Posts Tagged ‘Colonialism’

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

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.

Hijras – Part III – Decolonization

March 20, 2010

Continued from two earlier posts: Hijras and Hijras: Colonization.

Under the pressures of legal, categorical, social and colonial oppression, Hijras became marginalized very rapidly in the British raj. They became subject to legal and social policing, and suffered many economic, material and symbolic hardships. The label of the Hijra as a prostitute became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to survive day to day, many Hijras had to resort to or were forced into prostitution by the economic and symbolic order around them. Within the cultural and semiological order the role of Hijras became reversed from auspicious in-between liminal figure to frightening transgressor of the symbolic order. Significantly, the force of their symbolic power changed little. Practically, what this meant was (again, generalizing) that Hijras no longer blessed, they cursed–with the same amount of power. They became inauspicious.

After decolonization this marginalization of Hijras continued–it became the internalized cultural model of the newly reconstructed Indian traditional authenticity as propagated by the elites during colonization. This sets the stage for the last 70 years of contemporary Hijra history that can be accessed by ethnography. There are a number of interesting theoretical insights that can be made in particular about the Hijras, but also extrapolated as general theory.

For instance, in a significant Foucauldian twist, the Hijras now use their marginal status as inauspicious to eke out a living. Where they previously were (and still sometimes are–this is not a total reversal, but a contested one) considered auspicious (weddings, births), they now use their inauspiciousness to threaten pollution unless given economic incentive to “go away” and thus take the pollution with them. In reality, many ethnographies show that these two historical trajectories of the inauspicious and auspicious Hijra often play out simultaneously in contested ways. Unfortunately, many of the ethonographies I have seen seem to miss the import of the historical geneological history that shapes this. They tend towards an ahistorical essentialism.

Another source of agency for Hijras is that since their identity is so contested, they allow themselves a certain freedom to reconstruct their histories and sense of self. Many Hijra self-constructions are a bricolage of Hindu, Muslim and European mythologizing. They reconstruct empowering myths of themselves to create local collective identities that resist the post-colonial marginalization they face. Regardless, it points to the fundamental Nietzschean point that history has always been about a reconstruction of the past to enable the present. It is a very honest re-evaluation, from this perspective–and related to the reimagining of Indian history by the oppressive class of elites.

The final post-colonial point I’d like to make is that since the 90s, European categories of gay, straight, bi, trans, lesbian etc. have entered urban bourgeois settings, like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.  Collective identity is becoming reshaped in these settings to tap into the global Eurocentric categories that, as we have seen, were constructed in the 19th century (partly due to the European conception of the other–including Hijras). So in an interesting irony, Hijras are now aligning with trans-identified people, are now self-identifying as ‘trans-‘, a category that only exists partly due to the British re-imagination of sexuality that was reacting to the Hijra itself. Nonetheless, this is an interesting political move, and seems to be gaining much cultural capital in the bourgeois sphere. The collective identity taken up globally, now most commonly signified by LGBT(QII) or a variant, that has helped to create such practical gains (and at the same time categorical shackles and in-group policing) is likely to significantly reshape the Hijras place in South Asia yet again.

Hijras – Part II – Colonization

June 17, 2009

Continuing from my earlier post: Hijras.

An understanding of Hijras throughout pre-colonial history suffers the same problem of lack of evidence that much of historiography about India suffers. Most of what we can glean about Hijras come from textual sources, and the corpus we have is not only biased in many various ways, but also incomplete. While contemporary ethnographies are useful, there is no justifiable way to connect present day Hijra experience with those of pre-colonial Hijras. Not only does this assume an ahistorical essence to the experience of Hijras, thus rendering them static and denying their historical agency, but it also doesn’t account for how colonialism has dramatically impacted the lives of Hijras and their place in cultural context.

