What is Postcolonial Orientalism and How does it Matter?
My interest in postcolonialism stems from a prior and ongoing interest in Orientalism and questions of Eurocentric universalism, both of which derive from my experience of teaching in the United States.1 When I discovered that postcolonial theorists from India—Partha Chatterjee, Gyan Prakash, Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty and others—were engaged in a critique of Orientalism and Eurocentric universalism, I began reading their works to discover if they could help me answer a number of questions I was interested in. What I discovered was very far from what I expected to find. That is, while stating their intention to challenge Eurocentric universalism, they notably failed to do so via their embrace of notions of “difference” and “alternative and hybrid” modernities. And, in the process, it was almost as if postcolonial theory also was subsumed into the coordinates of Orientalism.2 Further, the notion of difference they advanced appeared to leave no room for any kind of universalism, necessary one would assume for struggles against the increasingly unequal, wasteful and destructive socio-economic order that characterizes the world today. I will return to this a bit later. The fraught relationship of Indian intellectuals to the legacies of Orientalism involves a consideration of several paradoxes, the resolution of which lies ultimately in the answers to three related questions:
1. How does a colonized people adopt (or more likely adapt) a body of thought designed to demonstrate their inferiority as a way of arguing ultimately their equality or even superiority (in some domains) to the colonizers who formulated it in the first instance?
2. How does an entirely generic set of ideas that could be applied to Morocco at one end and China at the other and everything in between get adapted to the requirements of, for example, an “Indian exceptionalism”?
3. And, in the case of what I’m calling postcolonial Orientalism, how does postcolonial thought associated with subaltern-studies, for instance, critical of nationalism and dedicated to recovering a deep understanding of the autonomous worlds of peasant struggles, get absorbed into the coordinates of Orientalism in its postcolonial reincarnation? At first sight, this seems quite improbable: after all, the small-scale, localized worlds of peasants have very little in common with the globalized division of Occident-Orient/West-East and other binaries of Orientalism.3
Obviously, in a presentation of this length, a consideration of all three questions is impossible: suffice it that in the first instance, the development of a racialized historiography of India in the nineteenth century via the notion of an Indo-European linguistic family, migrations / conquests, together with the discipline of physical anthropology brought India and the West into an intimate relationship via the notion of an Aryan Orient. In turn, that allowed for the emergence of a compact set of ideas about national tradition and national destiny that had to be presented as culturally preferable to Westernization.4 An unspecified notion of diffusion and/or trickle-down allowed a whole range of populist thought to elaborate the idea that elite culture had reached down to the populace through institutional arrangements and recursive practice or that popular culture had somehow been taken up and endowed with a certain measure of sophistication and abstracted from its popular roots.5
As for the response to the third question (above), one wonders whether this is simply a matter of categories of universal circulation constituting unavoidable, if not always acknowledged, lines of force that contain or reconcile seemingly antagonistic forms of thought, if that is indeed the case? Or whether there is a threshold of audibility, defined largely by metropolitan interlocutors, which set the initial conditions of entry and a subsequent broader reception? The career of one of the keywords of postcolonial thought “difference” is instructive in this regard. When it enters the postcolonial lexicon, it quickly acquires connotations of exoticism, untranscendable otherness, and the like, which immediately links difference with Orientalism.
Orientalism and Difference
After all, when one thinks of Orientalism from the perspective of the present, what survives is not superiority/inferiority and all that old colonial baggage but something called Difference, which then in a metropolitan context can easily be subsumed to a rainbow coalition of multiculturalism replicating the notion of a universal (Europe) at one end and a multiplicity of particularities (non-Europe) at the other. So then, presumably, Orientalism is more or less, or nothing more, than the mother of all theories of difference, within a universal / particular binary. And the further one tries to argue against hierarchy from the perspective of difference, the more likely one is to reinvent colonial categories even if they acquire in the process a spuriously emancipatory content.
Difference does not necessarily have to acquire this particular kind of resonance:
1. It could, for instance, be a simple catalogue of different practices along a micro-communal, or microhistoric, axis of highly localized communities. No doubt anthropologists and social-histories-from-below delighted in this kind of exercise, while tying these into a notion of hybridizations, borrowings, and indigenization that come with contact, trade, and migrations. This notion of difference is rather banal and hardly worth debating.
