eduardo on Tue, 3 Sep 2002 02:47:19 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> on metanarratives & Fusco

There is a reason why I used the term "metanarratives" to coherently
understand an underlying theoretical thread in Fusco's writing. The text
below explains my reasoning:

Coco Fusco Wrote:
On the question of whether postcolonial theories are to be faulted for not
dealing with Eastern Europe - first, no one has stopped anyone from doing
so. Second, I cannot see why it is necessary for every theoretical
proposition to have the same Grand Narrative universalist pretentions of
most modernisms, and of nettime saints such as Hardt and Negri or Deleuze
and Guattari. Do you fault feminist theories for not directing themselves
toward the situation of gay men who are feminized? Hardly. Queer theorists
take what they want from feminist theory, adapting it to their specific
needs. I suggest that those interested in the intersection of postcolonial
theories and Eastern Europe so the same.

I will deal with the second question on metanarratives proposed above.
There is a price that is paid when one historisizes a thread of
influential thought - some sort of narrative is developed.  This is the
very reason why most artists and radical thinkers are ambivalent to
history -- as it easily labels and canonizes what, at an early stage,
seemed refreshing and innovative; or on the edges of meaning.

Someone using a particular source to support a specific agenda is the best
that can happen as new perspectives are bound to develop.  This is
obviously how postcolonial theories came to be so influential today.  But
due postcolonialism becoming strong during a time when one "takes as
needed" (a.k.a. postmodern) and metanarratives becoming stigmatized along
with the person who exposed their dogmatism (Lyotard), it is inevitably
developing into another narrative doctrine (though of an intellectual
minority) -- that is much more complicated than any other up to this

Before I go any further, I would like to cite a reply written by Aijaz
Ahmad in reaction to Frederic Jameson's text, "Third World Literature in
the Era of Multinational Capitalism":

"I HAVE BEEN reading Jameson's work now for roughly fifteen years, and at
least some of what I know about the literatures and cultures of Western
Europe and the USA comes from him; and because I am a Marxist, I had
always thought of us, Jameson and myself, as birds of the same feather,
even though we never quite flocked together.  But then, when I was on the
fifth page of this text (specifically, on the sentence starting with 'All
third-world texts are necessarily ...etc.'), I realized that what was
being theorized was, among many other things, myself.  Now, I was born in
India and I write poetry in Urdu, a language not commonly understood among
US intellectuals.

 So I said to myself: 'All?'...'necessarily?' It felt odd.  Matters became
much more curious, however.  For the further I read, the more I realized,
with no little chagrin, that the man whom I had for so long, so
affectionately, albeit from physical distance, taken as a comrade was, in
his own opinion, my civilizational Other.  It was not a good feeling." (1)

Here Jameson is openly accused of ethnocentrism.  This is the same thing
that happened to Sartre in Algeria when he wrote statements like:

"... as for our famous culture, who knows whether the Algerians were very
keen to acquire it?  But what is certain is that we denied it to them. I
will not go as far as to say that we were as cynical as in that southern
state of the USA where a law, maintained until the beginning of the
nineteenth century, prohibited people from teaching black slaves to read
-- offenders would be fined.  But we did want to make our 'Muslim
brothers' a population of illiterates." (2)

The obvious problem in the statement by Sartre is that he proposes his
culture not to be as "bad" as that of the USA -- not to mention his
condescending attitude toward the Algerians' intellect."  His
ethnocentrisms could not be more clear.

It should be noted, that Sartre, even though he imposed ethnocentric
Marxism on the revolutionary manifestations in Algeria, was smart enough
to realize that what may come out of it would not be necessarily an exact
meta-version of the struggles of the working classes in Europe:

"...Thus the unity of the third world is not established: it is an
enterprise in progress which goes via the union, in each country, both
before and after independence, of all the colonized under the command of
the peasant class.
 That is what Fanon explains to his African, Asian and Latin American
brothers: we shall achieve revolutionary socialism everywhere together, or
we shall be defeated one by one by our former tyrants.  He hides nothing;
neither the weaknesses, nor the discords, nor the mystifications.  Here
the movement gets off to a bad start; there, after resounding successes,
it loses momentum; elsewhere it has stopped: if people want it to resume,
the peasants must drive their bourgeoisie into the sea.  The reader is
strictly warned against the most dangerous types of alienation: the
leader, the personality cult, Western culture, and just as much, the
return of the distant past of African culture: the real culture is the
Revolution; that means it must be forged while hot..."(3)

What goes to his credit here is to point to "the real culture: the
revolution" -- as here is where the oppressed can be redefined.  But in
the end, as fervent as Sartre was, he did impose Marxism on that "hot
moment."  His proposed unified social revolution all around the world was
his greatest downfall.

