Fortun, Kim. 2020. "Collaborative Discussion: Postcolonial Theory and COVID-19," Transnational STS COVID-19 Project. Disaster STS Network. May.
It might seem counterintuitive to read a classic of postcolonialism studies -- a critical reading of revisionist histories of Indian independence, published in 1985 -- to think about what cultural analysis needs to be in the wake of COVID-19. But this has been what I have been drawn to -- Gayatri’s Spivak’s introduction to the work of the Subaltern Studies collective, published as a series of edited volumes in the 1980s and 1990s. This essay -- and all of Spivak’s work -- has been formative for me since graduate school, and I have continued to return to it. It also came to mind recently, in what already seems like a long time ago (January 2020), in thinking with Katie Cox and Angela Okune about the direction of their dissertation projects -- one examining the development and idealization (if not fetishization ) of community air monitoring as a response to environmental injustice in California, the other examining changing ways of thinking about, working with and investing in qualitative data in the over-researched landscape of Nairobi. In listening to the unfolding of these projects, I heard a shared concern -- both etic and emic -- about the means and ends of social, cultural and political economic change, and the high risk of change projects becoming retrenchments. Katie is concerned about how environmental justice has come to be characterized over thirty-years into its formulation, mediated by newly affordable community-scale pollution monitoring technologies. She wants to understand and critically analyze how contemporary initiatives toward environmental justice locate needs, possibilities and responsibilities for deep structural change -- worried that, even at their best, these initiatives reproduce and legitimize (neoliberal) abandonment. Angela’s project works almost inversely, examining how differently positioned “data actors” in Nairobi are inching toward new ways of making, using and thinking about knowledge, countering the possessive knowledge forms that continue to carry colonial order. While Katie’s project is a warning, Angela’s project creates openings -- calling out and helping infrastructure (discursively and technically) Other ways of working (with the “Other” standing in for what we don’t already know, for a future undermined by the past).
Both these project were on my mind as COVID-19 broke through, screaming both change and the need for change while also, almost immediately, giving rise to retrenchments -- enacted through abandonments of some and stimulus for others, through data practices encoded with modernists logics, and through discursive structures still rotating around simplistic constructs of freedom, sovereignty and the nation. No doubt partly because of prior habit, the teachings of postcolonial studies continue to seem important.
This digital collection includes Spivak’s 1985 essay, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” other Spivak texts, and a few articles that help situate Spivak’s work in the broader projects of deconstruction, postcolonial theory and feminist theory -- including Chris Norris on “Deconstruction” and Siraj Ahmed on “Postcolonial Theory” in the Blackwell Companion to Literary Theory.
We will start the discussion focused on Gaytri Spivak’s 1985 essay, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography.” then spin out to a more general discussion about ways postcolonial theory can help frame cultural analysis of and in the context of COVID-19. The discussion will be revolved around one very-open ended question:
Individual texts can be annotated using the question set, "eEM Emic Readings".