2. A more interesting notion of difference, especially in our day, rests on the “place of quality in an increasingly quantified world, the place of the archaic and of feeling amid the desacralization of the market system, the place of sheer colour and intensity within the greyness of measurable extension and geometrical abstraction”.6 After all, capital is rather merciless in subsuming a whole host of productive relations and non-commoditized forms of social life to itself, reducing everything to the cold cash-nexus, subordinating use-value to exchange-value. In this case an insistence on difference can have the function of a rectification of one’s political vision. And here two perspectives are possible, taking our cue from Fredric Jameson:
(a) If we can think of our cultural encounters with the past not as individual encounters but as “encounters of different modes of production”, then the past will no longer “appear as an inert and dead object” but an active agent which will come before us as a radically different life form, which sits in judgment on us, imposing “the painful knowledge of what we are not, what we are no longer and what we are not yet”. This is the sense in which the past speaks to us “about our own virtual and unrealized ‘human potentialities’, calling into question the commodified daily life, the reified spectacles, the simulated experience of our plastic-and-cellophane society, in which the primacy of collective ritual, the splendour of uncommodified value, or even the transparency of immediate personal relations at once stigmatizes the monadization, the privatized and instrumental speech, the commodity reification, of our own way of life”.7 Now, we don’t want to forget, in this sort of encounter, the personalized domination, oppression and sense of entrapment and claustrophobia that surely accompanied the social arrangements of the old regimes. But, we don’t want to think of this encounter as simple romanticism either, for, if I’m not mistaken, romanticism holds open the possibility of an individual sensuous experience of a past or of nature not yet conquered by capital, machinery, roads, railways, and cyber highways. There is something else; let’s call it nostalgia: a more generalized backward gaze informed by a sense of loss, but then we’re not talking about either of those.
(b) To continue with Jameson: “for if the proper articulation of any concrete mode of production structurally implies the projection of all the other conceivable modes, it follows that it implies the future as well, and the hermeneutic contact between past and present cannot fully be described without the articulation within it of what Ernst Bloch called the Utopian impulse”. In containing within it, the potentiality of this Utopian impulse, Marxism is no longer “just a theory of capital; it is also the anticipatory expression of a future society…a partisan commitment to that future or Utopian mode of production which seeks to emerge from the hegemonic mode of production of our present”. That is why, Jameson insists, “Marxism is not a ‘place of truth,’ why its subjects are very precisely historically decentred. A hermeneutic relationship to the past which is able to grasp its own present as history only on condition it manages to keep the idea of the future, and of radical and Utopian transformation alive.”8 This may well be the crux of the issue: for if we manage to abolish the future, as it were, we merely succeed in naturalizing the present. And difference can then become either an exotic inventory or a notion of perduring otherness; that is, in the notion of “hybrid and alternative” modernities, one is either modern in the Universal European or in some particularistic Third-Worldish guise.
The temptation to naturalize the present, to avoid the dual rectification that Jameson talks about is clearly evident in the recent past, a function no doubt of the course of events. Terry Eagleton sums up the situation with characteristic zest and wit:
The power of capital is now so drearily familiar, so sublimely omnipotent and omnipresent that even large sectors of the left have succeeded in naturalizing it, taking it for granted as such an unbudgeable structure that it is as though they hardly have the heart to speak of it. One would need, for an apt analogy, to imagine a defeated right-wing eagerly embroiled in discussions of the monarchy, the family, the death of chivalry, and the possibility of reclaiming India while maintaining a coy silence on what engages them most viscerally—the rights of property, since these had been so thoroughly expropriated that it seemed merely academic to speak of it.
He goes on:
With Darwinian conformity, much of the cultural left has taken on the colours of its historical environs: if we live in an epoch in which capitalism cannot be successfully challenged, then to all intents and purposes it does not exist.9
Eagleton could, of course, have been speaking about postcolonialism (or at least the subset of it that I’m interested in discussing in this paper).
Indeed, one sometimes gets the feeling that any concern with the economy can be dismissed as economism, probably by association with Gramsci’s critique of the notion of inevitable historical laws that followed the development of the productive forces. But, it should be pointed out that Gramsci himself never neglected the importance of alternative forms of work and their socio-economic preconditions—premised on the overcoming of capital as a social form—rather than simply shifting ground from “economy” to culture.10 And that when such economism is targeted, at least in the Indian context, part of what is included is surely the “mode-of-production” debate which took its cue from the Marxist concern with analyzing the forms of actually existing capital, in this case in a colonial and immediately post-colonial context, rather than with something that professional economists might call the substantive “economy”.11
Gyan Prakash, who teaches at Princeton University and has become a leading proponents of subaltern-studies inspired postcolonialism in the US, claims that the colonial categories of “capital” and “labour” were a sign of how distant the colonial government was from the world of its indigenous subjects. In the world of the latter, he notes, mundane matters, such as caste hierarchy, ritual notions of purity and pollution, and patriarchal domination were all mediated through interactions between humans and the spirit world.12 He proclaims that the main virtue of postcolonialism is precisely that it has abandoned, along with “nationalist ideas” of history and reason, the modes-of-production (meta)narratives of Marxism.13 Dipesh Chakrabarty, who teaches at the University of Chicago, in his famous book, Provincializing Europe, engages Marx mainly as a negative example of what he calls “post-Enlightenment thinking” that forces the “many ways of being in the world” into abstractions, not the least of which is [abstract] labour.14 To claim difference and resist the translation of difference into common terms via abstractions are, in his view, emancipatory gestures in a world grown tired of empty “universalism.” If all this sounds a bit like the aftertaste of the Oriental Renaissance, or of the German counter-Enlightenment, it shouldn’t be too surprising.
