Césaire, Memmi, Fanon vs. Said, Spivak, Bhabha

In my ever-shifting reframing of the po-co list, my latest title is ‘Post-colonialism, Globalization, and the Cultural Turn.’ The idea is to look at po-co theory from a kind of history of ideas perspective, thinking about postcolonial thought in terms of this decades-long ‘cultural turn’ which may, I wonder, be coming to an end? By ‘cultural turn,’ I mean work during the post-war and decolonization era that argued that politically engaged work should engage with culture at least as much as economics. And then, with the rise and declawing of cultural studies, the glossing over of class, labour, and economic issues.

I’ve only gotten through two of the three before the three, but I’ve already started to forget the first one, for which I failed to take any notes at all. Oops. I’ll only talk about C and M here.

An embarrassing admission: I hadn’t heard about Albert Memmi before noticing his name on a lot of poco lists. Rather than blaming myself though 😉 ,  I’ll blame it on an Anglo-American structural bias (i.e. limited syllabus space, disciplinary boundaries) against French work that’s not Theory with a big T. Still, though it makes a difference to think about Fanon as part of a movement, and to think of C as one of the founders of postcolonial theory instead of the negritude dude (okay, I know, I really should have known that).

Alrighty, so the cultural turn and Césaire and Memmi. Discourse on Colonialism is all about decadence. It begins,

A civilization that proves  incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

Civilization is pretty much synonymous with culture here, and there’s nothing necessarily economic about those ‘problems.’ Nevertheless, it’s clearly Marxist in orientation, with constant reference to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat:

It is a fact: the nation is a bourgeois phenomenon. (57)

There’s the by now familiar idea that colonization works by dehumanization or “thingification” (21). What’s most indicative of the cultural turn is this fantastic (and very Victorian) passage:

Therefore, comrade, you will hold as enemies–loftily, lucidly, consistently–not only sadistic governors and greedy bankers, not only prefects who torture and colonists who flog, not only corrupt, check-licking politicians and subservient judges, but likewise and for the same reason, venomous journalists, goitrous academicians, wreathed in dollars and stupidity, ethnographers who go in for metaphysics, presumptuous Belgian theologians, chattering intellectuals born stinking out of the thigh of Nietzsche, the paternalists, the embracers, the corrupters, the back-slappers, the lovers of exoticism, the dividers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs, and in general, all those who, performing their functions in the sordid division of labor for the defense of Western bourgeois society, try in divers ways and by infamous diversions to split up the forces of Progress–even if it means denying the very possibility of Progress–all of them tools of capitalism, all of them, openly or secretly, supporters of plundering colonialism, all of them responsible, all hateful, all slave-traders, all henceforth answerable for the violence of revolutionary action. (33-34)

(Of course, one of the reasons this stuck out to me is my role as an academician, while not wreathed in dollars to the extent as somebody who blows up the world economy, still gets paid in first-world currency, who is certainly quasi-functioning in the “sordid division of labor.”)

Memmi. He’s a lot more careful about the hierarchy within the colonized (in part to his own Jewish identity, as he explains). In terms of thinking about the difference between the colonial model and the globalization model, the idea of “linguistic dualism” is important:

The colonized is saved from illiteracy only to fall into linguistic dualism. This happens only if he is lucky, since most of the colonized will never have the good fortune to suffer the tortures of colonial bilingualism. They will never have anything but their native tongue; that is, a tongue which is neither written nor read, permitting only uncertain and poor oral development.

Granted, small groups of academicians persist in developing the language of their people, perpetuating it through scholarly pursuits into the splendors of the past. But its subtle forms bear no relationship to everyday life and have become obscure to the man on the street. The colonized considers those venerable scholars relics and thinks of them as sleepwalkers who are living in an old dream.

Possession of two languages is not merely a matter of having two tools, but actually means participation in two psychical and cultural realms. Here, the two worlds symbolized and conveyed by the two tongues are in conflict; they are those of the colonizer and the colonized. (106-107)

I don’t feel like typing up yet another huge block quote, and it’s getting late, but the part a few pages before about the “refuge value” of family and religion is really important.

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