Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Catherine Prendergast, "Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief"
Response by Kaia Simon

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


[On November 10, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the second lecture in the 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief: The American Arts Colony in the Public Account." The speaker was Catherine Prendergast, Professor of English. Professor Kathryn Oberdeck (History) responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student Kaia Simon (English).]

Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief: The American Arts Colony in the Public Account
Written by Kaia Simon

The origin story of the Yaddo artist colony is steeped in romanticism, the natural, and the supernatural. It lauds the benevolence of the rich in creating and preserving a space for the development of art and artists. The origin story runs like this: during a walk in the Yaddo woods surrounding her home, Katrina Trask (a wealthy married woman and prolific author of poetry and plays) sees a divine vision that instructs her to leave Yaddo to artists. She grabs her husband’s arm and pointing to the trees, claims to see a vision of men and women among them, “creating, creating, creating!” Spencer Trask, her husband, moved by his wife’s vision, agrees to bequeath the estate for an artists’ retreat. Thus, Yaddo is founded as an idyllic site for the development of artists and has since yielded a rich harvest of 68 National Book Award winners, 67 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 108 Rome Award winners.

Prendergast demystifies this origin story and offers a counternarrative of its founding and legacy. She argues that a study of the material conditions surrounding the acquisition of the Yaddo estate and its eventual incorporation is crucial to understanding that the economic and the cultural are not separate realms in American life but intricately connected. Prendergast’s account brings to light the material conditions that made and continues to make Yaddo possible. She contends that rather than being a story of divine intervention and the affirmation of artistic work, Yaddo was built on the economic panic of “second-tier robber barons”--the Old Money Yankees whose fortunes could not compete with the New Money of J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and the Guggenheims, but who wanted to use philanthropy to protect their wealth during the economic booms and busts of the end of the Gilded Age. These second-tier robber barons might not have been able to amass art collections or endow libraries across the nation, but they were able to buy up rural properties on the cheap—and found many of these artist colonies.


The Yaddo Mansion, ca. 1905
Prendergast arrives at this claim after careful and detailed study of the documents containing the economic transactions and court cases related to the Yaddo estate, and by examining the Saratoga locals’ response to the Trasks and the Yaddo estate. By assembling an archive of documents that detail the material conditions of acquisition, development, staffing, and maintenance of this estate, Prendergast is able to argue that it is the very fraught history of the conflict between the economic and political interests of the Trasks and the people of Saratoga that enabled Yaddo to exist and, eventually, to thrive. Her research sheds light on the complex interconnections between business and charity, New York and Saratoga, and Spencer Trask, Katrina Trask, and George Foster Peabody. These linkages, much more than divine vision and noblesse oblige, offer a clearer material history of the founding of Yaddo.

Prendergast’s archival research captures the complexity of personal and business relations at this time, and offers rich details to help us understand the personal and economic motives that inform the development of Yaddo. Some of the most compelling details center around the Trasks’ marriage: that they used the estate and the people who staffed it to “play medieval” (even addressing each other Lorde and Ladye in their correspondence); that Spencer encouraged his wife’s affair with George Foster Peabody as Spencer himself kept residence in his office on Bowling Green; and that Spencer’s death may not have been the train “accident” it was reported as in newspapers. These details plot the unrest between Yaddo and the Saratoga locals, explain Katrina’s eventual marriage to Peabody, and illuminate Peabody’s role as president and chairman of both the Yaddo Board and the Broadway Realty Company.

Yaddo’s documented economic history started in August 1873. The mansion and land were auctioned to buyers who Prendergast likened to those who bought vacation property in Florida in 2005. Yaddo’s property immediately lost 70% of its value in the subsequent September 1873 market crash, paving the way for Spencer to buy the mansion and surrounding property on foreclosure in 1881, and then eventually buy up the surrounding lots at deflated prices from owners who could no longer afford them. Prendergast documents one conflict between Spencer and a landowner named Hamilton, who not only refused to sell his lot but also took Trask to court for changing the course of a stream and flooding that very land. This conflict speaks to the way the Saratoga locals resisted the entitlement the Trasks exercised.The Trasks did not endear themselves to the residents of Saratoga in any way: not only did they take advantage of their misfortune in acquiring the land, they insulted their employees and orchestrated moralistic anti-gambling campaigns targeting their activities and practices. The people of Saratoga resisted them in multiple ways: in the papers, in court, and even through civil disobedience (which, Prendergast said, is a nice word for vandalism).

The Yaddo pergola
Amid this complex interplay of forces, Prendergast argues, Yaddo was born as an artist colony. The central conflict between Yaddo and the people of Saratoga centered on Yaddo’s claim for tax-exempt status as a charitable organization, long before the first artists were installed there. After being denied tax-exempt status by the city of Saratoga on the claim that Yaddo was functioning only as a private residence with no evidence of artists in its quarters, a series of court decisions forced Peabody to actually work to incorporate and develop Yaddo. Because of the public's and the court’s scrutiny, Peabody appointed a board of directors for the charitable organization, held meetings, and developed the land, all to save face for what had been initially a tax shelter for the Broadway Realty Company. After eventually winning the court cases and achieving tax-exempt status, Yaddo accepted its first artists in residence during 1926. The public of Saratoga did not collect any tax money from the estate, essentially subsidizing it.

