Archive for the ‘colonialism’ Category

Modernity vs. Tradition

October 4, 2012

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I found this image circulating around and realized that I had a rote speech from my lecturing about the categories ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ and thought I’d share.

The term ‘tradition’ is new. It is an innovation. It is a signifier that only makes sense in relation to ‘modernity’. The two terms are mutually necessary pairs that evoke each other, stated or not, whenever deployed. That is, tradition is modern construct. To use the term ‘modern’ is to be traditionally modern.

The most interesting thing I take from these insights is really quite practical. Tradition is a modern recreation of a fictional past–the imaginations of innovators make tradition. Any invocation of tradition is actually a ruse. The moment we can conceive of the modern is the exact moment we create tradition. Before we imagined the modern, there was no tradition in the sense that we use the term now. It was just the way that things were. With the modern, everything is up for grabs and we’ve forgotten the way things were. To remember tradition, it must be re-created. It is made anew.

Thus, tradition is actually the most modern of phenomenon. Let’s see some examples.

In India, tradition, when invoked, often points back to the infinite past of Hindu culture and speaks of norms, like those of the Laws of Manu, that are in all actuality the joint construct of British scholars, missionaries, administrators, and Indian elites, be they pandits, rajputs or brahmins. That is to say, what is constructed as tradition is actually something made wholly new in the 19th century by the complex process of colonial and cultural exchange with its notions of cultural essentialism.

In West Asia, the various ‘fundamentalisms’ of Islam were created as anti-colonial responses to European colonialism. Immasculated and denegrated, Arabs and other people of color found a united resistance through this shared recreation of Islam. It is actually somewhat more complex than this, as much of the Islamic revolutions of the 60s-80s were undoubtedly also resistance to the fact that secular leadership in West Asia was concieved to be too much under the power of the West. And then when the West turned on West Asia, as it did in Iraq (which was the most ‘progressive’ part of Asia), this tendency only continued. My hypothesis is that the West, perhaps only partially unwittingly, actually played a large role in creating what it now calls Islamic fundamentalism.

Look at Asian diaspora in North America or Europe. It often holds on far more stridently to what it sees as ‘traditions’ of the homeland.

The global resistance to alternative sexualities and genders under the guise of tradition fits the same pattern: before colonialism, most regions had come to terms with it in their own way, were convinced to denounce it through colonialism, and now in the postcolonial moment understand that denunciation as ahistorical tradition.

There are many more examples that can be made. Often we find it oxymoronic, strange or even hypocritical when those who we associate with ‘tradition’ take advantage of what we see as ‘modern’ (like technology… twittering monks for example). In fact, it is the same activity under different labels. We only think this way because these terms modernity and tradition serve the purpose of obfuscating and calcifying power-relations, both real and discursive. Fundamentalists get much credence for their traditional stance, and can hide their innovations behind the veil of ‘tradition.’ Modernists too, can veil their conservativism behind the seemingly progressive stance of the ‘modern’ (take for example, the old-timey racism of the New Athiests).

Monks owning cellphones is no different than an Atheist with the bible on the shelf.

What does this insight allow us to do? It allows us to see far more clearly the ways in which people strategically use the categories (and all their associated semiology) modernity and tradition to get other people to do what they want, for one.

It may also allow us to see way to step past these categories–either in a dialectical way, or in a revolutionary way–and conceive of a world that cannot so easily use the enmity attached to this binary for divisive purposes.

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Suffering Porn: The Flip-side of The White Savior Industrial Complex

March 25, 2012

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As many may have been exposed to, the KONY 2012 kerfuffle has been getting quite a lot of attention lately. There have been many responses critical to this particular “charitable cause” which I will not rehash here. However, I do want to point to an article by Teju Cole entitled “The White Savior Industrial Complex“. It is quite an insightful and careful piece about how contemporary development and privileged concern plays out large-scale. It carefully dissects the effects of a (perhaps) well-meaning but (usually) harmful system of aid towards the “developing world”–otherwise known as the formerly colonized “Other”. Cole says,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.” To state this obvious and well-attested truth does not make me a racist or a Mau Mau.

