Tag Archives: Spivak

Spivak on Hope in 2009 at Whitechapel

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11 theses on art and politics #8 & #9

verses8. The cartoon is contained in the frame, and can safely say so much more because of that protection. Oftentimes what is illustrated in art and comedy can be far more critical than the editorials or headline ‘breaking news’. But as we also know, even in Denmark, politics can spill over the border of this containment. There are many such incidents – it seems no coincidence today that the 20 year old furore around Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses marks the beginning of a global ‘attention’ to a politics of Islam. Rushdie’s novel can be discussed in a wide variety of ways of course. Certain anthropologists identified the ‘Rushdie Affair’ as a moment of awakening for a diasporic identity formation in the UK (we can safely consign them to a sidebar, see Hutnyk 2006). Other writers, however, assimilate the event to new times. Recently Kenan Malik attempts a strange amalgam of anti-racist activist history and condemnation of ‘the multiculturalist’ tendency in the British context that owes much, but does not fully acknowledge, the work of Sivinandan and the Institute of Race Relations. What happened around Rushdie’s book? Banned first a few months earlier in India, there was then a celebrated, televised, burning of the book in Bradford by those who, according to Malik, acted in large part:

“because of disenchantment with the secular left, on the one hand, and the institutionalisation of multicultural policies, on the other. The disintegration of the left in the 1980s, the abandonment by leftwing organisations of the politics of universalism in favour of ethnic particularism, and the wider shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity, pushed many young, secular Asians towards Islamism as an alternative worldview” (http://www.kenanmalik.com/lectures/rushdie_boi.html accessed 6 June 2009)

The critique of ethnicity, identity and multiculturalism misfires, however, where Malik insists on universalism as if it were the only and antithetical inverse of identity and ethnicity. Caught in a complimentary logic, Malik repeats the obvious and automatic reaction – and endorses an integration model for Britain. The case can be, and has been, made that ‘ethnic funding’ elevated culturalist ‘community leaders’ as a ‘bulwark’ with which to undermine militant anti-racist alliances, but to then diagnose the problem as culture and insist on its overcoming in some naïve secular French Republic type model is a deeply conservative, even nationalist, error.

More interesting is Gayatri Spivak’s essay on The Satanic Verses, which uses the occasion of Rushdie to consider other cases written out of the record (Shahbano made a ‘figure’ in a contest over votes), to reflect on the position of Southall Black Sisters in relation to the ‘controversy’ as crisis, to then in this context think about ‘freedom of expression’-talk and the ‘uses to which the spectacular rational abstractions of democracy can sometimes be put’ (Spivak 1993: 241). Rushdie, accused of complicity with the West’s imperialist ‘crusade’ against Islam by Ayatollahs and others, surely did not know or intend the extent to which his little fiction would offend, even as he aimed to offend indeed (as he had oftentimes done – Midnights’ Children and Shame both also banned).

The Satanic Verses, as art, went unread. Instead something of a rumour (Spivak 1993:228) spread that Rushdie had engaged in ‘gossip’ about the prophet, that he had blasphemed against the Quran. Again politics, here on the part of postcolonial metropolitan activists (not subalterns) proceeds without full representation. Of course it is almost bad taste now to think of Rushdie’s book in terms of the theoretical interests or fashions of its time of writing. The controversy has a different context now, that cannot ignore the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, Iran was central in a different way, an the Ayatollah railed against America. Then also, the death of the author thematic, signed under the proper names of Barthes and Foucault, alongside celebrations of the schizoid self, did not make for easy jokes about he fatwah.

Spivak pointed out at the time that there might be critics of her reading of The Satanic Verses that might complain that she ‘gives resistance no speaking part’ in Rushdie’s text (Spivak 1993:226). But if the book does not enact resistance as a character, perhaps we can agree with Spivak that to ‘“state the problem” is not bad politics’. She continues: ‘In fact, it might be poor judgement to consider academy or novel as straight blueprint for action on the street’ (Spivak 1993:227). I do not find this far from Adorno’s critique of an introspective protest against order that is indifferent to, and so compatible with, that order. Rushdie’s book explores blasphemy and ambiguity within Islam – a complication neither trenchant defenders of the Holy Book, nor those who attack Islam, and desecrate the book in prisons like Bahgram or Guantanamo, can assimilate.

Any art as blueprint for action of course again invokes the metaphor of the architect, not the bees. A novel, or academic test, as blueprint for action condemns actors to repetition (18th Brumaire) and containment (its not the 1960s anymore). This is true if one is wanting postcolonial engagement around race and gender ambivalence, or if revolutionary change is a goal – in each case scripted responses invite containment.

9. Book burning has its own heritage – degenerate art, lost libraries, the exotic image of Alexandria and the horrors of National Socialism. Pornographic books destroyed, Andre Malraux’s manuscript burned on his capture in 1944, the Leuven University library in Belgium in WW1, the Jaffna, Sarevo and Abhazian libraries in recent civil wars. Kafka’s books, the Master’s manuscript in Bulgakov’ Margarita , the chivalry books of Don Quixote,  the firemen destroying books in F˚451

On May 10, 1933 the Deutsche Studentenschaft (German Student Association) burned a great many books in Berlin’s Opernplatz after proclaiming them degenerate and un-German.

In 1953 Senator McCarthy and Eisenhower ordered overseas US libraries to remove from their shelves books by communists and fellow-travellers (they burned them).

Rushdie’s book burned in Bradford, insults the Quran. The Quran itself associates the word of god with the honey of bees (‘Honey is a remedy for every illness and the Qur’an is a remedy for all illness of the mind, therefore I recommend to you both remedies, the Qur’an and honey’ (Bukhari) http://www.islamicresearch.org/bees%20hidden%20miracle.htm accessed June 5 2009). Beekeepers know that smoke is a tool of control. Rushdie’s insult is to make pornography of the revelation, the sacred origin of this text. He inserts new verses into the revelation, and authorship of them is given to a doubly mischevious archangel. As they appear in the drama of the book, those verses were of course already something to be interpreted politically, in terms of blueprint and control. They are a script the book excised in exactly the most insulting passage that offended those in Bradford. Rushdie has the ‘businessman’, a false but read as if the, prophet, tussle with the angel in a way that makes the revelation of the book pornographic or at least obscene. The prophet wrestles with the archangel in a cave 500 feet below the summit of Mount Cone with tongues in mouths and fists round balls only to end up with ‘Mahound’ pinned to the ground and the archangel’s mouth ‘open and making the voice, the Voice, pour out … [and] pour all over him, like sick’ (Rushdie 1988:123). That Mahound awakes later in the cave and realizes a previous visitation had been Shaitan’ ‘that he had been tricked, so that the devil came to him in the guise of the  archangel, so that the verses he memorized, the ones he recited in the poetry tent, were not the real thing but its diabolical opposite, not godly, but satanic’. Mahound rushes back to the city to expunge a previous false revelation – ‘to expunge the foul verses that reek of brimstone and sulphur, to strike them for the record for ever and ever, so that they will survive in just one or two unreliable collections’ (Rushdie 1988:123).

