CRITIQUE AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION: LESSONS FROM ANTONIO GRAMSCI, MIKHAL BAKHTIN, & RAYMOND WILLIAMS
(Edwin Mellen Press, 2009)
by E. SAN JUAN
In response to a recent discussion on “the end of theory,” the distinguished Marxist critic Fredric Jameson introduced a historical-materialist standpoint in surveying the recent trajectory of critical thought in Europe and North America. From structuralism to poststructuralism, theory–the rubric for philosophical reflection on society and culture in general–now shifts to a third moment, the political, which in turn is reducible to antagonisms of all sorts. But for Jameson, the decisive move is the fourth moment, “the theorizing of collective subjectivities” (2003). By this he means substituting for the object of study the structure and dynamics of specific cultural modes, or particular cultural production processes instead of individual texts or privileged discourses. One group undertaking this kind of theorizing is the Subaltern Studies (of which Spivak is a member) and, by extension, the practitioners of postcolonial studies who consider the achievement of Edward Said as an exemplary model. How does academic postcolonial theory measure up to the standards and principles of critique set forth by Bakhtin, Gramsci and Williams?
Vintage postcolonial criticism initially approached the problem of colonial and postcolonial identity from a Eurocentric angle. The Australian scholars Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin posited the subject in colonized societies as a product of Cartesian philosophy centered in the person of the white property-owning individual. I recapitulate their argument here found in their textbook, Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. Within the framework of Enlightenment thought, the autonomous male individual is conceived as the rational creature separated from the world, from reality and others, by a reflexive, doubting sensibility. This founding axiom of European humanism creates the subject independent of divine will or cosmic forces that transcend private consciousness. This European self or “I” deploys intellect and imagination to understand and represent the world. In general, the faculty of reason distinguishes the subject’s capacity to act and produce meaning. It ignores the role of social relations or the network of social practices in fashioning the self. Subject and object are clearly distinct and separate. It is this reason-centered subject of colonial power that subjugated and exploited the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas in the early stage of capital accumulation.
Deploying the theories of Freud and Marx, and the philosophical intervention of Nietzsche, the subject of Cartesian individualism has been deconstructed by contemporary critical theory; that is, it has been exposed as contingent and fissured, not unified and demiurgic. Capitalism entered a crisis with the emergence of the proletariat and its self-activizing organizations. Meanwhile Freud’s discovery of the unconscious revealed the limits of bourgeois rationality. Participating in the social movements of his time, Marx asserted the priority of “social being” over individual consciousness. The postmodern subject is now recognized as a product of ideology, discourse, and a network of variable social factors. Individual identity becomes an effect and not a cause, thus destroying the thesis of sovereign independence of the Cartesian cogito. The traditional property-owning subject has thus been seriously undermined by this new epistemology, a development that coincides with the political awakening of the colonized subjects, les damnes de la terre, in the hinterlands of Empire. Theory and practice are coalescing in the age of popular revolutions around the world.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, global capitalism entered a severe and inescapable crisis. Imperialism adopted a postcolonial mask of neoliberal tolerance. The postcolonial subject, now a flexible citizen-consumer, still claims to be free from the influence of the social relations of production. Ashcroft and his Australian colleagues, as noted earlier, choose to regard subjectivity as produced by discourse, following Michel Foucault’s teaching. Discourse engenders a subject dependent on the rules of the system of knowledge and behavioral norms that constitute it. In sum, the subject is no longer the originator of his actions or thoughts, as was once presumed; it is now perceived as a “variable and complex function of discourse.” With respect to authors, for example, “the author function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within the society” (Foucault 1979, 202; 209). Systems of knowledge exercise power to produce and control subjects such as “criminals,” “perverts,” “lunatics” within the discourses of criminality, sexuality, and psychiatry. Thus, orthodox postcolonial theories operate on the basis of this axiom: “Within any historical period, various discourses compete for control of subjectivity, but these discourses are always a function of the power of those who control the discourse to determine knowledge and truth. Thus, while a person may be the subject of various discourses, subjectivity will be produced by the discourse that dominates at the time” (Ashcroft et al 1998, 224).
What is problematic here, of course, is the rationality and intelligibility of these discourses. The proponents of materialist critique would counterpose the following queries: Are they independent of the material relations of production? In what way are these discourses imposed or legitimized? How are they replaced or readjusted to conform to new historical conditions? Who is the power behind the discourse of the mass media and electronic communication? If the discourse of colonialism and imperialism creates the identity of the colonial subject, how can the postcolonial subject free itself from the power of the corporate media, commodifying spectacles, and other techniques of institutional control? We shall see in a moment how this repertoire of interrogation applies to the life-and-death predicament of Latin American and Asian protagonists of decolonization.
