Spivak – critique of postcolonial reason 1.2

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is visiting Goldsmiths – Some of us have returned to reread her Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Such a great, difficult, suggestive book.
These are some subjective comments and reading notes on the Philosophy chapter. The first part is on Immanuel Kant here.

2. Hegel

The section on Hegel is more a section on the Bhagavad Gita in context. It requires some homework with a difficult script which is much overlain with versionings, from the television serialisations and oleographs of popular culture in India today, to the chantings of Iskon in the streets of every major western metropolis and their sometimes very good vegetarian restaurants through to inanities like the pop band Kula Shaker’s exoticist Krishna consumptionism. Similarly, some effort is needed to move beyond simple received versions of caste, and several necessary texts should be consulted, especially ‘Hindus of the Himalayas’ by Gerald Berreman, and ‘Imagining India’ by Ron Inden just for starters.

Spivak herself is very well versed in this history, ironically almost, noting that she might even satisfy the demand that ethnics speak for themselves, having received the text as a ‘profoundly taken’ (p63) teenage enthusiast. Bengal as place of Brahmo Samaj movement, RamMohan Roy, Bhakti devotional cults and the like… History however is the key problem here where Hegel calls such texts empty and monotonous, and though he admires the beauty of the verses he finds them to have an absence of history, and so they are a deviation from the story of spirit he is – on a larger scale – wanting to graph (not chart, I guess, because a graph is less materialist, and more system-like, as in system without foundation…).

Spivak, of course, is not bored by alleged monotony. This is a lever which opens up Hegel to the world as another ‘mistaken’ reading (or rather reading of mistakes) is offered alongside an interested declaration that this effort might counter the too easy west-and-the-rest polarisations of colonial and postcolonial discourse studies (p39). This is part of a persistent attempt also to displace the simple reversals of Caliban and Prospero that some times may be lauded by progressive western liberals – and to do this by pointing to the ‘complicity between native hegemony and the axiomatics of imperialism’ (p37). (This has implications for work like Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici I think – a whole other story one day…)

For Hegel the Gita is not history, but it is possible to read this differently. The Gita must be situated within the Mahabharata, of which it is a small – however important, part. Various authorities and styles of doing so are surveyed – Kosambi, Motilal and van Buitenen. Spivak wants to differ slightly from these somewhat literal situatings to challenge the ‘often unexamined opposition between colonizer and colonized’ in much colonial discourse study (p46). Not realist, as in Kosambi, but about structure and text, and working via the mistaken attempt to engage that (im)possible perspective of the native informant which is her wider theme.

The native informant is a mistaken trope in that its anthropological heritage (as source of evidence) and as a possible recovery of a lost unity (that never did exist, just as the unified ‘third world’ is not there in the nationalist movements or lodged exclusively with the ethnic minorities in the first world who articulate it). Still, the idea of a contemporary reader of the Gita in context may be conjured; first to note a) how bemused such a reader might be at the suggestion that a text about the negation of history – Krishna teaches Arjuna that all appearance is illusion – might be taken as a-historical, secondly b) to note that Hegel and many exoticist readers do construct such a mistaken contemporary reader of the Gita; and c) to read this text on the back of the homework necessary – mentioned above – that would allow at least the refusal of a centralised interpellation of the native informant, by taking the trouble to learn enough to be able to produce such a ‘contemporary reader’ and not ‘teach the producer[s] of neo-colonialist knowledge to chant in unison, “one cannot truly know the cultures of other places, other times”’ (p50)

Of course the ideological use of the text is also local – the Brahmanical tradition can use the epic as a convenient vehicle for doctrine, says Kosambi. Karma and caste are crucial here, and Arjuna is inducted by Krishna into what is now often read as a conservative even fundamentalist (BJP, RSS) ideology. The question of history is brought up here by Spivak and she notes how Krishna contains all history within his true self, only revealing this to Arjuna by special dispensation, Krishna is unborn and imperishable, and manifests whenever the law is in decline, but was already there at the beginning. Human time is a lesser time here (p53). (There is an interesting comment on Erscheinung – illusion – that must make us think of Marx in Kapital, but this is a side-step). Krishna in divine form contains all appearance (Maya) and in Arjuna’s vision masticates all the combatants on the field of battle between his teeth. (p55-6). (Quiet aside – this teeth-gnashing scene terrifies me with the threat of flashbacks – and of course its been read as a bad mad trip by the denizens of Manali and the like… nod to Max Ryan, a colleague of yore – arriving in India dropping acid on the plane for fuck’s sake [true story]).

We are a long way from Hegel’s monotony in any case. Reading Spivak, this text could be understood as a thinking through of a transition from tribal society to something like a state form. This is a big claim and it will be no surprise that it will be a long task to work up the scholarship that would allow an assessment. Certainly the story of the Mahabharata seems to indicate an allegory of state building, but then the question of (national) allegory as applied to every epic text has been problematized in the debate between Ahmad and Jameson. Even as Ahmad wins that one, on a wider scale, I am not sure where we should rest on this one as yet… well, no doubt we should not rest, however monotonous some of the moves have become.

Page 60 is worth reading carefully in terms of the role of US third worldism and the uncritical enthusiasms for getting authentic ethnics (who could not possibly but be confections vis a vis the foreclosed native informant) to speak up . These lost figures are promoted both by indigenous elite nationalists and by well meaning western liberals and manifest today in fundamentalist essentialisms of a sometimes virulent type. Here the difference between an effort of sublating and the accomplished sublation is of interest (p60). ‘To repeat, neither the colonial or the postcolonial subject inhabits the (im)possible perspective of the native informant or the implied contemporary reader’ (p62).

What is Spivak saying here about the native informant she seems to need to trip her text, and for her to trick out a contemporary reader of the Gita in situ – seems quite impossible. There is no such timeless being as that native informant of anthropology uncritically championed by those who would retrieve a lost indigenous authenticity (and so deny colonialism and historical transition etc). On the other hand an uncritical celebration of the hybrid is no alternative to the vigilance that is necessary to continually challenge the complicity of postcolonial figuration with these options.

Where Spivak does not continue as far into the story as she might, there is also a lacunae – linking religious fundamentalist denial of basic rights with the legal denial of rights by new states such as Indonesia and Malaysia and ‘laws’ like the Internal Security Act is apposite. But we might go further and note how modified traditionalisms like panchashila might be used to justify such ‘law’ and look to history also – the ISA in Malaysia for example was a British colonial legal form designed to deal with the communist insurgence, adopted by the conservative elite at independence, where Tunku Raman was favoured by the Brits in the negotiated decolonisation in order to keep out the undefeated communists. This would today need to be brought forward to also take account of the raft of similar ‘laws’ passed in almost all states in the wake of the war of terror initiated by Bush and Blair. A certain complicity between crusaders and legal forms is not far fetched here.

The attempt though is to continue to undo the continuing subordination by the figuration of the native informant into a reader’s perspective – the work of a resistant reader and teacher is never complete (the dredging operation in the mainstream that runs muddy continually – see Mahasweta here).

3. Marx.
Marxism forecloses the native informant via the socialisation of women’s/reproductive labour power because of a Eurocentric prejudice. Foreclosed as vanguard. The next section examines the Asiatic Mode of Production and Value… These sketchy notes also need more work, so I have to delay yet again, and reread…

The next bit soon, I promise…

The previous bit is here.