Chatterjee on Subaltern Studies and Capital

Andy Davies at Contentious Geographies has news of a piece by Partha Chatterjee entitled Subaltern Studies and Capital in Economic and Political Weekly, a response to Vivek Chibber’s book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.

While on the subject of Chatterjee, here is a link to details (and the first chapter) of his newish book, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

Old haunts: is this what happened to postcolonial theory?

IMG_0365A couple of days ago, Dissent pointed to an almost real-time, developing ‘debate’ about the trajectories of postcolonial theory – in the form of the response to the publication of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. The book is largely a refutation/attack/hatchet-job/demolition job (depending on how you read it) on the work of the Subaltern Studies historians, who are taken as standing in for the whole field of ‘postcolonial theory’ (come in Aijaz Ahmad, all is forgiven….). If you don’t want to read the whole book (which can currently be surreptitiously downloaded if you stumble across it…), you can get a sampling of Chibber’s argument in an interview at Jacobin, titled How does the subaltern speak? (I wonder how many variations on that title there have been, and how many more we could all imagine in the future?).

There is already a debate emerging around Chibber’s book, not least encouraged by Verso’s own blog site – they have posted a response to a critical review by Chris Taylor, which Taylor has himself responded to in the update to his original piece.

Blog-twitter-sphere excitement about all this is circulating around a set-piece ‘debate’ between Chibber and one of his targets, Partha Chatterjee, in New York last month – via Andy Davies’s blog, I see that the video of this encounter is now up on YouTube



Literary Geographies at Society and Space

Society and Space has a new virtual issue available, on the theme of ‘Literary Geographies’ (also the name and focus of a newish blog) – ten oldish and newish papers available on open access, until November:

“These ten papers, ranging from the 1980s to the present decade showcase just some of the papers in this journal that have contributed to discussions of literary geographies. As well as being of considerable interest in their own right, we hope they inspire future explorations in this area.”

Amongst the papers, including pieces by my former or  current colleagues John Silk, Juliet Fall, and Parvati Raghurum, one of the papers, this one, is by me – on postcolonial theory, Spivak, Benita Parry, Coetzee, speech and silence and the work of representation, that sort of thing. It’s nice to be included. This might have been a citation classic by now if I’d not used that particular title, but never mind, I was warned (and it’s still a great song, and it still captures the essence of the paper’s argument).

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.

Used maps

In my house, the scrap paper on which a five-year old practices writing out lists of the names of all her school friends and the toddler practices scribbling is, inevitably, a pile of discarded academic articles, drafts of OU courses, or research policy papers. Turn over a carefully coloured-in doodle of a princess, and there is a random page about the uses of ‘social science’ or an agenda of a meeting of some sort.

When I was growing up, the available scrap paper in our house was, oddly, a never-ending pile of what we refered to as ‘map paper’ – sheets of A3 paper, the blank undersides of detailed contour maps of all sorts of places, bits of the world I cannot even remember now. My father was a navigator in the RAF, and this was the paper he worked with, and then bought home for us to scribble, doodle, draw and take notes on (this might be a screen memory of some sort – the supply of map paper seems to have survived long after he actually left the RAF).

I’d like to be able to say that this inspired a life long interest in maps, and set me off on the course of becoming a geographer. I do really like maps. But I don’t remember the maps which were the underside of these piles of ‘map paper’. Other than a vague sense that they were either very green, or very beige in a sandy-desert kind of way.

If I could remember more of the Derrida that I must have read, I’m sure writing on the blank back pages of maps as a child would be indicative of some important symbolic moment in ‘becoming geograhical’.

Now, I find myself with a large map of Southern Rhodesia, a proper map, folded in an attic for about 40 years at least, now framed, not paper per se, it has a thick woven texture. It dates from the early 1960s, from a weird moment of British post-imperial reconfiguration, from the days of the short-lived, cynical experiment that was the Central African Federation, or, if you prefer, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. There is a whole history unwrapped by this map – fantasies of air power as a vehicle of racist settler postcolonial ‘independence’; of British military connivance with this fantasy; of the last generation of ordinary white British people to have experienced the privileges of settler colonialism; and of histories prefigured – of UDI, bush wars, or, personal histories of disappointment and resentment and return.

This is a working map – the straight lines which are visible on it are plotted by my old man, tracking routes from Livingstone to Salisbury, Livingstone to Gwelo (this is a map of a disappeared nation, mostly full of lost place names). In the margins of the map, there are calculations which he has made – I don’t understand these I should say; distance, wind-speed,weight, who knows? That these routes all emanate from Livingstone dates the map, I think, or it’s use a least, to a late moment of the Federation, 1962 or 1963, to that brief period when my family were kind-of-Zambian; before I arrived.

I like this map not only because of various family associations and their post-colonial ironies and tragedies, but because these marks left by my father are indicators of the basic point, often forgotten perhaps, that maps are primarily used as devices to help people get around.

Three uses of maps, then: as devices for navigation; as repositories of fragments of memory; or, just as spare paper.

Only problem is, where to put the framed map? It’s huge. What will visitors think, on wandering into our front room and finding this bloody great map of Southern Rhodesia on the wall? Likely to give the wrong impression, I fear. It seems destined for the ‘puter room, as my daughter calls it, the one she goes into to gather scrap paper, the discarded drafts of book chapters and agenda papers. I bet she won’t be getting any of those framed in the far distant future.