Sunday, January 30, 2011

A (Not So) Short Note on the Upcoming UAW 2865 elections in Febuary

     Just back from the five hours of stage-managed unpleasantness that passes for a joint council meeting at our local, I thought it would be worth the time to put out a notice on the upcoming elections in February.  These elections are being held to fill the multiple vacancies that exist within the organizational structure of the union.  The vast majority of offices being filled are chief steward positions, but a number of state wide offices are being filled as well, most notably, a number of trustee positions.  These positions are only temporary, lasting until the next formal union election, occurring in May.  Coming out of the highly contested contract negotiation process, it's not surprising that the rivalry between the 'administration caucus and the recently formed reform caucus, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) has also affected the spirit of these elections.  Typically, these elections are uncontested, with only the necessary amount of candidates accepting nomination, but most of the upcoming vacancy elections are being contested, with candidates associated with each of the caucuses attempting to run for office.
     The reason each of the groups is trying to fill these offices goes beyond the simple administration of the union, and providing representation for rank and file workers.  In addition to this important function, there is a battle for the direction of the union.  The administration caucus wants to continue following the current direction of the union, seeing the last contract fight as another in a long line of extraordinary successes.  The reform caucus, on the other hand, sees the processes that got us to that contract as a set of symptoms that show the flawed nature of the current structure.  Those problems take the most immediate form of irregularities in how the vote was held, but take more substantial forms when we begin to look at the nature of the negotiation process itself.  I've written more about this here, but the critique largely rests on the lack of information given to the rank and file, and the lack of ways for the rank and file to participate in the fight for a better contract.  The administration caucus accepted the premise that the negotiation process should operate between the people at the bargaining table, with a largely passive rank and file.
     That approach is not limited to the situation during the elections.  To illustrate this, I thought I would bring up the impact of the top down structures on the Irvine campus, where I reside.  To begin, all forms of communication with our rank and file must pass through the central Berkeley office.  Local elected officials cannot directly contact their own membership.  In addition to that, the paid staff for our branch are completely out of touch with our local officials, instead reporting to the central office for instructions and to coordinate activities.  We, as local activists, literally have no idea what campaigns or projects these individuals are involved in.  Our work could be replicating our even contradicting that work.  Finally, the leadership local literally moved the office of the local without informing our officers, aside from our truant and uninvolved unit head, Josh.  The office, which is supposed allow for us to organize and coordinate our resources is inaccessible to us as activists and local elected officials. Because of this, we are unable to produce a coherent strategy of how to recruit membership, cultivate and train new organizers, and create an active and responsive structure on the ground at our university.  We are told we are a grass roots and membership run organization, but elected on the ground officials are not allowed to have the responsibility to make that into a reality.
     The truth is that our union, like other unions, is best described as a democratic centralist organization, power and resources move upwards to the central leadership.  At its best, this structure can be extremely productive.  The central leadership can be in a position to coordinate campaigns, allow for the smooth communication between extremely geographically distant workplaces, and to redistribute resources to the most urgent struggles.  Additionally, the small campus organizations have access to legal aid and political structures that would be inaccessible to our tiny organizations.  However, as Richard Seymour points out, for this to work, those in leadership positions in the central organization have an extraordinary responsibility put upon them.  They have to use their power to allow for local organizing to flourish, rather than to act as a sort of school monitor on their communications and organizational relations.  Having groups such as the reform caucus becomes a way of making that leadership responsible, because if any leadership group abandons that responsibility, it means that they can lose their positions to another group offering a more compelling vision of the union's future.
     But, in addition to that, the current structure has abandoned the dialectical relationship between the leadership and the rank and file, which is at the heart of a functional democratic centralist organization.  To use a term from Leninist jargon (not my favorite language in the world), the current structure of the union can be best understood to be 'ultra centralist', repressing the creative political possibilities contained in the grass roots.  In addition to challenges to leadership, we need to allow for the local offices and their leadership to have more responsibility, to allow them ways to communicate directly with their rank and file, and to allow them more opportunities for horizontal communication with each other.  The union is unmistakably a representative as well as a constitutive body, and that structure needs a far more federal, rather than centralized structure.  That more federal structure would additionally respond to the fragmented and often decentralized nature of our workplace, allowing for more fluid and nuanced workers responses to the demands by our bosses.  One does not need to read Empire to recognize that the plant structure of the mass worker is over, even in the auto industry.
        Not surprisingly, I am an active participant in this process, supporting the reform oriented, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union.  Within that context, I am running for one of the chief (correction: head) steward positions, along with a slate of three other people.   In addition, there is a slate for the statewide offices endorsed by the reform caucus.  I personally endorse these slates, and I encourage that union folks get out to vote for them.  As I get permission from the folks involved, I will put up information on those campaigns, but for now, I thought I would end this posting with my own candidate statement. 

            "The presence of the union on our campus has been relatively low until recently.  The reasons for this have been a combination of a lack of activists in steward and organizing positions and a disconnect between our branch and leadership of the local.  I am running for the position of head steward to contribute to changing both situations, creating a more active union presence on the Irvine campus and working towards making the larger structures of the union relevant and responsible to the on the ground struggles of the campuses.  I have been an active member of the union for six years, contributing to signing up new members, political campaigns, as well as holding the position of steward for a year.  Along with that work, I have been involved in community and university organizing for over a decade.  Most recently, I was involved in the organizing around the budget cuts, contributing to teach-ins, meetings, and the September 24th and March 7th demonstrations.  In addition to that experience, I have been a union organizer for other unions, notably AFSCME and UFCW. 
I want to draw on that experience to make the union more relevant to the lives of our rank and file members.  Too often there is a disconnect between the rights that are available to us in the language of the contract and our members’ understanding of their rights.  We need to work to communicate those rights, but more significantly, we need to use that process to encourage our membership to think of themselves as and to act as a participatory, membership run union, rather than simply being represented by a professional staff.  Our union has also been notably absent from the day to day struggles against the university administration’s efforts to privatize the University of California system, and has fallen short in our responsibility to show solidarity with our fellow students and workers.  To work towards that end, we need substantial democratic reforms in our union, and I was involved in organizing to challenge the lack of involvement on the part of the rank and file in the bargaining process, and the lack of transparency in the progress of that process.
 Additionally, I am involved in the larger, long term effort to reform the union.  That reform effort is committed to renewing the union’s commitment to rank and file democracy, and to taking seriously our role in the struggle for a genuinely public university.  We have the capacity to transform our working conditions and, perhaps the university, as well, if we take this on collectively."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Live Footage of Henry Cow/Call for Comments

     This is apparently the only live material of Henry Cow in video form. With the exception of the group's In Praise of Learning, the group's live material is much better than the recorded material. Fortunately, there is quite a bit of live material that is now available on record.  As I had mentioned in my first post, Henry Cow was both committed to creating music influenced by both the counter-culture and the avant-garde, as well as a genuine and long lasting commitment to radical politics.  After the group's breakup, the members continued to produce interesting art in the form a vast variety of groups (News On Babel, Art Bears, Science Group, etc.) and promoting other people's art through Chris Cutler's Recommended Records.
      In addition to that short note, I've noticed that there has been very little in the way of commenting so far on the blog.  I thought I would write a short note to encourage more comments and discussions.  I'm genuinely curious about what people think about the work included here, whether those comments are positive, critical, or somewhere in between.  I created this forum as a way of presenting my work to something that approximates a public, that is to say, presenting it to strangers as well as friends and colleagues.  At the same time, I was hoping to also have some sort of conversation within that setting, whether between strangers or friends.  In any case, I encourage folks to put down there thoughts on any of the postings that I have written over the past few months.  I hope to hear from you.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reading Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

        I want to situate Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines in relation to two common sense notions (in the Gramscian sense) that are crucial to the dominant structures of the world today. Both operate on the principles laid out by a dominant figure of the time, Margaret Thatcher, when she said, “There is no alternative” to the current structures of global sovereignty. The first notion is that the current structures of market capitalism represent some sort of end of history, that the failure of so-called actually existing socialism constitutes a failure of capitalism’s alternatives. The second is a link to the notions of culture, ethnicity, and nationalism that eventually coagulated into books such as Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations amongst others. This is linked to a phenomenon that Etienne Balibar labels a neo-racism, a ‘differentialist’ racism that operates on the naturalization, even the biologization of culture.

