Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Postcolonial Theory and Its Discontents

Ian Hacking, in one his articles, praises the uniquely French form of the interview as a great way to understand the author's thoughts.  He's talking about Foucault--and indeed, some of Foucault's interviews are far easier to understand than his books.  In that same spirit--i.e. it lays out the lay of the land on which these debates are staged--I liked this interview with Vivek Chibber in Jacobin on his new book "Post Colonial Theory and the Specter of Capital," which criticizes post-colonial theory and urges a return to good old-fashioned Marxism.
The argument goes like this: the universalizing categories associated with Enlightenment thought are only as legitimate as the universalizing tendency of capital. And postcolonial theorists deny that capital has in fact universalized — or more importantly, that it ever could universalize around the globe. Since capitalism has not and cannot universalize, the categories that people like Marx developed for understanding capitalism also cannot be universalized.
What this means for postcolonial theory is that the parts of the globe where the universalization of capital has failed need to generate their own local categories. And more importantly, it means that theories like Marxism, which try to utilize the categories of political economy, are not only wrong, but they’re Eurocentric, and not only Eurocentric, but they’re part of the colonial and imperial drive of the West. And so they’re implicated in imperialism. Again, this is a pretty novel argument on the Left.
This is probably cartoonish--as is probably the rest of the interview--but if I was teaching a class, I'd use it as a text for setting out the background arguments.

A much more rigorous response to Chibber's book by Chris Taylor is also great--although far more abstract.
It’s kind of hard to say. Chibber does not expend anything like the same amount of time unpacking—much less justifying—his own Marxist normative and epistemological presuppositions as he does in showing that Guha, Chatterjee, and Chakrabarty are anti-Marxist. In broad outlines, Chibber’s Marxism depends on “a defense of two universalisms, one pertaining to capital and the other to labor.” More specifically, Chibber’s Marxism is bound to the idea that ”the modern epoch is driven by the twin forces of, on the one side, capital’s unrelenting drive to expand, to conquer new markets, and to impose its domination on the laboring classes [the first universalism], and, on the other side, the unceasing struggle by these classes to defend themselves, their well-being, against this onslaught [the second universalism] (208).” So far, nothing objectionable: welcome to the Communist Manifesto. The problem emerges, however, when Chibber attempts moving from the universal to the particular, from the universality of capitalism’s antagonism to the particular social zoning of its enactment. If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these “two universalisms” to denude the particular, to remove the peculiarity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal. Methodologically, Chibber’s Marxism is pre-Hegelian. Indeed, his Marxism is the kind of “monochrome formalism” derided by Hegel, an epistemology for which the universal dominates the particular, one through which “the living essence of the matter [is] stripped away or boxed up dead.”
And then later:
In part, I think that “Marxism versus postcolonial theory” is simply running interference for a set of disciplinary battles over methodological and theoretical orientation. The antinomy that Chibber continually establishes is one between a realist sociology (with an investment in abstract structures that prime and cause human action) and hermeneutically inclined fields of anthropology, history, and literary studies. (Don’t mention literary studies to Chibber. He doesn’t seem to like it very much.) In each of Chibber’s chapters, the explanatory triumph of universalist accounts over particularist accounts can be read as the triumph of a certain form of sociological reason over its others.
More importantly, I think that Chibber is desperate for the resurgence of a particular kind of Marxism, one that was displaced not by postcolonial theorists but by anticolonial Marxists like Fanon, James, and so on. That’s why he can’t incorporate them into his account of postcolonial theory: they are Marxists who mount critiques of formalist universalisms by keeping close to the particular, by maintaining the tension that obtains between economic structure and lived phenomenology, between structuralist accounts of the world and hermeneutic investigations into worlds. I have no idea why one would wish to return to the days of CP sloganeering. (I can’t be the only one who heard echoes of “black and white, unite and fight!” in his book.) But the desire is there, and it shapes the way he constructs postcolonial theory. Chibber’s fantasy that an anti-Marxist postcolonial theory reigns hegemonic in the academy enables him to maintain the fantasy that the once and future king of Marxism might some day be restored to rule. But, in order to elaborate this fantasy, he needs to transform a tension internal to postcolonial theory (between Marxist accounts of structure and hermeneutic approaches to the particular—which can still be, of course, Marxist) into a struggle exterior to it.