only meant to situate her work within the context of Chomsky’s.  It would be no surprise to Chomsky that religious majorities seize on anti-rational ideas to support their local hegemony.  From the same paper as above:

“It strikes me as remarkable that their left counterparts today should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the “project of the Enlightenment” is dead, that we must abandon the “illusions” of science and rationality--a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use. [...] One recalls the days when the evangelical church taught not-dissimilar lessons to the unruly masses as part of what E. P. Thompson called “the psychic processes of counter-revolution,” as their heirs do today in peasant societies of Central America.”

Chomsky in turn is drawing on the most basic Enlightenment texts, so in a certain sense this conflict within literary studies is being played out under the long shadow of the French Revolution.

In one of his recent posts, Michael Bérubé scornfully quotes an anonymous Kevin Drum commentor who wrote that lit crit folks are no different than fundamentalists, putting them both in opposition to “the reality-based crowd”.  Bérubé says that this is “too stupid for words”, and I spent probably too many comments disagreeing with him in part.  The people who hang out on Pharyngula, for example, tend to not really see much distinction between Christian fundamentalism and New Agism.  Sure, they are politically opposed, but that’s not what’s important to a rationalist.  The intellectual counter-Enlightenment is seen as the enabler of every non-Enlightenment force, no matter what its politics—the enablers don’t get to control who uses their ideas.

By on 07/14/05 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The intellectual counter-Enlightenment is seen as the enabler of every non-Enlightenment force, no matter what its politics—the enablers don’t get to control who uses their ideas.”

Or at least an enabler. More or less important depending on circs, audience, etc. Which is maybe why the enablers sometimes forget that they don’t get to control who uses their ideas - the connection between creationism and postmodernism seems so unlikely that people forget to make it.

By Ophelia Benson on 07/14/05 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the omnipresence of empire in the 19th Century, I went to a workshop some years ago where there were a number of historians of empire--Mrinalini Sinha, Roger Louis, Tom Metcalfe, etc--and Bernard Porter. He gave a presentation on the book project that’s just been published as The Absent-Minded Imperialists with open nervousness: I think he really expected to get dumped on big-time for arguing that the omnipresence of empire in British society had been greviously over-read. Instead, all of us said, “Sure, you’re right, good point--it’s become an exaggeration, a schtick to find empire equally lying within every text, practice, what have you”. Maybe that’s because almost everyone there was a historian rather than a literary scholar, I don’t know.

Certainly no one wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, including Porter: the insight that the empire is present in Jane Eyre is a real one, the fact that a cultural and social feedback loop connected colony and metropole was a real one, etcetera.

I don’t know if the relaxed, matter-of-fact welcome we gave to Porter’s argument was typical across a disciplines, or even in history. I kind of suspect that if we brought it up to some of our colleagues in postcolonial or colonial studies, it might get the same reaction as Cannadine’s Ornamentalism did (excessive scorn) if it got any reaction at all. That might be the difference between the performative public sphere of academic discourse and the private sphere of a workshop that no one intended to publish the proceedings of. There are, after all, quite a few people who have a careerist stake on the omnipresence of empire: it’s become a monograph-generating machine in literary studies roughly equal to an earlier generation’s “find the hidden female authors” or “find the hidden subaltern authors” kind of canon-building criticism. Or maybe I’d be surprised.

By Timothy Burke on 07/14/05 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“The intellectual counter-Enlightenment is seen as the enabler of every non-Enlightenment force, no matter what its politics—the enablers don’t get to control who uses their ideas.”

Or at least an enabler. More or less important depending on circs, audience, etc. Which is maybe why the enablers sometimes forget that they don’t get to control who uses their ideas - the connection between creationism and postmodernism seems so unlikely that people forget to make it.

OK, surprise of the week:  I agree with this.  Furthermore, in my forthcoming-and-still-in-progress book, I argue that one wing of the academic left (the one that sees the discourse of universal human rights as a stalking horse for imperialism, or that dismisses Habermas and the idea of modernity as an unfinished project out of hand) became so infatuated with the idea of “local knowledges” partly because (a) it imbued the “local” with all kinds of warm and fuzzy progressive feelings, like the ones associated with local independent bookstores, local independent media, and local food co-ops featuring local organic produce (all of which I’m in favor of, by the way), so that the Lyotard-Habermas debate took on the phantasmic appearance of a contest between an autonomous worker’s collective and Wal-Mart, and (b) it never stopped to think of localism as a synonym for mere parochialism, and never imagined that its arguments could be taken up by fundamentalists and flat-earthers as a result.  Thus, Lyotard’s demand that we preserve the heterogeneity of language-games was made to appear as a decisive strike on the side of the angels, almost as if he were talking about preserving species diversity, instead of the morally neutral injunction that it really is.

But no, the whole lit-crit crowd is not on the same side as fundamentalists.  Let’s just say, with a nod to Amardeep’s fine post, that this is a troubling example of rhetorical overreaching.

By Michael on 07/14/05 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think this is a great post. In fact, it strikes me as a model of what a lengthy, serious-minded blog post can accomplish. I don’t agree with everything you say, but I come away from it--as someone not that familiar with postcolonial theory--with a clarified understanding of the stakes involved.