The quotes above are presented to expose the limitations that postcolonial
theories have faced from the very beginning.  Colonized cultures had to
redefine themselves not only against the colonizer's doctrine, but also,
eventually, against the doctrine (often Marxism) that supposedly was
helping them (in some countries simply influencing them) toward
"emancipation." I will state here, that how Marxism is understood, and
plays a role, in say, Latin America and in other parts of the world, is
very different than how it is understood in Europe.  Each decolonized
nation has come to terms with their new position based on their previous
history, and this, obviously, presents a very complex picture of what
postcolonial theories mean.  To complicate things further, some countries
are not necessarily fully independent economically or ideologically.

To emphasize the current situation of postcolonialism I will here cite the
artist Charles Gaines:

"A post colonial language forcefully reveals how these idelizations work.
 This language critically establishes how African art embraces and resists
modernism.  However, in many ways the critical language of post modernism
has been embraced by market forces, the mechanism of cultural production
of the modern era, by popularizing this language and consequently denying
it its critical edge.  This is an unfortunate obfuscation of the post
colonial project, the last site of critical resistance; terms like
globalization, decolonization, hybridity, etc., have become usurped by
modernism in order to exploit whole new territories of cultural
production, sites found in Africa, Central and South America, the
marginalized communities of the U.S. and Europe, and so on.  In view of
this, the use of a post colonial model has become very risky.  The post
colonial critic still has important work to do.  But she must be careful
that the resistance strategies she uncovers do not become the tools to
hyper-stylize the artistic production of those who have historically been
excluded." (4)

As it is obvious in Gaines' statement, postcolonial writers are aware of
how the struggle can comfortably be absorbed by the western liberal state.
 And he demands of the postcolonial critic to be wary of such danger.  
This places the postcolonial activist in a situation where the need to be
legitimized through the usual channels eventually comes about (i.e.
academia, public political careers, etc.); but by doing so, the danger of
becoming canonized as just another movement is also manifested.

This preoccupation is extremely obvious and actually endorsed in the
introduction to the anthology The Post-Colonial Studies Reader:

"Post-colonial theory involves discussion about experience of various
kinds migration, slavery, suppression, resistance, representation,
difference, race, gender, place, and responses to the influential master
discourses of imperial Europe such as history, philosophy and linguistics,
and the fundamental experiences of speaking and writing by which all these
come into being.  None of these is essentially post-colonial, but together
they form the complex fabric of the field. Like the description of any
other field the term has come to mean many things, as the range of
extracts in this Reader indicates.  However we would argue that
post-colonial studies are based in the historical fact of European
colonialism, and the diverse material effects to which this phenomenon
gave rise.  We need to keep this fact of colonization firmly in mind
because the increasingly unfocused use of the term post-colonial over the
last ten years to describe an astonishing variety of cultural economic and
political practices has meant that there is a danger of its losing its
effective meaning altogether." (5)

The fact that post-colonialism needs to be emphatically attached to the
metanarratives of imperial Europe in order not to lose its "effective
meaning altogether" is already making such a diverse discourse vulnerable
to becoming another metanarrative such as postmodernism.  Stuart Sim
comments on the postmodern in his essay "Postmodernism and Philosophy":

"Overall, postmodern philosophy is to be defined as an updated version of
scepticism, more concerned with destabilizing other theories and their
pretensions to truth than setting up a positive theory of its own;
Although of course to be sceptical of the theoretical claims of others is
to have a definite programme of one's own, if only by default.  
Postmodern philosophy, therefore, can be seen as a deployment of
philosophy to undermine the authoritarian imperative in our culture, both
at the theoretical and the political level.  Whether such a trend will
command interest for very much longer it is difficult to say.  To some
extent postmodernism has become its own grand narrative (there is a
definite postmodernist 'line' to most philosophical issues), and therefore
vulnerable to attack in its turn." (6)

