ISA: Poststructural and Postcolonial Thought

At the recent ISA conference in Montreal, I participated in a lively, weighty and difficult roundtable on postcolonial and poststructural approaches to International Relations. Alina Sajed had supplied the panellists with a provocation by way of refuting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous injunction that Europe was the inadequate and indispensible to frame the epistemological constellations of “modernity”. Sajed challenged the panellists to debate whether Europe was in fact dispensable as well as inadequate. There was certainly a spectrum of opinions given and positions taken on the function, possibility and desirability of the relationship between poststructural and postcolonial approaches. As a form of reflection I would like to lay out some thoughts by way of clarifying for myself what the stakes at play are in this discussion and where it might productively lead.

For myself I do not read the Europe that Chakrabarty considers in terms of the historical expansion and exercise of material colonial power. I read it in terms of a fantasy that captures the imagination. At stake is a conception of the whys, hows and shoulds of people suffering, surviving, accommodating, avoiding, resisting and diverting the colonial relation and its many neo- and post- articulations. In this particular respect, I take Frantz Fanon’s position and agree with Sajed: “Europe” must be dispensed with. In any case, as Ashis Nandy has shown, the monopolisation of the meaning of Europe by a fascistic figure (rational, male, hyper-patriarchal, white, civilized, propertied) has required the re-scripting of the pasts of peoples in Europe and a concomitant distillation of the traditions of European thought themselves so as to accord to this fantasy figure. Europe is a fantasy through and through, but one that damages different peoples with different intensities. And those who look in a mirror and experience no significant cognitive dissonance when they proclaim “European” can still count themselves, to different degrees, as being a thoughtful protagonist in a contested human drama. For others, there is only the promise of living this drama vicariously through the thought of others. That is why “Europe” is dispensable, even though for some peoples Europe has never been indispensible; regardless, it must be dispensed with.

Let me explain a little more what I mean by all of this. Europe is first and foremost a sense of being that constructs its empathy and outreach in terms of a self whereby all who cannot intuitively be considered of European heritage are categorized into two entities. First, they might be the “other” – foils to the understanding of the self. Their emptied presence is to be filled as the verso to the internal constitution of the European self. If they are lucky, they are given a kind of non-speaking part in the drama. In fact, they usually are lucky. Much critical European thought – and certainly almost all of canonized European thought – speaks volumes about the ”other” but only so as to fill in the European “self” with greater clarity.

Second, they might be the “abject” – the entity that is impossible for the self to bear a relationship to, although even this impossibility will be instructive to the inquiring European self. Abjects, under the European gaze, are reduced to a primal fear out of which an intensity of feeling is engendered that wills the drama of human (European) civilization. Defined in excess to the other/abject, the internal life of the European self can substitute itself for humanity at large in all times and spaces, and develop itself as a richly contradictory being that overflows its meaning and significance.

I do not know whether other colonialisms predating and contemporaneous to the European project matched this audacity. And in a significant sense, it really does not – and should not – matter. After all, the lure of making comparison is the precise methodology through which the European self overflows to define all others by a lack. I do though want to hazard a particular claim at this point, which might or might not bear up to scrutiny: the prime “others” of European colonialism were the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And while we owe much to Kristeva’s work on the term, the prime “abjects” of European colonialism were the enslaved Africans bought over to the Americas.


A quick note here: the abject is not the woman – and certainly not the woman without race; starting with Wollstonecraft, a feminism tradition has developed wherein the (white) woman is abjectified by a rhetorical sleight of hand. i.e., they are treated “as if” they were slaves. ADDED by Robbie Nov 2011: Sabine Broeck makes this case superbly for 20th century feminist traditions, especially focusing on Simone de Beauvoir’s work. In this confluence of meta-racial ascriptions made in the conjuncture of various processes of dispossessions it was possible that “natives” worldwide, behaving badly, could turn from others into abjects and that “negroes” could, with Christian baptism, strive towards other-status. To this day, “natives” and “negroes” share a relationality that is marked by the tension of these strivings. In general, all “others” – when judged to be unsalvageable – can slip into abject status to be dealt with by various extermination methods: directly, as in the Jewish Holocaust; “benignly” as in the megalomaniac policies of assimilation supported by the “fatal impact” theory; or through a combination of both, as in the ongoing Palestinian nakba.

With this said, I want to lay out three strategies within which Europe might be dispensed with, and its peoples redeemed through their humbled reinsertion into a multivocal human drama.

The first strategy is one that I used a little while ago to understand German idealism and those core scribes of the European self, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Weber. An internal critique of Europe is deployed that targets the pretensions to exceptionalism that structure the story of its modernization and support its special claim to modernity. For this purpose, one must use the tropes and analytics that usually define the relationship of Europe to its outside – i.e. difference, uneven development, multilinear development, cultural differentiation, and even processes of colonization – and instead use them to explore the internal relationality of the European self. Hence, one can re-interpret and re-narrate the substantive processes of modernization internal to Europe as well as European traditions of thought.

