Partha Chatterjee on ‘After subaltern studies’

Further to my earlier ramblings about postcolonial theory, here is an interesting piece by Partha Chatterjee on the legacies and contemporary relevance of the subaltern studies ‘tradition’ (you can find more on this topic at the Cultural Anthropology site) . Of particular interest is his argument is the claim that there are now ‘two aspects of mass politics in contemporary Indian democracy – one that involves a contest over sovereignty with the Indian state and the other that makes claims on governmental authorities over services and benefits’. The emergence of the latter aspect, he argues, which follows from the extensive ‘reach’ of apparatuses of governmentality into the everyday lives of even the most marginal populations, requires a ‘paradigm shift’ beyond the classic analysis of subaltern resistance. Chatterjee is an interesting example of someone able to make use of ‘governmentality’ ideas while also acknowledging the distinctive qualities of actually existing democratic politics.

Glimpses of Austin

In a recent review of a new book defending Ordinary Language Philosophy, Sari Nusseibeh makes some interesting comments on the possible connections between the war-time service of J.L. Austin and the philosophical style he developed. He also includes a couple of personal biographical vignettes to bolster the argument (he is married to Austin’s daughter, Lucy, which might explain the access implied in his review), and mentions that a full biographical study is in the offing.

Austin is an oddly anonymous figure, someone whose influence clearly depended in no small part on the force, shall we say, of his personality, without whose presence it has even been suggested the full significance of his ideas cannot be appreciated (for example, Cavell’s presentation of Austin’s importance in general revolves around a repeated invocation of the impact that Austin’s own teaching had upon him personally). I have been interested in the relationship between the biographical and the theoretical for a long time – once upon a time I even tried to write seriously about this relation, which seems to me quite central to the genre of Theory as we have come to know and love it, but which is poorly appreciated and even more poorly theorised (the construction of author-effects around Foucault and his lectures seems to me to exemplify the point, and also manages to cover over one of the most important resources available for engaging with this problem).

Austin is a ubiquitous reference across the canon of French Theory in particular, perhaps more often mentioned than used certainly. Derrida was a fan, and Austin’s vocabulary was quite central to how literary deconstruction presented itself in the 1970s and 1980s (one of my unwritten fantasy papers would be about the ways in which deconstruction is the source for an ongoing tendency to ‘freeze’ Austin’s ideas around a simple distinction between constatives and performances, i.e. half way through How to do things with words, which helps to support strongly political, ‘de-naturalising’ interpretations of the idea of performativity [and thereby manages to sustain Emile Benveniste’s defence of this distinction against Austin’s own undoing of it]. I think this freezing still accounts for the way that ideas of performativity and enactment slip into routine constructionism all the time. ‘Force’, in Austin, is the name for a problem to be investigated, not the concept for an effect felicitously realised. Not sure I’ll ever get round to writing that one, though). The Derrida/deco link to Austin is obvious enough. Austin pops up in de Certeau, rather weakly, is more or less disavowed in Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, is an important reference point for Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, he gets a mention in Lacan. Pierre Bourdieu’s favourite insult, that of scholasticism, is taken from Austin. I could go on (Austin of course is also at work amongst the Anglos, such as Quentin Skinner or Hilary Putnam [I’m presuming there is a world in which Austin is not contained by John Searle] , but it is French resonance that is most entertaining – the fascinating thing about Austin’s war-time service, one of those things mentioned a lot in passing, and given his status in what becomes Continental Philosophy, is that he had a rather senior role in Allied military intelligence – he played an important part in the liberation of France…. I suspect a keen sense of pretence and masquerade, or fakery in general, might have come in handy in that world).

I suppose I find this trace, more or less visible, of Austin in French Theory interesting because it throws into question a long-standing account of this style of philosophy as ‘conservative’ – a charge which dates back to Ernest Gellner’s attack on ‘OLP‘ (as it is abbreviated these days), reiterated by Perry Anderson in 1969. Austin was Anderson’s model of the de-politicised nature of post-war British philosophy. I think Austin might be an interesting case study of what it is that academics are looking for when they go in search of ‘political’ significance in bodies of thought.