Prendergast does not intend this story to be a critique of artists’ colonies or of support for the arts in the United States—quite the opposite, in fact. She uses this story to argue that without an understanding of the material history of public support and funding for the arts, the arts can too easily become pawns in others’ economic battles, while the actual public support for the arts goes unaccounted for. Prendergast shows that the public of Saratoga made and continue to make Yaddo possible: by not collecting taxes from it and by working there while surrendering the use of the land for other public uses or good. Ironically, despite its continued investment in Yaddo—whether willing or not—the public receives no credit in the enshrined origin story of Yaddo. The benefactors and donors do. Prendergast wonders what the actual cost of such stories of altruistic purity are, and how they continue to obscure the public support that sustains the arts.
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Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Asef Bayat, "Revolutions of Neoliberal Times"
Response by Rohini S. Singh

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[On October 27, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the first lecture in the 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Revolutions of Neoliberal Times." The speaker was Asef Bayat, Bastian Professor in Global and Transnational Studies (Sociology). Professor Jessica Greenberg (Anthropology) responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student affiliate Rohini S. Singh (Communication).] 


"Tahrir Square Was a Revolution – Right?" 
Written by Rohini S. Singh 

People speak often of the "Arab uprising" and the domino series of revolutions it set off throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. However, the key takeaway from Asef Bayat's talk on Monday was that we might not be correct in calling what happened in Egypt a revolution. Instead, argued Bayat, the people involved in the Arab Spring uprisings critiqued the impact of neoliberalism on their lives in ways which conformed ultimately to neoliberal logics. As such, these protesters did not effect meaningful change of the sort usually brought about by revolutions. Rather than unseat political regimes or overhaul economic systems, they merely voiced dissent without enacting tangible changes in existing power structures. 

This ineffectual behavior might seem counter-intuitive, said Bayat, especially in light of the increasing income inequality wrought by neoliberalism, the global economic phenomenon which places the principles of free market capitalism at the center of social and political life. After all, neoliberalism's espousal of capitalism has generated incredible exclusion and inequality. Bayat cited a Forbes survey which found that the 400 richest people possess as much wealth as half the American public and argued that this kind of inequality can be found everywhere in the world. However, in spite of this stark inequality, there seems to have been little challenge mounted against this system.

Bayat hypothesized that this is because neoliberalism generates dissent that is itself conditioned by the structures and logics of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, explained Bayat, has commoditized emotions, relationships, and even social movements. It is a kind of governmentality that structures thinking and decision-making to the point where people cannot imagine a feasible alternative to it. By undertaking, as Michel Foucault called it, the "application of the economic grid to social phenomena," neoliberalism treats every institution as a business enterprise, whether it is a school, a hospital, or the state itself. It manifests in hierarchical structures, the constant striving for unlimited growth, the production of goods for exchange, fierce competition, the prioritization of self-interest, and the pursuit of efficiency. Hence, in its focus on individual effort and interest, neoliberalism seems to lack notions of society, community, the collective good, and real democracy (as opposed to formal democracy). 

Asef Bayat
In an effort, perhaps, to address this lacuna, two types of movements have arisen in response to neoliberalism. In places where neoliberal policies are mixed with autocratic regimes, we have seen revolutions aimed at regime change. However, in more liberal democracies, we have seen movements protesting the effects of neoliberalism while functioning within its structures. It is this latter group that we tend to see more in twenty-first century politics. Thus, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S protested the involvement of money in politics as well as the effects of neoliberal projects (such as unemployment and inequality) without systematically or adequately questioning the capitalist system that lay at the root of this inequality. While the Occupy movement expressed a profound distrust of liberal democracy, the movement focused more on highlighting the crisis of political representation in the U.S. than on articulating a radical critique of liberal democracy or outlining the alternative system they wanted. 

Similarly, in Egypt, it was not the economic model but the political regime that was the early target of the revolutionaries. The irony is that despite being targeted, these regimes did not change. The revolutions of the “Arab Spring” were not revolutions in terms of effecting changes to the state led by the people. Instead, the protesters here sought a mix of revolution and reform: Bayat characterized these protests as “refolutions” or "revolutions without revolutionaries." These protagonists, he argued, had not read deeply about revolutions, unseating regimes, or questioning ideologies. They found themselves caught up in the revolutions of 2011, overtaken by events rather than instigating them consciously. Given that they had not had much experience with past revolutions, these protesters therefore had no idea how to wrest the state back from the power-holders in government. Thus, Bayat observed that the language of revolution in Egypt's most recent revolutions remained mild and innocuous compared to earlier revolutions because the newer revolutionaries lacked the intellectual resources and vision to transform the incumbent regime. The social and economic vision of leaders in the Arab Revolution differed little from that of the old regimes, in contrast to revolutionaries in Cuba, Russia, China, Nicaragua, and Eastern Europe, who advanced different ideologies from the regimes they sought to topple. 

Tahrir Square Protest, 2013
In addition, Egypt's protesters used the language of the markets to critique the political regime, thus resisting their governments while adhering to the principles of the capitalist system by which these regimes functioned. Bayat described how one of the revolutionary groups went so far as to use marketing techniques to “sell” the protests. In doing so, the Egyptian “revolutionaries” borrowed from the 1998 Serbian uprising which also used branding through street art as a way to promote their movement and its aims. As such, the Arab Spring revolutions remained fairly pro-business, both in their tactics and impact. Bayat noted that the Arab Uprising resulted in a minimal flight of capital or investment during the revolutions, with only eight factories taken over in Egypt versus hundreds in previous revolutions in Iran, Chile, Algeria, and Portugal. Bayat closed by noting that the unparalleled number of protests instigated during the Arab Uprising hardly translated into actual revolution or regime change. 