      The linkage between the two can be found in a collapse of the revolutionary movements that culminated in 1968 and even more specifically the counter-revolutionary movement that ensued. The two poles of this revolution can be placed in the following terms. The revolt against colonialism on the part of any number of national liberation movements, Vietnam, Algeria, etc. These all constituted a demand on the part of the periphery to reorganize the world system in a radically more equitable manner. The second pole occurred in the center of the system as workers and students began to refuse the limitations put in place by the labor-capital peace produced by post war Fordism. This put the need for new forms of culture, labor, and even resistance to the forefront in ways that had only been implicit in earlier revolutionary movements. It is important to note that these movements did not exclude existing anti-systemic movements from their critique, seeing their structures as being compromised by their agreements with the status quo.

      The counter-revolutions are equally important. This took the form of structural readjustment in response to the newly independent nations. The heavy costs that came from the damage of colonialism were put on the formally colonized rather than the colonizers. The structure of the loans that were required to make up for this became another way to reclaim control over the newly independent nations. This put the leadership of the anti-colonial struggles in the position of acting as new mediators for this structure of domination. The destruction of the second pole was accomplished by the destruction of the support structure that allowed for the security of the revolting workers and students, the welfare state. This occurred at different rates of speed within the first world, and with various levels of success, but this combined with an attack on the trade unions succeeded in turning the flexibility demanded by those resisting into yet another form of insecurity.

      We are faced with two aporias, one in the positive valiance of revolution, the second in the negative valiance of counter-revolution. The question then becomes how to break out of the structures of thought that make the world that we live in look so inevitable. This is not a simple question. One need only recall Babeuf’s famous statement in 1794; “to re-educate the people in the love of liberty is more difficult than to conquer liberty.”[1] The response to the 1968 revolutions also produced its own casualties, one only needs to recall Nicos Poulantzas and Guy Debord. In effect, I want to read Amitav Ghosh’s work in part as an intervention in this set of crises. The implications can be seen in an essay by Ghosh which comments on the events that led to the writing of The Shadow Lines, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi.” The essay discusses the massacre of Sikhs that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This in turn was a response to the raid of the Sikh’s Golden Temple of Amristar. “When I now read descriptions of troubled parts of the world, in which violence appears primordial and inevitable, a fate to which masses of people are largely resigned, I find myself asking, is that all there was to it? Or is it possible that the authors of those descriptions failed to find a form—or a style or a voice or a plot—that could accommodate both violence and the civilized willed response to it.”[2]

      The question is a provocative one, linking notions of literary stylization narrative structure with both the understanding of history and the possibility of political change. There are two questions that need to be dealt within this structure. The first is the question of collectivity. After all, within the common notions of the individual and the collective it is a bit counter-intuitive to take this narrative, which is so easily placed into the space of individualistic expression. The second will be dealt with later, the question of stylization. To return to the question of collectivity, I want to argue that this occurs because we must conceive of this figure of the narrator in terms of a singularity, rather than as an individual. He is a unique point in an overdetermined collectivity, and only through engaging with that collectivity does his singularity have meaning. At the same time, the acts of self-shaping create possibilities of political change.

     The importance of collectivity could be understood in negative terms within the book. One could easily imagine Robi playing the protagonist of the Bildungsroman in the book. Robi could be the perfect nationalist protagonist. His development linked to a certain conception of the nation. This comes out of his strong sense of self that is discussed in the book, and parodied. One sees this in the comments that the narrator’s grandmother makes about him. “Watch Robi, he’s strong, he’s not like the rest of you in this country.”[3] However the strength of Robi is shown in the form of the superego in its most idiotic form, an intuitive knowledge of rules, divorced from meaning or justification. Instead of the strong individual of nationalism, we are given a considerably different figure, a weak subjectivity that produces himself within social contexts. I want to link this to the concept of singularity.

      This term singularity finds its place within a Deleuzian and Spinozist framework. It is preconditioned on the conceptual framework that Spinoza lays out in the Ethics. Spinoza argues that “A body which is in motion or at rest must have been determined to motion or rest by another body, which was also determined to motion or rest by another, and that by another, and so on to infinity."[4] The activity or non-activity of any body is overdetermined completely by what surrounds it, and is in effect produced through the interactions with these bodies. The notion of the liberal subject with its belief in an originary autonomy that only is tainted when it enters the public sphere of politics is erased completely. The identity of the singular body can only be understood in the context of overdetermined production of its being. Or to use Felix Guattari’s statement. “Politics comes before being.”

      Moreover, this singularity can only be understood as an assemblage itself, as made up of other bodies combined together. “When a number of bodies of the same or of a different magnitudes are constrained by others in such a way that they are in reciprocal contact with each other, or if they are moved with the same or different degrees of speed in such a way that they communicate their motions to each other in some fixed ratio, we shall say that those bodies are reciprocally united to each other. We shall also say that all such bodies simultaneously compose one body, i.e. an individual, which is distinguished from others by this union of bodies.”

      This is the notion that Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze label an assemblage in their book, A Thousand Plateaus. It operates at the concept of the both the level of the ‘individual’ who is an assemblage, and at the level of the social, which then becomes an assemblage of assemblages. Each assemblage is absolutely unique, a singularity, but the materials that produce this cut across the assemblage of bodies that produces the social. Their uniqueness is not autistic; instead it is produced out of the wealth of the social itself.

      This conversation, although crucial to understanding the ‘individual’ in the context of the social, has focused on the body rather than the mind, which is more crucial in this case. That is not to say that this discussion of the body has been in any sense, a tangent. Instead, it makes a materialist demand upon the act of interpretation. One must always remember Spinoza’s reminder that “the object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or, certain actually existing mode of extension, and nothing else.”[5] Nonetheless, to the extent we are dealing with the body, we are dealing with it in a mediated form, in the form of text, and a text that operates in the logic of what Vygotsky and Volosinov would refer to as ‘inner-speech.’

      Volosinov defines this concept in the following terms. “Each person’s inner world and thought has its stabilized social audience that comprises the environment in which reasons, motives, values, and so on are fashioned. The more cultured a person, the more closely his inner audience will, approximate the normal audience of ideological creativity; but, in any case, specific class and specific era are limits that the ideal of addressee cannot go beyond.”[6] Just as our bodies are defined by the complex interactions with others, our individual thoughts are created within an imagined social audience. One that can be read in regards to its approximation of a certain normativity.[7]

     We can see this relationship of the social to a concept of inner-speech in the text of The Shadow Lines in a comment that the nameless narrator states in relation to the other characters desires for an autonomy from the social. “I began to wonder whether it was I that was mad because I was happy to be bound: whether I was alone in knowing that I could not live without the clamor of voices within me.”[8] The unique characteristic of the protagonist and his hero Tridib is that they produce their sense of self within these structures, structures that are in some ways unbreakable. After all, the notions of autonomy and the separation desired by Ila and the Grandmother are just other forms of collectivity, forms that reproduce the society as it is.