However, it goes without saying that even postcolonial theorists cannot avoid speaking about capitalism, but one wonders if this isn’t the kind of capitalism that readers of the Wall Street Journal should be familiar with: that is, one in which issues of structural inequalities inherent in capitalist production are occluded to the benefit of issues of circulation, displacing attention from the realm of exploitation to “the very Eden of the innate rights of man”.15 To focus on production would be tantamount to “economism”, thereby ignoring people’s “many-sided creativity in favour of an obsessional reduction to detail function and maximum productivity”,16 or worse, reinforcing via “a near-exclusive concern with the economic…the bourgeois ‘naturalisation’ of the economy as the foundation of all societies at all times”.17 Prakash maintains that even as the administrative departments of the colonial state instituted the economy as the “foundation” of society they used the census to place certain categories of people in the discursive field of labour, thus making them available for scholarly study.18 He goes on to assert that British rule “created” a class of agricultural labourers not by transforming Indian society but by “rendering Indian society knowable as a collection of economic groups”.19 It almost seems, from Prakash’s account, that “labour” was extruded from the category-making sociological imagination of colonial officials. Subjecting labour to serious systematic analysis is to give the game away, to play up to colonial categories. It might be asked in response how labour under capitalism, or under pre-capitalist tributary modes of production, could possibly express its many-sided creativity and why an anatomization of the conditions of labour that highlights the deadening routines of exploitation should be avoided, or why an analysis of the capital relation and the uneven and combined forms it assumes under colonial rule and in today’s globalized world should constitute “bourgeois naturalisation of the economy”? Prakash adds:
Recent postcolonial criticism…seeks to undo the Eurocentrism produced by the institution of the west’s trajectory, its appropriation of the other as History. It does so, however, with an acute realization that postcoloniality is not born and nurtured in a panoptic distance from history. The postcolonial exists as an aftermath, as an after—after being worked over by colonialism. Criticism formed in this process of the enunciation of discourses of domination occupies a space that is neither inside nor outside the history of western domination but in a tangential relation to it. This is what Homi Bhabha calls an in-between, hybrid position of practice and negotiation, or what G C Spivak terms catachresis; ‘reversing, displacing, and seizing the apparatus of value-coding’.20
Prakash also rejects “foundationalism” in history, defined by the assumption “that history is ultimately founded in and representable through some identity—individual, class or structure—which resists further decomposition into heterogeneity.”21 Prakash’s rejection of capitalism as a foundational category is on the grounds that: “we cannot thematize Indian history in terms of the development of capitalism and simultaneously contest capitalism’s homogenization of the contemporary world.”22 However, it is arguable that this is the most effective approach to resisting the homogenization that Prakash fears. After all, Prakash’s emphasis on decomposition goes to the heart of Jameson’s definition of difference in the postmodern moment of capitalism as: “variety and infinity, metonymy, and —to reach some more influential and seemingly definitive and all-encompassing version— heterogeneity.”23
When it comes time to define the Third World, Prakash has this to say: “the third world appears not as a fixed object, but as a series of historical positions, including those that enunciate essentialisms.” So, now, even essentialism can be part of heterogeneity. But, then, as Jameson notes, heterogeneity hardly “means anything suitably subversive until homogeneity has historically emerged, to confer upon it the value and force of a specifically oppositional tactic.”24 So, perhaps in order to grasp difference as heterogeneity, it is important not to lose sight of capital as the homogenizing force that gradually colonizes the world. That is to say, heterogeneity is itself evidence of capital’s directional dynamic, which, while subsuming everything to itself in its onward path also fragments, separates, autonomizes, and dissociates what were, in an earlier historical moment, bound together in symbolic respects that no longer operate.25 The capitalist mode of production might, thus, be characterized as the moment of difference in a purely historical sense—of fragmentation, alienation, exploitation, societal crises of all kinds,26 “infinite divisibility of social relations”,27 and just as importantly a crisis in the relationship of humans to nature.28 It is useful to remind ourselves of Perry Anderson’s remark in a different context of “pulverization beyond measure or order,” that is so characteristic of our time.29