The answers offered by mainstream postcolonial critics are usually a variant of Foucault’s critique of Enlightenment humanism, or a reformulation of Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence. Thus, there is no fixed subject or agency that can initiate radical change or substantive structural transformation. There is only the hybrid, ambivalent, mimicking subject of Homi Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai, Gayatri Spivak, and their followers. But then, is the postcolonial subject trapped in her subjectivity, alienated and denied any power of choice, self-reflection, or resistance? The answer to this question is left suspended; or else, as in the elegant practice of Said, a secular humanist learning is invoked to provide knowledge and direction for a pluralist compromise (more on this later).
From the Caribbean to the Mediterranean
One alternative is Frantz Fanon’s idea of challenging colonial discourse by revolutionary political mobilization and a strategy of counterhegemonic violence. As a psychologist, Fanon paid attention to the operation of discourse, ideology, and other material instruments of subjugation. He argued that the Algerian subject, for example, can transcend his powerlessness by solidarity, direct participation and collective decision-making. Fanon’s rhetorical affirmation seems to capture a kind of quasi-Enlightenment agency: “I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis I will initiate the cycle of my freedom” (1952, 231). Fanon’s hypothesis is an attempt to mobilize the natives’ reflexive and intuitive capacity to recapture “the lasting tension of their freedom” so that they will be able to create “the ideal conditions of existence for a human world.” Nonetheless, given the tendency to abstract moralizing and ethical generalizations, Fanon’s existentialism needs to be historicized in order to harness its pedagogical efficacy agit-prop potential.
Earlier we have seen how Gramsci’s understanding of human subjectivity as a dynamic composite of forces immanent in history is defined by the conflict of classes for hegemony. Gramsci’s subaltern intellectual emerges from that conflict. Analogous to the postcolonial subject, the subaltern finds identity and direction in relation to the social group or collective that provides meaning and value to his actions. Significance and value spring from the world-view or framework of beliefs connected with embattled social classes based on the division of labor inscribed in a historically determinate mode of production. Thus, discourse, ideology and language mediated through intellectuals are able to “interpellate” the subject since they acquire efficacy only within the socioeconomic process of the formation of social classes that ultimately determine identity as a function of the position of the individual in society. This is the central argument of Bakhtin’s research into novelistic discourse and Williams’ project of delineating the genealogy of cultural formations. We can investigate this conception of colonial identity in other “third world’ thinkers such as Che Guevarra, Amilcar Cabral, C.L.R. James, and others (see San Juan 1998). For now, it might be useful to speculate briefly on Said’s impact in forging a postcolonial critique useful for our post-9/11 epoch.
Since the publication of Orientalism in 1978, Said has been credited with inaugurating a whole slew of disciplinary approaches, among them postcolonial criticism, colonial discourse analysis, and of late, “accidental feminism.” Said himself disclaimed the vacuous postcolonial babble in vogue, dismissed “postcolonial” as a misnomer, and affirmed his interest in analyzing neocolonial structures of dependency imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on the global South (1998/9). He was of course for women’s liberation in general. Who would not be? Whether he was a humanist or not, in the traditional sense of defending classical European civilization from the barbaric “Others,” is mischievous speculation. Over against fashionable deconstructive modes of inquiry, Said clearly preferred Gramsci’s historicizing method of inventory to Foucault’s genealogy, adding that he was “always trying to gear my writing not towards the theoretical constituency but towards a political constituency” (1998/9, 92). Proof of this is his prodigious and powerful critiques of the Israeli state’s colonial oppression of the Palestinian people and the unconscionable support of the U.S. governing elite to this unrelenting outrage.