Of course this is an insult to Islam, and in some ways indeed worse, more mischievous, than the insults so well known in Bahgram. Have you ever burnt a book? Golden Bough…


Next in the series – 10 and 11 is here: http://wp.me/pcKI3-zG

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[Spoiler alert: the comments are closed on this particular post because the twisted madness of the first ten or so responses - which I have happily left up as forensic evidence - included various ultra dubious film clips that somehow attract a mad number of useless pingbacks if comments are open. If you are not a robot, and I know many of you are struggling with that ontological head-frak, it is still possible to comment elsewhere. cheers.]

Terrorvisionaries (part two)

A talk at Nottingham University Politics department last night gave me a chance to elaborate my worries over new media anthropology in South Asia, pantomime terror and the hanging channel – following on from the talks I’ve given about the Mohammed Afzal case and the DIY Cookbook video from Fund^da^mental. The notes below presume you have read the earlier posts which are linked at the relevant points (sorry, a bit clumsy and it presumes a lot eh – still, these are notes to myself really – just a little more public than usual – but then all our data seems to be very very public these days, thanks to the chancellor and the lost personal details from the Child Support Agency – ha).

Televisonaries (part one) here should be read first, then come back here to read this post, but half way through slot in the DIY Cokbook and Bus posts as indicated after about four paragraphs…

‘Terrorvisionaries (part two)’:

The second example of cross platform public media storytelling is a diasporic one that involves my British-Pakistani mate Aki Nawaz. I have detailed the Aki story elsewhere, so merely refer you again to the links here.

In “Echographies of Television” (Derrida and Steigler) Derrida notes that televisual recording both captures immediacy more and can be more readily edited and manipulated, such that there will need to be a change in the legal axiomatics of the courts (p97 and 93). There is much that Derrida has to say of interest on television, the archive and justice, but sometimes Gayatri Spivak is much better on Derridean themes than Derrida himself. She apparently was working on the text of the Mahabharata – let us hope she will take it up again, and perhaps share views on elder brother Karna. Though he is not exactly subaltern, his position on the side of the Kauravas is at least interesting and the archival exclusion is operative, gridded over by a counter-female patriarchy and, as national and global reworkings of the narratives insert stories onto developmental teleology, neoliberal hype as well. The archive in Spivak is difficult, requires more effort than we usually can manage (‘more’ – persistent, language learning, privilege-unlearning, patient, painstaking scholarship) but her work on terror, suicide bombings and planetary justice is inspirational.

On the telematic, Spivak is more epistemological than Derrida – for her media would be something like knowledge, reason, responsibility, and so something to be conjured with, interrupted in a persistent effort of the teacher through critique to rearrange ordained and pre-coded desires. Not just to fill up on knowledge but to further transnational literacy and an ethics of the other. On terror: the ethical interrupts the epistemological. There is a point at which the construction of the other as object of knowledge must be challenged: ‘the ethical interrupts [law, reason] imperfectly, to listen to the other as if it were a self’ (Spivak 2004:83 “Boundary 2″, summer 80-111).

The task suggested here that seems most difficult to get our heads around is to accept complicity in a way that makes possible an identification, ‘alive to visible injustice’ (Spivak 2004:89) as well as ‘not to endorse suicide bombing but to be on the way to its end’ (Spivak 2004:93). Is there a message we can hear without an automatic move towards punishment or acquittal? Here the ethical and archival task of knowledge is to learn to learn what is in the mind, and what is the desire (or motivation?) of the suicide bomber. DIY Cookbook does something like this in a different way.

7/7 – buses, camera phones – Aki in the Guardian, backpacks, Charles De Menezes, DIY Video. As already riffed in the earlier posts on the Buses and on DIY Cookbook, here and here

Then return to the current post to continue:

The point is that here again an anthropology of media can be said to have made important moves to acknowledge cross platform significance in the media – saturated India – but also we might note that the acknowledgement that music tracks are a crucial make or break component of Bollywood film marketing only barely begins to get at the range of issues to be discussed in this field today.

The war on terror has achieved something that was previously only hinted at, partial, or only aspirational with regard to the place of South Asia in the world. Blown forcefully into the frontal lobe attention of all political actors, the obscurity of the previous Afghan wars, the regional nuclear detente, the peasant insurgencies or rural and hill tribals, these are no longer ignored. Front and centre, Islam on display, Pakistan a strategic player, India on alert. What multiculturalism and Bollywood could do only in a marginal and somewhat exotic way is exploded by a new visibility. But this is not just a media scare. Visibility maters where something is done with it – it is the first opportunity for a politics of redress that would build upon this (global) attention.

Call centres, news media, satellite, language, popular culture, tourism, humour, obscenity, gender, sex, digitization (of tradition), software and diaspora (India 2.0) all this suggests that media studies in this area are taking a broader scope and have advanced beyond the ‘coming of age’ stories that greeted Ramayana and Mahabharata, live cricket, and Bollywood on cable. This is to be welcomed.

Yet all is not rosy in storytelling land.

For all the publicity Sarai has garnered, it remains a small operation run out of CSDS. What it stands for however is more important – a still somewhat neglected area of academic and creative interest, deeply marked by a version of a technological cringe – the idea that new media is somehow new to India – and that the old politics are not also played out in the new news formats.

