Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



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Critique of Colonial Discourse Analysis

Post-colonial thought initiated by Edward Said is the last refuge of the post-modernist/post-structuralist trend fathered by Darrida, Foucault, etc. In Orientalism Said reduces the narrative of the convergence between colonial knowledge and colonial powers under ‘Orientalist Discourse’ virtually banishing economic exploitation and political coercion. It is true that Edward Said brought to the center-stage the question of cultural imperialism but the discursive theory takes us to subjective idealism. Even going beyond the age of modernism he discovered the whole literary tradition from Aschylus to Edward Lane as European literature’s complicity in inferiorization of the ‘Orient’. In the post-modernist frame he identified Enlightenment as a unified master sign of both orientalism and colonialism. This exaggerated and fabricated narrative, based on Discourse theory of Foucault leads to a sort of nationalism which encourages unequivocal worship of national tradition without any discrimination between colonialists and anti-colonialists in Europe and the reactions of various strata towards colonialism from diverse planes. When Said remarks that orientalism delivered the orient to colonialism it appears that colonialism starts as a product of orientalism itself — a project which Said traces from Aschylus to inferiorize the orient preceding actual colonization. Thus imperialist ideology is nothing but some sort of writing. Aizaz Ahmad shows that using Derridean idea of Identity and Difference, Said reaches a strange position. Said wants to show that the West has needed to constitute the orient as its other in order to constitute itself and its own subject position. Ahmad observes "... This idea of constituting Identity through Difference points, again not to the realm of political economy — not to those other social materialistics of a non-discursive kind — wherein colonialization may be seen as a process of capitalist accumulation, but to a necessity which arises within discourse and always been there at the origin of discourse, so that not only is the modern orientalist presumably already there in Dante and Euripides but modern imperialism itself appears to be an effect that arises, if not naturally, from the necessary practices of discourse."[Aizaz Ahmad, Theory Classes Nations Literatures, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994, p. 182]

In his height of absurdity Foucault located Marx firmly within the boundaries what he called ’western episteme’ considering that Marxian thought is framed entirely by the discourse of political economy falling within that episteme. Similarly Said discovered Marx in the oriental discourse. It is downright non-sense and cannot be established even by any conceivable way that Marx was an Orientalist and justified colonisation by European imperialist powers. Marx not only disdainfully remarked against "Lousy orientalist", the whole body of Marx’s writings is directed against capital and colonisers’ loot and destruction of the East. It is true that in his early journalistic writing — and Said has solely depended on it harping on a comment — Marx observed that the laying of railways and other measures brought about a churning in the otherwise backward stagnant society of orthodoxy. Marx’s "favourable" opinion flashed and ended there. And with the unfolding days Marx brilliantly and cogently portrayed with glaring facts the horrible scenario under the wheels of the imperialist juggernaunt throughout the East.

The so-called Colonialist Discourse is basically weak and partial to the point of ignoring the highly important constituents of colonialism, its economic exploitation and massive politico-administrative set-up.

When Foucault’s followers stick to so-called "colonial Discourse Analysis" it is made clear that we are constituted by colonialism, the only Discourse that really matters is the Discourse of the colonialist. Such people reject all the existing methods in history writing, going far beyond the empirical historian’s usual interrogation of and scepticism about the available evidence and the accepted mode of interpretation: and they enter the Niezchean world of question not merely positivist construction but the very facility of facts. Nietzche firmly announced "…. truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are."[Quoted in Edward Said’s Orientation, p.203] The Nietzeean fulmination against the image of language as the enemy of experience and that representation through language is always — already a misrepresentation — only lead one to the rejection of truthful human communication. Hence, in this sense any truthful statement in history writing is always prejudiced by the very nature of the language itself. It is true that words do not necessarily perfectly represent something. There is no leafiness in the word ‘leaf but it is human experience and socially accepted word of representation of the leaf. The Nietzschean rejection of this very image of the enemy of experience and such assertion that representation is always — already a misrepresentation reject forthwith the possibility of human communication. In relation to the knowledge of history, then this consideration of such image of human communication as a ruse of illusory subjectivity precludes the possibility of reconstruction of history through writing using a language. Such anarchic views leads nowhere and our Post-modernists are also at a loss during making a statement with the help of the socially accepted language itself.