      Volosinov doesn’t limit this to the site of individual psychology, which is the site of focus for his colleague Lev Vygotsky. Instead, he links it to the question of stylization; something that has been so linked to a history of the romantic individual. “The stylistic individuation of an utterance that the Vosslerites speak about represents a reflection of the social interrelationships that constitute the atmosphere in which an utterance is formed. The immediate social situation and the broader social milieu wholly determine—and determine from within, so to speak—the structure of an utterance.”[9] This is explicitly discussing the uniqueness of individuated speech, but the question of stylization can moved into a discussion of literature with a great deal of ease. Through the narrator must continually produce himself through the connections and non-connections that he has in the realm of the social and the political. In effect, through trying to understand the experiences that he has went through, the narrator produces a different understanding of the world.

      Obviously one can discuss the intervention of the political in terms of the biographical as well. I don’t think that the notion that Ghosh wrote the book in a social context is a terribly controversial one, nor is the notion that it was an engagement in that moment, the moment of a particular crisis in Indian politics. What is more interesting is the way he uses self-constitution, at least the literary representation of self-constitution, as a way of engaging in the question of collective politics. In doing so, it cuts across the traditional binary of collective and individual. We will eventually find this leads us to an understanding of the world through an engagement with history as a discipline, but I want to understand the engagement of the narrator in that history as a form of subjectivization, and therefore we will need to take a little detour into Foucault.

      This explicitly returns us to the quote from Amitav Ghosh that started the paper off. Let’s return to one section of it. Ghosh makes the statement, “Or is it possible that the authors of those descriptions failed to find a form—or a style or a voice or a plot—that could accommodate both violence and the civilized willed response to it.”[10] It is a question that points to both the limitations of the current discourse on the histories of violence and the possibility of rethinking that through an act of stylization, through another form, another style, etc. It points to the possibility of thinking of the worst moments of abjection, of subjection in terms that open up possibilities. This question of stylization is also crucial to Michel Foucault in his later ethical shift. Foucault argued that subjects have the possibility of actively engaging in their subject formation, their subjectivization through this act of stylization. This is a way of thinking through resistance as a mode of rerouting and reworking the networks of power, rather than as some mode of abolition or overthrowing of power.

      There is an element contained in Volosinov’s thought that I am going to resist, and that is the element of normalization that is so significant to Volosinov’s conceptualization of subjectivity. As noted before, the structure of the weak subject, the abnormal subject, is one that is non-productive for Volosinov. Resistance can be constructed from a strong engagement with the ideological structures of the society, and more significantly, through successfully reproducing those structures. Foucault points out the possibilities of a resistance that is predicated on failure of normalization, of turning that failure into something else, something that wasn’t imagined in the act of normalization.

     Foucault’s prime example of this is the gay liberation movement. His argument is that far from being repressed, the preconditions of the movement were created in the relations of power that constitute the intersection of medical and legal discourses. He argues that those subjects were able to turn the production of their abjection into a new stylization, a new form of life. For Foucault, the question of sexuality was less important than the creation of new forms of being together. “I think that’s what makes homosexuality “disturbing”: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself…. Institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms. These relationships introduce love where there is supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.”[11] The mode of living transforms the forms of abjection into a new subject formation that troubles the system itself.

      The shift that I want to make is from the discourse of the medical and the legal that is discussed by Foucault into the discourse of history. After all, the question of colonialism, and it’s legitimization is frequently tied to the question of time. More specifically, it is linked to a notion of time that operates in a non-coevalent manner. This has been a topic of serious debate for anthropology, but it has had less emphasis in history. I want to look through one such attempt to look at both the problems with the dominant forms of history, and also the ways that the abjection of history contains the possibility of being restylized to produce the preconditions for new modes of subjectivity, both singular and collective.

      Dipesh Chakrabarty points out the deep political implications of the current institutional structure of history today, in his book, Provincializing Europe.

     So long as one operates within the discourse of “history” produced as the institutional site of the university, it is not possible to simply walk out of the deep collusion between “history” and the modernizing narratives of citizenship, bourgeois public and private, and the nation state. “History” as a knowledge system is firmly embedded in institutional practices that invoke the nation-state at every step—witness the organization and politics of teaching, recruitment, promotions, and publication in history departments, politics that survive the occasional brave and heroic attempts by individual historians to liberate “history” from the metanarrative of the nation state. One only has to ask, for instance: Why is history a compulsory part of education in all countries today, including those that did quite comfortably without it until as late as the eighteenth century? Why should children all over the world today have to come to terms with a subject called “history” when we know that this compulsion is neither natural nor ancient?
      It does not take much imagination to see that the reason for this lies in what European imperialism and third-world nationalisms have achieved together: the universalization of the nation-state as the most desirable form of political community.”[12]

       History operates as a discipline to produce a conception of both time and space. As Walter Benjamin points out, “Historicism rightly culminates in universal history”, that is a way of conceptualizing both space and time in the logical of capital, a logic that is both colonizing and parasitic. It operates in the empty homogenous time of the nation and of exchange. The mode of style can be found in the initially oppositional characters of Ila and the narrator’s grandmother.

     Ila has no right to live there, she said hoarsely. She doesn’t belong there. It took those people a long time to build that country; hundreds of years, years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who lives there has earned his right to be there with blood: with their brother’s blood and their father’s blood and their son’s blood. They know they’re a nation because they’ve drawn their borders with blood. Hasn’t Maya told you how regimental flags hang in all their cathedrals and how all their churches are lined with memorials to men who have died in wars, all around the world? War is their religion. That’s what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that, Muslim or Hindu, Bengali or Punjabi: they become a family born of the same pool of blood. That is what you have to achieve for India, don’t you see?[13]

      Perhaps the most striking figure is that of blood. Ila’s grandmother sees the nation as a production tied to blood. This concept neither avoids the disturbing connection to race and the poisoned legacy tied to the enlightenment, nor can it be contained within that category. The nation is constituted through an act of sacrifice, through an act of excessive violence even. This act both dissolves old conception of race and shows them to be contingent, and creates a new construction of race tied to the nation state. This new construction is no less reified than the earlier versions as that it can be passed down from generation to generation. The act of sacrifice creates an absolute separation even as it exposes its performativity in the act.

      If we get beyond the rather obvious problems of violence contained in this passage, we find a fairly interesting conception of time and space. The delineated space of the nation is created through the march of time through a series of acts that demarcate its borders. This time operates in a linear and progressive manner. The production of the nation is a straight line from A to B. It is a non-coevalent time. England has achieved the production of the nation. India has yet to accomplish this; India exists in the time that England existed some years ago.

     Ila is the ostensible opponent of this schema. The antagonism between her and the narrator’s grandmother is obvious, the grandmother calling Ila a whore and Ila calling the grandmother a fascist. Ila works to construct her identity within the space of a certain mode of cosmopolitanism in opposition to the reified notions of ‘our culture’ that limit her possibilities. She expresses this sentiment strongest after the incident in the bar, where X humiliates her in the name of a certain cultural morality. She screams at the narrator that she desires to be, “Free of you!…. Free of your bloody culture and free of all of you.”[14] The separation that the grandmother desires from the colonizing West is precisely read by Ila as a trap, one that places her in the space of an ‘authentic’ culture that traps her in the past.

      This creates a space and time that runs absolutely coevalent to the flows of modern capital. This can be seen in an interaction with the narrator.
     “To her the Underground was merely a means of shifting venue: it would irritate her to see how excited I got when we steeped on to the escalators; she would watch me as I turned to look at the advertisements flashing past us on the walls, gulped in the netherworld smell of electricity and dampness and stale deodorant, stopped to listen to the music of the buskers booming eerily through the permanent night of the passageways, and in annoyance, she would tug at my elbows and hiss: Hurry, hurry, you can’t stop here, you’ll hold people up. And if I lingered she would snap at me impatiently: For God’s sake stop carrying on like a third-world tapioca farmer—it’s just the bloody Underground.
      And I would say to her: you wouldn’t understand: to you Cairo was a place to piss in.
      I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one’s imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never traveled at all.”[15]

      In effect, Ila’s notion of liberation is tied to a notion of space and time that places other ways of thinking about those notions in the space of the non-coeval. To be opposed to the current structure of things, to think of the space as being overlaid with its own histories, its own “netherworld” magic, means to fill the roll of the ‘third-world tapioca farmer”, one step, perhaps from the figure of the peasant. Ila suppresses multiplicity as firmly as the figure of the grandmother. Also, this conceptualization freezes an engagement with the figure of the other. Tridib argues that Ila literally doesn’t travel. “The inventions she lived in moved with her.” She stands in stasis, both in self-conflict and standing still.

