The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

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Forthcoming in Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (SCTIW) Review, Fall 2017.

Rosie Warren, The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Verso Books, 2016, 304 pp., $20.96 (ppk), ISBN 9781784786953

The book jacket of Rosie Warren’s edited volume advertises the book her work focuses on, Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, saying that it is “without any doubt … a bomb.” The ad proceeds to characterize Chibber’s book as “the most substantive effort to dismantle the field [of postcolonial theory] through historical reasoning published to date.” The militaristic imagery and the touted scale of destruction of an entire field led me to read the original text tout de suite. How else could a postcolonial, critical race, and feminist theorist appreciate the utter singularity of the subject of debate memorialized in Rosie Warren’s book? I expected Chibber to blow postcolonial theory to bits—since his book is a bomb—all of it. However, I quickly realized that Chibber’s entire book consists of reading three books by three authors (Indian and male) who are part of the Subaltern Studies Collective in India. Their books were written in the 1980’s. One immediately wonders then how Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is “the most substantive effort … to date” addressing a field whose fraught genealogy spans over two centuries, various continents, and heterogeneous communities. (We will ignore the fact that bombing things implies lack of substantive engagement with those very things.) Let me begin here: can one imagine a book that reads only three texts by three authors, say, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard, published as a bomb that is the most substantive dismantling to date of the entire field of continental philosophy? No. The idea itself would be absurd to even continental philosophy’s most virulent critics.
Yet, just such a scholarly practice—the obliteration of a whole area of study—is considered acceptable for a field peopled predominantly by minorities (although one wouldn’t know it given the content of the contributions included in the “debate”) and concerned with complicating (as opposed to bombing) our understanding of modernity. How this complication is conducted is as variegated as the heterogeneity of the peoples whose experiences cannot be understood with only our usual conceptual apparatus. (Avery Gordan’s work in sociology, which is Chibber’s field, is valuable here.) So, what exactly is going on? Slavoj Žižek’s approbation on the front cover of Chibber’s book provides a clue. Make no mistake: anyone interested in the philosophical dimensions of postcolonial theory (as I am) is profoundly challenged by and indebted to Žižek’s work. However, of all the criticisms to make of postcolonial theory, and that, too, of Subaltern Studies, which is different from postcolonial theory in the US, Žižek is merely gleeful that Chibber shows postcolonial theorists that they are not radical (read: Marxist).
Žižek’s comment bears mentioning because, after reading both books (Chibber’s book and Warren’s book about this book), it is very hard for me to comprehend what precisely is at stake and why there is a debate at all. Scholars like Neil Lazarus, Keya Ganguly, Aijaz Ahmad, Frederic Jameson, and Benita Parry have criticized the elision of class analysis in Euro-US instantiations of postcolonial theory based on nuanced and careful analyses. However, the claims made by Chibber about Subaltern Studies, and its presumed (not demonstrated) representative status, are so farcical that they defy belief. That there is a debate about these claims is even more disconcerting. Apart from “mistakes” that can be “correct[ed]”—if one is into that sort of thing, as Chibber really, really, is—there is a lack of good faith in Chibber’s book, which grates my sensibilities. It’s as if I am being asked to participate in a public shaming, which Michael Schwartz calls a “savaging” (149). (Bruce Robbins makes the same point in his review included in the edited volume [106]). This rather sadistic voyeurism prevents me from learning something new. With such problematic source material, it would be incumbent upon Warren’s volume to allow a debate to naturally (if you will) emerge. But this constellation of responses to Chibber’s take on an entire field is at such pains to tell me how to think about Chibber’s book and about the few critical scholars included in the volume. As a result, there is very little that is productive in the conversation Warren frames, except when it comes to Marx. Marx/ism is granted all the complexity in the world, while postcolonial theory, in spite of its alleged provenance, is granted none.
The characterizations of postcolonial theory made by commentators read as stereotypes they might already espouse by virtue of category alone: postcolonial theory is against universals and the Enlightenment (15-16, 170); it is Orientalist (196, 213), relativistic (66, 186), etc. Such an approach is like saying that, because Sartre, Adorno, and Kant are western philosophers, these salient characteristics of western philosophy must necessarily follow: racism, Eurocentrism, colonial mentality, sexism, etc. This kind of superficiality results in an utterly impoverished understanding of difference (for example, postcolonial theory and the Enlightenment become logical derivations of each other). It also leads to an utterly impoverished understanding of the task of reading (as when Marx is cast as an Enlightenment thinker). It seems as though Chibber’s book is a pretext for a particular intellectual milieu to burrow into Marx; this sentence by Timothy Brennan dazzles: “Karl Korsch was complaining about Plekhanov’s creation of a Spinozist Marx as early as the 1930’s” (198). Obviously, Marx deserves sustained attention. The problem is that Warren’s edited volume announces that it is about a “debate,” while very little of the common scholarly courtesy granted to Marx is granted to postcolonial theory and its practitioners. Due to this lack of debate, it seems as though Chibber provides cover to repeat stereotypes about postcolonial theory in ways that are not possible in polite company.