What Cole is pointing to here is the larger discourse of Orientalism making complicit a racism that allows the superior Westerner a position to “save those who cannot save themselves”–which at once dis-empowers the abject Other and empowers the righteous Self. The problem, that Cole touches on, is that Orientalism is never divorced from global systems of power: be they economic, political or developmental. How do we “save” Africa, India… the developing world? Look to Iraq and Afghanistan for examples. Look to dismal but quite intentional track record of the IMF or the World Bank. The righteous salvation of the West  on the other is almost always allied in ways that empower or enrich the West. To debate how much good is done to the Other is to concede that the West decides what is good or bad for the Other.

This analysis is large, broad, complex and global. And necessary. However, there is a flip-side to this broad global analysis. It is an analysis of the insidious ways that Orientalism and neo- or post-colonial discourse impacts individuals to support the White Savior Industrial Complex. It speaks to the individual psychological payoff that individuals get when they think they are helping the Other and think they are being charitable. It is an analysis that may not itself be charitable. I have called it for a while now “Suffering Porn”.

The Sunday afternoon commercials that show malnourished African children with distended bellies and flies buzzing on their faces is Suffering Porn. The stream of news footage of refugees, or oppressed Muslim women, or whatever may be the Third-World calamity of the day is Suffering Porn. KONY is Suffering Porn.  (more…)

Colonial Terror in North America

January 17, 2012

Angry Black Lady: “You have no idea what Martin Luther King Actually Did.”

In terms of global colonialism, we forget that North America is still a post-colonial region. Take the message of this link as one set of proof (and add it to other sets of proof, like the treatment of indigenous peoples).

Orientalism and the Colonized Mind

November 14, 2011

This post is a more indepth examination of Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism as a discourse and how, post-colonization, the formerly colonized have internalized colonial epistemes, often described in psychological terms. Some (Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993) call this phenomenon the post-colonial predicament in general, and some call the particularly psychological aspect of it the colonized mind. Post-colonial scholars call for a process of de-colonizing the mind in response.

Orientalism, in the sense that I will be using it throughout my analysis, refers to a systemic discursive regime—a way of thinking, speaking and thus acting—that reifies a distinction between East and West, Orient and Occident, that perpetuates a hierarchy privileging the West. This usage of term was conceived by Edward Said in Orientalism.  As Said argues:

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Homophobia and the Post-colonial Predicament

January 28, 2011

As we mourn the passing of David Kato (h/t: feministing) and imagine how this is the tip of the homophobic iceburg, the whole global issue of homophobia makes me ponder some of the historical and structural issues that come into play with world-wide homophobia.

As some of us know, homosexuality is a recent development. While same-sex love has been around for all of recorded history, its iterations have been many, various and at times even the status quo (I’m looking at you, Ancient Greeks). Homosexuality itself, however, is an invention of a nineteenth-century Europe dedicated to SCIENCE!!!! and the “finding”–pronounced construction–of deviance from a bourgeois, middle-class state-promoted sociology of the nuclear family. This sociology was developed in order to guarantee the subsequent generations of a middle-class educated populace that is the foundation of the modern nation state. For those who like trivia, keep in mind that the term heterosexuality only began to see wide usage in the 1930’s, about 50 years after the invention of the term homosexuality (which, originally meant what we now think of as heterosexuality, with a brief period where it meant what we now think of as bisexuality).

Homosexuality as a term is not some neutral term that just describes the state of affairs of a particular sub-set of people. It is a term that springs from the titillated desire for science to shamelessly catalogue and pruriently search out for hidden deviance with a perverse twinkle in its eye. The term has a complex history that includes its use to discipline and discriminate against those classified as homosexuals. It has also been taken up with pride by those who faced oppression based on the term, and in this strategy there has been some success in the West in ameliorating its rhetorical uses for oppression.

Aside from these elements worthy of note, most important for understanding global homophobia is that at the same time as homosexuality is being constructed as a deviance–not coincidentally–European powers are colonizing the world. The power of Europe to be there (a phrase I take from Edward Said–also note how close this resembles Heidegger’s Dasein, “being-there”) enabled Europe to construct itself as the West, and this in turn affected its own constructions of sexuality. The end product was that most colonial powers brought a new and, for Europeans, important,  legal framework into the colonies: sodomy laws, and laws against homosexuality. For many of these colonized regions (aside from those already impacted by their common connection to Western epistemes, most noteably Islamic regions) these laws criminalizing homosexuality and sodomy were new and entirely innovative procedures of classifying people. For some countries, these laws were minor blips that were paid little attention. For other countries, especially those who were under discursive pressure to fight against the “feminization of the East” that Orientalism so handily lobbed towards them, these laws were quite useful for convincing themselves that they were as masculine as masculine can get.

