Saturday, April 30, 2005
What’s up with Social Text?
Most of you probably remember the furor generated by Joel Kovel’s “Dispatches from the Science Wars” in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text. There was a lot of talking then about who knows this and who claims what--if devil plastics decrease sperm count or if biased researchers can’t count--lots of very loud talking. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about what we and Social Text can do together.
The Winter 2004 edition is entitled “Global Cities of the South.” Ashley Dawson and Brent Hayes Edwards’ introduction [NB: all links are Project Muse] argues the post-colonial gaze has been mostly retrospective and that more attention needs to be paid to the emerging megacities of the global south. Mike Davis’s “The Urbanization of Empire" concludes “if the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side” (15). Have you traditionally thought of chthonic deities as being in bed with chaos? I haven’t, but it’s a suggestive notion. I suppose that Antaeus might be invoked. Or you might say that you don’t know much about megacities, but the great brown megacity will become like a god. Or that revolution is to history as tidal forces are to gravity.
Did you know that Lagos is projected to become the third-largest city in the world by 2010? Have you read Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco? Had your imagination of the megacity been contaminated by Nessus? Then look to Ashley Dawson’s “Squatters, Space, and Belonging in the Underdeveloped City" and be healed. Rossana Reguillo’s “The Oracle in the City" demands to be read next to the greatest film of academia, Candyman. (And don’t neglect the discussion of chupacabras!)
Ever wonder why Bombay was the bitch city? Feel as if your intuition that Shri 420 was about smoking dope might be uninformed? Then Rashmi Varmi’s “Provincializing the Global City" is just what you need. An intriguing paragraph:
if the urgent political task is to make sense of how both the Hindu Right and transnational capital have achieved a necessarily incomplete hegemony over Mumbai’s image and reality, it is equally urgent to construct alternatives. The somewhat hasty fabrication of an earlier universalism needs now to be refashioned in the context of an ever more careless celebration of the global marketplace. Our work, both political and intellectual (and across that potent divide), too, must answer to the new political configurations of our times that do not allow either for the easy recuperation and celebration of the older socialist and nationalist utopias or for an outright rejection of the possibilities of decolonization and global solidarity. (83)
Can the ubiquitous network metaphor be used to describe cultural productions from different stages of technological development? What are the relations between bricolage, syncresis, and instantaneous media? Are you familiar with bandiri? Brian Larkin’s “Bandiri Music, Globalization, and Urban Experience in Nigeria" is a great place to spend some time wondering whether you’re interested in these questions. You could imagine a student project entitled Smokey and the Bandir which mingled two very different global souths, if you so choose.
Teleopoiesis, “reaching toward the distant other by the patient power of the imagination, a curious kind of identity politics, where one crosses identity, as a result of migration or exile,” is described in Gayatri Spivak’s “Harlem”. I’m not entirely sure we’ve come to terms with action at a distance in any form, and this photomeditation elaborates upon that class of imponderables in what I find to be altogether piquant ways.
Social Text is, because of the controversy I alluded to earlier, frequently used as an unread example of what must be wrong with today’s cultural/literary studies. The next time you feel the urge to do so, I counsel you to read an issue of what you’re about to condemn. See what you can use.
Not just well-put, but an intriguing tip-off. Many thanks.
Anyone interested in these issues might also wish to check out the papers collected in Documenta11: Platform4: Under Siege: Four African Cities: Freetown, Johannesburg, Lagos, Kinshasa, which challenges and engages with issues surrounding contemporary post-colonial urban settings from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives.
A better link for Documenta11:Platform4 might be here, which has abstracts and videos of the addresses, as well as a slightly distressing colour scheme. Much food for thought!
I speak only for myself here, but I think my experience of Social Text may be one shared by other readers. Or not. The works you point to in the Winter 2004 issue pique my curiousity (except Texaco, but only because I’m constitutionally averse to reading works attached to manifestos), but I’m not surprised by that. Much of the literature I’ve read in the past five years I’ve been inspired to read by articles in academic journals. I find fascinating the local insights--Dawson’s identification of the influence of the testimonio on Texaco or Varma’s introduction to the “Chaplinesque Raju” of Shri 420--about works with which I’m unfamiliar. However, I can never see past the problem of authority so many essays in Social Text unwittingly pose.
For example, Varma claims that “In contrast, housing as a mode of being at home in the city seems to materialize the question of citizenship in the concrete space of Bombay, subject as it is to the vagaries of capitalist development in the city.” The phrase “housing as a mode of being at home in the city” not only sounds like poorly translated Heidegger, I’m at a loss to understand how an English professor is qualified to discuss the ontological commitments certain capitalist developments necessarily entail. Nor am I certain how a “question” “materialize[s],” or how definitive claims about the “housing as a mode of being at home in the city” can be founded on “the vagaries of capitalist development.” The “certainties” I would understand...or perhaps I’m dense to the Heideggerian nuances she deploys (without cite, wink or nod) in this article. If she assumes her readers all possess a roughly equivalent understanding of the philosophical traditions to which she alludes, that’d be acceptable; but the field of literary studies is so obviously divided into countless theoretical camps. A critic as sharp as Varma knows that. What then explains the tortured phenomenological phraseologies? The desire to possess a technical vocabulary, I’d contend, and it’s the impulse to piggy-back on fields literary scholars (present editors excluded) aren’t trained in that bothers me about much of what’s published by English professors in Social Text.
Anthropologists writing about anthropology with a recognizably anthropological idiom I can handle. English professors variously adopting the technical idioms of whatever discipline informs this, that or the other particular claim drives me to, up and around the walls.
P.S. When I say I may be “dense to the Heideggerian nuances Varma deploys,” I want to be clear that the trope of false humility has no keep here. My knowledge of Heidegger is extremely limited. I loved the pictures but I’ve been told the words ain’t all that accurate.
At least one of those contributors is an actual anthropologist, as I recall; but my attitude is modest and pragmatic: read widely, and take what you can use. If the idiom is unfamiliar or too much work, fine. There’s more stuff out there than you’ll ever read.
...that’s why I limited my comments to the work of the literary scholars (and didn’t criticize Spivak for her painfully unpoetic prose poem-cum-theoretical manifesto or Mike Davis for his epigrammatic fits).
I agree with your attitude in principle (and practice, for that matter), but I’m not sure how to reconcile your statement here that “there’s more stuff out there than you’ll ever read"--because there’s actually more stuff in my apartment, my bedroom even, than I’ll ever read--with your earlier idea that we should read journals whose “wing it and whinge it” methods test our scholarly patience. I do read what I condemn, but I’m an odd egg who enjoys the tingling in his fingers, toes and tips of ears as his blood pressure pushes critical; and also because I can’t kick the habit of voracious reading that landed me in graduate school in the first place.
I suppose an analogical argument to mine is: “I’m sure psychoanalytic critics read some very interesting works, but I’m not sure I can handle the psychoanalytic apparatus that’ll slowly, with tortuous deference to its crankers and creators, inscribe baseless Oedipal truths from hair-tips to foot-sores.” To paraphrase some schlub whose opinion I respect, “There’s more stuff out there than I’ll ever read.”