On postcolonialism, singularity and territories of thought

Postcolonialism Jazeel

Dr. Tariq Jazeel, UCL, came to give a public lecture and a seminar on his new book "Postcolonialism" at our department on 26th February 2019. The seminar was very well received and we continued discussing about his work and how it is relevant to our own. Thamali Kithsiri, Benedikt Korf, Timothy Raeymaekers and Daniel Wolfe met to talk and think more about his inspiring work and ideas. From this initial impetus, a vivid discussion about the geographies of knowledge and the geographies of theory in a postcolonial world ensued.

DANIEL: Why don't we just jump right in and say how he changed our …

THAMALI: … imagination of postcolonialism. You know, I never got the idea of postcolonialism and how it connects to our studies. If you look at some of the literature applying postcolonialism in Sri Lanka, these authors will say that everything is constructed by colonialism or maybe influenced by the colonialization but there is more about that than that. I always wanted to apply this lens of postcolonialism to my work on hybridity. 

BENEDIKT: What exactly, I mean you talked to him also about identity, identity politics. What is the thing that you took from these discussions?

THAMALI: Tariq suggested I should read Paul Gilroy's work. He also said that I should look at how hybridity is performed in everyday life. 

BENEDIKT: What you have already been doing I think, but it helps to articulate it theoretically more fully, sure.

TIMOTHY: It's interesting how Tariq places the discussion of hybridity in a wider context of postcolonial studies. Starting off from what he explicitly calls an anti-colonial lens, inspired by the work of Franz Fanon, and then moving onwards to Homi Bhabha's work, he describes how postcolonial identities are always mutual constructions. And he says that people are also somehow 'talking back' to their colonial memories from the present. Hybridity is also about that. Personally, I found that insight very illuminating. 

BENEDIKT: What I found very interesting is Tariq's criticism of non-representational theory or at least he showed very clearly what we cannot see taking a non-representational approach, that something is missing there. And given that this has been a very powerful theoretical school in human geography, it was refreshing to see him make a case for the politics of representation, which I think also plays into some of the intellectual projects that we follow. And the second point that I found really important is his discomfort or the irritation by looking into unfamiliar sites, that can be sites of violence or sites of struggle and how we can make this what he called awkward place into productive spaces for us to think theoretically. This discomfort is closely linked to Tariq's proposition to think about singularity. This notion of singularity reminds me a lot about the way for example Jonathan Spencer works in the field, looking at very singular events and then deriving from these observations an understanding of the cultural politics at work in making this particular event possible. That is a very different perspective to the one that I find often applied in geography, where you come with a big framework and then shoot at your empirical material. Tariq warned about a danger in specialization in theoretical debate that comes at the cost of valuing the specificity of places, of sites, in their singularity.

TIMOTHY: Concretely, this raises a question about postcolonialism and urbanism. Tariq makes this distinction between cities that are regarded as comparable and cities that become superlatives somehow, for instance referring to Chicago, or Mumbai. And so I wonder if he is hinting at this problem of overtheorization more concretely here, I mean the question that actually theoretical frames are predetermining our knowledge, are sort of doing away with difference; and whether or not his 'singular' lens is helping us to overcome this theoretical posture. 

DANIEL: Postcolonial cities and comparative urbanism is what I'm doing right now, so my attention was caught in the lecture when he said that just by calling it a city we're already putting it into a taxonomy that is inherently, if I understood him correctly, is inherently colonial. Even the language that we are using or the implicit or the unstated frames that we approach the ways in which people organize themselves is inherently colonial. And that this is absolutely a Eurocentric view. And I think that the value, for me, in a postcolonial way of thinking, is when he said that it's not a theory, but a methodology or his words were 'an incomplete cluster of methodological resources for thinking against the greater colonial power'. And I really like that, I like that it's an approach to engaging with the field. Not treating it like he said as a reservoir data, but going in and relationally allowing myself or oneself to be changed. And you go to a place and you live there and you can learn from it. So, if we're talking about the unique, specific qualities of a society or gathering of people or city or whatever you want to call it, but it is the place that you are learning from, to me that's the value in a postcolonial sensibility.

(…) And the way to do it is I think exactly what Tariq Jazeel was saying: finding the value of that unique, singular space. So, really the fundamental question is what do Russian spaces (in my case) teach me and then how you bring those into conversation with wider theory. For me, the real question is: what does it really look like if you theorize from everywhere? Theory allows us to extrapolate from a single case and apply elsewhere and bring understanding elsewhere to conceptualize from one place and export it essentially, moving. But what does that really look like? 

BENEDIKT: That's a very specific idea of what theory should do.

DANIEL: Well, but isn't that what people do? Isn't the idea in postcolonial thought, say Jenny Robinson, is to provincialize everything. So, why is the Los Angeles school, the Chicago school, or the Manchester school taken to be the standard setter for all theoretical engagement? Why is theory created there exported? But then this brings up the question of what is the role of theory, I suppose. 

BENEDIKT: Geography tends to be obsessed with theory. "Lefèbvre" is a good example for the idea of big theory. For some urban geographers, this idea of universal theory is very strong. But contrast this with postcolonial work on South Asia, South Asian politics. Partha Chatterjee, for example has developed, a theory, I would not even say theory, rather a conceptual language to try to understand the specific dynamics of Indian politics. He is famous for the distinction between political society and civil society. And, of course, there's always the trend then to look for political societies everywhere else. But maybe it's a very specific concept that captures some dynamics in India but that is already an abstraction that might be analytically useful. Or take the work of Foucault. Foucault has written a very detailed historiography about the development of the French centralized state. And all these concepts about governmentality and everything else, I would say is primarily derived from history in France. But now it's applied anywhere, but I'm not sure whether Foucault would be happy with the way scholars use his work as "a theory to work with". 