And here we come up against what is known as the post-colonial predicament. This term was coined by Carol Breckenridge and Van der Veer in their edited volume The Post-Colonial Predicament. What the post-colonial predicament describes is the internalization and naturalization of colonial epistemes, structures and institutions by once colonized peoples. That is, it is when colonized and post-colonized people take once imposed colonial stuctures as if they were their own natural way of doing things.

In order to understand globalized homophobia, we need to understand that in almost all cases (I’m hedging my bets, but note I’ve never seen a counter-example) homophobia in postcolonial regions is precisely an example of the post-colonial predicament. The homophobia of, say Uganda, was a colonial trope that is now coming to fruition as if Uganda has always been against people of alternative sexuality. This is absolutely not the case. And it is not isolated. World-wide, almost every case of homophobia is caused by the remnants of colonialism.

In fact, there is even further transformation of discourse about this. In India, we find a discourse among the right that India has never has same-sex love and that homosexuality is a Western imposition, and that same-sex love is actually Indians pandering to the West as if they are some sort of colonial spy. This makes the right feel good, as it rhetorically situates them as anti-colonial gatekeepers. However, as people like Ruth Vanita and Peter Jackson and others have shown, India has a long long history of alternative sexualities. Indeed, what IS new is the taking up of Western understandings of same-sex love by activists in order to find strategies and global support for fighting DISCRIMINATION. It works both ways. Also note that this discrimination only began because of colonization.

So how do these insights help us? There are many answers to this question, but I would argue that a rhetorical strategy that reversed the Indian right’s strategy would not only hold some element of facticity, but also be quite attractive. I would argue that LGBT activists and the like should start arguing that homophobia is pandering to colonialism. One could even spin it by making material connections between the elites in, say Uganda, and the right of the United States. If homophobic rhetoric in post-colonized countries begins to be associated with colonial cow-towing, the anti-colonial sentiment that still remains a powerful rhetorical device world-wide can be strategically and fruitfully used to shame and counter this homophobic discourse. The key, of course is marketing and the pragmatic concern of being able to penetrate the media etc. with this trope.

Regardless, my sentiments go out to all those globally who have to face oppression based on the convoluted and complex history of homophobia and its rhetorical uses by elites to shore up their own power.

Our Sexuality

October 11, 2010

I’m teaching a class on sexuality and I thought I should collect all of my preliminary thoughts about it into one place and, hey, that’s what this blog is for!

So, to begin, I’d like to say that my perspective on sexuality is quite Foucaultian. I think taking into account the insights (whether one agrees or not) of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is necessary for an understanding of our contemporary sexuality. Not only does he provide a very interesting account of where our sexual mores and proclivities belong in a historical continuum, he provides a very interesting methodological perspective about how to think about sexuality. It is not whether we possess in some essential way a certain sexuality, rather it is that we should question where sexuality comes from and what effect certain discourses on sexuality have on producing that sexuality. It is less important, for example, to determine whether or not we possess a repressed sexuality: it is rather to ask what does the very idea that we have a repressed sexuality do? How does thinking we are repressed effect the way we think and act about sexuality.

So, the first insight of The History of Sexuality and probably the most famous is that:

1) Whether or not we are actually repressed, the very idea that we are repressed (which we buy into a lot) impacts us. It makes us want to be liberated from this repression. It allows for a whole swath of discourse and activities open up that make us more and more concerned about sexuality. Because we think we are repressed we intensify our concern with sexuality. The idea of Repression actually produces more and more discourse about sexuality. (more…)

The Problems with Multi-culturalism

April 18, 2010

In Canada, multiculturalism has become the primary referent for what we like to think of as our pluralistic, accepting, or, at least, tolerant society. And yet, the category itself doesn’t get much critical analysis. In the last few years of my work I have seen a few take-downs of this concept and I am generally convinced that though the term played its part in a more intolerant past, the term today may be holding us back from solving many problems. Over at Restructure! there is a post quoting Dr. Sunera Thobani and her critical stance on multiculturalism:

I think multiculturalism has been a very effective way of silencing anti-racist politics in this country. Multiculturalism has allowed for certain communities—people of colour—to be constructed as cultural communities. Their culture is defined in very Orientalist and colonial ways—as static, they will always be that, they have always been that. And culture has now become the only space from which people of colour can actually have participation in national political life; it’s through this discourse of multiculturalism. And what it has done very successfully is it has displaced an anti-racist discourse.