The exotic story of the new media arrival is the same orthodox binary obscurantism that ensures that stories of India abroad are either about rustic romance and tradition, morality, and colourful clothing, or else they are the dark side of communal violence, suicide bombing and disaster – the mismanaged nation post departure of the British, or blamed on Islam/Pakistan/Moguls/or Maoists. More nuanced positions are lost in favour of ‘the invisible or the hypervisible (stereotype)’ (Gopinath 2005:42). The ideological message here is that an India untainted by the ravages of imperial plunder might be preferred, and the NDTV ideal would have the Mahatma reading the news, but unfortunately the crisis is upon us, and in a flap chaos prevails. Anthropologists join the military effort (New York Times October 2007).

If we were to understand this material not only in juridical terms, or as requiring a transformation of the protocols of legal evidence and admissibility (no doubt this is necessary, as Derrida says), but also recognising that comprehension of media storytelling perhaps requires an appreciation of a wider sweep of mythological knowledge or epistemological reference (as Spivak might suggest), then to read the stories of Aki Nawaz as pantomime, or Mohammed Afzal as melodrama is somehow also warranted. This is not to disavow or diminish the urgent politics around the immediacy of these events – to challenge the demonization of Muslims in Britain, to oppose the death penalty and torture, to defend an individual from trial by media. But it is also to recognise something that shifts at a more general media level, where journalism gives way to SMS poll popularity, court procedures mimic docu-drama, tabloid sensations become the tactics of security services and similar.

To develop this is to recognise how patterns of melodrama and performance are played out in the way these events come to our attention. The pantomime season at Christmas is now matched with a sinister twin in July that commemorates the bus bombings with an equally ideological storytelling round – teaching kids fear and hate just as much as Christmas teaches them commoditization. The idea that pantomime is educational, rather than Orientalist – Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin – is just as much training in stereotype and profiling as are the melodramatic terror alerts each July (and September). These are constructed ‘panics’, each no doubt grounded in real evidence, solid intelligence, and careful analysis by Special Branch and MI5 – as Charles de Menezes and Mohammed Afzal both surely can attest. Aki Nawaz as ‘suicide rapper’ might almost be funny if it were not symptomatic of a wider malaise and complicity in our media reportage – a failure to examine critically and contextually what is offered up to us as unmediated ‘news’. What did it say on the side of the bus if not ‘Total Film’?

One way perhaps to disrupt the walled enclave or ‘green zone’ that is civil society, polite discussion and public commons also known as the privileged space of television news might be to hark back to older storytelling forms.

Its 30 years since Edward Said delivered Orientalism and though I might have some quibbles with what has happened in the wake of that text (too many historical studies, not enough now) I do believe it alerts us to something important and not yet nearly resolved. I can’t help but think looking to old texts might help us rethink new ones – hence the Mahabharata and the Arabian Nights as away to refocus television…

The Mahabharata rehearses a fratricidal drama that tears everyone apart. Pakistan and India are not referenced there, but the tale of brothers split and fighting is a well worn trope, such that I think its time to move to other stories as a break. For me, its not so easy, inducted into the Arabian nights as a child, I feel betrayed because…

Instead, I imagine Roshan Sethi as a new kind of despotic Shahjah, entertaining Scheherezade only by email or SMS – because she was caught, detained and then by ‘special rendition’ she was interred in Guantanamo Bay, she texts out intermittently to Roshan. Forlorn drunken fool, her anguished reports reveal her having been interrogated all day yet again to the Gitmo Military Intelligence. This version of the 1001 nights is particularly obscene, but because Omar’s father is drunk in bed, watching Bollywood reruns, or Stephen Frears’ later fluff, the story just cannot get out. This is politics, its good to think something might more might be done today.

The character played by Roshan Seth might rant against the kind of journalism that enables this new cretinized media propaganda, but more than sozzled rants are required.

[image is the Nation logo - it should be spinning but blogger can't cope]

Spivak – critique of postcolonial reason 1.2

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is visiting Goldsmiths – Some of us have returned to reread her Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Such a great, difficult, suggestive book.
These are some subjective comments and reading notes on the Philosophy chapter. The first part is on Immanuel Kant here.

2. Hegel

The section on Hegel is more a section on the Bhagavad Gita in context. It requires some homework with a difficult script which is much overlain with versionings, from the television serialisations and oleographs of popular culture in India today, to the chantings of Iskon in the streets of every major western metropolis and their sometimes very good vegetarian restaurants through to inanities like the pop band Kula Shaker’s exoticist Krishna consumptionism. Similarly, some effort is needed to move beyond simple received versions of caste, and several necessary texts should be consulted, especially ‘Hindus of the Himalayas’ by Gerald Berreman, and ‘Imagining India’ by Ron Inden just for starters.

Spivak herself is very well versed in this history, ironically almost, noting that she might even satisfy the demand that ethnics speak for themselves, having received the text as a ‘profoundly taken’ (p63) teenage enthusiast. Bengal as place of Brahmo Samaj movement, RamMohan Roy, Bhakti devotional cults and the like… History however is the key problem here where Hegel calls such texts empty and monotonous, and though he admires the beauty of the verses he finds them to have an absence of history, and so they are a deviation from the story of spirit he is – on a larger scale – wanting to graph (not chart, I guess, because a graph is less materialist, and more system-like, as in system without foundation…).

Spivak, of course, is not bored by alleged monotony. This is a lever which opens up Hegel to the world as another ‘mistaken’ reading (or rather reading of mistakes) is offered alongside an interested declaration that this effort might counter the too easy west-and-the-rest polarisations of colonial and postcolonial discourse studies (p39). This is part of a persistent attempt also to displace the simple reversals of Caliban and Prospero that some times may be lauded by progressive western liberals – and to do this by pointing to the ‘complicity between native hegemony and the axiomatics of imperialism’ (p37). (This has implications for work like Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici I think – a whole other story one day…)

For Hegel the Gita is not history, but it is possible to read this differently. The Gita must be situated within the Mahabharata, of which it is a small – however important, part. Various authorities and styles of doing so are surveyed – Kosambi, Motilal and van Buitenen. Spivak wants to differ slightly from these somewhat literal situatings to challenge the ‘often unexamined opposition between colonizer and colonized’ in much colonial discourse study (p46). Not realist, as in Kosambi, but about structure and text, and working via the mistaken attempt to engage that (im)possible perspective of the native informant which is her wider theme.