      This stasis is built upon a strong sense of repression. “For Ila the current was the real: it was though she lived in a present which was like an airlock in a canal, shut away from the tidewaters of the past and the future by steel floodgates.”[16] The constitution of a space of freedom for Ila constitutes a profound act of forgetting. It means the suppression of the events in the world that don’t meet up with this cosmopolitan conception of the world. The most significant suppression is the reality of European racism. This can be read through Ila’s consistent identification with her white doll. Her narratives about the doll, really her, constantly point to the fact that her self-identification is with a white, blue-eyed child. The effects of

      So, in effect, we need to understand the figuration of the grandmother’s nationalism and Ila’s cosmopolitanism as in some way acting as two sides to the same coin. Both create freedom from an act of partition. The grandmother separates herself from the legacies of colonialism and England through the blood of the nation and its production. Whereas Ila produces herself through the partitioning of herself from the ‘culture’ of India, a culture she links to the figure of a ‘bloody tapioca farmer.’ A figure that is profoundly out of time with the circuit of capitalist production. More significantly, both leave a trace or remainder tied to those legacies of racism and colonialism.

       Before I leave this topic, I want to make the point that these two characters are not pathological. They are taking what is available to them to engage in an act of stylization discussed above, but subjectivization always has the possibility of coagulating into new forms of subjection. We can read these two figures that produce such mirroring forms of time and space within the language of failure. The grandmother is an inadequate nationalist subject because of colonialism, or racism, or any number of reasons. Ila is an inadequate cosmopolitan because she is till rooted in her backwards culture, that she is the bloody tapioca farmer out of sync with the world. But these gaps can be read against the grain, in a manner that looks at the inadequacies of the forms of the nation and cosmopolitan capital, a reading that points to the ‘weak messianic power’ that is always in existence against the empty homogeneity of historicism.

      Dipesh Chakrabarty gives a way of rethinking in this manner. He tries to construct a way of thinking through this notion of ‘out of jointness’ that doesn’t place that which is out of joint in the category of the pre, pre-political, national, capitalist, etc. He points to it in these terms.

     This “outside” I think of, following Derrida, as something attached to the category “capital” itself, something that straddles a border zone of temporality, that conforms to the temporal code within which capital comes into being we can think/ theorize capital, but that also reminds us that other temporalities, other forms of knowledge, other forms of worlding, coexist and are possible. In this sense, subaltern histories do not refer to a resistance prior and exterior to the narrative space created by capital: they cannot therefore be defined without reference to the category “capital.” Subaltern studies, as I think of it, can only situate itself theoretically at the juncture where we give up neither Marx nor difference, for as I have said, the resistance it speaks of is something that can happen only within the time horizon of capital, and yet it has to be thought of as something that disrupts the unity of that time.”[17]

       So we are placed in a position where we must see that there is something rich and productive contained within these two characters inability to be the good subjects of the categories that they wish to fill. We need a new methodology, a stylization if you will. The idea of this is not easy as is pointed to in the text. After all, it is the narrator’s desperate attempt to accomplish this that leads to the production of the narrative. The narrator ends with the repeated motif of silence and inability, and explains this in the following terms, “I grew up believing in the truth of the precepts that were available to me: I believed in the reality of space; I believed that distance separates, that it is a corporeal substance; I believed in the reality of nations and borders’ I believed that across the border there existed another reality.”[18]

      I would argue that this act of stylization that the narrative attempts is also attempting to do what Foucault sees as the goals of the genealogist in engaging in an understanding and shaping of history. “ He must be able to recognize the events of history, its jolts, its surprises, its unsteady victories and unpalatable defeats—the basis of all beginnings, atavism, and heredities…. History is the concrete body of becoming; with its moments of intensity, its lapses, its extended periods of agitation, its fainting spells….. Where the soul pretends unification or the Me fabricates a coherent identity, the genealogist sets out to study the beginning-numberless beginnings, whose faint traces and hints of color are readily seen by a historical eye. The analysis of decent permits the dissociation of the Me, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis, in liberating a profusion of lost events.”[19]

      The past becomes a way of dissolving the inevitability of the present, of dissolving its force in order to open up the possibilities for something else. As Nietzsche would say, we are drowning in history, and more particularly, history that shrinks the possibilities of alternatives to the moment that we are in. He also expresses an alternative to this approach to history, when he defends the untimeliness of his field, “that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come.”[20] The act of genealogy doesn’t create the act of reconstitution of community, of its stylization, but it offers the preconditions of such an act.

       The novel engages in this “gray space” of genealogy by a whole chain of associations on the part of the narrator, fragmentary memories that brush up against, disrupt, and act in concert with the structures of official history. These memories travel time and space in ways that disrupt any linear or discrete notion of either. They both acknowledge the crucial ways in which partition creates “new social arrangements, new consciousness and new subjectivities to which it gave rise”[21] to use the words of Gyan Pandey, but doesn’t accept its terms. The act that we are calling genealogy in the lineage of Nietzsche and Foucault is given the name “imagination.”

      We are introduced to this notion through the figure of Tribib, who acts as….. “But of course, among other things Tridib was an archaeologist, he was not interested in fairylands: the one thing he wanted to teach me, he used to say, was to use my imagination with precision.”[22] This notion of precision disrupts its romantic origins. Tridib wants the narrator to understand the complexities of the social, spacial, and temporal relationships that he lives in. For instance, in a story of a snake attacking Ila, Tridib wants the narrator to focus on the structure of the roof rather than the species of the snake or the lizard that chased off the snake. Those were ephemeral details. The roof pointed to the ways in which architecture constructed social relationships.

      This act of imagination wasn’t done out of some sense of empiricism, but as a way of conceptualizing social relations that broke out of the structures of common sense, as a way of breaking up and reconstituting the ways that time and space had been coagulated by earlier formulations. In short, it becomes a way of producing theoretical concepts and recognizing the ways that the world had been constructed by previous concepts.

      “I tried to tell Ila and Robi about the archaeological Tridib, the Tridib who was much more contemptuous of fairylands than she would ever be; the Tridib who had pushed me to imagine the roofs of Colombo for myself, the Tridib who had that we could not see without inventing what we saw, so at least we could try to do it properly. And then, because she shrugged dismissively and said—Why? Why should we try, why not just take the world as it is?—I told her how he had said that we had to try because the alternative wasn’t blankness—it only meant that if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of other people’s inventions.”[23]

       Tridib’s comment points to the contingent and political nature of the given, to accept the world ‘as it is’ means to, in Benjamin’s words “empathize with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.”[24] The imagination demands that an inventory be created, to use Gramsci’s term, and that inventory should be used to put ‘other people’s inventions’ into question. I don’t think that it takes the next step that Gramsci takes, that of moving towards an inventory of a new national-popular. Instead it holds that question at bay, pointing towards the possibility of, and existence of modes of solidarity that do not originate in that sphere of the national popular, or more importantly, the nation-state.

      This moment occurs in the moment that is so often reserved to explain the primordial and inevitable nature of culture, the communalist riot.