However, if used only on its own, such analysis runs the risk of re-affirming the narcissism of Europe, i.e., the assumption that the European self is so richly contradictory that there is no need to look anywhere else. This assumption is itself a form of erasure: one does not need the (post)colonial world and its peoples to understand colonialism. These peoples are held in abeyance or left alone to form the backdrop to the European drama. Intellectual travel to the hard-edge – the generative point of colonial practice – is deferred. At best, there is no need to cross the Atlantic after one has “discovered” Ireland. Europe has an infinite self-reflexivity… and therein lies the seductive pull of this strategy.

To tackle the reproduction of European narcissism and its deferral of colonialism requires two other strategies to be worked on, either at the same time or prior. One of these strategies was represented at the panel that I mentioned above by some comments from Gurminder Bhambra, a sociologist from Warwick. It is, on the face of it, a simple strategy, almost naively empirical: to account for all the myriad social inter-connections utilized by and often created by colonial practices. Yet the effect is not empirical, because, once begun, this strategy makes it impossible to talk about the making “modern” of Europe without talking about the making “colonial” of the places and peoples of the Americas, Asias, Africas and Pacifics.

Retrieving and exposing this interconnectivity – which has had to be constantly disavowed by the narcissism of the European self – therefore works at two levels: first, with regards to substantive encounters and relations, i.e. the enforced flow of peoples, goods, things; and second, with regards to the flow and production of ideas, knowledges memories and narratives. There is no modernity that is then applied to the colonial world; there is rather a planetary colonial-modern. (Works in IR theory that, in my opinion, tend towards this re-interpretation are those that relate classical political thought – and classical political economy – to the context of discovering the Americas and its indigenous peoples). Inter-connecting these histories saturates the production of the European self with its stipulated “others” and “abjects” and thus holds the potential, at least, to dissipate and make un-sensible the self/other|abject mode of narcissistic cognition.

However, I believe that for this potential to be actualised impels a third strategy: to use the awareness and acceptance of inter-connectedness to think otherwise – and certainly pluri-wise – about time, space and relation. The inter-connected worlds of past and present must be related to in ways that do not reproduce the fantasy of the European self/other|abject . This European self must be lost in order to retrieve relatable selves. And for this task, there is no redeemable resource in critical European thought. To be more accurate I mean that critical European thought, as soon as it is canonized as the radical resource, transforms into the mind of the European self to which all other bodies of thought have to be compared, assimilated, othered or abjected. For example, a disservice is done to the potential of Foucault’s thought if he is used to make sense of the colonial world on terms already given by the European experience and which valorise said experience. And this raises the question: why start with Foucault and not Fanon?

I suggest that, instead, attentiveness should be given to the way in which one is already personally implicated in actually existing relationalities and inter-connections forged by colonialism. For some who look in the mirror and experience cognitive dissonance when they say the word “European” that attentiveness might not be a choice but a reality. In any case, the apprehension of this reality needs to be lovingly developed by all. To claim that the personal is political is not the same as calling for a personification of the political and a narrow identity-politics. Hence, I am thinking in terms as basic as an orientation rather than a framework of analysis or even a methodology: simply, an orientation towards relatable selves. The fact that such an orientation might be and has been coopted by neo-liberal governance does not invalidate the task; rather, it makes it an even more pressing political task. Else we might just as well give up on talking about community, self-determination, liberation etc. (But to give up on them is a privilege afforded to a few. Interestingly, the critical European tradition has not yet given up on talking about sovereignty, governance or labour).

The orientation I have sketched out corresponds to what Walter Mignolo terms the “decolonial option”. To my mind, the scholarly aim in picking up this option is to make the self/other|abject framework obsolete in the realm of academic knowledge production. Moreover, to consider other relatable selves requires approaching un-modern cosmologies in the first instance as legitimate and problem solving contemporary sources of knowledge production. Sources for example, which render the inhabitable world as naturalpsychicalsocialspiritual rather than as ontologically discrete and profane dimensions. Sources, for example, wherein time is not linear, the “past” exceeds the notion of History, it is the past that is more alive and amenable to transformation than the present or future, and profane notions of cause and effect still exist but as “alongsides” and not as “definitionals”. Sources, for example, wherein agency (and not just ideas) is constituted as much as – and sometimes more through – spiritual relationality than through materiality or discourse. (Invoking these sources, I find Hegel’s embarrassing un-Europeaness flashing into focus to be blurred instantly by his desire to be quintessentially European.) And so sources wherein other selves relate without waiting for approval from that narcissistic European self. Having dispensed with Europe, those who look in the mirror and comfortably see a “European” might feel the weight of bearing the modern world lifted. That, though, is merely one – and certainly not the defining – purpose of decolonizing thought.

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One Response

  1. […] …(drumroll)… We are collectively joyous at being able to introduce a new contributor to The Disorder Of Things: Robbie Shilliam, currently at the Victoria University of Wellington and author of a slightly staggering array of critical texts (on the impact of German intellectuals on IR; the Black Atlantic in modernity; the Haitian Revolution; race and sovereignty; and the imperatives of decolonial thinking, among others). Cross-posted at Fanon/Deleuze. […]

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