By Dan Green on 07/14/05 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

i second Dan Green’s endorsement.  Excellent post and commentary.

By bbenzon on 07/14/05 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The Postcolonial Thackeray”: that would be a great post-modern title. Google reports its eligibility. Forget Jane Eyre.

By John Emerson on 07/16/05 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

More broadly, I question O’Connor’s disdain for inductive reasoning, generalizations, and conjecture. As anyone who has ever struggled with arguments about literature must know, literary studies has never conformed to the modern ‘scientific method.’ One generates viable arguments and new forms of literary knowledge via routes that are often tangled, using reasoning that may be equal parts inductive and deductive, as well as through through conjectures (that are eventually substantiated), generalizations (that are hopefully true), and partial initial knowledge (that is later filled in). It may drive scientists insane to say it, but a literary critic has to have some sense of what she or he expects to find before writing a question or filing a proposal.

this to me is a most mystifying passage.  perhaps there are ‘in crowd’ definitions i’m missing here as far as the ‘scientific method’ goes, but

1) empirical observation and gleaning of patterns and trends is in large part induction.

2) “laws” (ie; thermodynamics) are in large part derived from induction.

3) generalization of laws and processes is the raison d’etre of science.

4) conjecture is a synonym for hypothesis! (i linked because it is even in the dictionary, not just my interpretation)

5) most hypotheses are formulated after tentative observations have been made, so, most scientists have an idea of where they want to go.

my impression, perhaps i’m daft, is that you are conflating ‘science’ with the formalist school of pure mathematics.  perhaps i’m missing something, but the passage defines many aspects of science, and then seems to suggest that scientists would reject them.  personally, i don’t hold to any particular ‘philosopher of science’ (ie; popper, kuhn, lakatos), i’m a science person by background, but i assumed that philosophy-of-science is part of the standard literary education...what am i missing?  i didn’t read o’connor’s essay, i don’t have access to it, is there context there?

By razib on 07/18/05 at 04:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The author cites the likes of Meera Nanda (publicly on the payroll of billionnaire Templeton’s campaign to make the Bible appear scientific) as authority on various things which the author has not direct knowledge of and makes no attempt to verify her allegations. How sad that these “theorists” have to merely use brand names to “prove” whatever they claim! Sokal might have been right - the band (wagon) plays on...Happy New Year.

By on 12/31/05 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"‘Postcolonialism,’ in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, is a project of ‘provincializing Europe,’ showing that what the West claims as universally valid categories are actually provincial ideas of Europe which have acquired the status of universal truths because of Europe’s economic and military power. Universal truths, like language, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, are only ‘[provincial] dialects backed by an army.’ If truth does not represent a reality outside of discourse, alternative, non-Western truths, if backed by the required trappings of power, can become alternative universals.”

As an analytic philosopher I just can’t convince myself that the idea of proving all knowledge is local is coherent, keep reading because I’ve got a semi original reason as to why. “Proving” implies evidence, evidence implies knowledge. now perhaps postcolonial scholars could argue that it is a local truth that all truths are local, but how are they going to formulate the concept of local? “X culture holds that X culture holds that X culture holds that...( infinite regress continues) that it is a local truth that Western science is bunk”? With their epistemology we cannot formulate their epistemology because their epistemology depends on a concept “my culture holds that” which arguably can’t be expressed within their epistemology.

Anyway if that didn’t make sense I am willing to defend and explain it.

By on 02/09/06 at 03:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You start by assuming that “truth” and “knowledge” are determined by logical argument. Is this assumption valid in Chakrabarty’s terms? It certainly isn’t valid according to my born-again friends or the man in charge of the armed forces of the USA.

And logical argument from what premises? From personal experience? (Whoops, there’s culture.) Or from what any fule kno? (Whoops, there’s culture.)

I pledge allegiance to the subculture of rational humanism, myself. But Chakrabarty’s “non-Western truths, if backed by the required trappings of power, can become alternative universals” seems to me a simple statement of (regrettable) historical fact.

By Ray Davis on 02/09/06 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nice try ;-)

“You start by assuming that “truth” and “knowledge” are determined by logical argument. Is this assumption valid in Chakrabarty’s terms? It certainly isn’t valid according to my born-again friends or the man in charge of the armed forces of the USA.

And logical argument from what premises? From personal experience? (Whoops, there’s culture.) Or from what any fule kno? (Whoops, there’s culture.)

I pledge allegiance to the subculture of rational humanism, myself. But Chakrabarty’s “non-Western truths, if backed by the required trappings of power, can become alternative universals” seems to me a simple statement of (regrettable) historical fact.”

Let’s start with the second paragraph. The problem is that my arguement is not emprical or fule kno whatever that is. It’s based on pure logical structure, basically it’s a reducto absurdum of Charkrabarty, I grant her her thesis then show that she can’t formulate her thesis if her thesis is true. 

As to your attack on logical arguementation, I’d reply she herself no doubt regularly utlises it, and I can see no principled reason it isn’t permissable here despite ( apparently) being permissable elsewhere if we take her praxis as any indication.

By on 02/10/06 at 01:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Excellent post :)

India Guide

By on 06/16/06 at 02:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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