Jessica Greenberg's response asked what the clout of neoliberalism meant for the possibility of a coherent politics or effectual social movements. She argued that modern social movements have shown that if anything, we must abandon existing definitions of revolutions and question the value of revolutions as a means of social change. She suggested that we should shift our understanding from the definitional to the situational by focusing on the everyday lived experiences of people involved in revolutions. To that extent, she argued that for many activists, the important thing is not to ask what revolution means, but what it does. The lesson she drew from this was that the question is not what to do about neoliberalism, but how to live with it. 

The ensuing questions touched on the role of violence in revolutions and the fault-lines of neoliberalism. To the first, Bayat responded that revolutionaries in Egypt were adamant that they did not want to resort to violence in their protests, but that they did fight back when faced with physical intimidation by the regime. When thinking about the possible fault-lines of hegemonic neoliberalism, Bayat mused that neoliberalism's effects are seen in the unprecedented inequality it has generated around the world. Thus, in the dissents of the Arab world, the key issue was not just the dictatorial regime in power but the consequences of neoliberal ideology for the middle-class poor. Bayat urged the audience to realize the importance of engaging in the "long revolution" by seeking changes in laws and systems of power to push for lasting social transformation. 

[Bayat's talk was part of the Unit for Criticism's ongoing 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series. The next lecture is on Monday, November 10, at 4pm, in the Alice Campbell Alumni Center Ballroom, where we will hear from Catherine Prendergast (English) on "Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief: The American Arts Colony in the Public Account."]
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Cliven Bundy, King of Nevada

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Written by Nicholas Cragoe (Sociology)

It’s been a few months since we heard anything much about Cliven Bundy. He’s fading farther and farther from the front page, being quickly forgotten by the media and the public. But for a few weeks in the Spring of 2014, he held court on the dry plains of Nevada grazing country. All the same, a quick refresher: Bundy was and is a cattle rancher near Bunkerville, NV, who decided one day that he’d had enough of being pushed around by federal legislation he had little say in. The straw that broke the rancher’s back seems to have been an attempt by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to curtail ranching ranges in Nevada in order to protect the endangered desert tortoise.
Cliven Bundy
Bundy decided to protest what he saw as federal overreaching by grazing his cattle on federally owned land without providing the necessary paperwork and fees. This was an illegal action under federal law, but through every microphone that would come near him, Bundy proclaimed his refusal to recognize the authority of the US federal government, believing Nevada to be a “sovereign” state and the highest authority to which Bundy would pay allegiance (or anything else). Bundy quickly became a cause-celebre and the mouthpiece for disgruntled anti-government types across the nation, making headlines and giving interviews, receiving support from conservative politicians and media outlets, and whipping the far right into a frenzy.
When the government wrangled Bundy’s cattle and tried to make some arrests, an armed standoff ensued near Bundy’s home involving the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), law enforcement officers, and a small militia of Bundy’s family and supporters. Ultimately the government opted to return the cattle and retreated from the scene. Bundy became the darling of the anti-political right, at least until he made some ill-advised and, frankly, surreal comments about the history of race and slavery, at which point Fox News was seen sprinting in the other direction as fast as possible, along with most of Bundy’s more mainstream supporters. In the months since, Bundy’s fame has faded, but the political and cultural conflict surrounding the Bundy family ranch remains genuinely bizarre and unsettled.
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Critical Inequalities: Closing Roundtable
Jenn Baldwin

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


[On May 9-10, 2014 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held the conference “Critical Inequalities.” Below are the remarks by closing roundtable participant Jenn Baldwin (Medicine/Anthropology).]

Written by Jenn Baldwin (Medicine/Anthropology)

Over the last two months, through the faculty/graduate seminar organized by the Unit for Criticism, we have engaged with the subject of this conference through a range of different disciplines, theoretical frameworks, and the impressive scholarship of many of our conference participants about the real world contexts they each study. And in reflecting on the scholarship and discussion from the last two days, I want to revisit the two terms that brought us all together: Critical Inequalities.

To many of us in the audience the term “critical” refers to a theoretical mode of engagement, a critique. Critique engages us in the necessary task of cultivating theoretical models and analytics that allow us to move back and forth between particular contexts and wider shared experiences, between the micro and macro manifestations of historical and global processes. But the term “critical” also references an analysis of the role of power in shaping social formations and experiences.

For example, critical medical anthropology, my own discipline, seeks to evaluate the body as a political site, with material and symbolic qualities that are produced through and made the subject of power relations. Well-recognized scholarship includes Paul Farmer’s work and interventions in medicine that demonstrate how social inequalities powerfully sculpt the distribution of infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis as well as health outcomes among the infected. As Farmer notes, “in a very real way, inequality itself constitutes [a] modern plague” and a “pathogenic force.” At the conference in May, Didier Fassin’s harrowing statistics told a comparable story regarding the disparate rates of chronic conditions and life expectancies experienced by individuals who occupy different racial and class positions.

Fassin’s work on biolegitimacy also makes an important intervention into the Foucauldian concept of biopower. He argues that Foucault’s biopower addresses the governmentality of life itself which is defined as le vivant, or life-as-biology following the work of Georges Canguilhem. Instead, Fassin wishes for us to analyze life as such which he defines as life that is lived (le vĂ©cu--biographical, and embedded in political choices and moral economies. Fassin argues that to talk about biolegitimacy rather than biopower is to emphasize the stakes of the game rather than the rules. Discussing biolegitimacy in his keynote address, Fassin revealed the inherent contradictions between rhetoric upholding the equality of all men and the disparate meanings, values, and treatment assigned to particular lives.