There is something salutary in reminding ourselves that notwithstanding Maxine Hong Kingston’s intervention in 1975 (when Woman Warrior was published), it was Orientalism that may have effectively “opened the way for a thoroughgoing critique of the discursive production of ‘other’ spaces,” as David Palumbo Liu suggests (1999. 304). Actually, Said did not initiate this genre of debunking, but he was certainly persuasive and strategically influential in the way he performed his task. Said himself learned a lot from Foucault and poststructuralist thought, although he inflected the archaelogical and demystifying mode of interpretation: reading, for Said, engages traditional literary forms in the light of known communal criteria and secular pursuits. He evolved from the textual free play and undecidabilities of Beginnings (1975) to the more determinate critiques of Orientalism whose ideological and political premises are more fully articulated in The World, the Text and the Critic (1991) and, more substantially, in Culture and Imperialism (1993). I think the lessons of Culture and Imperialism as well as of the essays collected in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2000) should be the locus of our attention if we want to find out how we can use Said’s optic, particularly his contrapuntal deployment of historical, cultural and ideological motifs, in revitalizing the rather repetitious, banalizing if not opportunist, cliches of current Asian American Studies sanctified in the orthodoxies of our hoary curricula and formulas enshrined in our canonical texts.
Like most intellectuals in the U.S. academy, Said’s work illustrates a postmodernist eclectic style proud of its complexity, its nuanced and urbane erudition, and openness to experimentation. The institution of the U.S. university afforded him opportunities but also self-internalized constraints. Despite Said’s versatile appropriation of themes and concepts from the rich archive of the Marxist tradition, from Lukacs, Gramsci, Fanon and C.L.R. James, and despite his commitment to the revolutionary aspirations of the Palestinian intifada, he was never able fully to situate culture, and its diverse expressive forms, within the complex dynamic of the altering historical modes of production and reproduction in specific social formations. His training was extremely confined to the literary and philological, even though he tried to apply, with suave sophistication, his knowledge of economic, political, and philosophical ideas to the hermeneutics and judgment of cultural forms and practices. But, as I explained in Racism and Cultural Studies, it was not so much a lack of knowledge as a deliberate refusal to historicize power relations in concrete material conditions (a method deployed by Raymond Williams, whom Said admired) that limited Said’s insightful readings of novels, opera, poetry, etc. One example is his rather moralistic and psychologizing essay, “Yeats and Decolonization” (1990) whose self-serving exchange-value is replicated by opportunist “clerks” seeking a niche in the swiftly crumbling “Project for a New American Century.”
So what particular use-value useful for resolving the perrennial crisis of the humanities can we import from Said? What I am proposing is that we avoid the pedagogical limitations of Said’s rather schematic and even formulaic understanding of power relations, and focus instead on his mode of criticizing the doxa of institutional disciplinary regimes. This critique may be discerned in his numerous books on the Palestinian struggle. One can also trace the dialectical logic of this critique in one of his last essays, “The Clash of Definitions” (2000). On the one hand, Said cogently exposes the invidious rhetoric of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” and its reified concepts that distort the real world, a metaphysics of ideological manipulation. On the other hand, Said rejects the notion that all of reality can be reduced to tropes, constructed figures, metanarratives, etc. For Said, the world’s dynamic complexity requires a conceptual apparatus and sensibility that can capture its changes, overlaps, mixtures, variations, crossings, migrations, etc. In short, we need to test our theories against the reality of the world we live and not settle into the rut of conformism. In this light Said, valuing more adequately the insurrectionary example of Fanon, revised his judgment of Lukacs (in his later essay on “Traveling Theory Reconsidered”) in response to the resurgence of anti-capitalist struggles in the nineties. Eloquently formulated in essays such as “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community,” as well as the instructive “On Defiance and Taking Positions,” Said’s lesson for scholars and activists—the use-value of his critical “worldliness” in permanently interrogating the established consensus–may be summed up in one word: defiance.
The Menchu Affair
How does such “defiance” play out in the intellectual agon of the “culture wars”? The recent controversy over Nobel prizewinning Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchu and her authority as an indigenous spokesperson brings into sharp relief the substantive issues of objectivity versus human interest in what has come to be known as the current “Culture Wars.” It serves as a timely reminder that the dispute over truth (now referred to as “truth effect,” after Foucault and postmodern nominalists) and its representation is transnational in scope and perennial in nature. It evokes the memory of some durable controversies in the humanities and social science disciplines that have assumed new disguises since the “two cultures” of C.P. Snow, or much earlier, the anarchy/culture polarity of Matthew Arnold. Should the tale be trusted over the teller, as D.H. Lawrence once advised? Or is it the case that if there is no teller, there is no worthwhile tale?
Obviously the question of knowledge of what is real, its legitimacy and relevance, occupies center stage. Much more than this, however, in the secular/technological milieu of late modernity, what concerns us is the usage to which such knowledge, whether of the natural world and society, is put. Inflected in the realm of knowledge about culture and society, the problem of representing the world (events, personalities) looms large, distilled in such questions as: Who speaks now? For whom? And for what purpose?