Austin the man, as a biographical figure, makes an appearance in various places – in biographies of Freddie Ayer and Herbert Hart, for example, as well as in Isiah Berlin’s reflections on life in Oxford. There are fleeting sketches in Geoffrey Warnock’s book about Austin; he is mentioned in reflections by people like Bernard Williams, Stuart Hampshire, and Michael Dummett. But in general, Austin seems to be a figure who resists much fleshing out, biographically. And as I suggested above, that might be interesting not least because of the ‘ad hominen’ qualities of Austinian styles of criticism – something that Simon Glendinning has written about recently in a volume of essays re-evaluating Austin’s legacy.

Shosana Feldman has a wonderful take on the masculine framing of action in Austin, a theoretical reading of course, and one of the more interesting accounts of Austin I have come across is in Mary Warnock’s autobiography, which I bought for a pound in an unexpectedly large charity second-hand bookshop in Cheltenham earlier this year. Warnock’s story of Oxford philosophy centres on women, such as Iris Murdoch, and Elizabeth Anscombe, who harboured a deep personal hostility towards Austin it seems. She writes about being a woman admitted into the manly circle of the famed Saturday morning sessions that Austin ran, with all those aforementioned soon-to-be stalwarts of post-war British philosophy (Warnock’s stories reminded me too of the tale that Gillian Rose tells in Love’s Work, about being told at the start of her time as an undergraduate to remember that all the (male) philosophers she was about to encounter were much smarter than she was – and told this by Jean Austin, Austin’s widow).

Anyway, who knows, these and other fragments may come together and begin to make sense in the biography mentioned by Nusseibeh. I can’t find any other mention of this yet.


Whatever happened to postcolonial theory?

Apparently, my doctoral thesis might soon be digitalized, and therefore made much more readily available to all and sundry [UPDATE: it’s here!]. I’m vain enough to accept the offer, and insecure enough to worry about what the enhanced accessibility might do for my reputation should anyone ever go off and download it. It is, or was, about postcolonial theory, amongst other things (occasionally, I remember that I got my current job on the basis of claims to be a postcolonial geographer). And it is, of course, oddly, my main professional credential, as both a researcher and a teacher.

I sometimes wonder what ever happened to postcolonial theory, which seemed very important once upon time – but has now become the basis for a fairly standard paradigm of geopolitical power, ‘imperialism’ with a smarter theory of culture attached. And I was reminded of this question by a recent, perhaps ongoing debate in the pages of New Literary History, on ‘the state of postcolonial studies’. Kicked off by a couple of contributions by Dipesh Chakrabarty and Robert Young, it has been continued through responses by the likes of Simon During and Benita Parry. It’s interesting that this debate revolves around topics such as climate change, and land, and settler colonialism – nothing ‘anaemic’ about those things. But the terms of the debate also acknowledge that ‘the postcolonial’ has lost some of its fizz in theory-land.

For a while now, I have been surprised and a little perplexed about the degree to which, certainly in geography, Edward Said’s model of colonial discourse in Orientalism has become the basic reference point for an understanding of the relevance of postcolonial theory. This odd resurgence seems to have taken place somewhere between the publication of Derek Gregory’s Geographical Imaginations and his The Colonial Present. I say that it’s odd because the re-centering of ‘Orientalism’ as the paradigm of power-inflected knowledge seems to have erased from view the debates that I remember being important twenty years ago, which were all about the inadequacy, conceptually and empirically, of the ‘projection’ model of ‘discourse’ that Said originally articulated in Orientalism, and of the associated claims about ‘power’ (Said’s own post-Orientalism work evidences the force of these criticisms in its move towards more pragmatic models of cultural representation).