The book begins with an introduction by Achin Vanaik and an interview with Chibber. Part I comprises the “Debates” and includes reviews of Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital by Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Spivak, and Bruce Robbins. Chibber’s response follows each review. Part II also reproduces reviews of Chibber’s book. It includes contributions by William H. Sewell, Bruce Cummings, George Steinmetz, Michael Schwartz, and David Pedersen. Again, Chibber’s response follows. The only Chibber-free section of the book is the last one called “Commentaries.” It contains responses from Timothy Brennan, Stein Sundstøl Eriksen, and Viren Murthy. Only one female scholar is included in the entire edited volume. In the book’s two hundred and fifty-five pages of text, fewer than ten female scholars are mentioned; there is not a single contribution that examines race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, disability, etc. with any detail or nuance. Apart from Chatterjee and Spivak’s reviews, the ‘subaltern’ is equated solely with the ‘proletariat’ or ‘working class’ or the ‘poor,’ with nary a sideways glance at Free Trade Zones, homeworking, debt-bondage, refugee crises, sex trafficking, urban migration, resurgence of right-wing movements in the US and Europe, the World Bank, NGO’s, the International Monetary Fund, the war on terror, etc. Universalization, globalization, totalization, and transnationalism are conflated. There is not a single mention of climate change beyond a cursory reference to environmental issues. Not one.
The book has sixteen chapters and every single one of them was published elsewhere in distinct journals such as Economic and Political Weekly, Revisiting Subaltern Studies, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, n + 1, and Journal of World System Research. The book is a compilation rather than an edited volume. In fact, even though she is credited as the editor on the volume’s cover, Warren’s voice is completely absent. She does not write an introduction or any concluding reflections, as is customary in an edited collection. Indeed, there seems to be a remarkable strategic uncertainty as to who actually edited or even authored this book. On its front cover, Warren is exclusively credited as the editor. However, Verso’s website lists both Chibber and Warren as editors. Amazon lists Chibber as the author of the edited collection containing responses (and his responses to those responses) to his own book. This obfuscation of ownership (so to speak) coupled with the schematic organization of the volume compounds the sense that this book is not really a “debate.” The volume’s purpose seems to be to rehash what was already settled when Chibber’s book was published: that he could not vanquish the demon he sought to slay. In addition, the editor(s) did not address the glaring omission of subject matters fundamental to postcolonial theory, but simply re-published what was already out there virtually as is. Hence, the book seems more of a marketing ploy.
This negligence of postcolonial theory’s most salient subject matters leads me to agree with Spivak’s characterization of Chibber as a gurumahashay (77) (the word can be translated as know-it-all or someone quite immature and/or inexperienced who acts like everyone’s teacher).
In fact, the petulance displayed in Chibber’s responses and Vanaik’s introduction made me think of those more-progressive-than-thou so-called Marxist graduate students (usually white, male, and middle class) who are more interested in panga lena than scholarly discourse and actual change. (There is no exact translation of panga lena but the Hindi/Punjabi phrase can be translated as ‘messing’; perhaps a more up-to-date translation could be ‘trolling’ or ‘concern trolling.’). Again, we know the type: those who think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are exactly the same or cannot explain precisely how their dream of “radical” legislation will get through Congress. In other words, the mantle of radicalism is claimed while presuming commonalities that are in fact obviated by the precarious, difficult, and essentially historical task of building coalitions. Building coalitions is one of the most crucial ways to bring about change. Instead, a majority of the edited volume’s contributors seem to assume that common interests (such as food, shelter, clothing, physical well-being, ability to earn a livelihood, etc.) span East and West. Hence, workers of the world are already united by way of universalized capital.
