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De-Colonizing Postcolonial Theory

Ajay Gudavarthy

By Vivek Chibber
Navayana, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 306, Rs. 450.00


Have postcolonial theory and subaltern studies in their attempt to point towards difference, consciously or unconsciously, reproduced colonial ideology and an Orientalist description of the subaltern and her politics in India? Have they arrested the agency of the peasants and working class in assuming that modern democracy and the language of political rights was the gift of the bourgeoisie? Do they indulge in the culturalization of the economy and politics in assuming culture as a meta-category to explain events, historical and contemporary, in Indian politics and undermine the sagacity of Capital and its capacity to universalize itself, even where pre-capitalist modes of cultural expression remain? Do they commit a category mistake in selective rendering of history in assuming that modern forms are more regulatory than the ‘traditional‘ structures of caste, clan-based enumeration, and bio-politics of untouchability? Vivek Chibber‘s book is unequivocal in answering these questions in an affirmative voice and highlights these as serious theoretical and epistemic limits of postcolonial theory in general and Subaltern Studies in particular.   Many of the assumptions of postcolonial theory borrow the Orientalist orientation, and try to explain how they make a difference to the way the subaltern politics play out. They, in other words, have all through attempted to dignify ‘Orientalism‘, rather than invoke categories than genuinely stand outside Euro-Centrism. Could it then be possible that postcolonial theory has only offered categories that are mirror-images of western/Enlightenment Liberalism rather than alternatives that stand outside such an ‘epistemic community‘? The project of Subaltern Studies, at its core, believed that workers and peasants ‘lack any concept of individuality, are inured in hierarchy, and remain unmoved by calls for equality. They can erupt into orgies of violence at the slightest provocation. Their consciousness is “split” between the modern and the traditional. And so on. Chakrabarthy unloads these bromides without even a hint of self-conciousness, without any recognition of their affiliation with traditional colonial ideology...furthermore they have found an incredibly friendly audience in American academia’ (pp.185-86). It is also intriguing that postcolonial theorists from India have actually flown with the stream in terms of the shift in global theoretical frames. They began as Gramscians, moved on to Heidegger, to Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault and poststructuralism, and autonomist philosophers. Their history of the subaltern in India, notwithstanding all the emphasis on difference, strangely is in alignment with the global renderings of political moves beginning with ...

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