Aijaz Ahmad’s book In Theory helpfully reminds us of the continuing relevance of political-economic analysis. Current discussions on post-colonialism or postmodernism often privilege libidinal over political economies and thus overlook the global distribution of material privilege that goes some way toward determining why some voices will be heard more than others. To the extent that we forget the material dimensions of the conditions that make for academic-intellectual production, the reminder is timely and valuable.
That said, however, it is not clear how far a moralistic Marxist critique of postmodern and post-colonial discourses should be pushed, or what would be gained by such an exercise. Ahmad’s critique depends too much on the fact that most of the people he criticizes live or work in academic institutions in the West. (However, Partha Chatterjee, whose intellectual positions Ahmad disagrees with, lives in Calcutta, one of the poorest cities of the world. And Ahmad does not discuss Gayatri Spivak at all — could it be that mix of feminism, Marxism, post-colonialism and deconstruction is too hot for him to handle?) These polemics are ultimately silly.
I only make them to stress the point that a critique such as Ahmad’s rather easily falls victim to its own design. Political-economic facts are important. The question is: Do Marxist historians, particularly in the Third World, have anything to learn from what Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, and others have taught us? Or should we treat their writings as a reactionary corpus that reduces us to cultural relativism and political passivity?
There is something to be learned from this contemporary run of social and literary theory. Marx’s thoughts were an internal critique of the Enlightenment. Beyond his trenchant internal critique of the category “capital,” he offered ideas about “history,” “individual,” “freedom” and “progress” that he shared with his theoretical predecessors. Most if not all of these categories have only partial application to histories outside of that of the modern middle classes in the West (and I am not sure about the extent of their applicability there). With most of these categories, scholars such as myself have a strange relationship: While we can produce “critiques” of our societies with their help, we are positioned by them both as “native informants” and as investigators. This produces two worlds of performance, one “analytical” and the other “lived.” They are both of value, but a socialist critique gives no clue to thinking about their relationship because it is so closely identified with only one side of the equation.
Take the question of “rights.” This idea has been of indisputable value in Indian history. Without it we would not have obtained political independence in a nation-state form, nor the oppressed in India their present places in public life. Yet rights never speak to the entirety of my (or other Indians’) historical predicament. I know that I can critique my family and society in terms of rights, and that the critique has certain undoubted uses. At the same time, I would feel terribly deprived of many pleasurable emotions if the entire gamut of my kin connections had to be negotiated in the language of rights. There are other ideas and categories which can also be used to produce critiques and resistances, but they are outside of socialist thought. Oftentimes they are even outside of the very idea of the political that the European notion of democracy has given us. Of course, one has to allow for a degree of translatability between systems of thought, and there are indeed times when one can argue with some reason for “universals” that run across human societies — the desire for social justice, for instance — but not always.
Besides, these “native” categories often have contradictory functions. Take the Hindu idea of bhakti (devotion). History shows that the idea was often used to develop harsh, violent, oppressive hierarchies, as between landlords and peasants. But bhakti, particularly the idea of willfully submerging/submitting oneself into a larger entity, is also central to many of my “Hindu” aesthetic and emotional practices (and thus to a “practical” understanding of personhood). To let all of that go as “reactionary” would be to lose emotional access to much of the music and poetry I love, as someone from the subcontinent. Marxism gives me no handle on this problem. The same could be said of many other analytical categories derived from the legacy of the European Enlightenment.
Therefore, while one cannot, as a political animal, afford to live outside of the categories of thought that have helped structure the global and its critique one also needs an Archimedean point outside of these critiques so as to be able to retain some sense of the many ways of being human that cultural difference is all about. It is not possible for anyone political philosophy to grasp within its unitary hold this enormous variety.
This is not an argument for unbridled cultural relativism. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, political economic critiques become more urgent than ever, giving us a perspective over the dominations that underwrite that process. Marx(ism) is indispensable in this enterprise. At the same time, another critical task emerges. “Difference” (which should neither be essentialized nor subsumed in the idea of “diversity”) has to be written, acted and lived out in this globalized world so that we can sustain a plurality of life forms within the apparent homogeneity of consumerism. Here I learn more from a Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas or a de Certeau than I do from philosophies that work within a Hegelian tradition. For me, being a post-colonial historian of India means learning to live with the split.