The native informant is a mistaken trope in that its anthropological heritage (as source of evidence) and as a possible recovery of a lost unity (that never did exist, just as the unified ‘third world’ is not there in the nationalist movements or lodged exclusively with the ethnic minorities in the first world who articulate it). Still, the idea of a contemporary reader of the Gita in context may be conjured; first to note a) how bemused such a reader might be at the suggestion that a text about the negation of history – Krishna teaches Arjuna that all appearance is illusion – might be taken as a-historical, secondly b) to note that Hegel and many exoticist readers do construct such a mistaken contemporary reader of the Gita; and c) to read this text on the back of the homework necessary – mentioned above – that would allow at least the refusal of a centralised interpellation of the native informant, by taking the trouble to learn enough to be able to produce such a ‘contemporary reader’ and not ‘teach the producer[s] of neo-colonialist knowledge to chant in unison, “one cannot truly know the cultures of other places, other times”’ (p50)

Of course the ideological use of the text is also local – the Brahmanical tradition can use the epic as a convenient vehicle for doctrine, says Kosambi. Karma and caste are crucial here, and Arjuna is inducted by Krishna into what is now often read as a conservative even fundamentalist (BJP, RSS) ideology. The question of history is brought up here by Spivak and she notes how Krishna contains all history within his true self, only revealing this to Arjuna by special dispensation, Krishna is unborn and imperishable, and manifests whenever the law is in decline, but was already there at the beginning. Human time is a lesser time here (p53). (There is an interesting comment on Erscheinung – illusion – that must make us think of Marx in Kapital, but this is a side-step). Krishna in divine form contains all appearance (Maya) and in Arjuna’s vision masticates all the combatants on the field of battle between his teeth. (p55-6). (Quiet aside – this teeth-gnashing scene terrifies me with the threat of flashbacks – and of course its been read as a bad mad trip by the denizens of Manali and the like… nod to Max Ryan, a colleague of yore – arriving in India dropping acid on the plane for fuck’s sake [true story]).

We are a long way from Hegel’s monotony in any case. Reading Spivak, this text could be understood as a thinking through of a transition from tribal society to something like a state form. This is a big claim and it will be no surprise that it will be a long task to work up the scholarship that would allow an assessment. Certainly the story of the Mahabharata seems to indicate an allegory of state building, but then the question of (national) allegory as applied to every epic text has been problematized in the debate between Ahmad and Jameson. Even as Ahmad wins that one, on a wider scale, I am not sure where we should rest on this one as yet… well, no doubt we should not rest, however monotonous some of the moves have become.

Page 60 is worth reading carefully in terms of the role of US third worldism and the uncritical enthusiasms for getting authentic ethnics (who could not possibly but be confections vis a vis the foreclosed native informant) to speak up . These lost figures are promoted both by indigenous elite nationalists and by well meaning western liberals and manifest today in fundamentalist essentialisms of a sometimes virulent type. Here the difference between an effort of sublating and the accomplished sublation is of interest (p60). ‘To repeat, neither the colonial or the postcolonial subject inhabits the (im)possible perspective of the native informant or the implied contemporary reader’ (p62).

What is Spivak saying here about the native informant she seems to need to trip her text, and for her to trick out a contemporary reader of the Gita in situ – seems quite impossible. There is no such timeless being as that native informant of anthropology uncritically championed by those who would retrieve a lost indigenous authenticity (and so deny colonialism and historical transition etc). On the other hand an uncritical celebration of the hybrid is no alternative to the vigilance that is necessary to continually challenge the complicity of postcolonial figuration with these options.

Where Spivak does not continue as far into the story as she might, there is also a lacunae – linking religious fundamentalist denial of basic rights with the legal denial of rights by new states such as Indonesia and Malaysia and ‘laws’ like the Internal Security Act is apposite. But we might go further and note how modified traditionalisms like panchashila might be used to justify such ‘law’ and look to history also – the ISA in Malaysia for example was a British colonial legal form designed to deal with the communist insurgence, adopted by the conservative elite at independence, where Tunku Raman was favoured by the Brits in the negotiated decolonisation in order to keep out the undefeated communists. This would today need to be brought forward to also take account of the raft of similar ‘laws’ passed in almost all states in the wake of the war of terror initiated by Bush and Blair. A certain complicity between crusaders and legal forms is not far fetched here.

The attempt though is to continue to undo the continuing subordination by the figuration of the native informant into a reader’s perspective – the work of a resistant reader and teacher is never complete (the dredging operation in the mainstream that runs muddy continually – see Mahasweta here).

3. Marx.
Marxism forecloses the native informant via the socialisation of women’s/reproductive labour power because of a Eurocentric prejudice. Foreclosed as vanguard. The next section examines the Asiatic Mode of Production and Value… These sketchy notes also need more work, so I have to delay yet again, and reread…

The next bit soon, I promise…

The previous bit is here.

Spivak – critique of postcolonial reason 1.1

Gayatri Spivak is visiting Goldsmiths – so some of us have returned to reread her Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Such a great, difficult, suggestive book.
These are some subjective comments and reading notes on the Philosophy chapter. The first part is on Immanuel Kant.

1. Kant

Although this is at best an inverse aside (p.6), I think it is a generous if necessary move to note that the native informant is taken seriously in ethnography, where ethnography as sanctioned methodology of the discipline of anthropology produces texts unlike those Spivak addresses in this chapter. Kant, Hegel and Marx are not ethnography, yet even this methodological precept, emergent only just in Spivak’s text, popping up in the footnotes on occasion, threatening to be taken seriously itself, is not without its problems, well rehearsed elsewhere (the native informant in ethnography does not, for example, get credit for co-authorship, there are issues of authority, perhaps intellectual property, and questions of surveillance and voyeurism not far away).

So, this might serve as a ‘deconstructive lever’ to open up Spivak’s discussion. Her strategy seems to me to be consistent – whether the topic is Kant or Hegel, or even more clearly in the next chapter with Bronte, she shows she knows ‘the’ debates around a particular author or field with a quick sketch, then she shows she knows the critical angles on these debates and that these could be fruitful, but are often not without problems, but then, rather than detailing or extending these, she takes some moment or oblique angle on the text – say in Jane Eyre, after a quick survey of the standard repertoire, tracking of the comprador figures, we then see her opening up the text with attention to Bertha Mason, the creole Jamaican… In Kant, Hegel and Marx, in chapter one, we see something similar. As the book declares at the beginning, the recoding of the native informant by the postcolonial subject is the narrative frame, in this first chapter we are identifying the first figure in key texts of philosophy – proper names Kant, Hegel, Marx (the three wise men). The perspective of the native informant is the figure Spivak tracks through the heteronomy of the determinant, becoming reflexive in Kant, in the move of Spirit from unconsciousness to consciousness in Hegel and through the modes of production narrative and value in Marx.