And so, when Achin Vanaik introduces the volume by wondering why Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital has not gained traction in India (1), I chuckled. The answer is obvious in the very next paragraph because Vanaik charges Subaltern Studies with “theoretical pretensions” (1). The phrase betrays the personal rather than scholarly charge of the volume, as does Vanaik’s praise of Chibber’s writing style. He says, “[Chibber’s] framing of opposing views and his arguments in response are presented with great clarity of expression, avoiding any linguistic or grammatical obscurity” (3). For some reason, postcolonial theorists are charged with poor writing skills and the substitution of rhetorical flourishes for argument, which, in turn, seems to be equated with Chibber’s penchant for numerical listing. Chibber himself repeatedly makes this charge in his book and in his responses in the edited volume (17, 97). The claim falls flat. It is an overused canard that presumes Chibber and Vanaik are the standard-bearers of what counts as clarity of expression. Moreover, it sounds whiny. Please just do the arduous and sustained work of reading a text on its own terms. Every field has its neologisms and specialized vocabularies. Can one imagine a book “bomb[ing]” Heidegger’s Being and Time (German or translated) by complaining about Heidegger’s impenetrability because of his poor writing abilities?
Another issue with Vanaik’s introduction is the dismissal of Chatterjee and Spivak’s contributions. The smug condescension with which Vanaik criticizes Chatterjee for not adequately dissecting Chibber’s argument is intellectually dishonest (“Chatterjee does engage, in his own way, with Chibber’s text” [5]). In fact, Chatterjee points out Chibber’s faulty premises, provides a point-by-point rebuttal of Chibber’s central claims, and challenges his understanding of certain strands of Marxism in historical context. Vanaik casts Spivak’s attempt to provide some sense of the complexity of the field Chibber presumes to hold responsible for perpetrating just so much “dross” (69) unbeknownst to any prior readers as “intellectual outmaneuvering” (5) (Vanaik just repeats Chibber’s own response to Spivak) or an indulgence in “linguistic obscurities” (5). Chatterjee and Spivak are hardly junior scholars in the field. These are actually thinkers with a track record of scholarship, activism, and innovation across several generations. We are talking about diligently doing one’s homework before presuming to write a book that shows how Subaltern Studies is “irredeemably flawed” and is claimed to be “a significant intellectual event” (1). (Indeed, laughably, Michael Schwartz likens Chibber to Engels!) Can one imagine a leading scholar, whose feedback on a book on Habermas is that the author must engage with at least some of Habermas’s dispersed intellectual genealogy (Marx, Weber, Hegel, Adorno, Heidegger, Benjamin, etc.) in historical context, being accused of “intellectual outmaneuvering,” “linguistic obscurity,” and “theoretical pretensions”?
Only those who have some praise for the book (that is, those who agree with Chibber’s rank caricatures of postcolonial theory) are granted thoughtfulness. As Vanaik says, apart from Chatterjee and Spivak, “[i]n the contributions of subsequent interlocutors and the exchanges that follow, a more productive and thoughtful debate emerges” (5). Spivak and Chatterjee (as metonyms for the entire field of postcolonial theory) are charged with rookie mistakes like nativism, essentialism, cultural determinism, particularism, relativism, etc. Simultaneously, however, these same postcolonial theorists are charged with being in bed with other malignant ‘posts’ such as poststructuralism and postmodernism. So, the question emerges: which one is it? Postcolonial theory cannot be both a discourse bound by dualisms (Chibber and many contributors un-ironically use dichotomies like East/West, Universal/Particular, Nature/Culture, Structuralism/Poststructuralism, Community/Self-Interest, Marxism/Postcolonial Theory, Capitalism/Socialism, Pre-capitalist/Capitalist, Culture/Economy, etc.) and a derivative discourse indebted to philosophical projects upending said dualisms such as “the cultural turn associated with postmodernist, poststructuralist approaches” (1; see also 192-193). This is not what I expect in an introduction to an edited volume. In lieu of an indictment of a field and an attempt to cut down certain luminaries, Vanaik would have done better to state Chatterjee and Spivak’s arguments on their own terms along with everyone else’s. Telling me what I should think before I’ve read anything in the edited volume presumes a lack of good faith in the reader, as if we have all been waiting for someone to cut down these postcolonial celebrities because we’ve been laboring under their oppressive reign. Obviously, Chibber grossly overstates the influence and presence of postcolonial theory in the academy. (For example, I would ask Chibber and Vanaik to look at philosophy job listings in the US in last twenty years to determine how many list postcolonial theory as the desired Area of Specialization and/or Area of Competence.)
