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Roland Barthes: Empire of Signs

17 Jun

In Barthes’ Empire of Signs, Barthes begins by outlining his desire to “isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system” (trans. Richard Howard, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982, 3). The system, “though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself (these being the major gestures of Western discourse)” is “[one] which I shall call: Japan” (ibid.). This is the first hint of one of the constitutive limits to Barthes’ project: this fictive “Japan” will also in some sense be based upon a materially existing “Japan” which is implicitly posited, like Derrida’s deconstruction of logos, as the limit of “the West”. Indeed, Barthes openly states as much:

“Hence Orient and Occident cannot be taken here as ‘realities’ to be compared and contrasted historically, philosophically, culturally, politically. I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence – to me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation – whose invented interplay – allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own. What can be addressed, in the consideration of the Orient, are not other symbols, another metaphysics, another wisdom (though the latter might appear highly desirable); it is the possibility of a difference, of a mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems. Someday we must write the history of our own obscurity – manifest the density of our narcissism, tally down through the centuries the several appeals to difference we may have occasionally heard, the ideological recuperations which have infallibly followed and which consist in always acclimating our incognizance of Asia by means of certain known languages (the Orient of Voltaire, of the Revue Asiatique, of Pierre Loti, or of Air France)….[it is absurd] to try to contest our society without ever conceiving the very limits of the language by which (instrumental relation) we claim to contest it: it is trying to destroy the wolf by lodging comfortably in its gullet. Such exercises of an aberrant grammar would at least have the advantage of casting suspicion on the very ideology of our speech” (ibid., 3-4, 8).

It is remarkable to read this passage, published some nine years before Said’s Orientalism, but which seems almost as if Said had used it as his own thesis (Said also used the example of Voltaire). Still, even if Barthes is acknowledging the faults of much popular (and “intellectual”) literature that takes an object of difference as a source of negative knowledge (“the East offers what the West does not/no longer does”), his own project does not seem entirely different from that literature, notwithstanding it attempts to avoid the lure of reading in Japan “another metaphysics”. There remains in Barthes’ project a material basis which it shares in common with the Revue Asiatique: the status of late sixties Japan as a developed, modern country in Asia, one which had become a prominent object of Western interest since the reforms and “opening” of the Meiji period. It is hard to ignore this context, since it is precisely what must be taken into account in accounting for why Barthes has chosen “Japan” as a “system of signs”, and been able to visit this particular “system”, as opposed, say, to Vietnam, or Thailand, or any other number of possible “systems”.

Still, there is much to enjoy in Barthes, not least of which is his style. Here he perfectly captures Pachinko’s boredom and American conservatism:

“What is the use of this art? to organize a nutritive circuit. The Western machine sustains a symbolism of penetration: the point is to possess, by a well-placed thrust, the pinup girl who, all lit up on the panel of the machine, allures and waits. In pachinko, no sex (in Japan – in that country I am calling Japan – sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere; in the United States, it is the contrary; sex is everywhere, except in sexuality). The machines are managers, lined up in rows; the player, with an abrupt gesture, renewed so rapidly that it seems uninterrupted, feeds the machine with his metal marbles; he stuffs them in, the way you would stuff a goose; from time to time the machine, filled to capacity, releases its diarrhea of marbles; for a few yen, the player is symbolically spattered with money. Here we understand the seriousness of a game which counters the constipated parsimony of salaries, the constriction of capitalist wealth, with the voluptuous debacle of silver balls, which, all of a sudden, fill the player’s hand” (ibid., 28-29).

Two more excerpts from this work demonstrate the poetic aspects of Barthes work: much of his writing feels very relevant to performance arts (drama, music, film) because of how it affirms the value of space and action in and of themselves. It often reminds me of the style of writing Ballard developed around the time of The Atrocity Exhibition:

“The other politeness, by the scrupulosity of its codes, the distinct graphism of its gestures, and even when it seems to us exaggeratedly respectful (i.e., to our eyes, ‘humiliating’) because we read it, in our manner, according to a metaphysics of the person – this politeness is a certain exercise of the void (as we might expect within a strong code by one signifying ‘nothing’). Two bodies bow very low before one another (arms, knees head always remaining in a decreed place), according to subtly coded degrees of depth. Or again (on an old image): in order to give a present, I bow down, virtually to the level of the floor, and to answer me, my partner does the same: one and the same low line, that of the ground, joins the giver, the recipient, and the stake of the protocol, a box which may well contain nothing – or virtually nothing; a graphic form (inscribed in the space of the room) is thereby given to the act of exchange, in which, by this form, is erased any greediness (the gift remains suspended between two disappearances). The salutation here can be withdrawn from any humiliation or any vanity, because it literally salutes no one; it is not the sign of a communication – closely watched, condescending and precautionary – between two autarchies, two personal empires (each ruling over its Ego, the little realm of which it holds the ‘key’); it is only the feature of a network of forms in which nothing is halted, knotted, profound. Who is saluting whom?” (ibid., 67-68).