Who Speaks? For Whom? In the Name of What?
One way of responding to such questions is by evasion. The pursuit of truth, objectively detached from the perspective of the truth-seeker, ironically dispenses with speaker, circumstance, and addressee. It displaces what Bakhtin calls the dialogic scene of communication. The truth-seeker interested in the content of the tale asks: Is Rigoberta Menchu telling the truth, that is, conveying accurately the objective facts about the torture of her family?
Anthropologist David Stoll, the author of Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans, testifies that Menchu is lying. Seemingly adhering to a traditional positivist standard, Stoll argues that Menchu’s testimonio “cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be” because he compares it with the reports of his informants in Guatemala. No one, however, has checked the veracity of these informants. Are they more reliable? Under what criteria? Stoll contends that Mayans who did not side with the guerillas are more trustworthy, or at least their reports vitiate Menchu’s credibility. Stoll accepts quite naively the other versions of what happened in Guatemala, and for him they are more authentic, if not more veridical. Those versions invalidate the truth-telling authority of Menchu’s autobiography.
Protagonists on either side do not stake their positions on details but on the theoretical framework which makes intelligible both Menchu’s narrative and Stoll’s interrogation. Literary critic John Beverley, for example, emphasizes the genre or discursive structure of Menchu’s testimonio. He underscores Menchu’s ideological agenda and her programmatic goal of building solidarity. On the other hand, Stoll, D’Souza and other detractors try to counter Menchu’s revolutionary agenda by their politically-correct demand for facts regardless of genre or stylistic form in which such truth is found. In a review (The Nation Feb. 8, 2000) of Stoll’s book and Menchu’s recent testimonio I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, Greg Grandin and Francisco Goldman cogently show the inconsistencies of Stoll’s position. Both sides, it seems, do not quarrel over certain “givens” which are described in other accounts (see, for example, Eduardo Galeano’s Guatemala Occupied Country). In this context, sociologist John Brown Childs writes: “At least 100,000 indigenous peoples have been murdered by (U.S. supported) government forces; at least 40,000 have ‘disappeared,’ which is to say they have been murdered; 450 villages have been destroyed; and 250,000 people have been turned into refugees because of government “anti-guerilla” campaigns aimed at the Mayan population” (1993, 20). Since Menchu is not expressing this “given,” it seems acceptable to all parties.
Truth Versus Reality?
We are not rehearsing the ancient dictum about objective scientific truth in chronicles and annals versus reality based on individual experience. Many members of the academic community are familiar, to one degree or another, with the antithetical modes of historiography and the attendant controversy elucidated sometime ago by E.H. Carr in his book, What is History? There is a continuing debate between those who espouse a naturalist or scientific point of view typified by historians like Marc Bloch, and those who advocate a hermeneutic or interpretive view upheld by R.G. Collingwood, Barraclough, and others. Carr himself tried to strike a compromise when he asserted that “the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding the facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts,” unable to assign primacy to one over the other. But what are the facts? Obviously one cannot search for the facts without some orientation or guideline concerning the totality of social relations and circumstances where those “facts” are located; otherwise, how can one distinguish a fact from a non-fact?
Postmodern thinkers influenced by poststructuralist trends (deconstruction; de Certeau, Rorty, Clifford) contend that objective truth in historical writing is impossible. History is not a body of incontrovertible, retrievable solid facts (in Mr. Gradgrind’s sense) but a text open to disparate interpretations. Although I am not a “fan” of Michel Foucault, it may be useful to insert him into this debate. Foucault’s lesson for us is that historical accounts are problematic representations of life because they are constituted by heterogeneous cultural codes and complex social networks entailing shifting power differentials. Knowledge, in short, is always complicit with power. Ultimately, questions of truth reflect conflicting ideologies and political interests associated with unstable agencies. Not that reality is a mere invention or fiction, but that its meanings and significances are, to use the fashionable phrase, “social constructions” that need to be contextualized and evaluated for their historically contingent validity. Such constructions are open to critique and change. From this angle, both Menchu’s testimony and Stoll’s debunking are riddled with ambiguities and undecidables that cannot be resolved by mere arbitration over facts–such arbitration and facts are themselves texts or discourses that need to be accounted for, and so on. In the end, it’s all a question of power and hegemony. Or is it?