This problem of using ad hominems emerges as the edited volume’s modus operandi because they continue in Chibber’s own responses. He simply dismisses prominent critiques by casting, for example, Spivak’s response as a “long attack” (98) or ignores the majority of it by simply determining what is “significant” (98). He disparages the intellectual abilities of critics: “Perhaps Michael is right that, in the not-too-distant future, the theories associated with PCT [postcolonial theory] will seem as little more than a bizarre interlude, a temporary descent into self-absorbed tomfoolery by intellectuals” (179). He also relies on farcical declarations of postcolonial theory’s alleged antipathy to Enlightenment notions of democracy, science, evidence, rationality, objectivity, etc. (16, 24, 27).
In his interview, Chibber takes on the identity of embattled victimhood. In his view, the entire academy is apparently on the side of postcolonial theorists who reject the notion that people anywhere might have some things in common. He states, “[I]n the university, to dare say that people share common concerns across cultures is somehow seen as Eurocentric. This shows how far the political and intellectual culture has fallen in the last twenty years” (22). Such caricatures read like limp-wristed, right-wing culture war angst. (Again, I would ask Chibber to examine philosophy departments in the US to determine how many postcolonial theorists hold tenured positions and/or how many graduate courses in postcolonial theory are taught each year.) Chibber’s hysteria and paranoia progressively increase, as he accuses Chatterjee of a lack of scholarly integrity (51), of “dup[ing] readers” (56), of being beholden to “desperation” (59), of engaging in “outright fabrication” (63), and of “perform[ing]” to “reassure” (69) his followers. He ends by asking “how many readers will fall for it” (69). He says, “The problem, of course, is that Chatterjee does not give us anything resembling an argument … All we have is innuendo and chest-thumping” (62). Even though Chibber is demonstrably wrong in how he characterizes Chatterjee’s claims, and ignores works such as Chatterjee’s A Princely Impostor and The Black Hole of Empire, he takes on the persona of a lone rebel. He alone has discovered the great con and the massive conspiracy afoot. Bruce Robbins is right to call Chibber “unhinged” (208).
Things don’t get any better when Chibber addresses Spivak’s review. In his rebuttal, he simply restates what he wrongly posits as postcolonial theory’s central tenets and presumes to be the decider of what is coherent, consistent, and well argued. (He praises Robbins for at least not being “as hysterical or shrill as some others [defenders of postcolonial theory].” But he adds that Robbins “doesn’t manage to rise above the dismal level of debate that the field has established” (120). Again, he makes false accusations. He says that Spivak tells him that he cannot criticize primary texts (has he read Critique of Postcolonial Reason?). She does not. She says that Chibber “mistakes a primary text for a secondary text as he proceeds to ‘correct’ Ranajit Guha” (73) ; she tells him he confuses “capital” and “capitalism” (75). He replies that lots of people use them interchangeably (98). He proceeds to ignore most of what she writes because he deems it insignificant (98). He says that Spivak tells him to respect Guha because of his fame, his summer activities, and his age. She does not. She says, “In order to prove someone completely mistaken, you have to read all of what they have written. It is embarrassing to be told that ‘… Guha does not devote much attention to the fortunes of the landed classes’ when the entire deep background of Guha’s work lies there” (73). He goes further to say that she speaks to him like one speaks to servants and children in India (101)! He castigates Spivak for not using evidence or logic (seriously?) (101) and Bruce Robbins for being “snide[…]” (115).
The projections, mischaracterizations, and bullying made me feel as though I were listening to a defense lawyer deliberately twisting a deponent’s words to make a selectively quotable record of alternate facts. Since the edited volume and Chibber’s responses included within it do not follow expected scholarly protocol, I return to my earlier confusion about why scholarly standards have been disbanded for this particular project. In the hope of resolving this conundrum, it might be useful to consider some examples of statements made by contributors that seem to reinforce stereotypes about postcolonial theory by virtue of category alone. In other words, what follows are characterizations of postcolonial theory that many in the Euro-US academy already hold without having conducted any serious study of the field. I suspect that Chibber’s book provides cover for these statements in ways that further the victim-narrative of those ostensibly browbeaten by so-called political correctness or feel themselves out of fashion in these fickle theoretical times. I reach this cynical conclusion because the charges leveled are so simplistic, so clichéd, and so unscholarly, that I marvel at how it is possible for otherwise identified scholars to imagine that their postcolonial colleagues could be so incompetent and obviously “bad” at writing and thinking. Surely it is bad form (to use Spivak’s riff on Chibber) to suggest that certain prejudices under the guise of progressive liberalism or the Enlightenment or Marxism or Europeanism or Radicalism (whatever the label) might be at work.