It is also entirely conceivable that heterogeneity marks a world in which capital has become thoroughly global and abstract at one pole and thoroughly imbricated within communities-of-local-belonging at the other, and ubiquitous in all human relations.30 In the process, difference itself can become commoditized, and heterogeneity a source of surplus-value. I would further maintain that an analysis of the tighter subsumption of labour to capital, the ensuing (partial or complete) decomposition of older social forms, and the disjuncture between the concrete experience of modernization and the increasingly abstract domination of capital would constitute precisely the best line of challenge to “bourgeois naturalisation of the economy”. Contra Prakash, a proper foundation is necessary for social inquiry without immediately descending into polemics about foundationalism. And, equally, the application of the metanarrative label to Marxism as such is questionable, since as the Brenner debate has shown so clearly the transition from feudalism to capitalism was thoroughly caught up in radically undecidable (class) struggles as will surely be the case, a fortiori, for any struggle to overcome the present order of capital.31 A celebration of heterogeneity in this context may be premature if not ill-judged, and resisting “decomposition into heterogeneity” may turn out to be an important political stance.
Postcolonialism and Neo-traditionalism
To come back to the question of “essentialism”: what could Prakash be talking about? What is the relationship of essentialism to the Third World? Well, it is useful in this instance to have some sense of history, to think historically, and not just adopt shifting positions. After all, “traditions” that define the essence and antiquity of a nation are part of every nationalist mythography and became very much part of the history of anti-colonial struggles. When societies in what was to become the Third World first encountered the West in the form of colonizers and modernizers, not only were their social formations brought under the domination of the latter, but in a counter-move something like an inchoate “traditionalism” emerged, generating often compact sets of beliefs affirming the authenticity, originality and antiquity of “national” traditions, and emphasizing that they were a bulwark against Westernization and, in many ways, preferable to it. The fact that such inchoate ideas were generally systematized by Western rulers themselves and their “native” interlocutors would, in time, generate the tradition/modernity binary in which the West came to stand for modernity and the East for tradition, underlining an absolutized cultural or religious difference. Orientalism was, thus, born at the moment of the colonial encounter.32 Of course, the claims of originality and authenticity made on behalf of “tradition” must have had a material basis in the very nature of colonial rule, which left significant areas of life in the colonies relatively autonomous, or attempted, in fact, to preserve or even create a traditional order replete with ranks, hierarchies, endogamous relationships, and ascriptive identities, which would have unravelled had the full force of modernization been unleashed on it.33
If we are to fast-forward to the present, traditionalism of this older variety has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared in most places with the onward rush of capitalism (modernization). That is, in most countries, it is the aftermath of colonialism that has made capital ubiquitous and chained the ex-colonial world more firmly to capital rather than the rule of the ersatz aristocracies of the nineteenth century that sought to create a social order in the colonies that was rapidly vanishing at home. In light of the immediately preceding considerations, we return to Prakash’s contention that the postcolonial exists as an aftermath only to realize that this implies a further—from formal to real—subsumption of the ex-colonies to the planetary domination of capital,34 and the greater socio-economic polarization that follows.35 It is not economism to insist on a proper economic foundation for postcolonialism.