You can still see the residue of these debates in the constant worry that ‘discourse’ must always be connected to ‘materiality’, or assertions that ‘representations’ have ‘performative’ effects. But these have become empty slogans that close-down the fundamental questions about the adequacy of concepts of representation, meaning, and subjectivity inherited from a canon of ‘French Theory’ (and they tend to authorise vague, unsubstantiated claims about the continuities between historical colonialisms and contemporary geopolitics). Above all, what these slogans do is protect the central idea tying together post-structuralist thought – the idea that ‘subjectivity’ is made and re-made through mediums of knowledge and representation, certainly; but more fundamentally, the very idea that social formations and political regimes are made to hang together by bringing off subject-effects, however these are conceptualised – ‘representationally’ or ‘affectively’.

The continued attachment to this model of power, and of the centrality of ‘the cultural’ to it, might have something to do with the way in which it underwrites models of research (it helps to make historical work, embedded in documentary analysis, as well as the analysis of lots of cultural practices, seem very important); but especially, perhaps, the degree to which it underwrites models of critical pedagogy.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a little recently is the idea that we should all be seeking ‘synergies’ between research and teaching – almost always, this means finding ways to plug in more or less specialised research findings into teaching programmes. As such, it betrays a horribly ‘academic’ model of what teaching is good for – a kind of dissemination of findings, a medium for inducting people into proper understanding. I have never heard anyone seriously argue that teaching should inform research, other perhaps than in terms of certain models of dialogue or collaboration (of course, postcolonial theory is one of the sources for the idea that ‘the classroom’ is a site of engaged scholarship; but higher education teaching doesn’t, of course, go on in ‘classrooms’, with all the associated baggage that term implies. HE students are grown ups, not well thought of as impressionable or naïve youngsters; most student learning goes on in the gaps and interstices and loops between ‘contact’ hours, not in the presence of the academic oracle).

A constant, and growing, worry I have is about the idea that the sorts of cutting-edge research that circulates in a great deal of ‘critical’ social science, certainly in human geography, but more broadly in any field touched by cultural theory, should be allowed anywhere near teaching programmes. Cutting-edge theory, and the sorts of empirical projects informed and confirmed by it, is all about unpicking, disrupting, and revealing – across different theoretical traditions, being ‘critical’ is primarily understood as an epistemological operation which combines exposure and correction. For as long as I have been an academic, twenty-five years plus now (aagh…), ‘theory’ in these fields has primarily focussed on the enabling us to tell stories about the construction of things – whether under the heading ‘constructionism’, or one or other of its variants – making, composing, enacting, performing, assembling, and so on. And there are a set of pedagogic assumptions built in to this range of theory, whether or not it is ever concerned with teaching per se. The critical edge, the political frisson, of successive paradigms of work rests on the idea that showing how things are made, showing that things are performed, showing that things are contingent, has a potentially transformative effect on people’s most deeply held beliefs, ways of thinking, or ways of feeling their way around the world.

The pedagogic pay-off of this type of research knowledge, then, revolves around the idea that the purpose of critical scholarship is to interrupt the understandings and interests that students, or other audiences, might already have, and which might have animated them to arrive at your door in the first place – and to replace them with improved understandings and thought. Thinking of teaching in terms of ‘subjectivity’ (really as a scene of dis-identification, of counter-interpellation, or even of de-subjectification), underwrites the idea that the primary purpose of teaching is to challenge common sense, interrupt taken for granted assumptions, and disrupt received ways of seeing.

Apart from presupposing an almost impossibly flexible model of ‘subjectivity’, there seems to me something almost self-defeating, certainly from the perspective of geographical education, in assuming that the primary function of research and teaching should be to basically de-legitimise the structures of curiosity that attract students in the first place.

Anyway, I think the re-centering of Orientalism and ‘Orientalism’ as the universal critical paradigm for postcolonial theory is one example of this broader formation of critical pedagogy, stretching across research and teaching. Amongst other things, this re-centering marginalises, again, a set of alternative ‘postcolonial’ intellectual traditions arising from different places – for example, I think here of the arguments of writers such as Robert Young or Christopher Miller that African colonialism and postcolonialism did not fit the model of ‘geographical imaginations’ inherited from Said. Nor, one might suppose, would the experience of the Americas. One thing that emerges from debates focussed on colonialism and anti-colonialism in these places is a much more ‘pragmatic’ model of colonial discourse, for example. If you don’t take Literature, or aesthetic fields more generally, as exemplars for the politics of knowledge, you end up with different models of the use of knowledge in the world. And, in turn, it might be possible to find different models of what critical pedagogy might involve – models which are less hampered by ‘postcolonial scruples’, and prepared to take the risk of positively affirming some old-fashioned geographical curiosity as the very condition of ‘learning from other regions’. I think this is one of the lessons, for example, of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, which pivots around Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’, or the Comaroff’s more recent Theory from the South.