Post-structuralists/Post-Modernists are now vocal protagonists of the colonial discourse. It refers to the group of texts, both literary and non-literary, which were produced by the British writers during the British colonial period. The Subaltern Studies in India now refers to discursive regimes of power to co-opt Indian social classes and thus shift the blame for the Subalterns’ failure in India on to the British, the ultimate authors of the discourse of colonial power. Thus the powerful domains of imperialist discourse were posed as all-powerful in respect of the vanquished subalterns in India. And soon the original marginalised Subalterns lost priority in such studies in order to study the discourses of the elite. The Subaltern Studies Collective’s shift from Marx to Foucault led it to all-pervasive colonial discourse’ making colonialism ultimately the sole actor in Indian history. Hence the supposedly long slumbering India also was awakened by the fruits of civilization from the west with colonialism remoulding or assigning meanings to indigenous structures like caste, gender or class and cutting up Indian society into mutually opposed blocks of religion, tribe or caste. Thus Foucaultian or Post-Modernist influence ultimately turns Subaltern Studies into a study of the elite with the acceptance of the coloniser British as the principal actors on their own right.

With Foucault’s denunciation of the Western episteme or Derrida’s denunciations of the transhistorical Logos nothing remains outside the epistemic Power, logocentric thought, no classes, no gender, not even history, no site of overall resistance, no prospect of human emancipation. With the oriental discourse communalism can now be considered alone as a result of Orientalism and colonial construction; caste itself can be portrayed as a fabrication primarily of the Population Surveys and Census Reports, and so on.

Even Edward Said, the Foucault follower had this to say later: "Foucault’s eagerness not to fall into Marxist economism causes him to obliterate the role of classes, the role of economics, the role of insurgency and rebellion in the societies he discusses………." [Edward Said, World, the Text and the Critic, pp. 244-6 Quoted in Aizaz Ahmad, in Theory, Classes … ibid, p.199]

The post-colonial theory bases itself on the post-modernist frame, which cries hoarse that no "final vocabulary" can be shown to be rationally superior. Richard Rorty in this fashion expresses himself as sentimentally patriot about the USA, willing to grant that it could slide into Fascism at any time, but he is proud of its past and guardedly hopeful about the future.[Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989] Homi Bhaba, the post-colonial theorist, makes it clear in his book The Location of Culture the additional aspect in this approach: "Driven by the subaltern history of the margins of modernity — rather than by the failures of logocentrism - I have tried, ..... to revise the known, to rename the post-modern from the position of the post colonial."[Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London 1994, p. 175] In fact the language metaphor "to provide a social imagery that is based on the articulation of history and culture" stands as fundamental of post-modernists and is faithfully pursued by such post-colonialists. Such fundamental comes to the fore as their master concept, of ambivalence characteristic of Lacanian theorizing - the ambivalence constituting the colonial discourse. Homi Bhaba echoes the post-modernist view: "colonial discourse is an apparatus of power, turns on the recognition and disavowal of racial/cultural/historical differences." [ibid, p.70] It appears that in such studies the intrinsic heterogenity of discourses is a consequence of "the structure of symbolic representation." Cultural differences between the coloniser and the colonized turns out to be Derridean difference, the endless process of displacement from one signifier to another, in which a transcendental signified that would stop this flight of meaning is at once constantly posited and indiefinitely deferred. Homi Bhaba disclosed the fact quite bluntly that "if the interest of post -modernism is limited to a celebration of the fragmentation of the ‘grand narrative’ of post-enlightenment rationalism then for all its intellectual excitement it remains a profoundly parochial enterprise". [ibid p.4]. And in reality Bhaba remains within the four walls of post-modernism. Ranajit Guha, the Guru of Subaltern Studies group in his well-known book Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency brought to the centre stage the role of rumour, symbols, territoriality, etc in graphic details obviously at the cost of the fundamentals of colonial exploitation that lay behind the resistances and. revolts. Homi Bhaba seizes on Guha’s discussion of rumour helping precipitate the revolts. For Bhaba, "the indeterminate circulation of meaning as rumour or conspiracy, with a pervasive, psychic effects of panic, constitutes the inter-subjective realm of revolt and resistance."[Homi Bhana, Ibid, p. 200] Thus we are taken to the absurd height by drawing on Guha’s illustration of the role of rumour or of sending ‘chapati’ from one village to the other. as a symbolic signal for the circulation of ‘insurgency’. Bhaba writes "....the reinscription of a traditional system of organisation through the disturbance, or interruption of the circulation of the cultural codes ...bears a marked similarity to the conjunctural history of the Mutiny."[Homi Bhaba, ibid. p. 202] Thus the great earth-shaking rebellion of 1857 against British imperialism is conceptualized primarily in terms of an "interruption" of the signifying chain. If revolts are explained fundamentally in terms of developing "familiar symbol" as chapati into an "unfamiliar social significance as sign" through a transformation of the temporality of its presentation, this history or making history is reduced to an exercise merely in such transformation. Marxism obviously rejects such superficial academic approach hesitant to go at the roots. The early claim of subaltern studies to situate writing within the collective reflection of the Indian left in order to highlight the achievements and limitations of great anti-imperialist struggles of the subaltern masses is itself a history now.