In the world of medicine, the term “critical” also references a particular bodily state. Being in a “critical condition” denotes a vulnerable status of severity, acuity, and precarity. To the medical profession, it indexes a dangerous deviation from a state of balance in which the body is no longer able to flexibly regulate and adjust to changes in its internal and external environment. It is a deviation from a state conducive with living and the future. It warns that the individual’s prognosis is not favorable to and potentially incompatible with life.

In identifying these alternative meanings of “critical,” I am restating what we already know: when we talk about “critical” inequalities, we are often talking about relationships of power that render individuals and communities vulnerable--sometimes to the point of physical or social death. On an abstract level, inequalities are the products of large-scale social forces that have disparate effects on unequally positioned individuals. The work we addressed during the Critical Inequalities conference and seminar all points to the concrete and devastating effects of such inequalities. Specific examples from the presentations and scholarship discussed includes:

* Margaret Somers’ haunting images of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, along with her analysis of the increased risk, insecurities, and burdens that are borne by the poor and increasingly the middle class as a result of market fundamentalist policies that recode as deregulation those regulative policies that redistribute wealth to the rich.

* Jeremy Varon’s presentation which recalls the social vulnerability that inspired the anger of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the wake of the recent financial crisis and its accompanying soaring rates of unemployment and housing foreclosures.

* Patricia Williams’s writing on Trayvon Martin’s death and the struggle for justice within the courts, as well as her keynote address on the re-biologization of racism (thanks in part to a new book by the science editor of the New York Times), as well as the ongoing deployment of racial stereotypes in the media, by corporations, and society-at-large. Her scholarship vividly captured how these factors framed Martin's death, as well as the changing metrics for assigning value to (or we might say, devaluing) human life within increasingly neoliberal, privatized, and corporate moral economies.

* Rob Nixon’s published work on the protracted, slow deaths among this and future generations as a result of environmental degradation and climate change which provided yet another example of how inequality works to exacerbate environmental risk. Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan’s juridical and ethnographic analyses also revealed how environmental destruction poses a threat to social rights and collective identity.

My own work on US veterans returning home with war traumas suggests yet another set of asymmetrical effects: examples include the targeted recruitment of the urban and rural poor into our professional military, the epidemic of veteran suicides and homelessness resulting from these recent wars, and even a soldier’s predisposing risk for developing PTSD when he or she has had earlier exposures to trauma and violence including childhoods marked by poverty, domestic abuse, and other forms of overt and structural violence. Looking through the glass darkly also reveals the hidden companions to these veterans’ politically acknowledged traumas and injuries. It reveals the significant burdens of psychological trauma, physical injuries, and deaths of both private contractors and Iraqi civilians that are little recognized in our society.

In all of these ways, our engagement of this topic showed again and again that the task of critically countering the mechanisms and effects of inequality of various kinds requires a diverse disciplinary tool kit and multiple methodologies. Likewise, many of the talks demonstrated the importance of evaluating inequality at different scales: whether from the precious individual to the statistical population Fassin surveyed, from the local community and village courts to the national juridical arena assessed in Sivaramakrishnan’s work, or from national policies to their linkage with international trends as Siobhan Somerville analyzed.

Somers’ and Williams’ scholarship asks us to consider how ideologies that naturalize or biologize the status quo justify prejudicial treatment and the state’s lack of obligation to serve particular groups equally.

Mary Romero and Somerville highlight the need to compare—perhaps even to queer—our analyses of how the rights and citizenship of particular populations are framed. As their scholarship individually and collectively suggests, such analyses allow us to elucidate how the use or expansion of certain categories can result in the contraction of rights and possibilities for some groups, while also shoring up normative, or otherwise exclusionary ideologies and policies.

I would like to end with some questions that emerged in reflecting on the last two days: How do we or should we represent inequality? What are the necessary aesthetics of representation? What are the cognitive, affective, and political tasks that these representations should accomplish? Do some mediations or modes of representation harm rather than help, and how so?

Fassin contrasted the image of a “precious brown haired girl” with statistical renderings that alienate the personal and lived realities from the quantitative representation of inequality. Somers presented us with three slides regarding representation. The first one stated “this is what inequality looks like” and revealed a messy, complicated graph of statistical trends. The second slide announced “this is what inequality sounds like” and cited the sickening statistic that the top 1% of Americans captured 95% of the income gains in the first two years of the economic recovery. The third slide concluded with “this is what exclusion looks like” as a caption to an image of a victim of Hurricane Katrina, dead from flood waters she was unable to escape. Angelique Haugerud’s work offers an analysis of the aesthetics of satire and its use in social and political activism as performed in the Billionaires for Bush movement. Additionally, Sivaramakrishnan’s work offers another way of thinking about representation that suggests a more celebratory and optimistic modality through his documentation of the political and legal gains being made by those whose cultural identity and heritage is under threat by environmental degradation.

Yet, in reflecting on how to represent inequality, I am also reminded of Arthur and Joan Kleinman’s concern over the effects of the commodification of images of suffering and inequality via their global circulation and consumption. The Kleinmans warn that many of the mediations of inequality and suffering that populate nightly news stories and humanitarian campaigns risk alienating the consumers of these images (largely located in the global north) from their own complicity in the production and maintenance of inequality. Further, they warn against the tendency of representations of inequality and suffering to mask local agency and obfuscate from view the significant and necessary efforts made by local communities to intervene on behalf of their own members.