      In fact, from the evidence of the newspapers, it is clear that once the riots had started both governments did everything they could to put a stop to them as quickly as possible. In this, they were subject to a logic larger than themselves, for the madness of a riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore a reminder, of that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments. And that prior, independent relationship is the natural enemy of government, for it is in the logic of states that to exist at all they must claim the monopoly of all relationships between peoples.
     The theater of war, where generals meet, is the stage on which states disport themselves: they have no use for the memories of riots.[25]

       The first, and most obvious transgression of the riot is that of breaking the spell that the state has the sole legitimate use of violence. The second part of the quotation points out that fact in the fear of the memory of riots on part of the state. But there is another even more interesting maneuver that occurs in the text. That is the argument that the ordinary sanity of people’s coexistence is not preconditioned on the state. By breaking this peaceful coexistence independent of the state structure, it points to the fact that there exists a social bond that is a precondition of the nation state, and one could probably push it farther to include the global structure of capital, that does not need those structures to survive itself.

      In effect, it challenges both presuppositions that Hobbes lays out in the Leviathan for his concept of the people, and the contract that he claims acts as the basis for that contract. After all, the precondition of the state within Hobbes’ terms is the war of all against all. The state then comes into being as a plea on the part of the various subjects for protection. This protection must be produced through the transcendental figure of the sovereign. Both of Hobbes’ conceptions are haunted by the threat of civil war, and that threat is always contained in the notion of multiplicity.

       Against this figuration, Spinoza produces another understanding of collectivity, the multitude. This is a concept that Hobbes sees as the primary threat of his conception of the people. For Spinoza on the other hand, “the multitudo indicates a plurality which persists as such in the public scene, in collective action, in the handling of communal affairs, without converging into a One, without evaporating within a centripetal form of motion. Multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many: a permanent form, not an episodic or interstitial form. For Spinoza, the multitudo is the architrave of civil liberties.”[26]

       This form is what is most threatening in the formulation that Ghosh discusses above. It points to the fact that the legal fiction that Hobbes describes is in fact a lie. I want to end on a comment that Dipesh Chakrabarty makes about minority histories. Chakrabarty states, “The task of producing “minority” histories, has, under the pressure precisely of a deepening demand of democracy, become a double task. I may put it thus: “good” minority history is about expanding the scope of social justice and representative democracy, but talk about the “limits of history,” on the other hand, is about struggling, or even groping, for nonstatist forms of democracy that we cannot yet either understand or envisage completely.”[27]

      Where can we find this groping for new forms of community. Perhaps it can be found in the act of the narrator himself. He takes the experiences of his life, and gives them a new form within the narrative. This form breaks away from the assumptions that operate within the common sense, the ones that he labels in terms of accepting the reality of the current situation. But I also think that two of the main romances point to this new form of community the relationships between May and Tridib, and May and the narrator against the relationship between Ila and Nick Price.

      There is a serious critique that is made of the book’s romances, and it is one that I can’t fault. The romances are, in fact, relentlessly heterosexual, and perhaps even a bit boring because of it, but they also function in another register. They continually point to the inseparable bonds that exist in the figuration of the post in the post colonial. They show the profound ties that are produced through the uneven relations of colonial capitalism. In this, there is no escape from them. The question is then how to restylize these irreducible relations into a new form. What can we make out of the ruins of colonial capitalism that doesn’t reproduce its logic? I want to end this piece with an image and interpretation of this act, in the reading of a statue of Queen Victoria in the novel.

      “I remember she cried out—My God!—so loudly that Tridib trod hard on the brakes and the Studebaker came to a sudden halt at the foot of the huge, black statue of Queen Victoria. We found ourselves staring up at her, like Maharajas at a durbar. Tridib and I began to laugh, because it was that stature that Ila’s mother had been named, because she sat just so, with her teacup like a sceptre. We started to explain the family joke to May but got lost somewhere halfway through. And then, at the same time, Tridib and I both noticed that May had turned her head, averted her eyes from the statue and the building.
      She saw us looking at her and threw her door open. Come on! She said. Let’s have a look at that Memorial.
       We went up to the wrought-iron gates and gazed at the odd little dome and stunted minarets. Then she put a hand on my shoulder and said: Let’s go, please, I can’t bear it.
       She had gone very pale. Tridib put his arm around her, led her back to the car and helped her climb in and climbed in himself, behind the wheel. He reached absent-mindedly for the ignition-key, but then he let his hand drop and turned to look at May. She was staring blankly at the dashboard, crouched in her seat.
      He stretched his had out, cupped her chin in his palm and turned her face towards him. May? He whispered. What’s the matter, May?
     Her teeth were clenched; she would not look at him.
     What’s the matter? Tell me.
     It shouldn’t be here, she blurted out. It’s an act of violence. It’s obscene.
     Tridib laughed and tilted her face up. Her eyes were wide open now, looking directly at him.
     No it’s not, he said. This is our ruin; that’s wha we’ve been looking for.
     Then she laughed too, and put her hand over his, turned the palm up and kissed it.
     Yes, she said. This will do for our ruin.”[28]

      The question posed by the statue is how to engage with the ruins of colonialism. May’s reaction is an anti-colonialist one, but one that is still operating on the logic of purity. A logic that is produce within the logic of colonialism itself. Tridib poses another reading of the ruin, one that recognizes that even in the uneven relationships of colonialism, there are acts of translation and engagement. It both recognizes the relationship between the formerly colonized and colonizer, but it provincializes it, and allows for another relationship to be produced in its debris. In that, it is not a solution to the aporia of history, but perhaps it is a way of posing the question.

[1] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed (London: Verso Books, 2003), 367.
[2] Amitav Ghosh, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Ghandhi”, The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces (Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher: Permanent Black, 2002.)
[3] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 35.
[4] Spinoza, Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 126.
[5] Spinoza, Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 124.
[6] V.N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973), 86.
[7] Volosinov holds out the possibility of a genuine “I-experience”, but it is phrased in negative terms. “The “I-experience” actually tends toward extermination: the nearer it approaches its extreme limit, the more it loses its ideological structuredness and, hence, its apprehensible quality, reverting to the physiological reaction of the animal. In its course toward this extreme, relinquishing, in doing so, their ideological clarity and structuredness and testifying to the inability of the consciousness to strike social roots.” V.N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 88.
[8] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 89
[9] Ibid., 86
[10] Amitav Ghosh, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Ghandhi”, The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces (Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher: Permanent Black, 2002.)
[11] Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life”, trans. Robert Hurley in Ethics, Ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 1997), 136.
[12] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 41.
[13] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001),
[14] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 88-89.
[15] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 21.
[16] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 30.
[17] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 95.
[18] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001),
[19] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, trans. Robert Hurley in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, Ed. James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1998), 374.
[20] Friedrich Niezsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Ed. Daniel Breazeale, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 60.
[21] Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
[22] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 24
[23] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 31
[24] Walter Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 256.
[25] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 230.
[26] Paulo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotexte, 2004.), 21.
[27] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 107.
[28] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 170.

Monday, January 17, 2011

More on Joanna Russ and The Female Man

      There's a curious quality to Joanna Russ' The Female Man that is worth taking a couple minutes to explore.  Russ' novel is famously one of the most famous, if not the most famous feminist science fiction novels in existence.  Russ was notably influenced by the rise of the radical feminist movement, and the novel is the most notable marker of that shift, although the influence can also be seen through her choice of a number of feminist critical works for review, most notably the work of Mary Daly and Shulamith Firestone.  In addition, unlike Ursula Leguin, Russ was interested in taking a role as a movement figure.  She contributed to feminist literary criticism with her texts, How to Suppress Women's Writing and To Write Like a Woman, and contributed propaganda for socialist feminism with her text, What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism.

     With that considerable legacy and the reputation of The Female Man, it's remarkable how little representation there is of  the women's movement in the novel.  As I noted in my earlier entry on the novel, The Female Man is structured by four protagonists, Jael, Janet, Joanna, and Jeannine, who are in reality, the same woman in four radically different world.  Within the ideological zero world of Joanna, the world that most closely represents the world of the late 1960's of the United States, the minimal representations of the women's movement are negative and indirect.  Primarily occurring within the depiction of the cocktail party that Joanna brought the utopian Janet to, the women's movement is brought up in the conversations within a set of predictable cliches.  We are offered narratives about bra burning, anger, as well as other predictable tropes, as Russ offers a sharp satire of the reception of the movement at the time.  But we aren't offered direct representations of members of the movement itself.