It is in this world that the place of tradition has been taken by what might be called neo-traditionalism: a wholesale recasting of older traditions, the invention of new traditions, identities, and politics fashioned around those identities, sustained by mass public rituals, political theatre on the grand scale, television plays, and computer images, all dependent on the technologies of the (dis-)information age. Undoubtedly, while neo-traditionalism claims continuity with the earlier traditionalism it is more accurate to see it as a fall-out of the collapse of the latter, and the form that authenticity can achieve in a world of simulacra.36 And even those who bring an incredulity towards neo-traditionalism seem quite captivated by traditionalism, as if it was not as invented or as inventive as the former.37 Indeed, the issue of authenticity that pits nativism against the West, has a subordinate register in the opposition of tradition to neo-traditionalism.38
If I were to hazard a definition of postcolonialism it would have to include a triangulation of post-modernism, traditionalism and neo-traditionalism. But since a perduring fascination with the Orient is so much a part of our academic culture, one could with some adjustment of sights call this postcolonial Orientalism, a form of self-exoticization, in which the binary of East-West, Europe-Other is as integral as in any classically European Orientalist text.39 A major constituency of neo-traditionalism is, in fact, the large immigrant communities from Asia who now live in dense concentrations in parts of most major US cities and whose children attend the top universities. So, I suppose, a notable fact of the present moment is that the ever-shifting boundary between East and West that formerly ran somewhere to the east of the Ural mountains runs now through every city of the Euro-American world, or so Niall Ferguson informs us.40 Given Ferguson’s political orientation, and his bellicose rhetoric, no doubt he intends this as a provocation, the Oriental immigrant as a permanent incubus on the body of Europe and North America, a point that is perfectly familiar to the Right in both regions. I suspect, at least in the USA, that Ferguson, and his comrades-in-arms Pat Buchanan and Samuel Huntington,41 are in a minority. A majority of the post-1965 immigrants from Asia are from comfortable middle-class backgrounds and have attained the status of a “model minority”, causing little trouble and generally espousing positions conforming to the broad spectrum of middle America. These immigrants are touted for their work ethic and adherence to tradition, which might turn out on closer scrutiny to be more likely some form of neo-traditionalism. And this is certainly a part of the story of the reception of postcolonial studies in the USA, to which this paper will turn shortly.
The issue of migration is central to Arif Dirlik’s attempt to identify the origins of postcolonial studies. And so Dirlik’s response to the question— “When exactly does the ‘postcolonial’ begin?”—is that it begins when “Third-World intellectuals have arrived in the First World academe”.42 Dirlik’s statement turns out, however, to be deceptively simple, for in the first instance the term “First-World” is too broad. We’re really looking at a far more restricted sphere, initially the Anglophone academic institutions of the USA and UK, and not those of Continental Europe. One of the more significant groups to arrive—though certainly not the first—were members of the Subaltern-Studies group from India and they appear to have had an influence out of proportion to their numbers. The impact of subaltern-studies, per se, in the USA was quite limited, partly no doubt a function of its study of peasant rebellions and insurrections and its focus on India, a geographic area whose study was dominated by linguistics, philology, philosophy and aesthetics, and was not generally on par with the interest in East Asia, particularly Japan and China, whose experiences of modernization, war and revolution seemed much closer to US geopolitics. The field of peasant studies was virtually moribund in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, explainable perhaps by the historic absence of a peasantry in that country and by the frequent association of peasant studies with radical thought including Marxism, especially in Latin America. Marxism is not absent in US-higher education but is best left to cultural studies, when it isn’t a hermetic field in itself.43 India’s slow modernization and apparent inability to solve basic problems associated with colonial (mis)rule consigned it to a rather specialist group and audience.
Subaltern-studies has now been subsumed into the broader field of postcolonial studies, representing in the process a significant shift in subject matter from studies of class oppression and class struggle to a critique of the limits of Eurocentric historiography, Enlightenment-inspired science, Foucauldian studies of regimes of power in colonial and postcolonial India, not to mention governance, science, sentiments, and so on, in their current postcolonial incarnation, in the process establishing some safely critical distance from the older subaltern-studies, and indeed from Marxism in many cases. Partha Chatterjee in a 2006 article in Le Monde Diplomatique in spelling out the reason for this shift, makes it out to be a natural and inevitable transition once the subaltern-studies historians had realized the limitations of the study of peasant rebellion. The reason Chatterjee gives has something to do with a realization that subaltern histories were “fragmentary, disconnected and incomplete”44 Why such a realization should lead to the virtual abandonment of a field that had been so productive for a decade or so is anybody’s guess until the US reception for postcolonial studies is factored in.
However, what is more interesting is the date that Chatterjee gives for the transition—1989. 1989 is not an ordinary year; it was then, or more so in the years from 1989 to 1991, that a major realignment of global forces took place, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the gradual absorption into “Europe” of what had for almost half a century been considered a Soviet sphere of domination, the so-called Eastern bloc. This was accompanied by the turgid triumphalism of the Cold Warriors of the West, of which Francis Fukuyama’s work, The End of History, has become emblematic.45 Shortly after 1991, the Indian government launched its own so-called “liberalization policies” that introduced deep structural changes to agriculture and industry in India, and brought India that much closer to the United States. It beggars belief to imagine that the shift that Chatterjee outlines is just a simple decision made by a group of intellectuals as opposed to a sign of some rather more complex political realignments, happening on the global scale but with specific localizations. The real question might be why he chooses to present it as the former.