While I can posit no answers to the questions I raised, it is clear from both the Kleinmans’ cautionary remarks and the exemplary scholarship of our participants in this conference that much work lies ahead which will require both our heads and our hearts as we commit ourselves to understanding and representing critical inequalities, their causal mechanisms, and the solutions necessary for their extinction.

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Author’s Roundtable: Vivek Chibber, "Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital"
Response by Utathya Chattopadhyaya

Thursday, June 26, 2014

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory held an Author’s Roundtable hosting Vivek Chibber (NYU) to discuss his new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013), with responses by Hina Nazar  (English), Anustup Basu (English/Media & Cinema Studies) and Utathya Chattopadhyaya (History). The responses from Nazar  and Basu were published earlier; the response from Utathya Chattopadhyaya is below.]


“Time to move on? A response to Vivek Chibber”
Written by Utathya Chattopadhyaya (History)

It is time to let the dust settle and move on, that remained the lingering thought after Vivek Chibber spoke at the recent author’s roundtable on his book, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. It was abundantly clear that there is no possible critique that such a work is open to, because, as Chibber insisted vehemently to a room full of students of critical theory, “theory is either right, or wrong.” Spending more time and breath on why this recent attempt to “take down” (the spectre of?) Subaltern Studies is futile and flawed, may just end up being a wild goose chase.

Several people have, by now, pointed out the flaws in the book. Chatterjee has noted Chibber’s inability to understand why Guha’s critique of liberal historiography was indifferent to the question of how empirically accurate his version of European history was or in fact, that Chakrabarty had left the Marxist assumption that capital universalizes through the homogenization and commodification of abstract labour, untouched in the analysis of the limits to capitalist universalization. Spivak has pointed out, in turn, how Chibber remains guilty of several category errors: for example, switching between Capital and Capitalism, Bourgeoisie and capitalist.

In my response to Chibber’s book at the event, I came to it not as someone invested in the continuation of an ideal-type Subaltern Studies that Chibber has made the project out to be. By now, everyone is well aware that Subaltern Studies scholars have themselves moved on to different terrains which may or may not bear resemblance to their work of two decades ago. I came to it, rather, as a student of interdisciplinary history, most specifically of South Asia. While that may itself be a specialist’s corner, I think that emphasis is necessary to evaluate the intervention Chibber is making in the landscape of social theory, riding on the back of what was, to begin with, an initiative in critical South Asian history writing. I say social theory, not just because the book’s jacket says so, but because I doubt this work can unsettle much else within and between other humanities disciplines. Social theory remains its nebulous home for now.

The reasons for my scepticism are simple enough. Historians and anthropologists of South Asia, working inside as well as outside South Asia, have, for the last three decades, critiqued, transformed, and enhanced arguably every inch of ground that Subaltern Studies had ventured into since 1982. Most importantly, they have done so by not using Subaltern Studies writing as some kind of general theory with its unshakeable cornerstones, as Chibber does. Instead, they have approached questions of agrarian history, peasant politics, judicial violence, gender history, nationalism and other historical questions in order to produce historically specific and layered kinds of theory about subalternity. (For a recent study of the convict-coolie as subaltern, for example, see Clare Anderson, Subaltern Lives.) Indeed, many have rejected subalternity as well, finding its emphasis on autonomous domains restrictive in the histories of multidimensional peasant and worker politics. For lack of a better term, we could call this approach “history-as-theory,” as opposed to the brush-like application of “theory” to “history.” To take just one example, when Ranajit Guha came to write Chandra’s Death, one doubts whether he decided to apply theories of everyday resistance to his archive, or lack thereof. In that essay, the idea of dignity is arrived at, not presupposed, as a theoretical and interpretive explanation for the events at hand.

Chibber’s book seems to overlook a wealth of already existing critique of postcolonial theory, which is arguably far more contextual than Chibber’s. Again, let me give just one among numerous examples. Chitra Joshi wrote a meticulous book, titled Lost Worlds, on working-class history in Lucknow. Her argument, that reproduction and reaffirmation of power exists co-constitutively with resistance to power, was a measured critique of Dipesh Chakrabarty's Rethinking Working Class History, as well as Rajnarayan Chandravarkar’s work on practices of worker politics and sites of resistance. Joshi’s book-length study showed how workers actively negotiated culture, reproduced and reconstituted it both in moments of internal class conflict as well as class solidarity. In other words, cultural forms of differentiation were not imposed by capitalists to merely divide workers, something Chibber argues often in his book. Joshi’s persuasive critique was that Chakrabarty had ended up reifying “culture” both descriptively and analytically, whether or not he had intended to do so.

So, is Chibber aware of this substantial volume of work? Yes, he is. Except that Joshi’s weighty criticism is reduced to a footnote on pg. 140, apparently to elucidate “in the Indian setting... how capitalists often find laborers clustered into distinct occupational specialization, associated with particular communities.” The staggering misrepresentation of what is a deeply nuanced critique, arrived at through years of primary engagement with historical material, remains bewildering.

It is necessary to point this out fundamentally because Subaltern Studies, warts and all, began, first and foremost, as a critical historical practice, influenced by several other kinds of critical practices such as everyday history, micro-history, and social and cultural anthropology. Therefore, any book-length criticism of the topic should seriously account for what the discipline of history has itself produced in response to that which provoked it— in this case, Subaltern Studies.