Remaking the Commons

There is a new issue of Reviews in Cultural Theory available on-line. It is on the theme of ‘Remaking the Commons’. Amongst other things, it includes an interview with Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt, on love as a political concept (And, just to keep the theme going, the conversation touches on dressage, obviously. It’s suddenly everywhere).

This sporting life

It’s the season for discovering new things about sports you know nothing about – or not, as in the case of dressage, the only Olympic sport dominated by Gloucestershire, and about which we all remain in the dark, unable to actually tell what makes for a 90% score rather than an 80%. In diving, we all know to look for the splash; in dressage, is it too much sand being kicked up by the hooves?

In this post-Olympics spirit of trying out new things, to watch obviously, on Friday I went to my first ever rugby league match. At St Helens, no less. A very balmy evening. In a hot August night sort of way.  Not barmy. I have no attachment whatsoever to rugby, one way or the other, and was struck not so much by the difference between the two codes, as much as the difference between this contemporary version and the remembered version from the 1970s that you used to see on Grandstand. An altogether leaner game, it seems. And not a flat cap in sight.

On the theme of the cultural differences that sport draws into view, there is a profile of Imran Khan in The New Yorker, one of those regular pieces that wonder whether he is likely to ever get to exercise significant political power in Pakistan. Amongst other things, the piece has to negotiate Imran’s status as ex-crickter for its presumed American audience, inevitably groping for an appropriate baseball reference point. That shouldn’t be that difficult, really. But Imran ends up being described as having once been a “hard thrower”, a description also used in relation to Sarfraz Nawaz. Oops. This couldn’t be more wrong, could it? Technically, throwing in cricket is cheating. What ever happened to The New Yorkers’ famous fact-checking?

Anyway, enough of this, back to work.

Media archaeology

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the last month or so wading through a bunch of my parents’ ‘stuff”, following the death of my mother. There are different levels of ‘stuff’ involved here, of course, from a garage full of gardening tools to toothpaste. Different sorts of significance attach themselves to different types of ‘stuff’.

I’ve come to think of this process as akin to a form of personal, family archeology, as different objects provoke new questions, or new understandings of previously remembered events.

Once you have moved beyond the level of ‘stuff’ that is disposable (and this might vary, depending on how you feel), one way or another, the contents of one’s parents home seem to fall into two broad categories: material objects (including books), and ‘media’ stuff. Media stuff includes photos, but also in my case a large number of slides and negatives, and 2-3000 feet of 8mm cine film. Very little of this media stuff has been seen by me, or my sisters, I think, for three decades or so, at least. It has been living in lofts and cupboards, as is the way with these sorts of materials. I’m bringing it back to life, so to speak, having transferred 500 odd slides onto the PC, and have just had the cine film digitized (by a very nice man in Swindon who specialises in this – see SaveThoseMemories). 

Media stuff has a distinct emotional charge – it evokes different memories, but also evokes memories in different ways. I’ve now seen versions of my parents I had never seen before, as well as movies of me as a baby which are the only visual record of me actually ever having been a baby. And I have never quite realised before how much movement and how much sound there is lying within a still, mute image. 

Material objects, of course, can be very mundane – pin cushions, vinegar pots, tea caddies, African drums. They are, too, and unlike media stuff, fundamentally indivisible – and therefore potentially more contentious as objects of mourning. You can make copies of the cine film, and of the photos. There is only one vinegar pot, and I’ve got it. 

This is all just a preliminary ramble, really, because I have an inclination to write a little bit more about some of the things that the media stuff is disclosing. It turns out, by the way, that ‘media archaeology’ is a proper grown-up academic field: see here and here.