Thursday, February 03, 2005

Tim Burke on Ward Churchill. And, irresponsible postcolonialism

Tim Burke makes some interesting points about Ward Churchill, who was in the news last week after his inexcusable and stupid statements about the 9/11 victims ("little Eichmanns") came to light before a scheduled talk at Hamilton College. Tim Burke argues that Churchill has made quite a career out of that way of thinking. Moreover, a fair number of our left-leaning colleagues subscribe to the mode of thinking that led Churchill to say what he said, even if nearly no one would actually follow that mode of thinking (i.e., "identity politics") to its extreme conclusions. Here's Burke:

I stress very strongly, not the left at large or overall. It’s a very small tradition of anticolonial, pseudo-nationalist radicalism that eclectically and often incoherently grabs what it needs from Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, and even conservative thought now and again (though often in unacknowledged ways).

It is also a tradition that is completely unable to face its own contradictions. Churchill’s much-cited remarks on 9/11 are an indication, for example, of the underlying moral incoherence of his writing (and writing like his). The principles that are used to value some lives (Iraqi babies dying under sanctions) and not others (people in the World Trade Center) have no underlying ethical or moral foundation: they’re purely historicist and instrumental. The original sin of modernity is seen as the expansion of the West; it is perceived as a kind of singularity that utterly destroyed or erased historical experience to that point. The only moral vector, the only capacity to act immorally or to commit evil, descends from that original sin. If you’re associated by social structure with that expansion, you are bad. If you are a victim of it, you are good.

This perspective on history and contemporary global politics is incapable of explaining its own existence. How is it possible to value life in a world produced by the expansion of the West, even the lives of the victims of colonialism? What are the sources, in a purely historicist account of ethics, of a belief in the sanctity of human cultures, or a belief that it is wrong to colonize or practice what Churchill would call genocide? Churchill, like others who write within his intellectual tradition, has no way to explain the genesis of his own political and ethical position. He can in fragmented ways claim an authenticity rooted in Native American traditions—but if it is possible today in the here and now to construct and disseminate a whole ethical practice founded in those traditions, then his claim of genocidal eradication by the West is clearly is false. If on the other hand, the West contains within it the seeds of its own critique, then the expansion of the West is itself a much more complicated phenomena than it would appear to be in Churchill’s writing.

Sorry for the very long quote, but the four paragraphs hang together.

Much of what is wrong in Churchill is also present -- and also wrong -- in the more radical exponents of postcolonial theory. There is a kind of forgetting of the origins of terms which make the critique possible, and a disregard for the fact that the "West contains within it the seeds of its own critique" (I think Burke is echoing Edward Said's essay on Conrad here, in Culture And Imperialism). Tim's point is that a system of values that is universal, or nearly so -- is both necessary and inevitable (in theory, they would say it's "always already" involved).

One of the things I've been trying to think about, both in my book on secularism (sadly, still languishing without a publisher!), as well as in what will perhaps be my next project, is the possibility of thinking about a historical (rather than "theoretical") critique of colonialism, with something like a liberal, humanist lens.

It's really not that easy to do. If you believe that colonial modernity was indeed a kind of original sin, there is precious little to stop you from justifying resistance to it using what I would call immoral means (i.e., terrorism). A certain way of reading Foucault also leads one to this place...

If you disagree, you are left in an uncomfortable position somewhat akin to the Zamindar (landowner) Nikhil, in Tagore's The Home and the World. You accept the potential benefits of colonization (incidentally, this might apply to the current situation in Iraq), while also aspiring to end colonialism as a political and military strategy of the dominant powers.

But in wanting both things at once you also run the risk -- again, like Nikhil -- of undermining the basis of your own authority. You have your humanism, but to a great extent you lose your politics.

[Still thinking about these issues... criticism welcomed...]

10 comments:

Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

Just a few prelim. observations for now (i.e., until my latest round of exams are over). I suspect my rambling below is not quite on point but....

First, it's useful to distinguish between the origin, spread and maintenance of an idea when analyzing its history. This is, of course, a commonplace in evol. biol. when analyzing the forces responsible for the evolution of a trait. But it should work well in the history of ideas as well.

Second, it's also important to attempt to tease apart those preconditions which are necessary and those which are sufficient in origin, spread and maintenance.

The simple analytic distinctions I've drawn above have occurred to you already, I'm sure. Still, I've seen quite a few people fall afoul of them, e.g., much of the comparative work on why the East/West is (necessarily) the Best(est) Ever.

Kumar

Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

Just a few prelim. observations for now (i.e., until my latest round of exams are over). I suspect my rambling below is not quite on point but....

First, it's useful to distinguish between the origin, spread and maintenance of an idea when analyzing its history. This is, of course, a commonplace in evol. biol. when analyzing the forces responsible for the evolution of a trait. But it should work well in the history of ideas as well.

Second, it's also important to attempt to tease apart those preconditions which are necessary and those which are sufficient in origin, spread and maintenance.

The simple analytic distinctions I've drawn above have occurred to you already, I'm sure. Still, I've seen quite a few people fall afoul of them, e.g., much of the comparative work on why the East/West is (necessarily) the Best(est) Ever.

Kumar

coolie said...

I think Naipaul touches on some of these issues, Amardeep.

coolie said...

Amardeep

I am reminded of the reckless, nihilistic mentality of Verloc and the anarchists and terrorists of Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Agent'

Amardeep said...

Coolie,

Yes, I think Naipaul is to a great extent right in his appraisal of the "guerillas."

His characterizations are no doubt full of superfluous malice -- and a fair amount of racial ugliness (or flat-out racism). But his general assessment of the failure of that kind of politics is something I believe I agree with.