For example, Bruce Robbins resuscitates the so very 1990’s charge of infinite regress against Euro-US postcolonial theory’s emphasis on particularity (he does not clarify whether he refers to the epistemic strategy of particularization on the basis of historical categories of identity or the ontological predicament of conceiving radical alterity underived from the systemic machinery of identity and difference) (110). Too much work exists on these issues to bear repeating here. Needless to say, it is odd that Robbins includes this criticism given the scholarly archive that exists. William Sewell, Jr. reminds postcolonial theorists that “Europe is actually divided into many provinces—usually known as nation-states—that have surprisingly diverse histories”; indeed, “England, Spain, France, Hungary, Germany, Norway, and Greece are by no means the same” (129-130). Yes, he did. Bruce Cummings repeats the claim regarding postcolonial theory’s “dense, jargon-ridden, impenetrable form” (in reference to Homi Bhabha) and jokes that he might need to move to another planet (131). (It’s not as though there is not a whole universe of secondary literature that could be used to understand Bhabha.) It is a tad unbecoming when senior experts, who have read and written on intimidating philosophical and historical tracts, act so helpless before postcolonial theory.
Timothy Brennan caricatures postcolonial theory as claiming that “all scholarship in the West before it should be considered nothing less than an ‘embarrassment’” (190), even as he relies on a vast array of authors who can be considered postcolonial theory’s intellectual precursors and influences. (In Brennan’s nineteen-page commentary, approximately a hundred scholars are mentioned. See the dazzling sentence from Brennan’s review I quoted earlier.) According to Brennan, postcolonial theory’s methodology of “half-understood collisions of various traditions” (193) clearly cannot apprehend philology’s role in intellectual history. (The standard of full understanding is not applied to critics of postcolonial theory. We will ignore the begging of the question.) Postcolonial theorists cannot acknowledge their “reliance on the very Marxism they appropriate, if only to distort” (196). Branding Chibber’s opponents as “intemperate” (196) and Chibber as “ingenious” (196), Brennan laments postcolonial theory’s “identitarian faith” (201) before mentioning Spivak’s comment about “little Britain Marxism” (79, 87, 202) (out of her entire lengthy review) to pat Verso on the back and throw in his lot with “a humanist intellectual generalism” that animates “Left-Hegelian thought in the form of a properly philological and interpretive Marxism” (202). Well then.
Of course, Chibber and his merry band of rebels can chastise me for focusing on the unsavory aspects of the edited volume rather than engaging substantively with Chibber’s book, his responses, and his reviewers and commentators. However, the reviews and commentaries in the edited volume demonstrate the many failings of Chibber’s book to no avail. In his responses, Chibber does not use these critiques to challenge and advance his own work. And he does not self-reflect, which is ultimately the only way to actually learn and understand. It is not enough to rebuke critics by dismissing them as expected hysteria (179). It is not the job of the reader to look for a book’s redeemable qualities under the guise of reasonableness (which is what a lot of the contributors do without challenging Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital’s principal conceit). It is the author’s responsibility to sustain the reader’s benefit of the doubt, and thereby demonstrate his good faith.
However, in this collection, only those who delve deeply into Marx receive Chibber’s approbation. On one hand, contributors provide lush descriptions of the legacy and genealogy of Marxism. On the other, postcolonial theory receives short shrift by way of usually numbered schemas. Other than Viren Murthy’s contribution at the end, there is very little that roils the fraught legacy of what was always understood as a failed postcolonialism and a failed Marxism. This is not to say that postcolonial theory is beyond reproach. But the “mistakes” needing “correct[ion]” always seem to be postcolonial theory’s (“East”) and not Marx’s (or of his practitioners, interlocutors, and intellectual genealogy) (“West”). Given the actual course of history, which in addition to slavery, colonialism, pharmaceutical dumping, debt-bondage of the poorest nations, etc., includes climate change, and its threat to life itself (as we know it), such a “debate” seems remarkable. Chibber’s book and Warren’s edited volume enact what Ann duCille terms an “intentional phallacy” : lack of recognition of postcolonial theory’s intricacy reinforces lack of understanding of its arguments; lack of understanding of its arguments reinforces lack of recognition of postcolonial theory’s intricacy. Without lovingly orchestrated moments of careful exegetical exchange, which might limit and confound our habitual disciplinary lexicons, the specter of capital taunts any endeavor that hopes to win a world.

Namita Goswami
Indiana State University

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