The Post-McCarthyite Moment and the American Reception
The reception in the USA of the variety of postcolonial studies that Prakash, Chatterjee and Chakrabarty champion is to be understood in terms of other changes in the academic world itself, and this leads us back to Dirlik’s response above. US universities have been undergoing their own slow shifts that have made them much more receptive to a critique of Eurocentrism, Eurocentric-diffusionism, and an acceptance of neo-traditionalist Third-Worldism. Here I will cite five significant changes:
(a) The definitive turn within certain sections of the US academe against the excesses of McCarthyism, and its chilling impact on academic freedom, that ushered in a much more expansive version of the latter, one consequence of which has been to permit a questioning of the orthodox Eurocentric canon and, in the more liberal institutions, actually to encourage a kind of Third-Worldist critique of the West;
(b) A vast increase in migration from the former colonial world after amendments to the immigration law in 1965, which has transformed both the composition of student bodies on virtually every campus in the USA and the study of the former colonies themselves;46
(c) the development of the Civil Rights and feminist movements in the USA in sympathy with anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Asia, including the struggles of the Vietnamese people that has opened up a whole new world of political sympathies;
(d) the arrival on college campuses of new generations of Euro-Americans who had been active in those struggles, and found themselves living first as fellow-students and later as teachers of immigrants or their children;
(e) the entry, in the 1970s but more so in the 1980s and thereafter, of a significant number of Third-World intellectuals into the American academy, some of whom now find themselves directing programmes and heading departments in important centres of learning.
Only those who’ve lived through these decades can begin to appreciate the extent of the changes and their implications for a positive reception for academic ideas and initiatives originating in the Third World, or having a Third-Worldist slant.47 This has also led to a “demand” from students of immigrant origin—particularly Asian, and perhaps even more particularly South Asian—for “heritage courses” that will inform them of “their” past in a diasporic setting. It will immediately be evident that this demand for heritage courses is entirely compatible with a neo-traditionalist framework and militates against a critical-universalist approach.48
In the USA, there was, and still is, a vital debate about the historical practices and current-day implications of the long history of slavery and the slave trade that supplies, as it were, the master codes for debates on many Third-World issues, even those not directly linked to slavery. There is, for example, a tendency in some circles to speak of slavery and colonialism. And in a number of cases, particularly with reference to Africa and the Americas, there is a great deal of justification for it. And even in Asia, nationalists equated colonialism with a form of slavery, a theme enunciated by Gandhi and now almost a trope applied to a range of fields of study.49 So, to cut a very long story short, when the Third-World academics that Dirlik refers to appeared in the US in the humanities and social-science departments (English, cultural studies, anthropology) the equation of slavery and colonialism was made much more forcibly and with far greater theoretical weight. In the context of a Civil-Rights movement and post-Civil-Rights America these links can carry an enormous amount of symbolic freight. This is not to say the older (Utilitarian-style) Orientalism faded out of sight or that Anglophilia or WASP narcissism were replaced by Third Worldism, but a significant shift of perspective occurred.
No doubt, Dirlik’s terse formulation contains a significant element of truth. What he might have further meant was that postcolonialism was about many things to do with global intellectual travel, with a privileged group from the Third World able to integrate successfully into the higher academic ranks in the USA, and make its concerns known to its American, and more broadly Western, counterparts. The upshot of this is that some issues that affected, for example, the Indian upper castes/classes under colonialism resurfaced in the US academy but in a completely new context, of course. From the American point of view, the third-world academics who demanded a wider purview of third-world literature, for example, were the living exemplars of colonial-era racialized exclusion. Their demand for equal time in the curriculum was seen as a political demand for a less-exclusivist position about the uniqueness and privilege of “Western” civilization. At the same time, by virtue of a convergence of interests, neither side wanted to talk about other issues that always simmered under the surface of colonial rule.
A more liberal, and multicultural, US academy and a privileged segment of third-world intellectuals thus came together to provide the ground for the occlusion of class issues. Thus, liberal US academics, already conditioned to being rather blind to class, since by some miracle all Americans are either middle-class or in the process of becoming so, met up with their Third-World counterparts who (in a framework of diasporic post-nationalism) didn’t want to talk about class either. Discussion of class issues generally complicates the subject of colonialism, and decidedly differentiates colonialism (in Asia) from slavery (in the Western hemisphere). However, the convergence that I alluded to above has proved to be absolutely central to the exclusions and confusions created by American postcolonial studies.50
From the point of view of postcolonial studies in the USA, in a world of travels and migration, one can be a denizen of one nation, one’s own, whatever that is, and the citizen of another, a mere fact of adaptation to the necessity to survive or thrive in a new environment. No commitment to either is necessary: membership of one’s proper nation is permanent, unalterable and a matter of some profound pre-articulated, pre-political reality. In this view, citizenship of any state whatsoever is simply an accommodation to the modern-day obsession with borders, boundaries, passports, visas, checks and exclusions. One can be radical in a postmodern sense of remaining indifferent to or even debunking all the concerns of ordinary working-class citizens for jobs, housing, basic workplace rights and a dignified retirement—all sheer economism, it might be said—while writing about the unspeakable violence of Eurocentrism.51 In effect one can be radical and politically disengaged at the same time, a state of radical apoliticalness. In an academic universe that seems to consist of an extraordinarily large number of people who live in airports or have their best ideas in airports, this idea of hyper-mobile, noncommital intellectualism is likely to be well received. This, I take to be the end-result of a neo-traditionalist position.