In Spivak’s first section the text of Kant is mined for asides that indicate this (im)possible perspective of the native informant. Two characterisations are crucial, mention of the raw man (dem rohen Menschen) on page 13 and the Neuhollanders (and inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego) on page 26.

The Raw Man is the one who is terrified by what for the cultured, cooked, programmed, tuned, reasoning man is the sublime. The uneducated, and alien, natural, and outside raw being over against the cultured, receptive, moral person for whom desire is subject to reason, and freedom is a coherent choice to deploy ideas and imagination over mere sensibility. A supra-sensuousness that gives a greater freedom (though this itself is a supplementary and even ‘faked’, sensibility, since all truths are tropes).

To expose the workings of this figure of the native informant in Kant requires a ‘mistaken’ reading, but we get the point that Kant is insulting a large portion of humanity here. Thus, deconstruction can help reading in this task even as for Kant the raw man or the Neuhollander is not part of his text proper, and barely even an aside (it appears in brackets). To read up on the Neuhollander however is too huge a task (fn p28-9), and while Spivak gets a few details slightly wrong, she indicates the parameters of where a deconstructive reading might inform itself better than Kant – Neuhollanders are Aboriginal (not aborigine) Australians and these are differentiated, (though Warlpiri are not Koorie and there are further heterogeneities that deserve attention, especially regarding urban and outback Aboriginal politics – fns p27-8). So, this justification seems acceptable –to reprimand Kant for not knowing or caring for the specificity of life for Neuhollander does not mean we are also not just as ignorant. An effort to change this would be beyond the scope of the book – the task of reading a way well enough into the scene of Australia, colonial invasion, local differentiation, history of war-extermination-smoothing the dying pillow, right through to ongoing Howard Government interventions of unprecedented paternalism (police interventions not unlike the old Protection Society routines) is a huge task indeed. So much resides there, where, in a long and almost longing for time paragraph, she writes ‘I cannot write that other book that bubbles up in the cauldron of Kant’s contempt’ (p28n).

The imperial mission in philosophy comes across as the task of helping all men move from fear of the abyss (terror of nature) to appreciation of the sublime, through culture, programme, the ‘cooked’. Receptivity to ideas is the program of humanity (through culture). The plan is hierarchical and civilisational – polytheism equals a bad demonology, Christian monotheism comes closer to philosophy (p31). Something here returns to a point made in a certain interview in an earlier book – The Postcolonial Critic – where many gods are less good than few gods and the one god is best of all – leaving the raw man, Aboriginal and other animist or such like cosmologies outside of the text-civilizational path completely. And so ‘sanctioned inattention’ (p30) to the itinerary of the native informant on the path to postcoloniality via discussions of ethics and ethnicity allow this (im)possible perspective of the native informant to be both frozen and erased (foreclosure) and, we will see, into this space steps the self-appointed metropostcolonial, marketing culture from the home over there in that place now home over here (echoes of that old 1970s we were here because you were there intended).

That the native informant is both needed by the narrative of imperial aid, and by its continued privilege is clear (the south is not in the north, but is needed to maintain the North’s privilege, it is both excluded and included, and so (im)possible, we may say). That this today impacts upon neo-colonial post-Soviet, UN and IMF programmed globalisation, finance capitalism and the feminization of exploitative labour is another of Spivak’s key points. That these concerns should be first articulated through a reading of key founding texts of western modernity – Kant, Hegel, Marx – is genius.

The ‘dredging’ operation here is an effort to broach the mainstream education that permits a ‘sanctioned ignorance’ (p2) that learns to ignore the ways these key texts reveal the flotsam of their prejudice, and often loose their moorings. A counter narrative that makes visible the foreclosure of the subject without access to the position of narrator (p9) is her corrective intervention – an attempt to destabilise productively (p15).

This relies upon deconstruction in two steps 1) to show that truths are tropes, and 2) to show how the corrective to this obliges a further lie (p18-9).

In Kant, this is where God is smuggled in – moral inner determination, or reason, requires a moral author of the world, a purpose and a programme require an intelligent design – a god. (p23).

The tropes here are aporia that in Kant must be ignored in order to read how theory as the analysis of the sublime is already normed by the practice of having to assume a moral being. These are then displaced in the correctives by that smuggled god. And the imperialism that lets this pass unnoticed (p34) – sanctioned ignorance – and this is both geographical and hierarchical and named in those two casual asides about the raw uncultured man quaking in terror before nature and the ‘natural’ Neuhollanders. That civil society is then mapped onto the reason that was built on both the social mission of imperialism and the cultured taming of desire by reason is the opening of a possible rereading that might displace some of our ignorance.

2. Hegel

The section on Hegel is more a section on the Gita. It requires some homework with a difficult script which is much overlain with versionings, from the television serialisations and oleographs of popular culture in India today, to the chantings of Iskon in the streets of every major western metropolis and their sometimes very good vegetarian restaurants through to inanities like the pop band Kula Shaker’s exoticist Krishna consumptionism. Similarly, some effort is needed to move beyond simple received versions of caste, and several necessary texts should be consulted, especially ‘Hindus of the Himalayas’ by Berreman, and ‘Imagining India’ by Inden.

This is continued here.

But because this needs a bit of work, only just not even started here, I’ll leave it for tomorrow. Got to go to the anti-war teach in (here) just now…

Thought Crime – its a joy!

At dinner the other day, KK told the story of his recent meeting with a ‘community copper’ on a bicycle who accosted him walking along the street. KK was wearing a beard and a back-pack, and the accusation was “you’e looking a bit serious, lad”. He was in fact thinking of buying fireworks, it being Diwali in England, so perhaps… but no, I think it indicates that everyday life is so much worse than the days when the standard bobby rap of “ere ere ere wots all this then?” would just make us laugh. Times have changed.

