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

Monday, April 7, 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 Chattopadhyaya were published in this blog; the response from Anustup Basu is below.] 

“Language, Anti-Humanism, and Postcolonial Studies”

Written by Anustup Basu (English/Media & Cinema Studies)

I, of course, come as a relative outsider to the domains of historiography and historical sociology. I come neither to bury subaltern studies nor to praise it. Instead I want to ask Vivek a few questions about some aspects of his critical method. These are some of the things I will not be talking about: is Chibber guilty of misrepresenting subaltern studies? Is he misreading the project wholly or partially? Is the critique exhaustive or piecemeal? Etc. Etc.

I will instead invite Vivek to open up, clarify, and elaborate some of his key postulates and categories. I shall also request him to satisfy my curiosity about why he did not go in certain directions that I, while reading the book, thought he could have gone.

Question 1

My first question has to do with language. In his critique of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work, Vivek suggests that “culture” does not go “all the way down.” It is in this spirit that he proposes a universal – “that some objective needs, and hence interests, do exist and that agents can act in accordance with these interests.” Chibber then narrows the whole thing down to an illustrative example: “the simple need for physical well-being.” This need, according to him, is a primordial impulse at the ground level of being (if I may use such language) anterior to culture. It is therefore that primal urge that can impel subjects across cultures and historical locations to question or abandon dominant sets of norms, religious structures of feeling, or ethical universes they might otherwise subscribe to.

Chibber largely draws his proposition from an ethno-methodological tradition that has scrutinized how actors, while going through routinized procedures mandated by culture or religion, always engage in the imaginative tasks of redefining traditional roles, adjusting stipulations now and then and even suspending or bending norms. At times they embark on what Margaret Archer calls an "inner conversation” about inherited roles and beliefs. 

Now my question is very simple. In what language does this “inner conversation” take place? Or is it somehow just a metaphorical formulation, pre-linguistic in the conventional sense? If so, how can something that is yet to enter the realm of language be political? May we not assume that in order for something to be political – let us call this a sense of being pissed off – it has to be cognitively mapped, narrativized in terms of memory, located in epistemological terms, and conceptualized in relation to say what Chibber calls “the simple need for physical well-being”?

Let me illustrate this conundrum with an example from Ranajit Guha’s work on Peasant Insurgencies. Speaking about the Santhal uprisings under the leadership of the two brothers Sidhu Murmu and Kanho Murmu, Guha mentions the fact that according to Sidhu, a god descended from the heavens in the form of a cartwheel and ordered him to take up arms. Many of the rebels professed a belief that no one could stop them because Thakoor himself, God, was on their side. A hymn to Dharati Aba invited the deity thus: “With your strength turn bullets to water.”

Now the reciprocal cognitive grasping of bullets and water become troubling here, especially when it comes to physical welfare. I am not saying however, that all individuals who followed Sidhu and Kanho bought into this story. I am not suggesting that they were claimed by an utterly self-contained and endogamous cultural perception that did not, within its complex workings, harbor any skepticism toward this possibility of miraculous transformation. That, indeed, would be cultural essentialism that locks up dynamic and transforming practices and perceptions in the world into absolutist closures. Indeed, Guha’s narrative makes it clear that some rebels were enthusiastic about the hool, some were not so and had to be shamed or emotionally blackmailed, and others had to be dragged along kicking and screaming. 

The point however is that we have a diagram of subjectivity, belief, and affect that suggested that a consideration for physical well-being in the last instance made it imperative to take up arms against a sea of bullets/water. Let us call it a cosmology in which affirmations to that end, as well as skepticisms directed against it, were played out in the realm of language and in the terms of that particular realm of language. This realm of language, precisely because it is language, is not marked by closures of stipulated enclosures of a static culture and a belief system. Rather it is marked by continual errant flows of globalizations. When the bullets did not turn to water, belief systems or cultural practices may have been shaken or abandoned. The rather inhuman process of historical transformation of language on the other hand went on unabated. It may have simply abandoned a given system of signs and devolved the next one. 

Now let me focalize my point about language, make it less abstract by tying a couple of ancillary questions to it. 

a. A theory of language I think is needed here because, apart from other things, the subaltern historians continuously talk about the problems of translation (Guha and Chakrabarty especially). Simply put, it could be said that often, within the ethnomethodological tradition that Chibber marshals, indigenous categories are violently transcoded in western terms to create knowledge and institutions of knowledge that are indistinguishable from operations of power. Chibber of course is aware of these snares. At one point he talks about the problems of imputing meanings of and motivations behind actions of an agent and draws upon Alfred Schultz to propose a theory of adequacy. Ergo, while fully acknowledging the fact that it is almost impossible to know the conscious mental state of an actor, it is possible to attribute reasonable motivations to her in a manner that the actor would have recognized as valid. However, once again, without an accompanying theory of language, translation, and epistemology, it could be argued that the ethnographer or anthropologist, with perhaps a greater degree of sophistry and self-consciousness, is actually doing the old imperial thing of judging and analyzing the orient in terms of a plane of normalcy and adequation that draws from the integrated European subject. 

b. The question of language extends to the question of materialism itself. Now here of course we do have a veritable can of worms. The subject-object duality, the relationship between matter and memory (Bergson would have something to say about that), the idea that pure matter and material relations can be discerned minus any ideological bias, the idea of the unified, self-conscious Hegelian subject, the materiality of ideas and the idealisms hidden behind apparently pure reckonings of matter etc. etc. etc. As we know, these things have been bandied about, demolished and resurrected, assiduously attacked and passionately defended throughout the last two centuries. In the Marxist tradition itself we could begin with Marx’s rejection of the epicureans and their modern disciples like Hobbes and Helvetius. Then we have historical materialism developed by Engels in tandem with the natural sciences, and then, complex terrains of ontological materialism, epistemological materialism, and practical materialisms as distinguished from the historical and scientific models after Lenin and Plekhanov. So, in the light of all that he has said in the book and here, I would be grateful if Vivek elaborated his thoughts on the matter. What is objective need in a material sense?

Question 2

My second major question will hopefully be pithy and short. It is also perhaps more predictable than the first one. Why the silence about post-structuralism and the general terrain of anti-humanist thinking since Nietzsche and Heidegger? Gayatri Spivak and the idea of deconstructing historiography (and this I ask in line with what I have said about language)? Michel Foucault and the genealogy of power? Of bourgeois disciplinary institutions? These I feel inflect the subaltern project greatly, especially when it comes to what Chaterjee says about the Passive Revolution via Gramsci. The revolution, seen in those terms, was passive precisely because the Indian ruling coalition refused to develop these disciplinary institutions. I was wondering if Chibber could talk about dominance without hegemony in relation to Foucauldian notions of power.


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Corey Creekmur said...

A bit confused: will we see the answers to these (good) questions?

MP said...

I suppose we might ask Vivek to provide them. I will ask him!