Updated: September 27, 2011 01:02 IST

Earth to planet postcolonial

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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THE POLITICS OF POSTCOLONIALISM — Empire, Nation and Resistance:
Rumina Sethi; Pluto Press, 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA.
THE POLITICS OF POSTCOLONIALISM — Empire, Nation and Resistance: Rumina Sethi; Pluto Press, 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA.

The literature covers almost every aspect of life in the region and is often unglamorous, but it is enormously informative

Rumina Sethi clearly and courageously throws down the gauntlet to scholars of postcolonial studies, a field populated mainly by academics originally from the global South and based largely in North American universities; she calls upon them to engage with issues faced by their former compatriots, whether the latter are in their original homelands, or West Asia, or the global North. The discipline, now far removed from the impassioned political engagement of the likes of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Julius Nyerere, and Mahatma Gandhi, is almost entirely devoted to the analysis and generation of text, and has distanced itself from the rest of the world.

In addition, adopting the methodologies [sic] of poststructuralism has led postcolonial studies to neglect some of the major developments of the last 30 years or more, such as the privatisations inflicted by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on their countries and copied all over the Anglophone world, and the damage wrought by globalisation amounting to neoimperialism, mainly by the United States corporations like Monsanto (which invented the chemical weapon Agent Orange during the Vietnam War). Secondly, the language of postcolonial studies is largely derivative, as is its commitment to anti-foundationalism. Sethi could have said more here; the commitment to anti-foundationalism is itself foundationalist.

Account of damage

Sethi goes on to provide an evidenced account of the damage done by transnational corporations, and her call to the relevant researchers to use more empirical material is timely. Her further requirement that the discipline take a Marxist direction is asserted rather than argued, but it is understandable in the context, although she does not specify any form of Marxism. An attractive argument could be made for the involvement of postcolonial studies here, perhaps in investigating the relative electoral failure of Marxist movements in South and East Asia, in contrast to those of Latin America, over the last decade.

That would require further alterations; the abandonment of what are purported to be Enlightenment categories, such as linearity or totality, has led scholars in the field to abandon, or at least to question, the idea of nations and the nation-state. For Sethi, this downgrades and even demeans national liberation struggles and the states that emerged thence. A possible concern here is that she retains the concept of the nation-state, despite the substantial literature showing the incoherence of the idea and despite her own reference to Hannah Arendt, who has exposed its dangers.

While the overall argument could well open new areas for postcolonial studies, the book contains some inaccuracies, a few of which are significant in view of Sethi's call for postcolonial scholars to get empirical. For example, British privatisations did not end with the 1980s. They have never really stopped, and the National Health Service is the next target. Secondly, it is far from clear that South Asian settlers abroad have been as involved in struggles against racism as the author says they have been. Britons of South Asian descent adeptly maintain the caste, religious, and other divisions of their former homelands.

Furthermore, Sethi does not mention the contribution made by the Labour Party and its founding bodies — the trade unions — to the inclusion of Commonwealth settlers in British civil life and public processes. Both the groupings undertook that task despite their own problems with white working-class racism. Nor does she mention the South Asian diaspora in the United States. That group's status as subalterns is at best problematic; they are documented not as combining with other anti-racist groups but as weaving their lives around Hindu temples and as being major funders of the Hindutva movement.

As for the empirical material, a colossal volume of work already awaits on postcolonial South Asia alone, in the form of over half-a-century's work in applied economics, policy analysis, evaluative studies, and so on. The literature covers almost every aspect of life in the region and is often unglamorous, but it is enormously informative. If Sethi is right then we can only look forward to research by jet-set postcolonial studies professors on, say, the semiotics of clinical trials in India, or the concepts of alterity at work in the unintended reinforcement by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan of apartheid in Indian villages, or sexism in the operation of the criminal justice system in serious sexual offences, or anything else.

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