Chibber’s book has already been criticized elsewhere on the internet: for example, here, here, here, and here.

I can only highlight and foreground a more selective response. The audience for the Unit for Criticism’s author’s roundtable, was asked to read Chapters 8 and 10 of the book, which deal with the categories of interests and universalisms, and the nationalist question of modernization respectively. Both chapters are emblematic of the book’s larger argument, which is, in short, the claim that European modernity and Indian modernity effectively have the same trajectory. The nature of capitalism may be uneven, but the operative principles and engines are the same. Consent was equally lacking in the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” in Europe, and therefore, the rise of the Indian bourgeoisie is no real deviation from a classical norm. Moreover, the working class in both parts of the world, have similar experiences with capitalism and its mechanisms of oppression. Their resistance to it has a shared repertoire, the most basic among which is, physical well-being and a shared interest in the sustenance of such well-being, whatever the place-specific cultural articulations may be. Thus, the two universalisms that are always at work in the world are the universalizing tendencies of capital and the universal resistance to it for the sake of physical well-being.

In Chapter 8, “Interests and the other universalisms,” Chibber undertakes his critique of Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working Class History—a book that, as others have argued, reifies “culture” even though culture itself was the subject of his analysis and the moment of his departure. What Chibber doesn’t point out is that Chakrabarty’s critique came at a time when working class and labour history in India had become saturated with questions of class formation and a high reliance on the event-character of strikes and work actions. The shifting focus towards communal violence and moments of calcification of various identities, primarily caste and religion, in the historiography of the 1980s coincided with the rise of the popularity of Hindu fascism among the urban underclasses and working poor. The range of questions around violence and the limits and fissures of class solidarity became central to historical introspection, and the literature grew to cover diverse moments ranging between the last decades of the nineteenth century that appear in Chakrabarty’s work, to the Great Calcutta Killings. Within such a context, Chakrabarty’s work produced a polarity which later historians had to contend with and successfully breach.

Chibber reduces the argument about pre-capitalist identities affirming and limiting capitalism in Bengal’s jute industry to a contorted question of the psychology of the “Eastern” worker. Chibber asks, "What psychological resources did workers or slaves draw upon when they fought their masters?" This concern would make sense if Chakrabarty was indeed making an argument about psychology or psychic history, such as the kind undertaken by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in the 1960s. Except that Chakrabarty wasn’t. Partha Chatterjee has already pointed out that it was the social and cultural anthropology coming out of Indian universities that Subaltern Studies was wrestling with as it worked through the category of “consciousness.” But the reason Chibber makes it all about some kind of static psychology is because it furthers his own statement on the conditions of universal worker solidarity, wherein he states "the psychological need was in fact the universal interest in advancing their basic needs.” Ironically, while Chibber spends so much time accusing Subaltern Studies of re-crafting an Orientalism, he uncritically reproduces a static and thoroughly un-dialectical essentialism that is resolutely unmarked by geography, history, language, philosophy, and faith. That these categories are not merely cultural, and produce materialities of different kinds that historians have to reckon with every day, is lost on Chibber and his “correct” version of class analysis.

Historians of Southern Africa have often had to wrestle with a foundational event in Xhosa history. In the mid-19th century, responding to a prophecy made about the increasing European control on land and capital, following several Anglo-Xhosa skirmishes in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa decided to kill their cattle and burn their land with the belief that it would regenerate and recalibrate the Xhosa community and its ability to ward off European incursions. Bullets would turn to water and the white colonial presence would be washed to the sea, a belief outmatched by the famine and suicides that followed. (For a recent argument on the uses of afterlives and failure, see Jennifer Wenzel, Bulletproof, Chicago, 2009.) Millenarianism of this kind was common across the nineteenth-century colonial world where Christianity, print culture, and other common imperial phenomenon collided with local historical contingencies to produce extremely dynamic outcomes for peasants and workers. Ranajit Guha himself had to work through similar questions in the case of the Santhal rebellions in India.

What sense of physical well-being were the Xhosa working with? I mention this to suggest precisely how un-universal the notion of physical well-being is. While Chatterjee has already remarked upon how physical well-being remains unmarked by class, and can actually work both ways for the capitalist and the worker, the category is also fundamentally impenetrable. What is physical well-being to an organ donor willing to give away a kidney, or a surrogate mother in India selling the reproductive power of her womb, or an addict who is well aware of the debilitations of his/her addiction? The term “well-being” is hollowed out of historical specificity and remains a far cry from the dialectical materialism that the Marxist tradition has prided itself upon. It is equally a prioristic as a category of analysis, especially in the ways that it flattens out precisely the kinds of unevenness that Chibber has acknowledged elsewhere. In fact, Chibber appears well aware that such an argument is basically contractarian and liberal sophistry, which is why he situates such an analysis within what he calls “liberal freedoms,” which apparently every worker in the world aspires to. If the commodity was fundamentally mysterious to Marx, it is rendered instrumental in Chibber’s work, meant only for the fulfilment of “basic human needs”.

Both the working class and the feminist movement have previously attempted to work with transcendental notions and ideal-type subjects, only to run up against the limitations of an imperialist world and the subjectivities produced out of the experience of colonial modernity. Today, the international working class and the global sisterhood are being re-drawn following repeated moments of torsion and undoing, using critical interrogative practices of universal politics that are extracted from the lessons of experience. We need to acknowledge difference and the prejudices which lie implicit in the languages used to explain and recast difference, while working to create co-constitutive notions of the universal and the particular. The burden of this task, which has been forced upon us by movements from below, and not the academia, is exceptionally difficult but it forces us to think harder. Chibber’s answers, on the other hand, appear all too simple and woefully inadequate.

