Saturday, April 9, 2011

The networks of knowledge structures: Pillaging Third World knowledge

This is a reflection of a recent experience with a piece I had sent out for peer review. This piece drew upon Subaltern Studies theory to articulate the processes of erasure in the Eurocentric mainstream. One of the reviewers responded to this piece by noting that this argument has already been made in the Communication literature (citing a piece in rhetoric that was published in 2000 by a Caucasian scholar at a mainstream American university). So I went back to the piece with the idea that I had something new to learn, although even on its face, the reviewer's argument did not work as the postcolonial and Subaltern Studies literature predate to arguments made by South Asian and Latin American scholars starting in the 70s. I still wanted to check out this 2000 piece to see if it was indeed citing some of this postcolonial work (as far as I knew, other than the works of Raka Shome, Radha Hegde, Radhika Parameswaran, and some other scholars of Latin American and South Asian origins, these arguments were not really being made in the US communication literarture). To my surprise, the piece talked about voice, erasure etc. without referring to any of the Subaltern Studies pieces. To me, this appears as blatant plagiarism and intellectual theft, as defined within the languages of intellectual honesty that are applied by mainstream US institutions. So what is it in this process of intellectual theft of knowledges from the Third that constitutes the hegemony of Eurocentrism, paradoxically within those very pieces of multiculturalism that sound all progressive and radical in their calls for listening to voices from elsewhere? To me, clearly these high sounding calls for voices from elsewhere were themselves not listening to the voices from elsewhere.

Contemplating about the networks of Eurocentrism that constitute knowledge structures in academe, and specifically in the Discipline of Communication, we discussed about all the ways in which conferences, committees, associations work to silence voices from elsewhere and continue to perpetuate Eurocentric hegemony. So, publications committees, editorial boards, research committees in our associations get constituted through Eurocentric networks that play out to Eurocentric knowledge claims. What is central to these knowledge claims is the development of processes, strucures, and systems that carry on Eurocentric hegemony, and simultaneously deligitimize knowledge that is produced by elsewhere. Therefore, knowledge producing processes that make specific claims about the legitimacy of processes work to establish and reify Eurocentric hegemony, creating a field of knowledge where it would appear that the "real" production of knowledge that is taking place is taking place only in the US and in Europe.

An excellent example of ommissions for instance is the ommission of the extensive body of work in postcolonial theory and Subaltern Studies in communication scholarship that makes references to questions of erasure, silence, voice etc. Although the postcolonial and indigenous work predates the multicultural move in Eurocentric articulations of erasure, close examination demonstrates that this work really does not find its way into our journals making similar arguments. This erasure verges on plagiarism; the sort of plagiarism that has been carried out on the Third World by the colonial enterprise for centuries. This exemplifies the sort of plagiarism that underlies the violence done by European colonialists on the Third World through the fixing of the Third World as the subject of intervention, as incapable of producing knowledge that is of value. What is powerful about this hypocrisy is then the move by Eurocentric scholars in pointing out the ommission of their Eurocentric work in postcolonial pieces that draw upon the postcolonial roots of the work on erasure and voice.

In responding to this hypocrisy through resistance in writing, I have often followed one of two strategies: (a) to go back to the root pieces in postcolonial and Subaltern Studies theories such as Spivak, Guha, Escobar, Said to articulate arguments about erasure and voice, and to articulate these seminal pieces as entry points to knowledge creation (knowing fully well that the geography of space is intertwined with the production of knowledge); (b) to cite the Eurocentric pieces and then discuss the erasure of postcolonial theory in these pieces as a paradox that reifies the erasures that have been central to the (neo)colonial project. In these instances, my argument then works as resistance and as a pedagogical entry point for students, to draw them to the idea that postmodern reinventions of (neo)colonial logics continue to operate through the erasure of the Third as a space for the legitimate production of knowledge.

Ultimately then, I am starting to become more and more aware of the need for identity politics as yet another entry point to knowledge. Even as I articulate my own position of privilege in my fieldwork, I am also increasingly drawn to the need for making arguments about the ways in which the Eurocentric structure works to silence the positions through which I work out the co-creation of knowledge from spaces in the Third. For the student of postcolonial theory, the very process of producing knowledge is a political process, one that has to continually draw attention to the rape and the pillage of Third World knowledge that happens in the hand of Eurocentric knowledge structures that come in pretending to save the Third World and to do us good. Pointing out therefore to the hypocrisy of Eurocentrism (particularly the liberal multiculutural kind that talks about progress precisely with the goals of erasing) is a starting point in the postcolonial politics of knowledge production.