On the zengakuren riots: “All this combines to produce a mass writing, not a group writing (the gestures are completed, the persons do not assist each other); finally, the extreme risk of the sign, it is sometimes acknowledged that the slogans chanted by the combatants should utter not the Cause, the Subject of the action (what one is fighting for or against) – this would be once again to make language the expression of a reason, the assurance of a good cause – but only this action itself (The Zengakuren are going to fight), which is thereby no longer covered, directed, justified, made innocent by language – their external divinity superior to the combat, like a Marseillaise in her Phrygian bonnet – but doubled by a pure vocal exercise which simply adds to the volume of violence, a gesture, one muscle more” (ibid., 106).

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Speaking of/for the Subaltern, Again

12 Jun

I was reading an essay by John Lie about the situation of foreign workers in Japan that pointed out the problematic way in which such workers are often regarded, by progressives and conservatives alike, as “impoverished and lower class”, regardless of educational and status attainments in their home country, establishing a juxtaposition that lumps both “college-educated and illiterate” foreign workers into one category against the “affluent, middle-class Japanese” (74, ref. below):

“Ironically, politically progressive people most clearly articulated the contrast between Japanese and the new foreign workers. Claiming to be sympathetic to their plight, one self-appointed supporter of foreign workers’ struggle argued that they should be allowed to work in Japan because they are pitiful (kawaisou) and poor (mazushii). Progressive Japanese analyses therefore highlighted external, structural factors, such as poverty, rather than individual desires and initiatives (Tou 1992: 29-33). It is, of course, misleading to emphasize only the exploitation and the pathos of the new foreign workers. After all, most of them enter Japan voluntarily and consciously endure the demanding working conditions.” (John Lie, “The discourse of Japaneseness,” in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society. Eds. Mike Douglass and Glenda S. Roberts, Hawaii: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2003. 70-90, 74.)

Japan, of course, is not the only place where the noblesse oblige of the educated and liberal proves problematic. The contemporary Western academy has for some time attempted to counter this pouboir/savoir problem with all sorts of reflexive and self-distancing measures. Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” has enjoyed a good deal of citation, no doubt partly because, like Said’s Orientalism, its provocative, polemical elements, aimed as a wake-up call, drew wide attention. The essential argument of Spivak’s essay is something of a logical fallacy – that if the subaltern even could speak, they would not be subaltern anymore – is overstated, and it is not surprising that Spivak has since allowed for a good deal of possibility that the subaltern can somehow be heard in the dominant or hegemonic register, writing:

“It is the disenfranchised who teaches us most often by saying: I do not recognize myself in the object of your benevolence. I do not recognize my share in your naming…she tells us if we care to hear…that she is not the literal referent for our frenzied naming of woman in the scramble for legitimacy in the house of theory” (“More on Power/Knowledge” and “Feminism and Deconstruction, Again”, Outside in the Teaching Machine, 48 and 137).

As Bart Moore-Gilbert remarks, “Like Said’s Orientalism, which is also ostensibly so concerned to undermine the equation of the West with ‘voice’ and the East with ‘silence’, an essay like ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ actually ends up by constructing the subaltern as the West’s ‘silent interlocutor’. (Moore-Gilbert also offers an excellent single-sentence summation of the ambiguity at the heart of Orientalism: “the question of whether Westerners are ontologically incapable of ‘disinterested’ or ‘true’ knowledge of the non-West”, Postcolonial Theory 110). Perhaps the greatest irony of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in this respect is that if Spivak’s account of subaltern silence were true, then there would be nothing but that non-subaltern (particularly the West and the native elite) left to speak to or write about” (Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics. London and NY: Verso, 1997, 104). Bruce Robbins has criticised Spivak for repeating the gesture of speaking for/in place of the subaltern in Foucault and Deleuze. Writing in defence of Said against similar charges, he note: “The critic who accuses another of speaking for the subaltern by denying that subalterns can speak for themselves, for example, is of course also claiming to speak for them” (Bruce Robbins, “The East is a Career: Edward Said and the Logics of Professionalism” in Sprinker, Edward Said 50; see Parry, “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse”, 39, for a critique of Spivak’s “deafness” to the voice of the Other).

Crisis in the Social Sciences?

23 Mar

写真 (1)

Professor Gary Sigley lecturing in the Asian Studies department of UWA

Professor Gary Sigley lecturing in the Asian Studies department of UWA


Today in a lecture Professor Gary Sigley talked about “theory” in the broad sense of the word. When I think of “theory” I tend to recall something Nabokov I think said of style in writing; namely, that you don’t just write something and then throw in a bit of style to spruce it up, but rather that the style in which you write ought to condition the very way in which you approach something.

This of course raises the subsequent question of reflexivity in theory. How do we know that our theoretical approaches to a given subject are necessarily appropriate? Once we accept that no theory is disinterested, and furthermore that there is no epistemological standpoint outside of theory, do we wring our hands in hopeless aporia, or embrace the freedom of questioning the very basis from which we begin to write (such as a self-reflexive model would seem to allow for?)

For example, suppose we wanted to measure the number of women and men sitting in a classroom. We could do so and on the basis of our findings create policies for schools, but what if we began to question the idea of men and women itself? What if we said that, rather than being disinterested, research on men and women presupposed a simple gender binary between male and female, and would fall short of explaining those other forms of gender troubling these boundaries (there are many, but some of the more well-known descriptions now used often refer to trans- and cross-gender positions and so on).