      When I initially thought of this notion, I had thought of it in terms of a clever analogy to the lesser known jazz collaboration between John Coltrane and Don Cherry, Avant Garde.  The analogy works through the fact that the reception of the two documents are defined by a delay between their production and their release.  In the case of Avant Garde, the delay in the release of the album, originally recorded in 1961 until 1966, shifted its importance.  Rather than sounding like part of the cutting edge of jazz, which it would have sounded like in 1960, its 1966 release turned the album into an oddity, curiously dated by the time of its release.  The Female Man had a similar history.  The novel was originally written in 1970, but only saw its official release years later in 1975, meaning that nature and size of the radical feminist movement had transformed substantially, and perhaps more significantly, grown considerably, between the time of the writing of the novel and its release.  After all, the production of the novel and the beginning of radical feminism were probably concurrent, both probably beginning in 1968.*  If the novel was written later, there may have been more material to engage in some form of direct representation.

      However, there's something dissatisfying in that admittedly attractive analogy.  The truth is other than in some of the work of Samuel Delaney, the engagement with the new social movements on the part of leftist and feminist science fiction writers tended to be fairly indirect, generally negotiated through the device of futurity, offering the results of a future revolution, a future apocolypse, or on the other hand, some form of alternative history as found in the work of Russ.  It's only later that the movement is dealt with directly, even with some distancing.  Obviously, I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the discipline, so I would be curious if anyone can come up with a challenge to this hypothesis, but in many ways, Sarah Hall's The Carhallan Army, titled Daughters of the North, is the first real engagement with the history of the conflictual nature of the history of radical feminism, capturing some of the excitement and urgency of the time period.  Perhaps, the reason for this is the simple fact that we have moved beyond a set of polemics around those movements to a new analytical engagement with the period, but that feels a little pat as well.  So, I'll toss it out to you.  Does this hypothesis work?  And if so, why can't we find a more direct engagement with the movement as such in the works of the 1970's?

*There are hints of the radical feminist critique before 1968.  I could give you the name of some of the essays if there is an interest, but the movement really launched itself at that time.  For more information, read Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism 1967-1975.  Echols produces a sympathetic, but critical analysis of the period, and I highly recommend the book.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

a couple thoughts on feminist theory

     I've been thinking about Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, recently.  We read a small portion of the text for a woman's studies class that I am a teaching assistant for.  The class paired off the text with the fourth chapter of bell hooks' Ain't I a Woman, posing the latter as an implicit and explicit critique of the text.  hooks' critique of the book is linked to a larger critique of the women's movement of the 1970's, critiquing the assumptions of radical feminists concerning the category 'woman.'  The critique that hooks launches against those movements is devastating, revealing racism in both the theoretical formation of the movement and in its historical erasures.
       However, there is a dimension of the critique that doesn't fit Friedan's work quite as well as the radical and cultural feminism of the 1970's.  Unlike that academic work, Friedan's claims about gender are quite modest, focusing on the experiences of housewives in the post-war period.  The problem without a name that Friedan identifies is a discrete, historical one, dealing with the new post-war domestic formation, with its infrastructure of expertise, its expectations that the nuclear family will solve all emotional, psychic, and social problems of its members.  Additionally, she posited a problem that existed in the wake of women's suffrage, ostensibly allowing for equal citizenship.  Both that labor and the anger regarding the invariable failure of that family structure was placed upon women.  Daniel Horowitz notes in his biography of Frieday that the text can be read in the context of a number of of other post-war leftist critiques of the new prosperity, such as Marcuse's One Dimensional Man or the work of C. Wright Mills.  Friedan explicitly contextualized this unnamed and unpolitical situation with the struggles for civil rights in the country and the worldwide anti-colonial struggles at the time. 
       In effect, Friedan's work avoided the sort of trans-historical claims that later scholars would make.  Her claims were focused on a particular population at a particular time.  The reason that this was missed can be linked to two major issues, 1.) Friedan's work was read as scholarly literature, rather than the critical journalistic framework that it was working through.  2.) Friedan's problematic legacy as an activist in NOW (National Organization of Women).
     To start with the first issue, Friedan, despite her involvement in post-graduate work, was primarily a journalist.  She got her start in a variety of popular front and union newspapers, reporting on labor and women's issues.  That work continued in the 1950's as Friedan moved from the defunct popular front press to a number of traditional women's journals.  The Feminine Mystique can largely be read as a combination of her academic work on psychology with her professional work as a journalist.  This leads to a fairly remarkable document bringing together that background in psychology with a critical analysis of the new infrastructure of domestic science with the critiques of instrumental reason that were the impetus to the initial formation of the new left.  However, Friedan framed that conversation within a journalistic framework, leaving the subject of her topic implicit, rather than explicit.  Certainly, a more explicit framework focusing on the coagulation of whiteness in this figure, its racial exclusions, and the remaining class based exclusions would have produced a sharper text, but we should read the text for what it is, rather than insisting on a set of alien criteria.
         The second issue is also interesting.  One should not dismiss the forms of homophobia that Friedan brought into the structure of NOW as the Gay Liberation movement got underway.  There are some historical reasons that I think explain this.  If folks are interested, I could work through them, but they don't in any sense excuse this behavior.  At the same time, I can't find any productive linkage with this particular issue and the text itself.  Perhaps this argument can be made, but I can't at this point.  In any case, I think that the text is worth reading on its own merits.  My other thought on this is that it seems that it may be the time to move from a polemical reading of these texts, to a historical, analytical reading of the texts.  These were important conflicts of the early 1980's and 1990's, and the polemical work of hooks, Lorde, Anzuldua and others is crucial to producing a more productive critical feminist framework, but there has become something repetitive about this labor.
       Tangentially, I've also returned to the work of Anzaldua within the context of this class.  Her anthology This Bridge Called my Back is considered to be a crucial text within the shift in the discipline of women's studies along with the feminist movement.  At the same time, this text has been out of print for over a decade.  There is something distinctly disturbing about the fact that this crucial analysis of racism is not readily accessible.

Monday, January 10, 2011

An untitled essay on Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty

      “All the world must suffer a big jolt. There will be such a game that the ungodly will be thrown off their seats, and the downtrodden will rise.”
      --Thomas Munzer

       Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe represent two different significant moments of the Subaltern Studies project. Guha’s book, in many ways, opens the project, and Chakrabarty’s book constitutes the latest shift in the project. Both books ultimately focus on the category of the peasant. This category has been a problem for the methodology of historical materialism for some time because of the contradictory analysis offered on this question, which has occurred because the peasant as a figure is outside of both the logic of industrial capitalism and is outside of the hyper-real Europe. To put it more bluntly, it points to a tension within the Marxist tradition, precisely because it is an immanent critique of capital. This allows it a unique perspective on its inner-logic, but it creates a limitation when one wants to grasp at its outside. In this sense, the subaltern studies project finds its origins in a set of question posited within the Marxist tradition, even if it doesn’t stay fully within that tradition.

      I want to focus on that engagement. In order to do this; it is crucial to begin with a brief discussion of how this question has been taken up within the Marxist tradition before the current moment. There has been more of an engagement that one would initially think, although one needs to look outside the academic tradition. It is also not without it’s contradictions. After that, the paper will shift to discuss the manner that this problem is taken on by Ranajit Guha. This work is clearly a response to the English tradition of history from below tradition as developed by figures such as E. J. Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson. We will see that it both is indebted to that tradition and deeply critical of it. We will then move into the critical engagement of Dipesh Chakrabarty into the project begun by Guha. Chakrabarty engages in a similar maneuver as Guha, although this moves the project out of a purely Marxist trajectory into the space of post-structuralism. In following this trajectory, we see a pair of attempts to resolve the tension in Marxist thought. Which on one side, must take the Eurocentric logic of capitalism seriously, and on the other side, must push against this structure towards a radical alterity designated under the name of communism. In order to do this, they break away from the problematic Marx posed, but not to the extent imagined by Marxism’s liberal opponents.