Eric said...
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Bhasa said...
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Bhasa said...

Hi Mohan, I am posting here with some hesitation since I really don't know the comments of the reviewer and so I don't know what you may be responding to. But speaking in terms of the history of ideas, the concepts that you speak about in your post (and that have comme to define Postcolonial Studies via Spivak etc.) are fundamentally Hegelian or Derridian. So, I don't understand the issue of plagiarism you are mentioning here. In your scholarship, broadly speaking, I've always appreciated and understood the validity of making the point about the Eurocentric nature of health discourses and practices. I hope you will be able to read my comment with the intent with which I post it. Affectionately, Yogita

Mohan J. Dutta said...

Hi Yogita, thank you so much for engaging and for pointing to Spivak's reading of Hegel, Derrida, and Marx as entry points for engaging postcolonial theory. Your point is well noted!

To respond to your point about what provoked my response in the context of history of ideas, let me share with you the basic premise of the piece: This is a theoretical piece I am working on that articulates concepts of sustainable agriculture in indigenous Indian agriculture, and connects the concents of sustainability to cultural logics of satyagraha, swaraj, and swatantrata. Although the piece builds on Gandhian articulations of agriculture, it does so by noting how the native informant is foreclosed (see Spivak, A critique of poetcolonial reason) in our discursive engagements with ideas of sustenance and voice. In this context, the reviewer noted that these concepts are not new (which I agree with in the context of the history of ideas of sustenance that play out in indigenous ontologies and epistemologies), and then pointed out that they have already been spelled out in the Communication literature (which is what I disagree with, specifically as it relates to the example of indigenous Indian agriculture in this case, but the same argument can be made in other spheres of knowledge).

I couldn't agree with you more that Spivak comes to postcolonial deconstruction through Hegel, Kant, and Derrida. Even as she does do, she reads the foreclosure of the native informant in the works of these philosophers. Therefore, the reading Spivak provides to Derrida for instance, builds on Derrida and simultaneously offers a postcolonial critique that encourages us to closely consider the foreclosure of the "native informant." In her chapter on Philosophy spelt out in "A critique of postcolonial reason," Spivak engages Hegel with her reading of the Gita, engaging then with the (im)possibilities of the native informant.

So my point in sharing this story Yogita is this: that examinations of questions of voice and dialogue particularly in postcolonial contexts that don't really engage with the questions of erasure as noted in the postcolonial and Subaltern Studies projects continue to carry out the sorts of epistemic violence that have been at the heart of the colonial and (neo)colonial projects.

The rhetoric piece I was referring to didn't have any references to Derrida or Hegel, but even if it did, I would hold these arguments because of the specificity of the piece in raising questions about dialogue with the "other" in postcolonial and subaltern contexts.

Thanks for pushing this conversation! It is difficult to have a conversation without a face-to-face medium, but I appreciate your engagement.

PS: A great entry point for the issues you raise is Dipesh Chakraborty and his work on Provincializing Europe. A question worth asking is: Can we chart out a subaltern space for resistive co-constructions of knowledge that reinvents for itself a space outside of the referent of Europe? This is a question that we as Communication scholars are well positioned to engage with.

Bhasa said...

Hi Dada,

It seems like your reviewer has issues with understanding the value of traditional agricultural practices even though numerous development organization seems to be promoting indigenous harvesting and seed conservation programs in light of the impending food crisis we are all doomed to face. Given this fact, I think I understand your frustration with the reviewer.