The point here is that, although authors like Bryan Turner in his introductory reader The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory claim that theory should be “about something” and not simply “theorising about theory”, without the latter there is always the risk that we are being less than disinterested in our epistemology, insofar as theory itself conditions the choices we make in choosing to investigate something.

Turner makes the distinction between first-order and second-order theories or judgements. First-order theorising involves “an original conceptual framework that is addressed to something”, while second-order theorising, in Turner’s interpretation, is closer to “exegesis and interpretation”, and, insofar as it could be defined as simply “theories about theorising”, has a tendency “to become narcissistic”. The distinction here is somewhat confusing, given that other authors have defined second order judgements as occurring “when any aspect of any object being investigated is granted a status (perhaps this is labelled a ‘cause’, perhaps something else, which draws its authority from another investigation” (Kendall, G. and Wickam, G. Using Foucault’s Methods, London: Sage, p. 13). That is, they are value judgements which condition our own argument when we unwittingly adopt another someone else’s theoretical perspective. Without a meta-theoretical level of analysis – something Turner seems to wish to reduce to “theories about theorising” – it is difficult to see how such second order judgements could ever be identified and countered in our analyses.

Furthermore, Turner does not suggest how we could identify an important object of study without metatheory. Since theory conditions our ability to see and identity objects of knowledge, there is an unproblematised discrepancy inhering in statements like, “For social theory to exist in some sense as a vibrant and important part of sociology as a discipline, it has to throw light on problems of major contemporary concern. A relevant social theory should not be a theory about theorizing, that is, it must be something more than a metatheory.” Turner goes on to provide a list of those areas of “major contemporary concern”, including cosmopolitanism, environmental degradation, globalization, the growing incivility of the public sphere, the relationship between technology, science, and society, and others. “In all of these situations”, Turner concludes, “the assertion of and claims for rights are central issues.”

Yet how could we identity these as “central issues” without metatheorising – that is, without a self-reflexive critique of why an object of knowledge in considered to be such? Without a sense, say, that human rights were a positive normative value worth struggling for? Data and research after all do not tell us, in and of themselves, that there is a thing called human rights “out there” worthy of being defended. Metatheory, however, does. The idea, in other words, is ideological; and ideologies in their turn can only de de-naturalised and re-examined with the aid of meta-theory, the ability to theorise, reflexively, theory. Without metatheory it would be difficult to see how concepts like, for example, the “white man’s burden” could ever have been critiqued. According to the ideology of their times they too were after all seen as positive social projects, ones that promoted a kind of social justice for the people involved. Indeed, within many post-colonial countries there are still those citizens who will praise or draw attention to aspects of colonisation that they found positive: think for example of countries like Taiwan, which has a numer of ordinary citizens as well as establishment figures seemingly more inclined to praise than to criticise the history of Japanese colonisation in Taiwan (see Leo Ching, ‘” ‘Give Me Japan and Nothing Else!’: Postcoloniality, Identity, and the Traces of Colonialism”, South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2000 99(4): 763-788).

Furthermore, without metatheorizing, we cannot identify the limits of our epistemology – if our epistemology says man should evolve, then a social justice project would conceivably mean subjugating women and animal, as well as other not epistemologically recognized as “men”.

Without metatheory we are prone not recognise – or to simply discount –  our own epistemological limitations. Turner’s concern for cosmopolitanism and globalization as contemporary issue for example downplays the idea that colonial history has for centuries forced the inhabitants of colonised countries and areas into a “cosmopolitan” awareness long before the subject began to be explored by Europe (some of whom, like Kant in his essay “Perpetual Peace”, were concerned to delineate normative rules for cosmopolitan organisation that were in part a response to and criticism of the increasingly voracious colonialism emanating from Europe). 

For Turner, contemporary social theory can “be said to be in a crisis” promoted by “the rise of postmodernism” (notably, Turner does not refer to “postmodernity”, suggesting the redemptive promise that the postmodern may be a mere movement or fashion rather than a new historical conjuncture for the contemporary period to grapple with), as well as the collapse of “world communism” (though the current power of China should give us pause in attempting to understand its own situation as a major power who has yet to completely abandon communism) and the “globalization of neoliberal economics”. Turner locates the crisis as ultimately inhering in a “revolution” of epistemology whereby “the certainties of positivism, empiricism, and objectivism have waned before the insistence that there are no theory-neutral observations of reality, that all theory is context-dependent, and that the pretension of scientific neutrality is just that — a pretension.” The result is a “fragmentation of social theory into cultural theory, film theory, critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and so forth.”

The embattled rhetoric of such statements will be familiar to many working in various disciplines of the humanities (my favourite among the many examples of this “embattled discipline” rhetoric still, I think, has to go to Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath for a passage in their book Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom: “Classicists can no longer huddle to the rear in the surf as waves of their greenhorn Greek and Latin 1A-ers are machine-gunned in the sand. If we are going to lose Greek, let us do so with burly, cigar-chomping professors, red-eyed from overload classes, wounds oozing from bureaucratic combat, chests bristling with local teaching medals and complimentary Rotary pens from free lecturing, barking orders and dragging dozens of bodies forward as they brave administrative gunfire, oblivious to the incoming rounds from ethnic studies and contemporary cinema” (NY: The Free Press, 1998, p. 171)). Disciplines have indeed been faced with various challenges, but I myself am more inclined to see these as productive rather than indicative of “crisis” (if there is any crisis the disciplines are facing, it’s more likely to be found in the macro-structural changes of universities and the way teaching and classes are being re-organised then from feminists, queers and people who like film).