     The profound ambiguity of the Marxist position on the non-European can be found within Marx’s own journalistic work on English colonialism in India. On one hand, Marx emphasizes the brutality of English colonialism. He notes, “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”[1] This element of his analysis emphasizes the brutal rapacity of bourgeois society, revealing the inherently exploitative nature of the society. It is linked to a figuration of barbarism traditionally associated with the non-western. This element is very close to the view of Franz Fanon, when he says, “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” At the same time, Marx sees this process as linked to a global teleology. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”[2]

      To push beyond Marx’s work, the question of capitalist subsumption has been taken up elsewhere, particularly in its triumph within Europe itself. The question of peasant insurgency has deep roots within the Marxist tradition, albeit not within its academic roots. Marx himself was not inclined to look into such matters himself. There is only a slim volume on the question, published posthumously. However, one can come across a number of important works on the matter from the beginning of the Second International. Karl Kautsky discusses it in The Precursors to the New Socialism. It is also covered in the popular histories written by E. Belfort Bax, The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists, and The Peasant War. Friedrich Engels wrote on the question as well in The Peasant Wars of Germany. All these works push the critique of the triumphal entry of capitalism farther the ambiguity presented in Marx’s journalism by presenting peasant insurgency as the precursor of the proletarian revolution, rather than an aberration. However, these analyses never entirely abandon the progressivist tradition associated with Marx.

      Ranajit Guha intervenes in this Marxist tradition, by framing his work with the research done by historian E.J. Hobsbawm, particularly Primitive Rebels and Captain Swing, his collaboration with George Rude. Guha immediately diagnoses the developmentalist logic of their work. “He finds the ‘traditional forms of peasant discontent’ to have been ‘virtually devoid of any explicit ideology, organization or programme’. In general, ‘pre-political people’ are defined as those ‘who have not yet found, or have only begun to find a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world’.” Hobsbawm effectively places these rebellions into the waiting room of history. They are the not yet, not yet disciplined, not yet ideological, and not yet properly socialist. Guha immediately expresses a discontent with this logic, noting that Hobsbawm and Rude contradict these assertions themselves by pointing to the political structures that come out of this social banditry and revolts.

     But Guha focuses his largest intervention within the colonial scene in India. He notes that “whatever its validity for other countries the notion of pre-political peasant insurgency helps little in understanding the experience of colonial India. For there was nothing in the militant movements of its rural masses that was not political.”[3] The resistance within the colonial scene necessarily took on a political dimension, producing both structures of organization and goals for a new society. This resistance had a double function. It both resisted against the elite of Indian society, the landlords and the moneylenders as well as against the colonial apparatus that legitimated them. Guha points out that the reforms of the Raj contributed to the intensification of the exploitation of the peasantry. This intensified exploitation was linked to the process of rationalization introduced by colonial officials. They did so by replacing the old aristocracy with “a solvent and relatively vigorous set of landlords.”[4] These landlords were dependent on the Raj and at the same time, the Raj rewarded the landlords by supporting their collection of “abwab and mathot.”[5]

     The primary site of investigation may be colonial India, but it is clear that Guha is questioning the transition to capitalism on a global scale from this site. The experiences of the peasants are continually linked to early European struggles, whether the struggles of the Jacquerie in France, the German Peasant Wars or the struggles of the English peasants in the English Civil War. These aren’t introduced to create a progressive schema of history. Instead, they are introduced to show a pattern of peasant resistance in the face of a growing capitalist power. This asserts itself through a number of factors, from the enclosing of the commons to the erosion of informal rights and the increased enforcement of the law.

     Guha accomplishes this by a broad synthetic reading of peasant insurgencies. In order to do this he uses many of the techniques produced within both the history from below school of history in England, as well as cultural studies as well as the schematic logic of the Annales school, producing a narrative that doesn’t quite look like either one of them. From the Annales School, he takes from a sociological tradition starting with Emile Durkheim, emphasizing the structural elements of peasant insurgency. This places emphasis on the categories, such as Negation, Modality, and Territoriality, which cut across time and geography. At the same time, a number of elements are drawn from the British tradition. Most significantly is the emphasis on understanding the phenomenon from the ground up, rather from the traditional focuses for political history, that of politicians, bureaucrats, and the elite. In order to get at that, Guha must engage with a historical archive in which those figures are the primary agents. This requires that Guha read against the grain of these reports in order to get at his subject. This becomes an important element of the early Subaltern Studies projects. The other element drawn from the British cultural studies tradition is an increased dependency on semiotics to understand historical phenomena.

     This semiotic element is crucial to this understanding. It gives Guha an important tool to understand peasant conscious within its social context. Guha argues that this consciousness is defined negatively within this particular system of sovereignty. “It is not by insurgency alone that the peasant comes to know himself. In colonial India a sense of identity was imposed on him by those who had power over him by virtue of their class, caste and official standing. It was they who made him aware of his place in society as a measure of his distance from themselves—a distance measured in differentials of wealth, status and culture. In other word, he learnt to recognize himself not by the properties and attributes of his own social being but by a diminution, if not negation by those of his superiors.”[6]

     This becomes defined by a whole series of signifiers. Guha looks at a whole series of celebrations and festivals within both the Indian context and the non-Indian context. These ceremonies are inevitably structured in a manner that reverses the places of the most subaltern population with the dominant population. Guha argues that this is done in order to enforce the structure of the social order by enforcing the nature of the system by showing its reverse. This can be seen in everyday life. The rigidity in the social hierarchy is enforced by the rigid semiotic structure. “It is not only that icons and images figured prominently in religious expression, but politics, too, was highly semioticized. Liveries, colors, badges and party cries were conspicuously displayed in the course of public disputes, and notions of power and subalternity worked out in elaborate sets of symbols: for, ‘feudal or hierarchic thought expresses the idea of grandeur by visual signs, lending to it a symbolic shape, of homage paid kneeling, of ceremonial reverence’.”[7] Hierarchy becomes laid out by a text, easily read by the members of the society. This semiotic order was designed to enforce the inequality of the status quo. As Benedict Anderson points out about the non-literate of the feudal world, “This is not to say that the illiterate did not read. What they read, however, was not words but the visible world.”[8]

     The structures of revolt must be understood within this context. Details as minor as details in dress or the use of personal pronouns were proscribed by the order of the society, and breaking those rules could have serious consequences. For instance, insulting a Brahman could have a penalty ranging from fines to serious corporal punishment, depending on the social distance between the Brahman and the speaker.[9] This creates a strong, but ultimately brittle social order. As Guha points out, “in a land where the peasant could wreck his superordinate enemy’s prestige simply by walking past his house with an umbrella on his head or by substituting tu for vous in an argument with him, why should insurgency need killing to make its point in battle?”[10]

     The terms of revolt come out of this structure, out of its semiotics, its epistemology, out of its theology. This immanent quality is no different than the revolt presented by the industrial proletariat of industrial proletariat, who transforms the factory floor and its impoverishment into its tools of resistance. The fact that these subjects cannot imagine the modes of resistance and organization created through the subjection of the factory floor doesn’t mean that they didn’t have organizational structures or an idea of what they would want for a new society. Guha points out that the basis of this new society is contained within the reversal of order created in the carnival and in the festival. “For if the function of prescriptive reversal is to ensure the continuity of the political and moral order of society and sacralize it, that of peasant insurgency is to disrupt and desecrate it…. What is intended by such usage in many languages is to communicate the sense of an unforeseen break, a sharp discontinuity.”[11] This begins to strip the uniqueness of the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It becomes yet another resistance against a structure of domination; one that was foreseen by the revolts of the peasants.