With respect to postcolonial theory: I have read Dipesh's book but haven't read Spivak's. Sometimes I have problems with how Dipesh argues through a certain example, but overall he is thought provoking. As far as the your point about Spivak building on Derrida is concerned, I would need to read it first and put my skepticism on hold. It's a provocative project that requires engaging with the disparate yet interconnected trajectories of modernity between India and the West, including not just the colonial encounter but also an engagement with liberalism as fundamental political thrust of Enlightenment. History writing and the tracing of historical subjects are key aspects of this project, I understand, but I'm not sure I am prepared enough to read it at that level yet. :)

Just to quickly spell out my half baked (or, intuited) skepticism since I think it's only fair I state where I am coming from in this conversation:

1) I really liked the moment when Indian historians, beginning with Subaltern Studies project, engaged with the question of India's subalterns (at that point, mostly peasants) to offset the way they'd been dealt within nationalist discourses and historiography. I have been unable to sort through some problems I have with Guha's understanding of "domination without hegemony." Love peasant studies but don't really understand that. Guha seems to be misreading Gramsci, a point that I'll need to read more to fully engage with. Vinay Lal problematizes Guha's conceptualization of "domination without hegemony" (in an essay called "Subalterns in the Academy," in his book 'The history of history'). There is more to it than that, I think. (Caution: To read Lal one has to get past his idiotic rant about the Bengaliness of the subalterns in the academy.).

2) Point 2 is connected to Point 1. I think because there wasn't anything theoretically new about the arguments made by the Subaltern Studies group the theory quickly came to stand in for everything marginalized. Dipesh points to the fact Subaltern Studies was fragmented by the identity politics since (in "A Small history of Subaltern Studies," in his book 'Habitations of Modernity') -- a problem that has haunted Marxist historiography and Marxist theory. Theoretically, postcolonial studies is similar to Marxism and has inherited some of it's problems.

Bhasa said...

3) From whatever little I have read of her's, I feel Spivak has made an honest and provocative attempt to engage with the theoretical and historical problem of Enlightenment. She remains deeply Marxist, at best -- a fact she admits, too. I haven't been able to fully engage with her ideas, yet, there is this entire point, which I feel weird even saying aloud for fear of being persecuted by the academy, but here goes .... (my hunch is Spivak might have excellent responses to some of the issues here)
The historical imagination is very Western to begin with. History writing, inscribing have all been imported to the Indian subcontinent from the West. India has a more mythological imagination. So, fundamentally writing history seems to feed into the Western desire to leave a trace or to inscribe. Which is not to say that the mythological imagination doesn't inscribe, but perhaps does so differently?! (Again, Derrida has this whole point about writing precedes speech which needs engagement at this point. I know Spivak has done so.). Why would the subaltern want to and can it speak from within the master's discourse? Yet, we seem to not be able to step outside of that discourse, a point that Spivak makes in Can the subaltern speak? I think, Cixous makes a similar point in "The Laugh of the Medusa." James Scott, also engages with in 'Domination and the Arts of Resistance.' He, in fact, proves that the subaltern does learn to subvert the master's discourse. But, Spivak's rhetorical question isn't that literal? That is where I stopped thinking/ engaging. :)

Thank you for giving me an ear. I've never really discussed any of these ideas with anyone besides my advisor, who listens with care. I would be happy to follow up, at leisure. Maybe boil down my hunches into questions? But I truly don't have answers, only more examples to explain the problems. I've often seen you post on FB about Postcolonial Studies and have always wanted to say something.... :)

I had to split up the post because it was too long.


Mohan J. Dutta said...

What great points Yogita! I will also split up my response to your points in two posts because I will deal with two separate issues, the second building on the first. The broader agenda that I will situate my post in the backdrop of is the postcolonial politics of knowledge and the transformative politics of this knowledge in creating uniquely subaltern entry points in ways that matter. So here I am interested in further building on the works of activists such as Vandana Shiva and de Sousa Santos who actively want to imagine an alternative world.