Sadly, a divide and conquer enforcement of disciplinary boundaries neglects to engage with the productive history of disciplinary fragmentation. Area studies became far more vibrant after it began to more proactively engage with post-colonial and other theory (see for example Harootunian and Miyoshi (eds), Learning PlacesThe Afterlives of Area StudiesDurham: Duke University Press, 2002 ). Cultural studies (itself highly – or productively? – “undisciplined” in maintaining neither a canon of theory nor of theorists) has been illuminating for a number of disciplines, and grew from the inability of people like Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams among others to pursue their research within existing disciplines (sadly, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies that Hoggart founded was closed in 2002). So-called “French theory” is, at the moment of being criticised, already revealing of its success: to say the term in English should serve to remind us that its theories are less “French” then they are the products of a diverse range of influences and interpreters, particularly U.S. academies that helped publish and spread its ideas beyond the Francophonie and into the Anglosphere). 

We may wish to recall here the legacy of something so variously situated as “poststructuralism”, itself a very general area sometimes used as a synonym (in critiques that appear to interpret its presence as threatening their own, such as Turner’s) for “postmodernism”, “French theory”, cultural studies, deconstruction and so on. Its most threatening aspect was that it challenged established disciplines’ ways of doing things and the way they conceived of their objects of knowledge. Indeed one of its major influences, German idealism and “continental philosophy”, grew out of a break with the tradition of analytic philosophy (so even the “tradition” itself was grew out of “embattled”origins) . Take for example a figure like Jacques Derrida, whose impact has been felt far outside of philosophy: one of the main complaints about Derrida was simply that what he did was not “really” philosophy; that it was not disciplined enough – yet it would appear that he, and others who lacked “discipline”, provided ways of thinking through things that were helpful to those who may otherwise have been unable to articulate their ideas. Epistemic violence therefore can be as dangerous as physical violence in its material and psychic effects. More importantly, it is never reducible to either (the merely material/psychic). So I’m worried by the disciplinary conservatism, and its potentials for violence, that I sense in these remarks.

What also troubles me about Turner’s distinctions are the value claims involved in delineating a difference between what is merely “narcissictic”, that is subjective, and what is “addressed to something.” It is reminiscent of the distinction C. Wright Mills makes in The Sociological Imagination between “troubles” (“A trouble is a private matter”; see The Sociological Imagination, Oxford Univ. Press, 1959, p. 15) and “issues” (“Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of he individual and the range of his inner life”, ibid.). The problem with this distinction is that the overdetermination of the social tends to mean that dividing events into the private/merely interpretative, and the public/“original conceptual framework”, reduces a myriad of factors and possible causes for what occurs in the world into a structure that risks treating the “political” as not really congruent with what is merely “personal”. Rather I believe that to accept the view that events are overdetermined would mean, as Foucault put it, describing the concept of “eventalisation”,

       “making visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant…to show that ‘things weren’t as necessary as all that’…eventalisation means discovering the connections, encounters, supports, blockages, plays of forces, strategies and so on which at a given moment establish what counts as being self-evident, universal and necessary. In this sense, one is indeed effecting a sort of multiplication or pluralisation of causes.” (Michel Foucault, “Questions of method”, in Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller, P. (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, p. 76).

Indeed, one odd aspect of Turner’s argument is that, later on, he appears to directly contradict himself in saying, “An intellectually exciting sociology can never be merely the study of significant contemporary problems; it has to make a lasting contribution to sociological theory.” It would be curious to speculate what difference the author is presumably intending to draw here between “a lasting contribution to sociological theory” and the “theory about theorising” he criticises elsewhere. Is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities an example of the former? Where would Edward Said’s Orientalism lie?

Recall our classroom example: where authors might Turner might read in the inability to see the issue of women and men as “addressed to something” but rather as a framing with its own positionalities and values attached, it would be more generous – and sobering – to appreciate that epistemic change carries with it new sets of complications. For example, we could widen the data to allow for “trans-gender” and “other” categories. Yet we do not question the epistemological purpose of taking surveys or using data. Rather the centre invites the periphery in and assimilates it. Or we could scrap the census and use another way of organising knowledge – but still not question the value of the particular ways in which we elect to organise knowledge. In this way the margins become the centre and the marginal centre incorporates new margins. We may take a census of men, women, transgender, and myriad other thoroughly inclusive acknowledgments of the other, yet never do question the value of the census itself. This is why the conclusion of Turner’s chapter in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory is so worrying. Turner suggests that,

“I have defended traditional sociology but have also addressed the concerns of modern sociologists over conversation analysis (chapter 15), cultural theory (chapter 19) and actor network theory (chapter 7). I have also recognized the need to develop critical theories relating, for example, to gender (chapter 12) and to postmodernism (chapter 13).

“Finally in this introduction I have referred frequently to the crisis of modern social theory, but a crisis can also be, as in the case of a threatening illness, a turning point where there is a resolution of existing dangers and the emergence of new opportunities for growth and development. The intention in publishing this New Companion has been to answer this challenge, thereby contributing to the growth and renewal of a sociological vision of the social world.”