The excesses of postmodernist reductionism are now being acknowledged even by its practitioners. What discipline or method of inquiry can claim to be justified by a thoroughgoing skepticism and relativism? While I do not subscribe to an overvalorized notion of power, whether decentered or negotiated through an “infinite chain of signifiers,” a power not embedded in concrete sociopolitical formations, I think the stress on historical grounding is requisite and unavoidable. This is perhaps a commonplace. But I mention it nevertheless to foreground the need to be more critical about the contemporary resonance of what is involved in historical representation of non-Western groups, collectivities, and peoples by intellectuals of the economically powerful North. Self-awareness of the limits of one’s mode of knowing Others is now a precondition for any engagement with subjects that once were defined or constituted by ethnocentric, preemptive, and often exploitative world-views and their coercive apparatuses.
Politics of Mis-recognition
We confront here an enactment of the subtle politics of Othering, an ubiquitous theme of the now banal identity politics, when Stoll subjects Menchu to interrogation. When “first world” producers of knowledge of indigenous peoples claim to offer the “truth” or the credible representation of people of color inhabiting colonized, “postcolonial” or neocolonial regions and internal dependencies, shouldn’t we stop and ask what is going on, who is speaking to whom and for what purpose? There are no pure languages of inquiry where traces or resonances of the intonation, words, idioms and tones of the Others cannot be found. I want to cite a recent and somewhat analogous case here which concerns the relation between contemporary American scholarship and the production of knowledge about Philippine history.
The centenary celebrations of the 1896-98 Philippine revolution against its former colonial power, Spain, have just ended when interest in Spain’s successor, the United States, was sparked by the U. S. government’s recent demand for virtually unlimited rights of military access to Philippine territory. With the loss of its military bases in 1992, the United States is trying to regain, and reinforce in another form, its continuing hegemony over its former colony.
Successful in defeating Spanish colonial might, the revolutionary Republic of the Philippines ended when the U.S. intervened in 1898. The Filipino-American War broke out in February 1898 and lasted for at least a decade. A lingering dispute exists as to how many Filipinos actually died in this “first Vietnam.” The exact description of the US-supervised genocide is still lacking. Stanley Karnow, the popularizer of U.S. scholarship on the Philippines, cites two hundred thousand Filipinos while the Filipino historian Renato Constantino puts it at 600,000, the number of casualties in Luzon alone, given by General Bell, one of the military planners of the “pacification” campaigns. Another scholar, Luzviminda Francisco, concludes that if we take into account the other campaigns in Batangas, Panay, Albay, and Mindanao, the total could easily be a million (1987, 19). Do we count the victims of “collateral damage,” civilians not involved in direct fighting? The U.S. strategy in fighting a guerilla war then was to force all the natives into concentration camps in which many died of starvation, disease, and brutal treatment. What is the truth and who has it? Where are the reliable informants who can provide authentic narratives? Whom are we to believe?
In the Balangiga, Samar, incident of September 28, 1901, exactly forty-five American soldiers were killed by Filipino guerilla partisans. The Filipinos suffered 250 casualties during the attack and another twenty soon after. In retaliation, General Jacob Smith ordered the killing of all Filipinos above the age of ten. In a few months, the whole of Samar was reduced to a “howling wilderness.” No exact figures of total Filipino deaths are given by Karnow and other American historians. Exactly what happened in the numerous cases of American military atrocities against Filipinos investigated by the U.S., is still a matter of contention. But there is general agreement that the war was distinguished by, in the words of Filipino historian Teodoro Agoncillo, “extreme barbarity.” Exactly how many died in the Samar campaign, or during the entire war, is again a matter of who is doing the counting, what are the criteria employed, and for what purpose. Historiographic methodology by itself cannot answer our demand for a sense of the whole, a cognitive grasp or mapping of the total situation. Other more totalizing and deerminate processes of discovery and logic of confirming belief are required.
Of more immediate relevance to the Menchu/Stoll non-exchange is the recent hullabaloo over the stature of the Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio (1863-1897). An American specialist in area studies, Glenn May, acquired instant notoriety when his book Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-creation of Andres Bonifacio came out in 1992. In a supercilious tone, May questioned the veracity of certain documents attributed to Bonifacio by Filipino intellectuals and political leaders. Without any actual examination of the documents in question, May, hedging with numerous “maybes” and “perhaps,” accused Filipino historians–from Teodoro Agoncillo to Reynaldo Ileto–of either forging documents or fraudulently assigning to Bonifacio certain texts responsible for his heroic aura and reputation.