Your point about the very nature and characteristic of subaltern knowledge as mythological is a point well taken, and you do a good job of framing this in the context of Spivak's argument in Can the Subaltern Speak. That much of Indian knowledge (for however we want to frame Indian knowledge, and if there is such a thing) follows a different sets of processes in its articulation of knowledge is a beautiful point, I encourage you to make this point academically, thinking through the implications of this with respect to the politics of knowledge amidst neoliberalism where the "new subaltern" has precisely emerges as the entry point for exploitation. I enjoyed thinking about the aesthetics of this knowledge vis-a-vis Eurocentric knowledge, particularly as it relates to the broader geopolitics of knowledge claims in the world in which we live today. Having said that, it is precisely at this entry point that subaltern knowledge from elsewhere gets stolen, co-opted, sold, and exchanged by the merchant from the West and the local elite in the new colonies (I spend a chapter in my new book Communicating Social Change articulating the processes through which this intellectual theft happens, and of course, Vandana Shiva has spent a large part of her writing and grassroots organizing countering such thefts). It is in this sense then that postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholars I believe need to carve out an explicitly and implictly political process for making knowledge claims from elsewhere. In doing so, as they carve out spaces of solidarity globally, it remains vital to also foreground the local entry points and narratives. Mahuya Pal and I work through this issue in our Communication Theory piece on dialog in subaltern contexts. The question here therefore remains: how do indigenous perspectives from elsewhere enter into the neoliberal mainstream as entry points to imagining alternative worlds, and at the same time retaining their actively political agendas in disrupting the Eurocentric status quo? How do indigenous perspectives talk back to Eurocentric knowledge structures in ways that are meaningful for policies and programs? This remains the site of struggle for our work in CCA, that is fundamentally engaged in a politics that is framed within the Subaltern Studies project.

The unique contribution of Subaltern Studies then is that it creates this entry point for indigenous worldviews. In my fieldwork with Santalis in Eastern India, this is the theoretical framework that I find useful as it works out a journey of deconstruction and co-construction. In reading the erasures in Western philosophical thoughts from indigenous perspectives, the project, albeit incomplete, invites us to continually consider the possibilities of writing subaltern narratives in ways that matter and acknowledging that in contemporary geopolitics, it is the written word that is privileged as the site of knowledge production.

Mohan J. Dutta said...

Now coming back to the next part of my blog post Yogita after spending the day away from this!

Thanks for referring to the James Scott piece on domination and resistance, as that's precisely where I would like to then build from in attempting to work out my helf-baked ideas of social change articulated through subaltern narratives shared at the margins. As policies and programs carried out within the neoliberal configuration and directed at projects of development continually use the Eurocentric vantage point, albeit working closely with the local elite, to put forth specific development programs and policies, the work of contemporary SS scholarship has to reinvent a strategically organized politics that works on change from the margins by fundamentally disrupting the Eurocentric hegemony, and by acknolwedging the legitimacy of subaltern viewpoints that have otherwise been treated as magic and sub-standard by these very same structures of knowledge.

This is something I conntinually have struggled with in my own writing. Although I must acknowledge the grace and openness of many scholars situated within the Eurocentric mainstream who have continually engaged with the possibilities of openings, there has been a much larger presence of Eurocentered scholars who deep down believe in the Europeanness of Enlightenment and play it out within values of progress and modernity that celebrate Europe as starting points for progress. In this larger body of work, the European standards constitute the universals, and for any argument made from elsewhere, there are references to pre-existing Eurocentric thought as the sources of origin. The argument then works to show subalterns across the globe that whatever points of knowledge get worked out wherever, they ultimately draw upon European sources. The logic then works out this way: all thought that is worth noting originated in Europe. Power ascribed to Eurocentered knowledge in this way, I argue, fundamentally underlies the (neo)colonial project.

Let me elucidate this with an example. Recently, I was browsing through a JoC special issue on ferments in the field that had engaged with the directions that the field ought to be engaging with. One of the pieces in there written by a noted scholar discussed the idea of multimodal spaces of knowledge and opened up with a quote from the Panchatantra, referring to it as an Indian wisdom...nowhere then did the piece really engage with the notion of polymorphism that emerges as a thread in the panchatantra tales or cite the orginial text. This to me typified intellectual theft in a powerful way; ultimately we have to depend upon the Eurocentered scribe to teach us a concept which I believe might have been integral to the cultural mythology that one might have grown up with. So now, when talking about polymorphism in a Communication journal (and believe me, I tried out this experiment), one has to refer to this so-called seminal piece in JoC, which I believe was really stolen from the notions of polymorphism as played out in multiple strands of Hindu thought and more directly the tales of panchatantra (I am not sure of the author's intention, but that is beyond the point).