But is this not simply an example of the typically liberal, inclusivist tendency to simply “incorporate” and “acknowledge” concerns (a word Turner himself uses)? What if crisis were conducive, not to simply acknowledging the challenge of “feminism” and “postmodernism”, but to re-defining one’s ontology to allow for these new engagements? Rather than mis-reading objects so that they fit better a pre-established epistemology, our hermeneutic approaches should be susceptible to changes that better allow for the arrival of and engagement with new objects. And yet always with the persistent awareness that, as Elizabeth Spelman so succinctly remarked, “Welcoming someone into one’s own home doesn’t represent an attempt to undermine privilege, it expresses it” (Spelman, Inessential Women: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988: p. 163). I for my part am in any case more inclined to believe, in desiring something like the aforementioned combination of engagement with scepticism, that crises and “threatening illness” are insuperable conditions in which all of our best intentions and ideals are imbricated, and from which they are necessarily inextricable. They are not resolvable. They condition what we do, and their presence as such allows us to do what we do. The corollary to all this though is my belief – as the hopeful term “engagement” I hope gestures toward – that our positioning and disciplinary boundaries, as well as our epistemic limits and locations, are capable of being regulated differently in achieving the “positive role in modern society” that Turner seeks for them.

The key here then would appear to be an epistemology that could reflexively question – and change – its own conditions. All the while accepting, however, that it could never be fully cognisant of all of these conditions, nor of the objects of its research. What is humbling to remark here is that the cause of much of this inability is due purely and simply to difficulty – how liable we are, as fallible human animals, to miss something “obvious” in even the most comprehensive genealogies and historicisms and deconstructions. Of course sometimes this can be a source of productive engagement: much has been made by various disciplines of Said’s Orientalism, in part because it is never entirely clear who can or cannot be considered “Orientalist” (Orientals in the Orient? Orientals working with others outside the Orient?) And various disciplines in the humanities have had very different things to say about Anderson’s Imagined Communities: for some, novels create national identity; others however may tend to favour a different aspect of Anderson’s claim, such as the idea that newspapers are in fact more helpful in thinking through the process of nationalisation. Indeed, even such an apparently canonical and familiar figure as Marx is routinely “misinterpreted”, in ways both superficial (I, among others, have lost count of the number of times we are told that Marx “stood Hegel on his head”; he of course said (in Capital) that Hegel’s idealism left his dialectic “standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell”) through to the very heart of Marxist philosophy and the famous question of what was determining of human and societal relations “in the final analysis” (productive forces, we are commonly told; but in fact Marx was ambivalent on this point; compare the statements made in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please…but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” – or the first sentence of The Communist Manifesto about “class struggle” to statements contained in say, the Grundrisse that explicitly posit the forces of production as determining in the final analysis).

Perhaps it would be salutary to recall here the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, in which the protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin, fails to find a missing letter despite meticulous searching because it happens to be lying on the dining table – which is the last place any highly considered, reflective, and meticulous investigation would think to look (Poe’s epigraph to the story, misattributed to Seneca but in fact coming from Petratch’s treatise “De remediis utriusque Fourtunae”, is Nihil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness)).

I’ll leave off here for the moment, but if I find time I may write soon about this issue of blind-spots in relation to analysis by way of an essay I read recently by Janet Sturgeon (recommended by Gary Sigley as a class reading) about the use of tea and rubber as cash crops in China and a passage in David Lodge’s novel Nice Work that Bruce Robbins happened to talk about in his last monograph, Perpetual War, which says something abotut the relationship between recognising the labour that lies behind commodity fetishism and actually doing something about it. We’ll see.

A Cultural Battle without Foundations?: “Otherness” considered from two epistemological standpoints

20 Mar

there is a kind of attachment to specificity and complexity which is the condition of any adequate intellectual work, and another kind which is really a defence of a particular kind of consciousness, within very specific cultural conditions: a defence, really, against recognition of the necessarily general relations within which all cultural work, including analysis, is done. Such defences are easily and even habitually sustained within certain kinds of privileged institution, where privilege is not so much, or not primarily, a matter of income or life style, but rather a condition of relatively distanced, relatively unchallenged relations with the practical and continuing social process.

Thus we have always to distinguish between two kinds of consciousness: that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity, which is always, in a thousand instances, putting working generalizations and hypotheses under strain; and that other, often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for the endless postponement of all (even local) general judgements and decisions. (Raymond Williams, The Sociology of Culture, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 282-83. Quoted in Chow, Ethics After Idealism, xix)

Between idealism and positivism, theory and culture, there are often battles. The battle between the two stalwarts of “theory” on the one hand and “culture” on the other for example marked much of the late eighties and nineties “culture wars” and their disciplinary battles. People like Harold Bloom, themselves bearers of radical deconstructive ideas in the sixties and seventies who would find their own status as radicals of theory threatened by “the astonishing garbage called ‘cultural criticism’” (Quoted in Ken Shulman, “Bloom and Doom” (an interview with Harold Bloom), Newsweek, October 10, 1994, p. 75) that gradually gained ground from the late seventies onward in questioning their own theoretically “radical” position from a different cultural perspective: one which threatened their own. To be glib: the deconstructor became in turn deconstructed (which would make sense to Derrida, given his own theory that everything contains within it the potential of its own self-deconstruction, evincing his belief in the “strategic” mechanism of deconstruction as opposed to its exemplifying merely a particular “practice” or ideology that one can then choose to apply.)