And then a former student, now a journalist in Russia, wrote to ask a few questions:

I want to know what you think it’s like working as a lecturer, in terms of motivation, work load, environment and general job satisfaction? Also, I was wondering if you thought there were any qualities that are desirable for people who want to pursue an academic vocation?…

I guess part of me feels a lot of academic research tends to be a bit removed from what’s actually going on now and this may sound a little stupid, but I’m not really sure why or for whom it’s done. But at the same time I’m constantly infuriated at the lack of time for reflexivity in my current job where everything has to be new and glossy so you often seem to churn out the same old bullshit… it would be great if you could give me some idea about what your job’s like and maybe some reasons why people do research in Cultural Studies?

Z, you are asking absolutely the right questions but its almost impossible to reply in anything less than 10,000 words.

I like Gayatri Spivak‘s take on what she does – she sees her teaching as an effort of working to try and change minds – or maybe better said, as Spivak also does (most recently in Naked Punch), as persistent teaching to try to rearrange desires. The first desire that needs rearranging from where I am is the special privilege well-meaning westerners have in desiring to ‘help’ people by intervening in their lives in ways that perhaps do not help so much at all – everyone from Madonna with child to backpackers doing charity work in Calcutta seems to be on a mission… and sometimes (too often) this includes bombing them to ‘help’ them onto the path of democracy. Well that’s a sure fire good example to convince people of the wisdom of our ways…

Does cultural studies help with that? – usually not. But trying to learn to think differently, to think, to think critically, about everything, is the basis of my approach to what I do as well. Or at least as often as I get a chance – in between bullshit production, (blogging; the publication machine) and routinised desk work. Teaching a Marx course that does not look for ‘the answer’ in Marx is a key part of my effort, and I am motivated by, and do enjoy, doing that. Old Beardo says there must be a ruthless critique of everything. This would have to include a critique of teaching too. I mean, how many minds are really changed? There are a lot of people in my class, they seem very enthused, we proceed apace. Yet the Democrats are the alternative to the Republicans in the US and the Tories here in the UK are back on the Immigration warpath. Chavez is only in Venezuela.

And then there is the whole thing about how the university system is a major impediment to any sort of critical intelligence, even as it is perhaps its last refuge. More and more mad administration forms; repetitions of bureaucratic procedure that make triplicate look like the good old days; vocationalisation that turns everything into a line on a CV, a phrase in a job reference, or a network meeting (rather than an exchange of ideas). The privatisation of education is well well well underway. Critical thinking is an endangered species, hidden amidst the overgrowth of accountancy. There is plenty I would like to do, and I write often along those lines in mad experiments which – probably for the better – never seem to work out (see here). But the effort is not unrewarding. I just wish there was some chance to say, sometimes, that things will get better than this. Every now and then it does seems possible – running down the street with a red flag at the head of a 2,000 strong demonstration; celebrating with friends the interventions and minor victories against the horror of mugwump corporate culture (see DisOrient X) … in between there are inspirational talks like that of Michael Taussig’s one on Colour and Terror here last tuesday.

Trouble is that there is never enough time, even to answer let alone ask all the questions (or verse vicer), and I do have to get to the pub, and to get ready for a visit to Sweden to give a talk on the great new Fun^da^mental video, which you can see here.

All good, be well. J.


Notes for Devi

I want you,
To write poetry,
To compose songs,
To form an
I want you to race your horses,
Through the blood of the
Let the workers come out from their factories
With a pledge to
If you accept this proposal,
Well and good!
If not,
You will remain in my world
A mere flippant playmate
In some poem or
(from ‘To the Sun’, poem from jail, Cherabandaraju)

You who have made the mistake of being born in this country
must now rectify it: either leave the country,
or make war!
(from ‘You who have made the mistake’, Baburao Bagul)

All parties, those to the Left and those to the Right alike, have failed to keep their promises to the common people. There is little prospect of any significant change in these things, at least in my lifetime. Hence I have to go on writing to the best of my ability in defence of the dispossessed and the disinherited, so that I may never have reason too feel ashamed to face myself. For all writers are accountable too their own generation and have to answer for themselves
(Mahesweta Devi, ‘Author’s Preface’ to
Bashai Tudu)

With a much bigger work on revolutionary songs and writing in mind, and in anticipation of the upcoming 150th anniversary of the first Indian War of Independence (about which we meet on Sunday to organise a commemoration/celebration – see the link in the biblio below), here are some initial rambling notes starting from these two fragments of poetry and a couple of sentences from an introduction to a short story having to do with tribal and peasant struggles, and writing, in India. I cannot attempt a study of those struggles myself – there are fine books available written in India such as that by Sumanta Banerjee: India’s Simmering Revolution; Barbara Joshi (ed): Untouchable!: Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement‘; and Mahesweta Devi Bashai Tudu, among others, and all of which are essential reading. But there is space, perhaps, for a discussion of one aspect of the role of writing in political struggles – even as this is considered at a considerable distance from the geographical site of such struggles. While reading such poets is it strange to be interested in the status of such writings as translated, published and circulated in quite diverse contexts by a far-reaching publishing apparatus, bookstores, footnotes, libraries, blogosphere. This would be another variant of an old routine, often overdone I think, but beginning with questions about authorship.

The question of who writes is interesting in the case of Mahesweta Devi. A writer who conceives her writing as a part of the fight against oppression and exploitation of the tribal people of India and who says she writes on such matters so as to know she has not done nothing, so she can live with herself, even though she also thinks the task is hopeless and that the situation is getting worse.

She is translated by Gayatri Spivak, deconstructionist/marxist/feminist, critical cultural studies figure. Through Spivak’s translations and commentary Mahesweta Devi has became known to the academic classes worldwide. Spivak had first taken up this work as a way to explore the problem of her positioning as an Indian born postcolonial intellectual writing within the Western academic industry. She once said she did not know “how to speak to women out there” and problematised the issue of how academic work might ‘help’ those who are oppressed – while there would be no illusion that translating work is an answer to this problem, it does seem that Spivak’s engagement with these writings is a development in response to the charge of relevance, and a commitment to active struggle. Subsequently the translation work has become a larger, longer, long-term commitment, which extends to more and more volumes (published by Seagull Books) and quietly wins Spivak much-deserved translation awards.