In this bizarre world anything is possible: the true victims of colonialism might even turn out to be the Third-World’s elite because, after all, it is arguable that the world of the peasantry is not as completely disrupted and transformed as that of the elite. The latter have had their power and privilege, not to mention social position, substantially stripped away and, as a consequence, reduced to the shocking status of affluent subalterns.52 This concern for the Third World’s former elite might actually fit very well with a class-indifferent multiculturalism, which has become the operative ideology of liberal American academics. This is a world in which separate diasporic communities coexist in a common space without ever apparently needing to make a collective cause in struggles against injustice. Injustice is, of course, a topic of discussion but it is often seen in communal or localist terms since otherwise it risks becoming an abstraction, and part of a foundational Enlightenment metanarrative or, worse, Marxism. The opening pages of David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference are a powerful reminder of the sheerly distressing impact of this world-view when transferred from the privileged halls of academia to the fields and factories of the USA.53 When social theorists note the absolute devastation of urban communities in the USA, or the failure to enact basic social programmes, this failure might trace its origins back to the ways in which necessary social solidarities have been eviscerated in recent years. In that case, it is at least plausible that postcolonialism’s critique of metanarratives is symptomatic of a general collapse of class politics and a strategy of reconciliation with widening social disparities. The Third World has indeed come to the metropolis.
In this context the whole project of provincializing Europe by noting the hollowness of European universalism, may not really be about Europe at all, but much more about its now-alienated offspring, the USA, or rather about making the latter more cosmopolitan and global by distancing it from its provincial ancestor, Europe. More cosmopolitan and global, but not more universalist in a secular and politically radical way. There are any number of graduate students in the humanities disciplines who find the idea of universalism of any kind obnoxious, if not entirely offensive. It is almost as if in rejecting, quite rightly, the messianic universalism of the Religious Right, the multiculturalists have adopted a position that can only objectively aid the opposition. Postcolonialism of the post-Subaltern Studies variety appears, then, as part of a post-Cold War academic politics, a re-working or re-presentation of core left ideas about human equality so as to be consistent with multicultural liberalism, or perhaps a multi-communal liberalism. What is absent, as noted, in all of this is class analysis. Class has been entirely replaced by communities of religion, ethnic groups, etc.—the American analogue of “different ways of being in the world”—which strive for equal opportunities to be heard and respected but apparently for very little else.
One becomes, by default, a living representative of one’s community, either properly authentic—which in the immigrant context of the USA means advocating the stock positions of postcolonial studies, including notions of hybridity, in-betweenness, place-based specificity, untranslatable into any higher terms of political solidarity54—or somehow inauthentic to the extent that one still thinks in terms of structural contradictions, and the terms that are now derided as defunct and passé. Such, in sum, is one of the legacies of 1989.
In saying all this, it is important to recognize that any analysis of the success of postcolonial studies must bear in mind the general and the specific. In other words, if a phenomenon like postcolonial studies is successful in a number of countries one would have to identify the general reasons for its success—for example, the post-revolutionary historical conjuncture that Dirlik notes in Postmodernity’s Histories, without overlooking the specific national conditions that might account for successes of a certain type. Thus, its reception in South Africa is likely to be influenced by a rather different set of factors from those that prevail in the USA. A study of the political conditions and implications of all of this requires a global-comparative collaborative approach.55
If England and the USA have declared themselves postcolonial societies, and if, as I’ve learnt, postcolonial studies is catching on very fast in Austria and Hungary, and they, too, have discovered the joys of being postcolonial, can the rest of Europe be far behind? I’m waiting for the day when all the so-called postcolonial societies will be in Europe and North America and the Third-World will have been recolonized in some new form or the other, or it will have become just a place for the starving, the dying and the drowning.56 But, in the meantime, one can safely say that the restructuring of French education, concomitant with other neo-liberal reforms in that country, will surely make it a welcoming place for the arrival of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe. It’s a fascinating book that claims to provincialize Europe (not the geographic Europe of our modern common sense but something analogous to Western Christendom), but makes it more central, more universal and dominant and the Third World more exotic and marginal than ever. I suspect that this is the unacknowledged, if highly welcome, function of postcolonial studies.