I would imagine that it would be helpful to both sides to recognise the shared disciplinary and epistemological beliefs underpinning these arguments, and then – more optimistically – my hope in moving past the limits of each understanding, if only insofar as by “moving past” all we can in fact hope to accomplish is a recognition of the lacunae that have structured the assumptions of each side. In acknowledging these, there is hope that these assumptions can be more productively critiqued and extended beyond their current uses in future.

A good reference on the notion of contemporary battles in academia between theory and culture has been written of by Rey Chow. Chow identifies a dichotomy between “theory” (which Chow identifies primarily as referring to post-war, “post-structuralist” theory, much of it emanating from France and dealing with the problems brought up by German Idealist or “continental”, as opposed to “analytic”, philosophy) and “culture” (particularly non-Western cultures such as one might find in specialised area studies such as Asian, African, Latin-American, Middle East studies et. al). As she writes in one essay of her collection Ethics After Idealism, “students should not be told simply to reject ‘metadiscourses’ in the belief that by turning to the ‘other’ cultures – by turning to ‘culture’ as the ‘other’ of metadiscourses – they would be able to overturn existing boundaries of knowledge production that, in fact, continue to define and dictate their own discourses.” (Rey Chow, Ethics After Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1998, p. 13). Chow is writing here particularly in the context of a certain type of critique employed among practitioners of some of the social sciences and “area” studies that reject the aforemetioned “post-structuralist” theories in favour of fieldwork, empirical research, and the “cultural specificities” associated with their area. Those assuming such a stance often argue, for example, that there is no “postmodernity” since modernity still conditions so much of the current conjuncture, particularly in countries whose encounter with modernity is explicitly coloured by sometimes violent encounters with Euro-America; or that there is no “post-national” or “post-colonial” condition so long as conditions of national belonging, as well as colonial and acolonial struggle, still occur (think for example of North Korea’s ideological battles with both the U.S. and South Korea, or Hong Kong’s with both Britain and mainland China, as illustrations of the latter, or of the relationships between places like Mongolia, Tibet and the Xinjiang region with China, as possible examples of the former).

Chow’s main point is that both sides however are working within the same Enlightenment tradition (worth mentioning here, given the frequency with which some of the social and area studies once dismissed or critiqued post-structural critique as “nihilistic”, see for example Susan J. Hekman’s Hermeneutics and the Sociology of Knowledge, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986, p. 196). The difference, such as it is, inheres mainly in approaching it from different epistemological standpoints. For Chow, the subversive, “nihilistic” operations of “theory” are “based on the differencing – the differentiation and displacements – internal to the fundamental forms of logocentric signification – be it language, the text, the psyche, the subject, or consciousness.” (Ethics after Idealism, xvii). This internal negatory mode, in which the limits of consciousness or, to paraphrase the famous Foucaldian gloss on one of Borges’ short fictions in The Order of Things, “the impossibility of thinking that”, remain implicitly the limits of a Western logocentrism that is still Eurocentric. That is, they “[partake] of the dismantling of Western thought from within” and therefore “work negatively, as bearers of markers of difference that underpin Western language, metaphysics, work, and sexuality” (ibid.). This negative mode however works to disrupt “critical theory’s claim to alterity” and according to Chow’s critique can be no more “taken as definitive signs of alterity per se” (ibid.) than can the fetishisation of anthropological difference sometimes employed in area studies/social science critique. Chow’s point indeed is similar to that of Elizabeth V. Spelman in Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon, 1988), which is concerned with delineating the paradoxical situation of white Western feminist methodologies that have perpetuated the universalism and privilege of the patriarchal thinking they set out to overcome. As Chow remarks in a footnote referencing this work, “Playing on Nietzsche and on the logic of Animal Farm, [Spelman] sums up the methodological inequity of prevalent feminist theories in this manner: ‘Just as some humans are more human than others (which Plato and Aristotle held), so…some women are more ‘woman’ than others” (p. 175). See Ethics after Idealism, p. 190, ft. 12).

If we take for example the remark made by Karl Popper regarding the “bedrock” of research as an analogy for the shared tradition of Englightenment ideas inhering in both “theoretical” and “cultural” perspectives,we can see that both sides are approaching a common goal, but in different ways. Popper writes:

“The empirical basis of objective science has…nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and is we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.” (Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London: Routledge, 1992, p.94).