Except for evincing the customary and pedestrian rationale for the academic profession, this exercise in debunking an anti-colonial hero lends itself to being construed as a cautionary tale. It can be interpreted as a more systematic attempt by a member of the superior group to discredit certain Filipino nationalist historians who are judged guilty of fraud and other underhanded practices unworthy of civilized intellectuals. Ileto’s defense tries to refute the prejudgment. He accuses May of privileging “colonial archives” over oral testimonies, of deploying the patron-client/tutelage paradigm which prejudices all of May’s views of Filipinos, and one-sidedly discounting any evidence that contradicted May’s thesis that the Philippine revolution was really a revolt of the elites, not of the masses. In short, May’s version of the “truth” cannot be trusted because he functions (whether he is aware of it or not) as an apologist of U.S. imperial policy, a role that has a venerable lineage of pedigreed scholars from the anthropologist Dean Worcester to academic bureaucrats like David Steinberg, Theodore Friend, and Peter Stanley. Their scholarly authority cannot be divorced from the continuing involvement of the U.S. corporate elite in asserting its control, however indirect or covert, over Philippine political, cultural, and economic affairs. I suppose that joining this group of luminaries is enough compensation for May and other “disinterested” seekers of facts and truth.
As in the Menchu/Stoll confrontation, May’s outright condemnation of at least four generations of Filipino scholars and intellectuals is revealing in many ways. The following heuristic questions may be offered for further reflection and discussion: Should we still insist in the axiomatic dualism of objective truth and subjective interpretation in accounts of fraught events? Shouldn’t we consider the exigencies of the dialogic communication: who are the parties involved? In what historical moments? In what arena or set of circumstances can a citizen of a dominant global power question the veracity of a citizen/subject of a subordinated country without this act being considered an imperial intrusion and imposition? Can the investigation of individual facts or events in these dependent polities be considered legitimate as sources of “objective’ knowledge without taking into account the hierarchical ordering of nation-state relations? What attitude should researchers from these powerful centers of learning adopt that will dispel the suspicion of “third world” peoples that they are partisans of a neocolonizing program, if not unwitting instruments of their controlling corporate elite?
Obviously, the more immediate stakes in the ongoing “culture wars” are social policies and programs within the United States, with secondary implications in terms of foreign policy—such as ongoing counterinsurgency actions of the US military against Moro and New People’s Army guerillas–and academic priorities. Still, we cannot ignore how the attacks on indigenous testimonios like Menchu, or heroic figures of nation-states that claim to be sovereign and independent (including scholars and intellectuals of these nation-states), are both allegories of internal political antagonisms/class warfare and the literal battlefields for recuperating the now attenuated imperial glory of pax Americana of the Cold War days. After Abu Ghraib and the revelations about outrageous torture procedures in Guantanamo, reality has now superseded the truth-telling propaganda of the Bush administration and its apologists.
Contrary to some pundits of deconstruction, I believe the subaltern or the colonized subject, whether Menchu or Agoncillo (now deceased), can perform the role of witness and “speak truth to power.” Menchu can and has indeed skilfully struggled to represent herself and her people in times of emergency and crisis. Her Nobel Prize award may be considered an index of her effectivity. For the indigenous peoples of Guatemala and other dependent formations, the purpose of speech is not just for universally accepted legitimate cultural reasons–affirming their identities and their right of self-determination–but, more crucially, for their physical survival. Such speech actualizes the expressive and communicative virtues of language. Its actualization in public exchange entails responsibility, hence the need to respond to criticisms or questions about “truth” and its grounding. In particular, it entails judgment about justice and accountability.
A warning by Walter Benjamin may be useful to clarify the notion of “truth” in lived situations where “facts”–the gritty incalculables of reality–intermesh with feeling and conviction. In his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin expressed reservations about orthodox historians like Leopold von Ranke whom Marx considered “a little root-grubber” who reduced history to “facile anecdote-mongering and the attribution of all great events to petty and mean causes.” Benjamin speculated that the “truth” of the past can be seized only as an image, as a memory “as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” I believe this moment of danger is always with us when, in a time of settling accounts in the name of justice, we see the Stolls and Mays suddenly come up with their credentials and entitlements in order to put the “upstart” subalterns in their proper place. This is also the moment for us to take sides.