In Chapter 10, “The Nation Unmoored,” Chibber argues that Chatterjee does not account for the vertical pressures that global capitalism puts on decolonising nation-states. The power of such global capitalism is evidenced by the geopolitical and military pressure on new states in the twentieth century to modernize their armed forces to compete for national security. Similarly, there are pressures from below, such as those produced by mass movements led by various marginalised constituencies which the state’s power elite have to accommodate. There is nothing problematic per se, Chibber would have us believe, with modernization since it was a rational choice that “made sense” to the post-colonial political leadership, primarily Jawaharlal Nehru. It was never, Chibber argues, about any implication with colonial modernity in the way that it emerged in colonial society.

Ironically, here, Chibber basically ends up affirming the sole argument that he picks out from Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. Chatterjee had pointed out that it was “not just military might or industrial strength, but thought itself which can dominate and subjugate.” What Chatterjee was attempting to do in 1986 was diagnose the formation of political ideologies implicated within colonial modernity, nationalism being the prime example. That scientific rationality, industrial enterprise, military solutions for maintaining politico-juridical borders, and, most importantly, developmental modernisation per se have become the lingua franca of modernity following Europe’s long history of contact and colonisation, and that they are so immediately obvious to most people that they occlude any alternative modes of even imagining, let alone experimenting with, social organisation and political transformation, is the thrust of Chatterjee’s critique. Chatterjee was trying to lay out what the complexity of this experience looked like in India—where there existed, often simultaneously with Gandhi and Nehru, contradictory engagements with the colonial thematic and problematic. That Nehru’s vision emerges as a dominant state-led modernisation project, and hence must be situated in relation to the history of how colonial modernity and the legitimation of European scientific and industrial standards in the post-colony are co-constitutive, is precisely Chatterjee’s point.

For Chibber however, embracing modernization equals “escaping from, or loosening neo-colonial domination” (pg. 276). When Chibber basically recounts that how beneficial the welfarist project in India, China, and Russia have been, because their decision to modernise seemed rational and “made sense” as opposed to some kind of indoctrination in bourgeois western thought, he effectively proves Chatterjee right. In an exceptionally revealing moment, Chibber states that “the non-modernising models of governance for the postcolony (which have been around) are certainly unviable.” Chibber asks the reader to accept his authority on the literature on all the world’s possible “non-modernising models of postcolonial governance,” since he alone knows of their “viability.”

That Chibber replicates the language of viability, of a universal measuring standard and the principles of liberal welfarism which have been the most useful safety valve for capitalism since the early twentieth century, betrays his limited awareness of the dichotomies and transformations, the continuities and ruptures that the colonial intervention produced in the colonies. More importantly, Chibber represents precisely what Chatterjee meant. Chibber is so busy measuring viability out of thin air that it is impossible for Chibber to even think, let alone discuss or study the diverse forms of off-modern or non-developmental modes of cultural and political economy that exist around the world, in order to even begin to ask the crucial historical question—how did the “viable” alternative come to appear so viable in the first place?

In 1986, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World was a response to the works of Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner, who wrote their volumes on nationalism in 1983. Chatterjee was, at that point, trying to recuperate nationalism for the decolonising world from the historical inaccuracies of Anderson and Gellner, while also finding newer ways of criticising it. Chatterjee was also trying to probe the onset of developmental modernisation as the fundamental paradigm for post-colonial nation-states, which is where Nehru became a crucial subject. Both those projects fell into problems of structuralist binarism, as well as a residual nationalism, which has been repeatedly pointed out by historians since the publication of the book. (A selective list of historians who have engaged with Chatterjee on such questions includes Sumit Sarkar, David Ludden, Frederick Cooper, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Tanika Sarkar, and Benjamin Zachariah who have pointed out these issues, while both appraising and undoing the contributions of Subaltern Studies.) However, those critiques of nationalism and modernisation also shaped much of Chatterjee’s later insights on political society as a fundamental coordinate of postcolonial politics, where the increasing claims upon the ambit of the state frame the objectives of mass politics.

Chibber accuses Chatterjee of asserting that his examination of anticolonial nationalism in India is applicable across Africa and Asia. Undeniably, Chatterjee was building his own metanarrative, albeit a non-European one, but if we agree that every narrative is in fact, a metanarrative, then it is not difficult to see what Chatterjee was doing. Marxist historiography until then had done enough to analyse capital and the development of capitalism in India, but few historians had critically interrogated the limits of secular rationality which treated factors like religion and caste as vestiges of pre-capitalism or sociological tools of domination used asymmetrically by capital upon labour.

Besides the difference between capital and capitalism, or primary and secondary texts, Chibber also collapses the distinction between developmental modernisation of the statist variety and modernisation per se. (See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s review for the range of category errors.) In spite of Chibber’s repeated exhortation about how developmental modernisation, which Chibber repeatedly calls “modernisation,” seemed rational to Nehru, Chibber offers no examination of Nehru’s personal papers, let alone any of the 20th-century nationalists he cites. In fact, he comes across as substantially uncritical of the developmentalist nationalisms that pervaded the Third World and led to large displacements of human beings, flora, and fauna, among other hazardous outcomes. The history of displacement and contingent outcomes emerging from Nehru’s massive dam-building projects or Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa villagisation scheme, are two examples that remain beyond the pale of Chibber’s analysis.

