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What insights from postcolonial studies seem especially relevant in contemporary, cultural analysis -- inevitably shaped by if not directly focused on the COVID-19 pandemic?

Friday, May 15, 2020 - 9:57am

         Bringing last week’s conversation on education into contact with this weeks’ discussion of deconstruction and post-colonial theory, I would like to ask the following question: what would it yield if we extended Spivak’s affirmative deconstruction of the subaltern studies group and their participation in historiography to the university and to process of academic publication more generally? In this text, Spivak engages in deconstruction to highlight the subalternists’ own participation in the projects of discursive displacement that they analyze and for successfully failing to incorporate post-structural theory into their method of historiography. Extrapolating from this point, both post-structural and post-colonial theory, too, have been successful as failed-discursive displacements within the university. They have achieved (somewhat paradoxically) some level of hegemony in certain disciplines within the university. However, we learn them, develop them, publish and teach them within an ecology of departments, schools, and institutions that are structured by and that reproduce antithetical values and ethical commitments. This is coming to a head. The neoliberal model of university is in crisis, both from an ideological and logistical standpoint. The question is then not if a discursive displacement will take place within the university’s current sign system, but rather when, how, and what kind of functional change this displacement (however un/successful) will engender.

         The COVID-19 pandemic is implicated in both the logistical and ideological dimensions of this crisis. In short, the logistical crisis posed by quarantine is bringing to light aporias of “the social text” that rendered the university’s existence legitimate and its value legible. Both graduate and undergraduate students alike are being forced to critically reconsider the possibility and expected benefits of their pursuits of higher education. In a complementary if reactionary fashion, the leadership and public representatives of many universities are making the strategically unsound decision to double-down on defending their value in conventional terms. What could be gained by adopting the scholastic ethical commitments of deconstruction, as a first step towards “question[ing] the authority of the [academy] without paralyzing [it], persistently transforming conditions of impossibility into possibility.” (Spivak 1996, 210).


          At another level, I think it is important to consider how the successes and blind spots of the Subalternists might help us to identify our own, as critical scholars of our historical moment. Spivak describes the theoretical contribution of the Subalternists as a theory of change, one that on pivots on/from the force of crisis. Living in the midst of a crisis, it is easy to look backwards from the contemporary and to feel nostalgic for what now seems to be much more endurable and sensible times. However, to do so is to fail to recognize how the germs of our current present were working in those times. Or, in Spivak’s terms, “if the space for a change (necessarily also an addition) had not been there in the prior function of the sign-system, the crisis could not have made the change happen. The change in signification-function supplements the previous function” (1996, 206). Nostalgia is not an escape, no matter how far back you go, the past always leads to this present. Secondly, it is also easy to witness the blunders of the Trump administration or to watch as lockdown protestors arm themselves for open conflict and to essentialize these characters as an origin or source of social problems. But to do so would be to deny the “instituted trace at the origin.” While Trump and lockdown-protestors may not fit the bill of the subaltern, it is important to realize that their “subject effect” has taken shape in and through contrast and conflict with the contemporary left. How can we understand the role of critical scholarship in laying the scene for anti-academic sensibilities of the more radically conservative groups to take hold? They did not take shape in a vacuum but rather as “part of an immense discontinuous network ("text" in the general sense) of strands that may be termed politics, ideology, economics, history, sexuality, language, and so on” (Spivak 1996, 213). In other words, how might we rethink and refashion cultural critique in light of the consequences of our own history of failures at discursive displacement?

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