National Allegory Again
Permit me to enter a parenthesis here concerning a mode of subaltern speech, the theory of “national allegory.” Controversial and yet uncannily heuristic, this theory enunciated by Fredrick Jameson remains us of one of the most neglected but salient elements of an evolving Marxist critique, in particular a materialist hermeneutic. First proposed in the essay “Third World Lilterature in the Era of Multinational Capital” (1986), Jameson argued that the individual-centered narratives of writers in the ex-colonized, now postcolonial, societies of “the third world” necessarily assume a double function: as an expression of monadic consciousness and as an emblematic representation of the collective experience of the whole oppressed society. Writers like Lu Hsun (China) and Ousmane Sembene (Senegal) compose what is now recognized as versions of the testimonio by Latin American scholars (the best example is Menchu’s autobiography discussed earlier)—life-histories of both the writer and her community.
We need to historicize this aesthetic form further. Given the uneven development of capitalism in semi-feudal peripheralized social formations, the modern bourgeois forms of writing cannot but be altered by the subaltern subject-position of people of color. Jameson contends that the articulating principle of “third world” expression in the era of monopoly capital is both ideological and utopian. This embodiment of ambivalence, more precisely polysemic signification, captures both the reification of life in business society as well as the residues and survivals of pre-capitalist modes of production that escape commodification and anomie. He refers to the vision of community and modes of resistance and opposition that are fundamentally utopian. Such a method of appraising cultural production in colonized societies reflects the dialectical method of critique applied to overdetermined social formations where diverse modes of production coalesce. Aijaz Ahmad, an Indian Marxist, objects to Jameson’s theory because it cannot encompass the infinite diversity of “third world” aesthetic and cultural practices. Ahmad cites the multilingual literatures of the Indian subcontinent as refusing the concept of “national allegory.” While Ahmad correctly highlights the hybrid, variegated textures of literary practice in the Indian region, I think he fails to appreciate fully Jameson’s totalizing or historicizing intent. Jameson is actually applying on non-Western writing the method of ideology-critique and utopian extrapolation that he has outlined in “On Interpretation” in his major oeuvre, The Political Unconscious. In his reply to Ahmad, Jameson stressed the implications of his stance one of which is the need “for a relational way of thinking global culture” and a comparative study of cultural situations—a way out of the orthodox regimen based on the dismal canons of “Western civilization.”
Our research program would indeed benefit from this Jamesonian version of critique. From the hindsight of Jameson’s later work on postmodernism, Brecht, modernity, and the tieup between culture and finance capital, I would suggest further inquiry into the pedagogical usefulness of “national allegory” and the dialectical method it enables. What we need is a relational, contextual and historicist thinking absent from what prevails in the Establishment academy today. I would contend that the synthesizing historiography embodied in the program of “national allegory” allows a critique of ideological formations in particular times and places, at the same time as it permits the dialectical sublation of the limits of any empirical instance in subjugated formations by disclosing the utopian possibilities of freedom and justice repressed in them. In effect, the hypothesis of “national allegory” induces the inferential comprehension of “the political unconscious” invested in the “third world” subject whom Fanon called “the wretched of the earth,” the racialized and inferiorized proletariat of the Empire’s hinterlands, whose negativity and unfathomable privation symbolize the possibility of change and redemption from global capital’s dehumanizing profit-instrumentalizing barbarism.
A few months before his death, Said, arguably the founding “patriarch” of postcolonial studies, reassessed his critique of “Orientalism” by affirming the value of “humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle” so as to enable the speaking of “issues of injustice and suffering” within the amply situated contexts of history and socioeconomic reality. He invoked sentiments of generosity and hospitality so that the interpreter’s mind can actively make a place for “a foreign other,” the “active practice of worldly secular rational discourse”. He strongly denounced the current U.S. government policy of celebrating “American or western exceptionalism” and demonstrating contempt for other cultures, all in the service of “terror, pre-emptive war, and unilateral regime change” (2003, 17). In an earlier interview, Said asserted that his main interest was in neocolonialism, not postcolonialism (which, to him, was a “misnomer”), in “the structures of dependency and impoverishment” in the global South due to the operations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (1998/99, 82). Overall, a modernist humanism, not postcolonial hybridity, deconstruction, or genealogy of speechless subalterns, was for Said the paradigmatic framework of inquiry for a comparative analysis of cultures and societies in an epoch of decolonization.