There is a temptation however to remark here that what remains unquestioned in Popper’s statement is the need to build bridges at all. If a bridge is a means of travel and coneyance, to where to we travel in the enlightened search for knowledge? If the alterity of “cultural” criticism resides in discovering the non-Western “other”, that of “theory” inheres in marking the limits of Western though, at which point the “other” appears in the form of “the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that…is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, [that] is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.” (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970) xv. Insofar as “that” has so often been a particular site located outside the geography of Euro-America – from the “ideographic” nature of the Chinese character that helped Derrida envisage the possibility of a writing system outside of logocentrism to the semiotics involved in reading Japan not in terms of any “real” Japan containing a plenitude of being or presence but a semiotics of “Japan” in Barthes’ L’empire des Signes – then we find that in the case of both epistemological perspectives, all roads – or bridges – inevitably lead East. As Chow puts it, if the problem of the “cultural” side inheres in its own idealism of “offering promises of salvation even as they preach against ‘Western hegemony,’ ‘Eurocentrism,’ and the like” (xix), that of “theory” involves the unspoken and unaccounted for privileges that “cultural studies” has been concerned to try and point out insofar as its praxis has often involved “a process of cultivation, a process which, despite its claim to radical alterity and heterogeneity, operates by demanding of its adherents a certain conformity with its unspoken rules, rules that have gone without saying until they are revealed for what they are: ‘deconstruct  the best you can – but continue to centre on the West!'” (xviii) It is beyond the scope of this piece of writing, but it would be interesting to question exactly how this “process of cultivation” has been able to “demand” of its adherents “a certain conformity”. Is this an institutionalised process? An unconscious one? To what degree do the “adherents” have agency in following this process and re-shaping it? How are they in turned shaped by the process? Is it a positioning, or is it an inherent attribute of the very act of employing “theory” itself – as some who have avoided theory for its “Eurocentrism” in area studies have sometimes asserted?

The focus on non-Western cultures that marks much of the praxis of area and anthropological study, insofar as it privileges locality and embedded “cultural” knowledge as an antidote to the imperialist, universalizing tendencies of “Western” theory, is reminiscent of a critique not dissimilar to Spelman’s that Neil Lazarus has written regarding overuse of the terms “Western” or “the West”. For Lazaus, the use of these terms itself tends to repeat the Eurocentric logic of “the West” as ageographical, dematerialised, and simultaneously bearing modern weaponry, technology, achievements, and all sorts of other disparate forms of capital, both cultural and material, against “the Rest” (see “Fetish of ‘the West’ in Postcolonial Theory” in Bartolovich & Lazarus (eds.) Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies, Cambridge, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002).

To return to Chow however, Chow writes of how some, “instead of using theory to challenge the conceptual premises, institutional habits, or established authorities of their fields, use it rather as a way to rejuvenate and embellish the old parameters of Orientalism and its related area studies, which they continue to defend with the rhetoric of cultural exceptionalism. [Employing] the technical innovativeness of corporate managers and the spiritual dedication of Christian missionaries, they boldly seek to export ‘cultural studies’ to remote corners of the earth such as China and Asia, offering promises of salvation even as they preach against ‘Western hegemony,’ ‘Eurocentrism,’ and the like” (xvii-xix). Indeed, Chow’s critique could be extended further. The situation she describe now not only involves those travelling from West to East, but is becoming common among those who return from overseas to Asia and write books about going “beyond” or “challenging” Orientalism (they are often reminiscent, in their concern for delineating the “specificities” or unique aspects of Asia’s difference, of the fad in the nineties toward the idea of a “Confucian capitalism”). “Theory” in these readings is viewed often as a “Western” object, inapplicable to a certain area’s cultural specificity – its “otherness” or difference – until it has first yielded its ability to be re-employed with the requisite “Asian characteristics”.

A good example of this trend is a recent book by Ming Dong Gu, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, Dallas, and a visiting professor at Nanjing University, entitled Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism (NY and London: Routledge, 2013). Although a full critique of the flaws of Gu’s work would be beyond the scope of this piece of writing, one passage in particular evidences some of the unexamined assumptions of his attack on “theory” in favour of “objective”, “disinterested” knowledge:

“…because of its emphasis on race, ethnicity, color, gender, and national identity, and other politically and ideologically oriented issues, postcolonialism tends to overlook the relatively neutral and objective nature of knowledge production and scholarly research, and often lapses into subjectively political criticism and ideological controversy. This drawback is clearly manifested in the debates on postcolonialism, East and West. In Western academia even those scholars who belong to the same camp of post-colonialist theories may express entirely different and opposite opinions on the same issue. By way of example, on the issue of Marx’s relationship to colonialism, Said regards Marx as an Orientalist who differs from other colonialist thinkers only in degree. By contrast, Spivak and other postcolonial theorists view Marx as a staunch revolutionary thinker resolutely opposed to colonialism” (p. 21).

Apart from the inexplicable decision of Gu to provide a reference in the original text for his remark on Said but not on that regarding the views of Spivak and “other postcolonial theorists”, the passage cited here seems oddly to suggest that there is a problem in the situation of theorists having “opposite opinions on the same issue” (!)

To return this issue however to the specific criticism of the relationship between “culture” and “theory”, Chow’s point concerns understanding that both groups employ an epistemology that uses “otherness” to locate itself, whether in the form of theory’s deconstructive limits tending to occur only at the point of acknowledging cultures outside the West, or of the otherness involved in being a scholar of non-Western “cultures”. Gu’s work exactly illustrates Chow’s remark that “If no criticism of ‘culture’ can suffice simply by reiterating the insights deduced from the cultural instance that is Western critical theory, then no criticism of ‘theory’ can suffice simply by assuming the theoretical stance of advocating the aesthetic and literary traditions of another nation and culture” (xix). This is however something Gu’s book seems to suggests in the idealist nativism of some of its arguments advocating the sort of respectable liberalism and cultural plurality that would inhere in a “decolonising, depoliticisng, and de-ideologising Chinese scholarship” (p. 222):