Let me conclude by noting how Chibber’s responses to his critics have been remarkable in the ways in which he infantilizes the readers of Subaltern Studies. Apparently, Chibber’s critics say what they say because they occupy entrenched positions in a western academy whence postcolonial theory came and where it has been commodified. One could argue whether or not postcolonial theory has become quite self-referential today, but it is definitely not the reason why Chibber is criticised. What invites criticism is Chibber’s insistence on a resolutely anti-Marxist individualism and economic positivism, which forecloses a number of historical questions. His argument would have (hopefully) looked markedly different had it engaged with the work of Marxists elsewhere in the Third World, who have made, since 1930, several nuanced criticisms of orientalism, capitalism, and imperialism. Chibber frequently and arbitrarily invokes them, before disposing them off as he continues to read secondary texts to make tertiary arguments.

Subaltern Studies, despite its prolonged caste-blindness and gender-neutrality, was the academic response to the popular and insubordinate power of colonised subjects and revolutionary imaginations. Marxist engagements with Subaltern Studies need to work with the same spirit, as opposed to restating Enlightenment universals under the name-sign of a resolutely anti-Enlightenment thinker. Chibber’s insistence on situating Marx and Rawls in the same genealogy where liberalism and Marxism appear wholly compatible under an Enlightenment umbrella is indicative of how liberal rights-based leftism has pervaded the space of rigorous Marxist critique. This recourse to finding in liberalism and the Enlightenment, the complement to Marxism, is a worrying fallacy. By refusing to critically engage with the predicaments produced by the politics of colonial difference and colonial capitalism, and finding immediate resolutions in liberal thought, it forecloses possibilities of more radical departures from the inheritance of colonial difference towards politically insurgent communities of belief.

Thankfully, we are all not liberals yet.


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Spring 2014 Unit for Criticism Faculty Lecture, Lisa Cacho: "Criminalizing the Dead"
Response by Margareth Etienne

Monday, June 2, 2014


[On April 21, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a Spring 2014 faculty lecture, "Criminalizing the Dead." The lecture was delivered by Lisa Cacho (Latina/o Studies, Asian American Studies. The response by Margareth Etienne (Law) is published below.]

“Excerpts from A Response to Dr. Lisa Cacho’s ‘Criminalizing the Dead’”

Written by Margareth Etienne (Law)



A group of teenagers getting stop-and-frisked on
Seneca Avenue,  Bronx, on their way home from
school on September 2012. (Photo: Pearl Gabel)
As you are all surely aware, it has become a fairly common-place observation that our criminal justice system over-criminalizes black and brown people (and the spaces they occupy). There are many versions of this claim: driving while black or brown; selectively enforced stop and frisk rules; loitering ordinances; racial and ethnic profiling. Lisa Cacho does in her work, Criminalizing the Dead, is to take this observation further and documents its application well beyond the ethnic minority criminal defendant to the ethnic minority victim. She argues that even when underrepresented minorities and women are victims of violent crimes like homicide, they are viewed not as victims but as criminals or criminals averted. Cacho notes this is especially true with the murder victim who can no longer speak her or his own narrative but whose very persons become the new embodiment of a racialized stereotype. She shows how under current law, as applied, in many cases, death facilitates the criminalization of these individuals. Yes, this gives us much to think about.

There is a lot to be said about this work but I want to share with you today a few thoughts that have been churning over and over in my mind over the last couple weeks as I have been contemplating what I, as a criminal law scholar, could contribute to this conversation. Like much engaging scholarship, Cacho has leads us to re-envision old problems in new ways.

I want to invite you to think about the legal concept of proxies and how they elucidate a point that Cacho already makes quite forcefully.


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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.7
"Let’s Have Another Piece of Pie"
Guest Writer: Lauren Goodlad

Monday, May 26, 2014

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The seventh in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Let’s Have Another Piece of Pie"

Written by: Lauren M. E. Goodlad (Illinois).


The term pastiche has become synonymous with postmodernism and the reign of signifiers detached from deeper reference or history. But as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reminds us, long before pastiche developed its postmodern connotation of using “recognizable ingredients” while offering “no new substance,” the word derived from the Italian for pasticcio “or a hodge-podge of pie containing both meat and pasta.” To say that “Waterloo,” Mad Men’s Season 7 "mid-season finale" is pastiche, is not to condemn a series that, back in 2010, I argued was anything but. For at that time the show—still embedded in the pre-counterculture milieu of the early 60s—turned on a masterful dialectics between historical events like the Kennedy assassination and our own turn-of-the millennium emergencies. Those early-60s stories (as I wrote last June), “in inflecting our imaginary with the ‘history’ we had forgotten to remember as such, added something quite distinct to what we could take for the history of our present.” Yes, Mad Men has changed as it nears its final curtain; and as Caroline Levine wrote two weeks ago, many once-ardent viewers have wearied of its charms. Yet, I, for one, was happy enough last night to pull up a chair and join Roger in the spirit of Irving Berlin’s Depression-era ditty.  “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” I say, with a nice hodge-podge of meat and pasta on the side.


Of course, Mad Men has always sported a playful self-consciousness, even during episodes of stunning high seriousness. Almost inevitably, the show has begun paying tribute to its own greatest moments: last week by staging an homage to Season 4’s “The Suitcase”and this week, on the occasion of Bert’s death, by recalling us to Joan’s promptitude in Season 1 when she joined Bert in alerting clients to what then looked like Roger’s imminent demise (“The Long Weekend”).

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