The category itself, from textual evidence, seems to have undergone a number of shifts before the colonial period. The earliest record of the term has it including barren women, impotent men, eunuchs, and  hermaphrodites/intersex. This shifted, however, until in the later writings before the colonial period, Hijras were more associated with eunuchs and hermaphrodites by heteronormative Indian chroniclers. Barren women and impotent men seem to have been forgotten in the categorization. We have to remember that this categorization too should be taken in regards to the taxonomical interests of those involved. Another pre-colonial history of the Hijras could include their place within the cultural and religious structures of the day. This history is necessarily a generalization. Hijras were considered a third-sex, or third-gender. Serena Nanda points this out in the title of her book, Neither Man nor Women. So, while it might be convenient to say that Hijras were/are biological men who perform/ed a third gender, this may be imputing a sex/gender on them that denies this third gender self-understanding. This is not even to get into the problems of biological essentialism that discounts intersex and hermaphrodites, and so forth.

All that being said, it seems, broadly speaking, that Hijras had an auspicious place in the religious and cultural life of India. Their liminal stature within the semiological landscape of pre-colonial India afforded them an auspicious place in the in-between. Much of South Asian religiosity has felt a power there, ranging from the story of Narasimha to the complex symbolic system that we call Tantra. Hijras, it seems, were afforded a somewhat privileged place as auspicious corporeal divinities who could confer the blessings of fertility on the birth of sons and at weddings. As such, Hijras were afforded a place outside the structures of the heteronormative structures of the dharmasastric (orthodox social) order. They were not required to be married, nor hold to the social-sexual order of the ideal wife or husband. Nonetheless, they seemed to have a place within the symbolic and lived order that has always been more than the dharmasastras tell us. Accordingly, much like the Devadasis—a group to which many of the structures that I will speak about regarding the effects of colonialism on Hijras hold—Hijras were able to have a kind of autonomous sexual life, for example. This, as we shall see, became a focus of the British and Indian elite imagination as they attempted to order a new hybrid world under colonial rule.


Shifting Categories of Race

April 18, 2009

In my last post, I mentioned in passing how the categories of race are in some ways imagined categories with shifting boundaries and content. A perfect example of this was pointed out at Sociological Images: “Laura A. sent in a video in which African American men ask people in Fuzhou, China, what race they believe people in some photos are.” The video is embedded below. I suggest reading the Sociological Images post for their analysis.

One of the things I noticed with the policing of race by the African-American videographers is the kind of “leading” they did to assert what they considered to be racial boundaries. The policing of race here I think serves a manifold purpose. First, it allows the videographers to position themselves as the arbiters of distinguishing race, which, second,  says more about them than those they interview. Third, this is connected to a larger discourse of race that plays out in North America connected to the politics of identity. That context is absent in China, which leads to part of the “humor” of the video.

The racial signification taken for granted in North America does not play out in the same way in China. On the other hand, the colonial legacy in China’s post-colonial lineage can be seen by the disturbed reaction of the Chinese boys who are taken aback by the suggestion that they are black. The policing of race by the videographers makes quite a lot of sense given the way race is handled in North America. Owning one’s oppression, in this case race, is a powerful tool in the strategies of social justice–so too does the strategy of authenticity. What I find interesting about the video is how it deconstructs itself. The very fact that the videographers are constructing a narrative that highlights the quite different context of race in China shows how much their own construction of race is itself historically contingent on the contexts that shape it. This redirects the narrative towards the ephemeral foundation of the category of race itself. By policing race in this context, the performance of racial essentialization brings into relief its own deconstruction. The polical strategy of owning an essentialized racial identity to resist the oppressive use of that identity against oneself works well in a racist social context. It is much less successful in context where the discourse of race has a much different structure. Perhaps it even falls apart when one Chinese interviewee argues that one of the videographers is not really black. While this could relate to a North American politics of authenticity where signifiers of blackness are policed within the African-American identity (i.e. you’re not black enough), I think it is much less loaded than in the North American context. Given the range of confused responses shown in the video by the interviewees, my guess is that the construction of race is happening at the very moment of the interview, it is being formed as we watch it. The designation of the one videographer as not-quite-black, and the Chinese youth as black, highlights the underlying shiftiness of race itself.

More can be said…