Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

From my Feminist Philosophy readings:
Edward Said's Orientalism has fathered a received wisdom in colonial studies that has proved to be as narrow and frozen in its scope as it has been powerful in its impact. It proceeds from a conviction in the totalising nature of a western power knowledge that gives to the entire Oreint a single image with absolute efficacy. Writings of the Subaltern Studies pundits of a group of feminists, largely located in the first world academia, have come to identify the structures of colonial knowledge as the originary moment for all possible kinds of power and disciplinary formations, since, going by Said, Orientalism alone reserves for itself the whole range of hegemonic capabilities. This unproblematic and entirely non=historicised "transfer of power" to structures of colonial knowledge has three major consequences; it constructs a necessarily monolithic, non-stratified colonised subject who is, moreover, entirely powerless, and entirely without an effective and operative history of his/her own. The only history that s/he is capable of generating is necessarily a derivative one. As a result, the colonised subject is absolved of all complicity and culpability in the makings of the structures of exploitation in the last two hundred years of our history. The only culpability lies in the surrender to colonial knowledge. As a result, the lone political agenda for a historiography of this period shrinks to the contestation of colonial knowledge since all power supposedly flows from this single source. Each and every kind of contestation, by the same token, is taken to be equally valid. Today, with a triumphalist growth of aggressively communist and/or fundamentalistic [identity]-politics in our country, such a position comes close to indigenism and acquires a near-Fascistic potential in its authoritarian insistence on the purity of indigenous epistemological and autological conditions.

It has weird implications for the feminist agenda as well. The assumption that colonialism has wiped out all past histories of patriarchal domination, replacing them neatly and exclusively with western forms of gender relations, has naturally led on to an identification of patriarchy in modern India with the project of liberal reform alone. While liberalism is made to stand in for the only vehicle of patriarchal ideology since it is complicit with western knowledge, its opponents--the revivalists, the orthodoxy--are vested with a rebellious, even emancipatory agenda, since they refused colonisation of the domestic ideology. And since colonised knowledge is regarded as the exclusive source of all power, anything that contests it is supposed to have an emancipatory possibility for the women. By easy degrees, then, we reach the position that while opposition to widow immolation was complicit with colonial silencing of non-colonised voices and, consequently, was an exercise of power, the practice of widow-immolation itself was a contestatory act outside the realm of power relations since it was not sanctioned by colonisation. In a country where people will still gather in lakhs to watch and celebrate the burning of a teen-aged girl as sati, such cultural studies are heavy with grim political implications.

Tanika Sarka, Rhetoric against the Age of Consent: Resisting Colonial Reason and Death of a Child-Wife, Economic and Political Weekly (September 4, 1993), p. 1869.

Professor Sarkar is an Indian historian (currently teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University). The piece is on how this harsh binary between empowered colonial discourse, and resisting "traditional" ones, ended up masking and suppressing an indigenous political and social resistance to certain oppressive practices (here, child brides). While Orientalism certainly flattens out the cultures it gazes upon (so that "India", as a whole, supports marrying off children), defenders of the orthodox status quo are easily able to pivot off "anti-colonialism" to do the same thing -- casting their preexisting intellectual and social opponents as agents of the empire, complicit in its evil, while their behavior -- far from representing an internally-contested expression of proper cultural norms -- is "resistance", and thus not the proper subject of critique.

I don't repost this quote because I think this is something "all feminists" or "all people opposed to colonialism" do (the fact that Professor Sarkar wrote the article, and that it was assigned in a Feminist Philosophy class, gives lie to that notion anyway). But I do think Professor Sarkar is responding to a real dynamic that has real consequences in terms of how we understand securing human rights across diverse, plural societies.

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