I have my own critiques as well:

1. Multiculturalism assumes stable, static, cultural boundaries. In its attempt to say different cultures are part and parcel of Canada, it also solidifies these into unwavering essenses.

2. It follows from this that culture becomes policed. It brings in the spectre of “authenticity”, and in practice only serves to contrast them against Canadian society at large–whatever that is.

3. Multiculturalism doesn’t reflect the reality of cultural play. Cultures are constantly shifting and in continual dialogue. Indeed, the category of culture itself is problematic. Where does one culture end and another begin? There is no such thing as cultural borders… rather, what seems to be the case is highly diffuse conglomerates, networks, inroads, borrowings, synchretisms, nostalgias, romanticisms, appropriations and rejections, comparisons, culture-trolling, and so on.

4. Finally, this term doesn’t do justice to the lived experience of Canadians who often have to negotiate multiple complex and dynamic cultural forms and identities.

h/t: Missives from Marx

Chimamanda Adichie

April 18, 2010

Chimamanda Adichie gives a talk on ted called “The Danger of a Single Story”. The single story is, from my point of view, a particular discursive strategy that we name Orientalism.

From the website description:

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

This is a good talk. What I like most about it is how it makes very accessible the kinds of things I talk about (though I too often use big words and complex theoretical positions). It is very powerful for that. Check it out.

h/t: Feministe

A History of Fair-skin Preference in South Asia

April 14, 2010

Recently, the Vogue India magazine’s cover took head on the well-known preference for lighter or fairer skin as a sign of beauty in the subcontinent. This preference has been commented on before, with many interpretations of the phenomenon. In this case, for example, one interesting insight by the piece linked above talks about the capitalization of this preference by beauty product companies.

Fuelled by the appearance of light-skinned Bollywood stars and models, the demand for skin-whitening creams – from brands including L’Oreal and Unilever – grew 18 per cent last year and is set to increase by a predicted 25 per cent this year, the Times reports.

This is a significant aspect of the phenomenon. There are billboards, magazine ads, and TV commercials throughout South Asia that play on the standard of ‘fairer’ skin being more attractive. This fits a standard post-WWII late-capitalist model of subjectivity construction. A standard of the body is set as either preferred or as undesirable, marketing sets out to construct a narrative with the aim of inducing anxiety about reaching the standard (cover up undesirables, concern to reach desirables), and products are disseminated to temporarily relieve this anxiety. But, of course, there are so many things to be anxious about, late-capitalism aims to make us perpetually anxious consuming subjects. This narrative is pretty standard and is playing out in the particular case of fairer skin in the subcontinent. However, we do have to be attentive to the local conditions that make this particular manifestation play out in the way it does. So, to my mind, any analysis of this phenomenon should take into account a number of historical trajectories that impact light-skin beauty standards in India. (more…)

The material conditions for the “Western” Episteme: a short note

April 8, 2010

It is through colonialism that Europe constructed itself. So many of the things we take for granted today were either born in, or crystalized in the 19th century of Britain and France. Nation-states, the family, adolescence, the middle-class, science, the university (as we know it), capitalism etc. etc. One note that I want to make about how the European episteme is now the dominant paradigm of global knowing has to do with knowledge production itself. All universities around the world follow the European model and privilege European ways of knowing.  This has created a situation where, globally, the structures of how we organize knowledge, how we think and what we know, at the level of the middle-class and upper-class (and thus necessarily impacting the lower-classes), follows a historical trajectory from the 19th century. The ways we think about the world as national citizens, the kinds of institutions we accept, the discourses and categories of knowledge that we encounter and embody, are all to a greater (or occasionally lesser) degree “Western”.

With this in mind, I think it is fair to say that, today, the world is the West. Following from this, we might then say that distinctions we make between developed/developing, first- and third-world, East and West, Us and Them, are really more roundabout ways of creating a set of people to dominate at the level of discourse. Almost all discourse is Western now, regardless of the language being used, so to argue that something is not ‘Western’ is, in fact, to argue something else entirely. It is instead to establish a differential hierarchy through language. I’ll leave the reader to imagine the various consequences of this.