His obsession with it (he has been writing about it for nearly 30 years) is, however, something I don't understand. I can't get interested in his recent attempts (i.e., Magic Seeds, which got surprisingly good reviews) .

Timothy Burke said...

Well, as you know, we share an aspiration. It's really what I'm trying to do in my current manuscript and why it's taken me so long, is to deliver an account of colonialism where the possibility of a critique of it arises out of the human particularities of its historical evolution, rather than the kind of god's-eye-view perspective that most flavors of postcolonial theory peculiarly allot to themselves (all the while denigrating their own analytic capacities by wrapping themselves in ten varieties of futilitarian despair). Nicolas Thomas seems to me to be one of the few people who've clearly theorized this strategy--and of course Thomas' main theoretical point is that a theory of modern colonialism provides us little to no usable knowledge about modern colonialism, including his own--that his theoretical work only demands of us that we find the colonial devil in the historical details of its actual existence.

I'm particularly struck at how hard it is to think about the situated intellectual and social history of colonial planning and administration. I did a class with a small group of students where we read Lugard's Dual Mandate very closely over an entire semester and we found in many cases that to provision an account of the intertextualities and day-to-day social relations that would let us talk about whom Lugard read and in turn was read by, we had to do the work ourselves, that there was little contemporary scholarly work that would give us that kind of granularity. Oddly, given the driving obsession of colonial and postcolonial studies now with the "voice" of the indigenous, it's often equally hard to get that kind of granularity and particularity in the context of any specific colonized society. Yes, in many cases, that's because of famously well-known problems with archives, knowledge-production and representation, but it's also because even when the details are available, colonial and postcolonial studies has a kind of programmatically blurred vision designed to permit general characterizations of colonial subjects and substitutions of particular colonized subjects for other ones. I think this in part (here the voice of my manuscript really takes over) because an actual charting of the range and intricacy of agency among colonial subjects tends to reveal just how uneven and fragmented colonial domination really was in many cases. Anthony Appiah has observed that colonialism in Africa was in many cases strikingly shallow and transient in its transformative power, but paradoxically it has had the most powerful and lasting (and painful) impact on those who became the "speaking subjects", on the interlocutors and translators and "native intellectuals" who first worked for the colonial state or missionaries and then became the rising social force behind nationalism as well as one of the generative forces behind diasporic cosmpolitans with ties to ex-colonial societies. So the people who are most readily heard in the West as provisioning an account of colonialism's history and authority turn out in complicated ways to be idiosyncratic in the particular structured intensity of their victimization by colonialism.

Rob Breymaier said...

The complexity stems from the point that colonialism wasn't all bad. But, it's worng to excuse the ills of colonialism because some benefits were gained through it. I'm thinking here of apologists for the British that claim colonialism had a net benefit in India because of the infrastructure -- both physically and politically -- that was built before 1947. This is problematic becuase colonialism is not a quantitative exercise and because even if it were it is questionable whether the British left a net benefit or deficit in India (especially thanks to Partition).

Despite his other lapses, I think what I've read from Christopher Hitchens is good analysis on the subject.

Colin said...

Liberal modernists are famous for wrestling with phantoms, for conjuring up and then slaying mirror images of themselves. Every now and then someone like Ward Churchill comes along to conveniently incarnate the bogeyman. I agree with your reaction to WC and with Burke's moral critique. But how exactly is WC, a militant native american nationalist who is not particularly leftist (as the term has been traditionally used) and certainly not poco, relevant to "a fair number of our left-leaning colleagues" or "the more radical exponents of postcolonial theory." The link is asserted but never shown.

If you want to go after specific lefties and pocos, or even Foucault-readers, don't be a coward! Name them, cite chapter and verse, and explain what the matter with their work is. It's not like you lack the skills as a critic.

"If you believe that colonial modernity was indeed a kind of original sin," -- who believes this?

And I find the bit about "historical (rather than "theoretical") critique of colonialism" downright weird -- what was subaltern studies about? Is this what Said boils down to? What have any number of poco-informed ethnographies and works of history been doing?

Kerim Friedman said...

Amardeep,

Both you and Tim might find it useful to read Peter Gran's book Beyond Eurocentrism: A new view of world history. While it is, in many ways, an overly ambitious book, I think its commitment to looking at colonialism in terms of local power relations helps challenge the unwitting Eurocentrism of much postcolonial writing with its obsessive focus on the binary relation between colonizer and colonized. For instance, in his chapter on India he shows how the foreign policy of the colonial administration often conflicted with that coming out of London.

Colin said...

David Halperin’s _How to Do the History of Homosexuality_ (Chicago, 2002, p. 86) speaks of

“...our penchant for assimilating unfamiliar conceptual innovations to earlier, deeply entrenched habits of thought. If there is a tide in the affairs of men, as Shakespeare’s Brutus says, there is something like an undertow or a backwash in the fortunes of critical theories or concepts. New critical vocabularies are helplessly overwhelmed and reabsorbed ... by older and more familiar ones.... Those of us who typically depend for our understanding of contemporary critical concepts on what Northrop Frye once called “the psychology of rumor” may find ourselves tempted to believe that we can infer the meaning of a new term from its recognizable lexical associations, from its ostensible semantic adjacency to other words with which we are already conversant. That tendency produces a kind of terminological drift whereby the vocabulary coined to articulate conceptual advances is gradually resignified until it ultimately comes to designate the very concepts it was invented to displace.”

I have run into any number of academics who, not having done the reading, think poco means the simpleminded critique of Eurocentirsm. It’s possible that there really is some work going on under the name of poco that is like this, though neither Singh, Burke, nor, now, Friedman is willing to name anyone -- note the lazy "much". Friedman’s post exemplifies the kind of systematic obliteration that Halperin critiques, assimilating poco to precisely the kind of simplistic thinking that it was invented to displace!