Many of Mahesweta Devi’s stories are about tribals fighting oppression, resisting exploitation, rebelling against authority. Such stories have, many agree, an immediacy and commitment that is not often found, including amongst tribal writers themselves. Though there is a strong tradition of writing among tribals and Dalits, especially fostered by the Dalit Panther movement.
Amongst the most prominent themes of Dalit poetry is a refrain that calls upon all members of society to either ‘wage war’ or ‘leave the country’ (a somewhat more urgent and insistent variant of the slogan: ‘if you are not looking for a solution you are part of the problem’). There are other examples.

The status of these differently placed writers – poet, author, translator – might be raised in a way that questions the role of intellectuals within political struggles – and its not simply that these roles are distinct – the tribal and Dalit poets, perhaps imprisoned, writing-as-struggle; are not necessarily far from the middle-class writer writing in solidarity with the oppressed peoples; who is not always divorced from the first-world ‘post-colonial’ theorist translating for a global market; there are criticisms of ‘position’ to be made in each of these cases, and reasons to support and endorse the political work also, within the apparatus of texts and books and print.

That Devi sees her writing as commitment is unquestioned. Yet sometimes her despairing conclusion that nothing can be done to reverse the continued exploitation of tribals under an uncompromising system is unanswerable in a way that might paralyse. Yet this provokes because her assessment takes critical account of the fact that the left parties have not organised around tribal issues because of vote dependency upon groupings such as the middle peasantry and the urban working class, who are higher in the Indian social hierarchy. She claims she must write in favour of the oppressed so as to never feel ashamed to face herself – and if this seems a particularly middle-class anxiety that would not be shared by the Naxalite poets languishing in Presidency Jail, it is exactly the kind of problem which has exercised the thoughts of the Presidency College trained Spivak and the distance – that Spivak herself would be first to point to – is part of the point.

The poetry of some Dalit writers is wholly infused with the routines of organised political opposition, and sometimes seems overburdened with the wooden exhortations to struggle, to organise, to agitate that are the staple of manifestos and pamphlets. At the other end of the spectrum, if these were just glossy narratives about tribal struggles only for the display tables of Western bookstores, marketed under the signature of a prominent deconstructionist/feminist/Marxist critic, carries a burden of over-determination which might seem wholly irrelevant and inappropriate to those involved today in particular tribal struggles. Yet perhaps all these are the sites of engagement that must coexist in a transnational context, and despite the differences of local and global, of immediacy and generality (from poetry in jail, to middle-class Bengali solidarity, to the reading rooms of the academy) these are somehow what we want to become circuits of ‘the same’ struggle.

The questions that are to be raised here include that of the authorisation of the one who writes, and adjacent to this of the one who translates. The implied audience, motive, identity – Devi writes so as to be able to face herself; Spivak writes to wake up slumbering first-world audiences; a Naxalite poet like Samir Ray writes in anger and as a call to comrades to organise – are all somewhat unusual here, and in each case now belong to a context where immediate and personal writing is translated and distributed through powerful and extensive global networks. The notion of self deployed by the one who writes, and how this may or may not be somewhat different in translation deserves to be considered in the light of how this is related to a middle-class anxiety about the role of intellectual work, and to the general position of intellectuals to activist movements. (Gramsci’s discussion of the organic intellectual, the intellectual capacity of all workers, the choice of the intellectual to work with the subaltern or the oppressor – the rewards of the latter). This question ‘who writes’ is often a masquerade of criticism which achieves little but continued job security for the named author (‘Hutnyk’ at Goldsmiths for example etc)

So, if this were to go anywhere further, there would be things still to study – including old standard themes that might otherwise be avoided – Dumont-esque parables about the problem of caste, its constructionality. Does Dalit organising escape the ingrained fragmentism of caste by organising a conscious underclass who must, as a transformative and emancipatory project, transcend and absorb oppressor culture

Of course caste fragments along collective lines, collectivities become lobby groups within negotiating structures and spokespeople become the arbitrators of identity politics – group against group. The underclass must disappear if the transformation of consciousness and social inequality is to be comprehensively achieved. Such a consciousness raising remains possible and must be practiced every moment

- work among the people always, and creatively, learn to learn from below
- dump the tired old posters in favour of more localised ones
- more creativity
- liberation is something that requires the participation of all (a poet in jail writing to those outside telling them to organise).
- dialectic oscillation between individual reflection and participation in campaign work is the model imagined here
- this possibly begins a transcendence from below
- it won’t work unless all you fight
- go among those who fight (work for new kinds of organisation, cross-sectoral alliances/meetings).
- the role of the intellectual, such as Devi is to be able to find all info everywhere
- Mao – join with the workers…
- liberation is individual and collective
- liberation must before all it cannot be just for the one grouping, the grouping must also have the ambition of dissolving (this question of difference/alliance…)
- especially where the agitating group is the lowest (common denominator)
- thus solidarity writing with the oppressed also has the political project of working to wake up the other sections of society, and must even mean providing education work for the denizens of academia in the west/ Liberation is a joint project, is bound up for all- there is no alternative – extermination or communism. You have made the mistake of being born on this planet, either leave or make war!…

Books in English by Mahasweta Devi [with some annotations, which I may expand as I read again]
Five Plays – Seagull Books 1986 trans Samik Bandyopadhyay [includes the powerful 'Mother of 1084', which I also saw a film version of at the London Film Festival years ago]
Bashai Tudu – Thema 1990 – trans Samik Bandyopadhyay and Gayatri Spivak
Imaginary Maps – Theme Calcutta 1993 trans Gayatri Spivak
Breast Stories – Seagull 1997 trans Gayatri Spivak [has the texts Gayatri has published in her books, and some new ones]
Dust on the Road – Seagull 1997 trans Maitreya Ghatak [Devi's activist writings]
Rudali – Seagull 1999 trans Anjum Katyal [also made into a play and a film - as Rudaali]
The Queen of Jhansi – Seagull 2000 trans Mandira Sengupta [originally published 1956, Devi's first book is based on historical fieldwork and is a rollicking great read in the run up to the 150th anniversary of the first war of Indian independence - see our campaign site]
Titu Mir – Seagull 2000 trans Rimi b Chaterjee
Till Death Do Us Part – Seagull 2001 trans Vikram Iyengar
Old Women – Seagull 2002 trans Gayatri Spivak
Bitter Soil – Seagull 2002 trans Ipsita Chanda
The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh – Seagull 2003 trans Ipsita Chanda
Chotti Mundu and His Arrow – 2003 Blackwell trans Gayatri Spivak [big, great, challenging - with a prose rhythm in English that I can imagine feels like how one walks across hot scorched earth. No?]
Dewana, Khoimala and the Holy Banyan Tree – Seagull 2004 trans Pinaki Bhattacharya
Romtha – Seagull 2004 trans Pinaki Bhattacharya
Bait – Seagull 2004 trans Sumanta Banerjee [yes, the simmering Sumanta]

There is also a film about Mahasweta Devi by filmaker and blogger Shashwati Talukdar and a 1997 interview here. – which is from where the pic is nicked.