The Seeds of Time57
I’m tempted, at the end, to agree with Eagleton’s evaluation of postmodernism, possibly more appropriately applied to postcolonialism: “The political illiteracy and historical oblivion fostered by post-modernism must surely be a cause for rejoicing in the White House [of the Bush years?], assuming that trend does not pass out of existence before it reaches their ears”.58 There is no danger of that happening—i.e. the trend passing out of existence any time soon—because there are too many institutional interests that have made sure that not only is postcolonialism well established in American universities but that academic departments like English, cultural studies and anthropology, are well supplied with postcolonial theorists. And since, as noted, the countries that colonized large parts of Asia and Africa (not to mention the white-settler colonies like the USA, Australia and New Zealand) are all considered postcolonial, or even more properly postcolonial than India, for example, can it be that we are all somehow postcolonial and it doesn’t matter where we come from so long as we reject, say, Marxism, and all the disturbing questions it allows us to ask? As Dirlik notes, “[s]ince postcoloniality no longer refers to a place, the identity of the postcolonial is no longer structural but discursive”.59 One wonders, in fact, if what is called postcolonialism really is a kind of post-McCarthyism, a liberal settlement in which issues of class, and the notions of contradiction and struggle they imply, are to be replaced by discursive referents to place, space, and the qualities associated therewith, and the concomitant abolition of the future-as- difference?60
In a larger, systemic sense, then, the post-McCarthyite moment sums up a world in which some things are no longer thinkable or nameable: one can talk endlessly about freedom, so long as it is freedom to aspire to be different, freedom from the oppression of Eurocentrism, rather than freedom from, for example, the truly obscene oppression of hunger or, more ambitiously, the rule of capital; about choice so long as the choices are trivial, and about class as long as it is middle (of what, one wonders) and one admits that social transformations are a bad dream of the past, now safely quarantined behind the wall of 1989.
And, if indeed the West is finally more postcolonial than the Rest, it is quite arguable that the element of nostalgist Orientalism, and/or its equivalents, that are still so much a part of postcolonialism, must fade away from its metropolitan version. In this sense, the Orient appears as the vanishing mediator within metropolitan postcolonialism.61 Such a move may already be evident in, for example, the “four-nations” history that appears to be sweeping historical practice in Great Britain.62 And if an exotic element is to be found within it can easily be generated out of a neotraditionalist reading of the ancien régime, the beauty and charm of country life, a recapture of the territorializations referred to above into the specific terms of a postcolonial politics, in which among other things capital is completely naturalized and excised from the critical consideration of its overcoming: a move that has been gaining considerable ground in Europe in recent decades, returning in the process to the eventual recasting of the old literary trope of the Middle Ages as Europe’s exotic-within, but perhaps now the bedrock of European identity, or its latter-day equivalents in the form of distinct terroirs, maintained in neo-traditionalist fashion as restaurants, boutiques, and tourist destinations.63
In this context, it is imperative to remind ourselves that there is a more persistent curiosity about the fate of our world which cannot be fully contained or vanquished, as Jameson notes in his The Seeds of Time:
Even after the “end of history”, there has seemed to persist some historical curiosity of a generally systemic—rather than a merely anecdotal—kind: not merely to know what will happen next, but as a more general anxiety about the larger fate or destiny of our system or mode of production as such—about which individual experience (of a postmodern kind) tells us that it must be eternal, while our intelligence suggests this feeling to be most improbable indeed, without coming up with plausible scenarios as to its disintegration or replacement. It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.64
The “seeds of time” is, of course, a reference to those famous lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act I, scene III)
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.
I would like to suggest that if it is easier to contemplate the deterioration of the earth than the breakdown of capitalism—if we have become averse to looking into the seeds of time, then it is a very historical weakness rather than a congenital defect of our species. A weakness that has, arguably, been reinforced by being located in the self-declared metropolitan postcolonial countries, and bolstered by intellectuals of the post-marked variety. In that case, we need to identify postcolonialism for what it is—not the possibility of a renewal of a radical political vision of the sort that Michael Hardt, for example, hopes for it,65 but much more a sign of spent, defeated and safely diverted radical energies on one side and the revitalization of all sorts of traditionalist and neotraditionalist ideas contained in the force field of actually existing globalization and postmodernism on the other.