     It is precisely this concept of the resistant peasant that Dipesh Chakrabarty draws from the work of Ranajit Guha. He begins his book, Provincializing Europe with a reading of Guha’s work. This reading pushes the polemic with Hobsbawm even further than what is explicitly contained in Guha’s work. For Chakrabarty, the crucial element of his engagement with the Western Marxist tradition contained within Hobsbawm’s work was its challenge of the progressive historicist logic of “incompleteness” of capitalist transformation in Europe and other places while retaining the idea of a general historical movement from a premodern stage to that of modernity.”[12] This logic is dependent on the homogenous empty time of bourgeois society, and places alternative concepts of time and space into the category of the ‘survival’ or ‘remnant’. Chakrabarty argues that it is this critique, the critique of the category of the prepolitical, that most influences his own project. He notes that Guha “insisted that instead of being an anachronism in a modernizing colonial world, the peasant was a real contemporary of colonialism a fundamental part of the modernity that colonial rule brought to India.”[13]

     This critique breaks up any “universal narratives of capital” and “fundamentally pluralizes the history of power in global modernity.”[14] Chakrabarty does this through his interpretation of the figure of the peasant, which takes on more than sociological significance. “The “peasant” acts here as a shorthand for all the seemingly nonmodern, rural, nonsecular relationships and life practices that constantly leave their imprint on the lives of even the elites in India and on their institutions of government. The peasant stands in for all that is not bourgeois (in a European sense) in Indian capitalism and modernity.”[15] Chakrabarty argues that these elements of society have been presented within the category of “inadequacy”. He notes that this both true for the radical historical project of Sumit Sarkar as well as the initial statement of the Subaltern Studies collective. He wants to reverse this interpretation, and begin to look at the categories of European thought as inadequate and “read “plenitude” and “creativity” where this narrative has made us read “lack” and “inadequacy”.”[16]

     Chakrabarty by no means wants to reject the concepts of European thought altogether. He notes that “modern social critiques of caste, oppressions of women, the lack of rights for laboring and subaltern classes in India, and so on—and, in fact, the very critique of colonialism itself—are unthinkable except as a legacy, partially, of how Enlightenment Europe was appropriated in the subcontinent.”[17] Instead, the purpose is to recognize that while this legacy contributes essential tools to the understanding of the world, they are not adequate to understand everything in the world. Chakrabarty states, “I want to discuss how it may be possible to hold together both secularist-historicist and nonsecularist takes on the world by engaging seriously the question of the diverse ways of “being in the world”.”[18] He does this by taking Heidegger’s categories of the fragmentariness of experience and the category of the not-yet seriously. This troubles the categories of the everyday of the social sciences. Whether this will lead to their death (and new categories) or not is up for grabs.[19]

     This challenge primarily occurs within the field of supernatural agency, the realm of gods and spirits. Traditionally, history has limited its investigation to the realm of human agency. This goes back to the work of Giambattista Vico, who argues to place the question of the divine to the side when producing histories. This secularizing pattern has been followed since then in most of the social sciences. There has also been a strong influence from the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, who argued that the divine is primarily the alienated essence of man. In effect, this leads the translation of references to supernatural agency in one of two directions. Either, it is translated into the alienated political desires of human collectivities or its is translated as a pathology or a holdover from the past.

      Chakrabarty wants to challenge this reading of this agency. It becomes the space in which begins a critique of the work of Ranajit Guha. He pushes against the Guha’s project when he gets to the question of supernatural agency. Guha, in many ways, takes a traditional Marxist approach to this question. While he recognizes the importance of the god Thakur, he doesn’t or (from Chakrabarty’s perspective) can’t take Thakur’s agency into account. He insists that this element of peasant revolts cannot be ignored, but he sees it as a problematic element of the revolts. He links this element to a semi-feudal subservience, linked to an authoritarian world system. “Consequently, he tended to look upon man’s domination of man not as a process governed by the laws of the world but by those of the other world.”[20] Hence, the appeals to Thakur both relate to a subservience at the psychic level and a substantial alienation from the goals and desires of the subject.

      This is a serious contradiction in the project of Subaltern Studies from Chakrabarty’s perspective. The original intention of the project was to resurrect the voices of the subaltern from the representations contained in nationalist historiography. This effort can be found in Guha’s work; however, it runs into a serious roadblock when dealing with supernatural agency. As Chakrabarty notes, “What does it mean, then when we take the subaltern’s views seriously—the subaltern ascribes the agency for their rebellion to some god—and want to confer on the subaltern agency or subjecthood in their own history, a status the subaltern’s statement denies?”[21] In order to return the subjectivity of the subaltern to historiography, Guha, in effect, has to ignore the subaltern’s own representation of political agency. This agency doesn’t work within the logic of liberal subjectivity. Instead, it sees that agency as coming from the outside, both in the figure of the God, Thakur, and in the form of writing.

     As Chakrabarty notes, “the Santal leaders’ own understanding of the rebellion does not directly serve the historical cause of democracy or citizenship or socialism. It needs to be reinterpreted. Historians will grant the supernatural a place in somebody’s belief system or ritual practices, but to ascribe to it any real agency in historical events will be to go against the rules of evidence that gives historical discourse procedures for settling disputes about the past.”[22] The rules in which historians produce and judge narratives are drenched in the terms and logic of the contemporary society. It forces the historians to translate the logic of the past into the framework of the present. Chakrabarty wants to break out of this. In order to produce a narrative that would accomplish this, the historian would have to produce a radically different narrative, one that would not be recognizable to the current rules of evidence.

     Chakrabarty successfully points to the problem, but it is questionable whether his solution is pointing in the right direction. The positive element of his work is dependent on a number of conceptions of Martin Heidegger’s, drawn from his work in Being and Time. There is an extremely positive element to this work in its emphasis on multiplicity and the fragment. But Chakrabarty never deals with the problematic aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy, particularly the essentialism that frequently haunts his work. There is more than likely another way of approaching this problem in a way that would avoid those problems.

     In a sense, this returns us to the beginning of the conversation. Both Guha and Chakrabarty’s work explodes a certain ambiguity contained within the Marxist project. This is the value of both the enlightenment and the progressive role of capitalism. Guha’s project takes on the teleology contained within much of the Marxist work on peasant revolt. These acts can no longer be seen as a prehistory to either the proletarian revolution or the success of capitalism. Instead, this points to the extensive revolt against the development of capitalism even before its maturation. Chakrabarty pushes this to the question of the Enlightenment itself, questioning the universality of its rules. However, this work is far more modest than Guha’s in many ways. It seeks to provincialize Europe, rather than do away with it altogether. However, both are seriously dependent on Marxian methodology in a manner that would be uncomfortable to a figure such as Lyotard. Perhaps, this points towards a historical materialism that breaks out of its Eurocentric roots.

[1] Karl Marx, “The Future Results of British Rule in India”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 6.
[4] Ibid.
[5] fees and charges placed on peasants by landlords and government officials
[6] Ibid., 18.
[7] Ibid., 37.
[8] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 15.
[9] Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 46.
[10] Ibid., 166.
[11] Ibid., 36.
[12] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 12.
[13] Ibid., 13.
[14] Ibid., 14.
[15] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 11.
[16] Ibid., 35.
[17] Ibid., 4.
[18] Ibid., 21.
[19] When one reads the original draft of the first chapter “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History”, Chakrabarty seem to be arguing for the eventual death of these categories under the mark of the politics of despair, but he seems to be stepping away from this.
[20] [20] Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 265.
[21] Ibid., 103.
[22] Ibid., 104.