“The ideology of Sinologism has obstructed Chinese and Western scholars in their perception and representation of China. It has in turn blurred Western and non-Western people’s own vision and understanding of their own cultures, because a true understanding of one’s own culture requires the mirror image of another culture. Consequently there is an urgent need for self-conscious reflection on the part of both Westerners and non-Westerners alike. There is also a pressing need for the Chinese to understand their own culture. As Sinologism has penetrated almost all strata of Chinese academia and all aspects of Chinese social life, it has become an obstacle to the healthy development of Chinese society. The inundation of Western ideas and scholarship into China in the 1970s during he initial stage of Reform and Openness made it possible for Chinese academia to emancipate its mind, but it has also intensified the cultural unconscious centring on intellectual colonization, and strengthened he epistemological and methodological inertia of the Chinese mind and caused the atrophy of scholarly creativity and originality. It has become the consensus that the present-day prosperity of Chinese scholarship is based on introduction, imitation, reproduction and duplication. Numerous scholars deplore the low degrees of originality and creativity in Chinese academia. Almost all academic fields are content with low-level duplication of Western academic achievements. This is especially so in the social sciences and humanities” (ibid.)

I would aggree with Gu that “a true understanding of one’s own cultural requires the mirror image of another culture” as being a problem of the idealism that informs “cultural” and “theory” critiques alike, insofar as that word refers not only to the tendency to treat the world as a product of ideas, as in the mentalism of idealist philosophy as critiqued by Marx and Engels, among others (recall the famous words of the Theses on Feuerbach, written in 1845: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” – a dictum Gu’s book arguably stands in opposition to; see Sinologism, p. 224), but also to the mythification of alterity and “otherness”; the sense of “the other” as standing outside the contradictions and problematics that inhere in the subject’s/our own historical and cultural conjuncture. I would however argue that what this means is certainly not that there is consequently “a pressing need for the Chinese to understand their own culture” (p. 222, my italics), but instead that we must break down the subject/object distinction by seeing subjects as never being self-present, as being other even to themselves (not a new suggestion, mind!). Much of Gu’s monograph seems thoroughgoingly culturalist and essentialist in its need to pose categories of “West” and “non-West” against one another in arguing for epistemic “decolonisation”. As long as we look to native informants who are not ourselves, rather than recognising our own unmarked epistemic centre as being itself coloured and native in relative to other points of view that objectify ourselves as the subject, conclusions such as Gu’s for a further reification of the subject/object distinction will persist. Ironically enough, the paradoxical nature of this situation of a subjectivity that is never entirely self-present is implicitly asserted by Gu himself in the aforementioned passage: “Western ideas and scholarship into China in the 1970s…made it possible for Chinese academia to emancipate its mind, but it has also intensified the cultural unconscious” (ibid.) To give a generous interpretation of these remarks, the point to be made here is that the “Chinese mind” – that is, the subject of our (the Chinese) speech – is at once emancipated and yet unfree, not because of any exterior contamination necessarily, but the contamination that conditions its “health”. It is an infection upon which it would have to rely – and on which much culturalist critique of “the West” often does – in order to reach an ever more (in this instance) “healthy development of Chinese society”.

Gu’s attack on “ideology” in favour of “disinterested scholarship” (p. 224) is reminiscent of those attacks on “theory” that do not account for how anyone can mount criticisms from a non-theoretical position. The tendency to reduce the separation between ontology and the real often position in post-structuralist critique to a form of “nihilism” or “relativism” has been well-rebutted by Thomas Kuhn:

“There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its ‘real’ counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle. Besides, as a historian, I am impressed with the implausibility of the view. I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s then either of them is to Newton’s. Though the temptation to describe that position as relativistic is understandable, the description seems to me wrong. Conversely, if the position is relativism, I cannot see that the relativist loses anything needed to account for the nature and development of the sciences.” (Thomas A. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Fourth Ed., Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012, p. 205)

Particularly interesting in Kuhn’s remarks are how they complicate the common belief that in the humanities, unlike in the sciences, the wheel can be, and often is, reinvented. Though figures like Heidegger went back to the Greeks for new paradigms, the suggestion that Einstein himself also hearkens back to ancient predecessors, even if he is not explicit in doing so, is certainly cause for reflection.

The need for reflexivity and a problematisation of the notion of “weak objectivity” originating in the natural sciences (which suggests that observation is separate to its social consequences) will inhere insofar as we continue to be reminded of how, “In social inquiry, observation changes the field observed” (Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, Milton Keynes: OpenUniv. Press, 1991, p. 161). As Mark Bevir succinctly remarks:

“I think that Gadamer, Foucault, and Derrida are right to reject the idea of a given past. They are right for the very general reason that we do not have pure experiences. The nature of a perception depends on the perceiver. A sensation can become the object of a perception or an experience only when our intelligence identifies it as a particular sensation both distinct from, and in a relation to, other sensations. We become aware of a sensation only when we attend to it, and when we attend to a sensation we necessarily identity it, using abstract categories, as a particular sort of sensation. Thus, perceptions always incorporate theoretical understanding.” (Mark Bevir, “Objectivity in History”, in History and Theory, 33 (1994), p. 329).