DANIEL: I agree with you very much, but I have two questions. One is what, in your mind, scholarship should look like; it's local, it's specific and it's true to the conditions in that space. And that's actually just enough. It doesn't have to worry about grand universalizations or theory or connections to other things. But then that leads to the question of how do you engage with scholars who came before? Is all scholarship local? And then, the second question: there's a political economic problem in the politics of knowledge production. Because you two, Benedikt and Timothy, can say this stuff, but Thamali and I aren't allowed to. Because, at my level, I have to pass an exam, and then I have to publish a certain number of papers, and then I have to work up a name for myself. I have to cite all these different things, if I want to establish myself and have a career.  

TIMOTHY: This is exactly the point here, I guess. I personally like Tariq's redefinition of the subaltern as that what we don't have a language for yet, or what we don't have a term for yet in the axiomatic language that we set out for explaining things. And that includes perspectives from the supposed 'elsewheres' that have not been located yet within those axiomatic tables and grids. As scholars, are we meant to fill in the boxes, or do we have the potential to contribute something from that supposed 'elsewhere' that is actually destabilizing the dogma? And so, I agree with you that the most important impact of a postcolonial approach the way Tariq promotes it has to do more with the ways in which our discipline, geography, is organized. He explicitly invites us to ask questions about the active boundary work that goes on in academia and what is recognized as legitimate knowledge: how are subjects framed; how are the boundaries of legitimate knowledge policed, and so on? And so, a more explicit narration of the politics of re-presentation pushes towards recognizing those aspects, but also to look for alternative ways of re-presenting certain 'not yet' represented figures and figures of speech. Tariq is actually inviting us to allocate space for those excluded figures in the way in which we as teachers and as writers are contributing to the transformation of knowledge… That said, I think the book, but also the way he represents postcolonial studies, still has the risk of falling into the same trap as the one he criticizes. He does represent kind of a canon after all no? And he does represent it in a kind of like a progressive way, as if we have moved forward from Franz Fanon and his anti-colonial politics towards a greater sensibility towards hybridity towards like a kind of concluding focus on the politics representation. Personally, I think there is more to it than what he says. And I think he also excludes an important discussion that is going on about de-colonialization and decolonizing knowledge today that goes beyond postcolonialism, in a sense that it highlights the articulation rather than the representation of difference. Think for example about the movements against anti-blackness, discourses on whiteness, as well as the Black Mediterranean on which I have been working more explicitly. There are some articulations of difference that you cannot explain by just focusing on the politics of representation.

BENEDIKT: Thamali, how do you look at these dynamics. You are working at a university in Sri Lanka…

THAMALI: Let me give you an example. Tariq had argued that, I can't remember whether it was in his paper or he just told us, universities in the global South that they will always have to rely on the financial support of the global North. But again, the question is, is it a matter of finance or the funds, or is it actually the ability to work as an academic at a Sri Lankan university. Or else it shows how people still waste money on unnecessary projects when you have the latest technology. Building a new library when you have e-libraries is the best example. The money to subscribe to journals or e-books is not available as it is used to build new library buildings. These discussions take place within Sri Lankan universities.

BENEDIKT: Your example reminds me of Jenny Robinson's paper on postcolonializing our practices which she published in 2003 in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. She quotes a person writing on South Africa, saying that southern scholars often have other priorities. Not theory, but to change policy or to do more applied research, or to work as activist. Or they simply have to do tuition classes or consultancies to earn enough money because of the meagre salaries they earn. Many Northern scholars who value theory much more than anything else tend to make an implicit hierarchy that de-values these priorities, when it comes to academic recognition. This at times results in the attitude that considers these "local" scholars not fit for theory, that "international" scholars would have to teach "them" to theorize their work actually.

But I would like to get back to… Dan's thoughts how we can go about theorizing from somewhere. I think what we could ask for is to apply the concept of singularity to theory and theorists as well. If we engage with Foucault, for example, we should always have some knowledge at least about the intellectual context within which his thought was developed in its singularity. Not just, take a sentence that sounds nice, out of context, Benjamin, Foucault… without even thinking about a careful consideration of the singularity within which these theorists developed their thoughts. (…) I think that is something even junior scholars can be attentive to - attentive to the emergence, the intellectual thought style, within which a theory emerged originally or a theorist developed his or her thoughts.

DANIEL: And it's inherently geographical. You are grounding these theoretical contributions, not just in a place, but also in a body. You're also saying look this is the man who wrote these ideas, this is the woman who wrote these ideas and it's interesting. You can locate it. 

BENEDIKT: Ananya Roy uses the term "territories of thought." I think this is exactly the right term: there are struggles over intellectual terrain. (…) I think we could have much more exciting work with more analytical depth and more theoretical breadth if we take these territories of thought more into consideration. 

TIMOTHY: I agree. I think Ananya Roy, when she uses that phrase (in the book Territories of Poverty: editor's note), defines territory really as the attempt to place relationships into a contained political space. That's what a more explicit focus on the politics of representation can also tell us about in our discipline. Rightly I think, our colleague Juliet Fall ridicules some of the, you know, postering geographic conceptualization, the overtheorization that goes on as territorial work, boundary work that is really only meant to defend one's turf in a contested academic space. To occupy space. And then defend it in order to make a career. And so, you know, this scholarship gives us sort of the language to unveil that, to deconstruct these attempts, while at the same time, it also shows us that these territorializations remain attempts, at the end of the day, and that hegemony needs to be worked out somehow, but is never successful in totally occupying space. 

BENEDIKT: The margins are where the excitement starts!

TIMOTHY: The margin is the center of change! That's my life slogan (laughs)!