- and finally a red salute to Comrade Saiffuddin of the CPI ML(Towards New Democracy) group for the time in the early 1990s he spent talking with me about Charu Mazumdar in a way that let me write about Indian left history in Critique of Exotica. There are many comrades who’s glorious names will become crossword clues in our leisure time games after we win… (farming in the morning, philosophy in the afternoon, sportscars [for all] on the way to dinner, and weird commie wordplay fun after…)

correspondences of theory – citation

- a reply to a fav student on our MA Postcolonial in CCS who asked about ways to present his work on charity/WTO etc. My reply turned out to be as much for me as for him, got me thinking about how trinketization in anthropology left us adrift, bereft of purpose and value, and how critique, curriculum, and theory might be transformed so as to… anyways… –

Hi Timo

You ask which theorist? Of course this was exactly the problem I had with my Calcutta book – looking for a theorist to say the sort of things I wanted to say: that charity is a way of assuaging guilt; that it would never do for redistributive justice; that issues of representation still matter – but matter more than the those who wrote of the crisis of representation in anthropology could see; indeed, that the crisis – at least in anthropology – led us to a politics without radicalism; that the constant talk of crisis is a substitute for a sustained politics of change; and from there that the anthropology curriculum needs substantial reform; that universities have lost their capacity for critical appraisal of their role; that the current vogue for difference is misplaced and under theorised; that anti-racist work in the university and metropolis is more about avoiding guilt that acting against really existing racism… and all this I ended up writing about as “trinketisation” – how our discrete studies became fascinated with discrete items, unable to theorise how it all fits together as neo-cultural imperialism. Of course Marx was the theorist that mattered, but who uses him in a way that addresses these specificities? Well, only Gayatri Spivak. Who is the one person I will always read first.

Well, and maybe in a lesser way George Yudice in ‘The Expediency of Culture‘ – though that book does not go far enough.

Hmmm, this is becoming a speech – guess I will post it somewhere (everything is a blog-athon nowadays).

I hope you can find a way forward – sounds to me that you can/are already.
Thanks for the nice words – stay in touch.
Its a good time to be in Berlin.

be well

I am a lazy Marxist…

Think dirty. Muck in. For all the effort that goes into refining the analysis and debating the correct line and tactic, it may still be that a Bad Marxist will send out critical missives unworried about their destination. Sure, sometimes worry, but not obsess about what circulates out of immediately calculable control today. ‘Leave it to the Police to see that our documents are in order’ (Foucault The Order of Things – now here was a very bad Marxist). A Bad Marxist would be one who does not look for an ‘out’ from orthodoxy, but continues, while other doxa-lovers pack up in favour of post-Marxism and tenure. Leave it to the museums to catalogue Kandinsky’s colours. A Bad Marxist would throw paint on the classics to brighten the day. Not just the Mona Lisa whom Duchamp and Dali would deface with crayons and whom Burroughs would destroy, but Dali’s Lenin himself rendered dayglo.

What are the possibilities in equating Marxist understandings of value with structuralist and postructuralist inspired interests in meaning and metaphor? The Baudrillard project, even in the early works, seemed to spiral into games of vortex which delight, but offer little organisational or operational scope. The Deleuzean century offers more, but demands a sustained engagement with the intricacies of psychoanalysis and certain European strands of philosophical brainfood. The hostile familiarity of the activist Foucault so often opposed to anything but a kind of pop-Maoism, while appealing as an intelligently engaged practice, requires a suspension of programmatic coherence in favour of a weaving back and forth between radical incommensurate positions (Foucault organising in a disciplined way against disciplinary formations). The late Derrida project of keeping the flame alive, but doing so in a darkened cave which allows no other entry (much could be said about Derrida’s versioning of the allegory of the cave, he deploys the metaphor in numerous works. In this cave, which is not Plato’s, Heidegger’s etc, nor that of the crustated French Communists, a terrified (of ghosts) Derrida abandons the party form, indeed all form other than a maintenance of a avowedly critical thought) – this too leaves much for activists to think about, but is not always immediately useful. A commentary that refuses to defer to Derrida’s dismissive tone, Gayatri Spivak’s scattered speculations upon Marxism and the question of value suture these threads together within a postcoloniality to be contested, pointing again to the question of not ‘who speaks?’, but ‘who listens?’ as the important one politically today. Bad Marxists would shout irreverently in Church as in the Central Committee.

It is worth remembering that the proletariat is the agent of communist transformation not because of some dogma handed down from vanguardist sect to trot reading group to micro-party faction, but because there are reasons within the productive processes of capitalist economics that place workers as the ‘agents’ of production. Spivak reminds us that workers must access the counter intuition that they are the agents rather than the victims of Capital (Spivak 1993:12). It is possible to forget this in a victimology that assigns creativity to fat-cat entrepreneurs and which ignores the production of surplus value, and the place of the value form, in the mediation between the variously constituted classes engaged in appropriation/extraction and production/consumption (exchange). So, its the case that the production of surplus value by workers, and the adding to value of those who do not directly produce, is the motor force of capitalist productivity. It is for very good reasons that this productivity should not be harnessed to a parasitic class and especially if it can be shown that such entrepreneurs are not integral to the creativity of labour. It has often been thus shown, and so – whatever the form of communist transformation – the basic iniquity of the appropriation of surplus value and its recuperation as profit into the fat-cat coffers is obsolete; indeed, a hindrance. Bad Marxists would not be slow to point this out.


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