How could postmodernism become a grand-narrative?  In our time this is
very easy as modularity forms an important part of our lives
technologically thus leading to non-linear ideological adjustments as
well; for we are also defined by the gadgets through which ideology
functions.  Postmodernism is made of "petit recits" little narratives
which can be placed accordingly to ones interest [though people like
Habermas deny this openly;(7) still, they are part of the disparate
discourse of the late 20th Century].  This is exactly why Coco Fusco can
demand of nettimers to simply take from history as needed, as opposed to
citing a"universal narrative."  However, as Sim points out above on
Postmodernism, there is a particular thread -- that of scepticism -- which
can be traced through diverse postmodern writings. Postcolonial theories
function in a similar way by anchoring its diverse movement to the
"universal colonized struggle" -- which has extremely diverse beginnings
and outcomes according to each particular country, and here lies the
complexity of such narrative; nevertheless, as it can be seen it still
needs to hold on to some "essential" theme in order to critique
colonization coherently.

So can we move away from universalizing grandnarratives? Perhaps not, but
I do consider postmodernism and postcolonialism narratives which are
constantly changing in order to support individual positions thereby
revitalizing the discourse.  The fact that a "universal" thread can be
followed should not hinder these from being effective.  This is the new
stage in which we function -- but, we must keep in mind that these are
narratives following the modernist tradition, Whether we like it or not.  
Maybe "problematizing" sounds less painful?

It is ironic that Lyotard, who came to define the terms grand-narratives
and little narratives (petit recits) in his book The Postmodern Condition,
was heavily criticized when he introduced these terms, mainly because he
used them against his early Marxist roots.(8)  That happened because some
did not want to let go of grand-narratives.(9) Now, pluralists claim to
have little narratives that are created as they take at will.  I think it
is great to do so, but let us not forget that long thread that legitimizes
the premise -- even when it limits our otherwise innovative statements.
 Whether we like it or not, postcolonial theories are another narrative --
a diverse one at that; and this one will do much better when it honestly
admits to this. Or at least I hope so, though I admit that Gaines'
preoccupation of "hyper-stylization" as previously mentioned above is
definitely a legitimate concern.

As to the constant citations of Hardt & Negri, Deleuze & Guatarri; well, I
think times are changing.  If anything this long thread on Documenta is
proof, though definitely not nearly enough.  But as it can be noticed
above, the Marxist influence can not be denied, and this will probably
keep the "nettime saints" around for a long time to come -- whether we
like it or not. (10)


Eduardo Navas


(1) Aijaz Ahmad, "Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the 'National
Allegory'," in THE POST-COLONIAL STUDIES READER, ed. B. Ashcroft, G.
Griffiths, H. Tiffin (Routledge:New York, 2001) p. 77.

(2) Jean-Paul Sartre, "colonialism is a system," in COLONIALISM AND
NEOCOLONIALISM, trans. A Haddour, S Brewer, T McWilliams (Routledge: New
York, 2001) p. 41

(3) ibid., p. 140

(4) Charles Gaines, February 1999 CAA Conference Lecture.

(5) POST-COLONIAL STUDIES..., op.cit., p. 2.

(6) Stuart Sim, "Postmodernism and Philosophy," in THE ROUTLEDGE CRITICAL
DICTIONARY OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT, (Routledge: New York, 1999), pp. 13-14

(7) Read Jurgen Habermas, "Modernity -- An Incomplete Project," THE
ANTI-AESTHETIC,(The New Press: New York, 1993), pp. 3-15.  Also: The
theory of Communicative Action

Vol. 1 & 2 (Beacon: Boston, 1984)

(8) Jean-Francois Lyotard, THE POSTMODERN CONDITION, (Minnesota:
Minneapolis, 1984) pp. 27-60

(9) Emilia Steuerman, "Modernity vs. Postmodernity," JUDGING LYOTARD, ed.,
A. Benjamin, (Routledge: New York, 1992), pp. 99-120.

(10) Lyotard admits on Marxism: "Everywhere, the critique of political
economy (the subtitle of Marx's capital) and its correlate, the critique
of alienated society, are used in one way or another as aids in
programming the system."

 But then he dismisses Marxism by saying: "... We cannot conceal the fact
that the critical model in the end lost its theoretical standing and was
reduced to the status of a 'utopia' or 'hope', a token protest raised in
the name of man or reason or cretivity, or again of some social category
such as the Third World or the students -- on which is conferred in
extremis the henceforth imporbable function of critical subject.", THE
1984), p. 13

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