Who Speaks for the Subaltern?
December 30, 2014 5:36 AM Subscribe
When Subalternist theorists put up this gigantic wall separating East from West, and when they insist that Western agents are not driven by the same kinds of concerns as Eastern agents, what they’re doing is endorsing the kind of essentialism that colonial authorities used to justify their depredations in the nineteenth century. It’s the same kind of essentialism that American military apologists used when they were bombing Vietnam or when they were going into the Middle East. Nobody on the Left can be at ease with these sorts of arguments.Vivek Chibber (Professor of Sociology, New York University) discusses the pitfalls of postcolonialism in the wake of his controversial book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.
Chibber's book has been attacked vigorously by postcolonial theorists, most notably Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (first-page preview here), who accuses Chibber of practising something called "Little Britain Marxism":
In a 306-page book full of a repeated and generalized account of the British and French revolutions, and repeated cliches about how capitalism works, and repeated boyish moments of ‘I have disproved arguments 1, 2, 3, therefore Guha (or Chakrabarty, or yet Chatterjee) is wrong, and therefore subaltern studies is a plague and a seduction, and must be eradicated, although it will be hard because careers will be ruined, etc.’, there could have been some room for these references to describe the range, roots and ramifications of postcolonial studies, so that the book’s focused choice could have taken its place in Verso’s protective gestures towards the preservation of ‘Little Britain Marxism’ ... [Chibber's book] is [a] blunt... instrument, and its attempt to disregard the range of postcolonial studies in order to situate subaltern studies—confined to three texts—as its representative can mislead students more effectively.Chibber responds to Spivak's review in the same journal, defending himself against the charge:
The biggest problem with postcolonial theory is that it seeks to undermine the very areas of Marxist theory that ought to be retained, that are in fact its strengths—the reality of capitalist constraints, regardless of culture; the reality of human nature; the centrality of certain universal aspirations on the part of the oppressed, which issue from this human nature; the need for abstract, universal concepts that are valid across cultures; the necessity of rational, reasoned discourse, etc. And the reason these propositions need to be defended is not that they comprise a doctrine that Marxists seek to uphold, but because they are defensible on their own merits. It has long been a tactic of postcolonial theorists to offer their framework as not only a direct lineal descendant of Marxist theory—which it is not—but also as the only sustainable version of Marxism—which it is emphatically not. Any criticism of their arguments is thereby impugned as an unthinking adherence to orthodoxy, or a search for doctrinal purity. Spivak’s characterization of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital as ‘Little Britain Marxism’ is but the latest incarnation of this, and readers should not be misled by it.Elsewhere, Chibber focusses his attack on postcolonial theory more narrowly, identifying it as a symptom of the Left's wider political failures in the late twentieth century:
Post Colonial Theory [PCT] has emerged and flourished at a time of general retreat for progressive forces, perhaps more so than any other time in the modern era. For the generation of students and activists just coming of age, the only form of critical or radical theory they have ever encountered is some version of PCT or its cousins. Many of the ideas associated with progressive movements of the past century – of universal emancipation, egalitarianism, class organizing, internationalism – now seem quaint to them, if not odious. These are the ideas I try to defend and revive in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Perhaps ... in the not too distant future, the theories associated with PCT will seem as little more than a bizarre interlude, a temporary descent into self-absorbed tomfoolery by intellectuals. But here today, it is apparent that these currents, however odious their ideas may be, wield tremendous influence in the intellectual landscape. One can only hope ... that it will soon be behind us.
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