After over two decades of intellectual specialization and investment, postcolonial inquiry has now enjoyed sufficient legitimacy and prestige in the Euro-American academy to make it serviceable for reinforcing the White Supremacist consensus. Decolonization is over. The natives now run the government. Long live the free market (now collapsing) around the planet! Works by Bhabha, Spivak, and others are institutionally consecrated “touchstones,” to use the Arnoldian rubric, that, though somewhat vitiated as products of a “comprador intelligentsia,” nevertheless serve to authorize a validation of colonialism and its legacies as a useful if ambivalent resource. Informed by theoretical protocols and procedures hostile to nationalist movements, not to speak of anti-imperialist revolutionary struggles and other “metanarratives” inspired by Fanon, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and others, postcolonial studies today function as supplements not to the critical theories of Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, but to the official apologetics of the “new world order” called “globalization” ushered with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, that is to say, the end of history and the eternal triumph of capitalism and its attendant ideology, neoliberal globalism. As Arif Dirlik summed it up, postcolonial discourse has become an academic orthodoxy in its “self-identification with hybridity, in-betweeness, marginality, borderlands”—a fatal move from the “language of revolution infused with the vocabulary of political economy to a culturalist language of identity politics” (2000, 5).
What happened to revolution and the decolonizing figure prefigured by Caliban and personified by Rizal, Sandino, Nelson Mandela, and others? In his master-work Culture and Imperialism, Said paid homage to the revolutionary militants, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, and others, as the locus classicus of emancipatory “third world” discourse who engaged the recovery of lost integrity in the context of regaining the territorial habitat of memory—places instead of spaces— and popular sovereignty. But today, nationalism and national liberation struggles are anathema to postcolonialists. And with the neoconservative counter-revolution after the defeat of U.S. aggression in Indochina, a “cultural turn” effectively replaced the revolutionary process in history with an endless process of “abrogation and appropriation” of colonial texts and practices in quest of an identity that is ultimately and forever decentered, shifting, borderless, fluid, aleatory, ambivalent, and so on. What encapsulates all these qualities is the term “transnational,” the prefix “trans” functioning as the magic word that would bridge the immense gap between the terrible misery of peoples in the underdeveloped South and the affluent suburban megamalls of the North. One might ask: Would transnationals and transculturals resolve questions of suffering and injustice that confront us daily in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Colombia, the Philippines, and of course in the “internal colonies” of North America and Europe?
In the canonical handbook by Ashcroft et al referred to earlier, we do not find any entry for “Liberation” but one for “Liminality”. And, more telling, there is no entry for “Revolution” either. Aside from the valorization of the liminal as the in-between hybrid notion, “rhizome” is privileged by our postcolonial experts as the concept (attributed to Deleuze and Guattari, but defined in Foucauldian terminology) that best describes colonial power: “it operates dynamically, laterally and intermittently.” Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin assert that “There is no master-plan of imperialism, and its advance is not necessarily secured through violence and oppression”; and therefore we should focus on the way “cultural hegemony” operates through “an invisible network of filiative connections, psychological internalizations, and unconsciously complicit associations” (1998, 207). Surely these generalizations will strike anyone as quite dubious, departing radically from Gramsci’s use of “hegemony” as a historically variable combination of force and consent. They also prove spurious and untenable compared to Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia and William’s category of “structure of feeling.”
One sign of the terminal exhaustion of this anti-totalizing stance is the reduction of the issue of globalization to “the nature and survival of social and cultural identity,” thus evacuating the arena of political and socioeconomic struggle which Said and his models (Fanon, C.L.R. James) considered salient and inescapable. Disturbed by this trend, students and teachers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, recently organized a conference on “the politics of postcoloniality.” Anticipating an “Empire Resurrected,” they posed the following questions in a futuristic or subjunctive mode (reproduced from a widely circulated flyer):
What are the chances of establishing direct colonialism again in the 21st century? Why did the old empires give up their old colonies in favor of indirect colonialism? What are the conditions that would make them revert back to direct colonialism? What are the circumstances (economical/political/cultural/social) that would facilitate the resurrection of direct colonialism/empire? How can colonial schemes be countered? What should be the new mode of resistance? What is the role of civil disobedience in this case? Is terrorism/radical resistance the new mode for countering the new empire? What are the viable modes or resistance? How can postcolonial theory respond/react to such a possibility? What would be its role?
These are fresh winds blowing from the dusty ivory-towers of the Empire’s academies where the tomes of Bakhtin, Gramsci and Williams are kept, perhaps gathering dust. They betoken grassroots unrest that might stir us up from the dogmatic slumber induced by the seductive pleasures of postcolonial contingency and postmodernist disjuncture, summoning us to gather our energies for celebrating the birth of what Marx called, in “Theses on Feuerbach,” the critique of “revolutionary praxis.”