Ultimately then, the point of my note is that reclaiming the history of ideas within the domain of postcolonial politics is in and of itself a project of social justice. The purpose of such reclaiming, building on the work of Fannon, is to narrate for us, as postcolonial subjects within (neo)colonial spaces strategic entry points for interventions.

Bhasa said...

Hi da,

Sorry for the delay in responding. I did read your comment earlier today but have been caught up with all sorts of things. Even though my points were half baked you were gracious to not pick on them. How lovely! In fact, you gave me an opportunity to state my ideas on your blog and see how they looked in writing or once they were out of my ratty old head. Thank you for the encouragement, too.

You make two points

1) It is in this sense then that postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholars I believe need to carve out an explicitly and implicitly political process for making knowledge claims from elsewhere. In doing so, as they carve out spaces of solidarity globally, it remains vital to also foreground the local entry points and narratives.

This point argues that there is a need of foregrounding indigenous knowledge as well as global solidarity. Your examples point towards building indigenous knowledge. I couldn't agree more in the context of health and agriculture. That kind of knowledge is imperative to save Capitalist nations running around with a flag named RPOGRESS from their own doomsday scenarios, whether it is Peak Oil or Food Crisis or Global Warming, etc. India and China need that knowledge as much as Europe and the US so the point about global solidarity is right on.


2) There has been a much larger presence of Eurocentered scholars who deep down believe in the Europeanness of Enlightenment and play it out within values of progress and modernity that celebrate Europe as starting points for progress. In this larger body of work, the European standards constitute the universals, and for any argument made from elsewhere, there are references to pre-existing Eurocentric thought as the sources of origin.

This point has 2 subpoints. Subpoint 1 argues that there is hypocrisy among Eurocentric discourses to trace everything back to Europe or Ancient Greece etc. The JoC example you cite just seems bad scholarship. It pays lip service to an idea without engaging with it. I would hate it too! Heck, I got irritated when US patented the Tulsi and Haldi! If that isn't theft, what is?! And subpoint 2 argues that this hypocrisy extends to universalizing a European ethos. Once again, bad scholarship. I agree that a lot of such scholarship exists and in subtle ways reinforces the imbalance of power in discourses both within and outside the academy.


Bhasa said...

However, I do want to address something related to the entire Point 2. And that is that while PROGRESS became key thrust/consequence of Enlightenment, Enlightenment wasn't all about PROGRESS. I know you know this otherwise you wouldn’t have made Point 1. But I’d to clarify a point about the value Liberalism in doing so. So, to continue…..Enlightenment was also about individuation or true enlightenment for every individual. If progress, in all its nefarious forms (colonization -old and new- or Capitalism), has been one of the things it has produced, it has also given us a way of thinking about liberty, justice, truth, equality. Those foundations of Liberalism cannot be discounted in thinking about the history of ideas that postcolonial theory is engaging with. Now granted one can find notions of liberty, justice, truth, equality even in the ethos of the peoples who lived in the Indian subcontinent but I am not sure they two mean the same thing. Even Gandhi read Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. The same Gandhi who later influenced Martin Luther. One could, and as a good student of history, one must ask how was Gandhi's civil disobedience different from Thoreau's. One might find the kernel of cultural difference there, a difference that will be crucial to understanding how the Indian life world is different from the one in US. Or, perhaps, one will find something about Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism and Gandhi’s idea of a syncretic Indian religion. ;)

So, let me provide an example of how Enlightenment did give us one value that might be worth preserving universally. Individual liberty, including equality. India might have had a kernel of it, but Indian women were certainly not privy to it. The Indian Personal Laws pertaining to the marriage, inheritance, etc. are drawn from the Manusmriti, the Koran, etc. They are "communal" and then there are civil laws. Only under a Western discourse of individual rights can one argue for Universal Civil Code (that is, if one were to argue for it, and the entire controversy around it notwithstanding) for India. By no stretch of imagination could any indigenous ethos fulfill that role of being a foundational legal principle even though a UCC for Indian women could be informed by many beliefs of the many religious communities of India. But fundamentally it would need to rely on an ethos, value, idea, legal principle that we have inherited (through much meandering) via the Enlightenment.

In sum, I agree with the general thrust of your argument. I have tried to explain exactly the reason for which I agree.

Ekhon, ghoom. :)