Gayatri Chakraborty Spivack, the subaltern theorist and translator of Derrida’s book Of Gramatology explains in 1988 that "their work presupposes that the entire socials, at least in so far as it is the object of their study, is what Nietzche would call a fortgesetzte zeichenkette — a ‘continuous sign-chain’. The possibility of action lies in its dynamics of the disruption of the object, the breaking and relinking of the chain. The line of argument does not set consciousness over against the socius, but see it as itself constituted us and on a semiotic chain."[Gayatri Chakraborty Spivac in Guha and Spivak (eds), Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988, p.5] The same refrain of culture or nature or language constituting us, what Spivak found in the perspective of Subaltern Studies, Bhaba echoes it when he discovers the Great Revolt of 1857 is the "disruption of the" "semiotic chain", a chain that binds not only human consciousness but also the social in its entirety. What is dangerous is the central concept that rebellion is the disruption of signifying chain. Thus Bhaba’s post-colonial theory is an idealist reduction of the social to the semiotic and a tunnel-view of politics. It is in order to state what Edward Said had to self-critically comment later virtually rejecting the opposition to totality. He asserted that "if subaltern is constituted to be only a separatist enterprise much as early feminine writing was based on the notion that women had a voice or room of their own, entirely separate from the masculine domain—then it must run the risk of just being a mirror opposite [of] the writing whose tyranny it disputes. It is also likely to be as exclusivist, as limited, provincial and discriminatory in its suppression and repression as the master discourses of colonialism and elitism. In fact, as Guha [Ranajit Guha] shows, the subaltern alternative is an integrative, for all gaps, the lapses and ignorance of which it is so conscious. Its claim that by being subalternist it can see the whole experience of India resistance to colonialism more fairly than the partial histories provided by a handful of dominant native leaders or colonial historians..."[Edward Said, Foreword, in Guha and Spivask (eds)., Selected Subaltern Studies, ibid p. viii] It is self-explanatory that Said now rejects the attempt to base the critical theory on a binary opposition between dominant and subaltern groups; at the same time he seems to be in favour of a totalizing perspective for comprehending the nature and means of turning upside down the relations of oppression. What glaringly comes to the fore is that the so-called post-colonial thought born out of and nurtured by post-modernist philosophical foundation based on Nietzche’s metaphysics of power is a pure and simple attempt at depoliticization of theory as appears in Foucault’s last writings of an "aesthetics of existence" implying that political action be redirected away from any intervention in the public sphere towards restyling of the self. It is a thought, which destroys the attempts at resistance, not to speak of emancipation. Foucault, the mentor of post-modernist/post-colonial theorists like Edward Said was later criticised by none but Said himself.


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