Coming from a broad cross-section of academic disciplines and theoretical positions, this collection of essays questions and reworks Marxist critiques of capitalism that center on the West and which posit a uniform model of development. More specifically
About the Author
Lisa Lowe is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego and author of Immigrant Acts, published by Duke University Press.
David Lloyd is Hartley Burr Alexander Chair in the Humanities at Scripps College, Claremont and author of Anomalous States, also published by Duke University Press.
Read an Excerpt
The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital
By Lisa Lowe, David Lloyd
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
CRITIQUE OF MODERNITY
The Time of History and the Times of Gods
In truth, the historian can never get away from the question of time in history: time sticks to his thinking like soil to a gardener's spade. FERNAND BRAUDEL, On History
The vulgar representation of time as a precise and homogeneous continuum has ... diluted the Marxist concept of history. GIORGIO AGAMBEN, Infancy and History
At its core, this essay is about the problems a secular subject like history faces in handling imaginations in which gods, spirits, or the supernatural have agency in the world. My central examples concern the history of work in South Asia. Labor, the activity of producing, is seldom a completely secular activity in India. It often entails, through rituals big and small, the invocation of divine or super-human presence. Secular histories are produced usually by ignoring the signs of these presences. In effect, we have two systems of thought, one in which the world is ultimately, that is, in the final analysis, disenchanted, and the other in which the humans are not the only meaningful agents. For the purpose of writing history, the first system, the secular, translates the second into itself. It is the question of this translation—its methods and problems—that interests me here as part of a broader effort to situate the question of subaltern history within a postcolonial critique of modernity and of history itself.
This critique has to issue from within a dilemma that must mark a project such as subaltern studies. The dilemma is this: Writing subaltern history, documenting resistance to oppression and exploitation, must be part of a larger effort to make the world more socially just. To wrench subaltern studies away from the keen sense of social justice that gave rise to the project would be to violate the spirit that gives this project its sense of commitment and intellectual energy. Indeed, it may be said that it would be to violate the history of realist prose in India, for it may be legitimately argued that the administration of justice by modern institutions requires us to imagine the world through the languages of the social sciences, that is, as disenchanted.
History's own time is godless, continuous, and, to follow Benjamin, empty and homogeneous. By this I mean that in employing modern historical consciousness (whether in academic writing or outside of it), we think of a world that, in Weber's description, is already disenchanted. Gods, spirits, and other "supernatural" forces can claim no agency in our narratives. Further, this time is empty because it acts as a bottomless sack: any number of events can be put inside it; and it is homogeneous because it is not affected by any particular events: its existence is independent of such events and in a sense it exists prior to them. Events happen in time but time is not affected by them. The time of human history—as any popular book on the evolution of this universe will show—merges, when thought of backwards, into the time of prehistory, of evolutionary and geological changes going back to the beginning of the universe. It is part of nature. This is what allowed J. B. S. Haldane once to write a book with the telltale title Everything Has a History. Hence the time of Newtonian science is not different to the time historians automatically assume as providing the ontological justification of their work. Things may move faster or slower in this time: that is simply the problem of velocity and speed. And the time may be cyclical or linear: the weeks belong to cyclical time, the English years go in hundred-year cycles, while the procession of years is a line. And historians may with justification talk about different regions of time: domestic time, work time, the time of the state, and so on. But all these times, whether cyclical or linear, fast or slow, are normally treated not as parts of a system of conventions, a cultural code of representation, but as something more objective, something belonging to "nature" itself. This nature/culture division becomes clear when we look at nineteenth-century uses of archaeology, for instance, in dating histories that provided no easy arrangements of chronology.
It is not that historians and philosophers of history are unaware of such a commonplace as the claim that modern historical consciousness, or for that matter academic history, as genres are of recent origin (as indeed are the imaginations of the modern sciences). Nor have they been slow to acknowledge the changes these genres have undergone since their inception. The naturalism of historical time lies in the belief that everything can be historicized. So while the nonnaturalness of history, the discipline, is granted, the assumed universal applicability of its method entails a further assumption: that it is always possible to assign people, places, and objects to a naturally existing, continuous flow of historical time. Thus, irrespective of a society's own understanding of temporality, a historian will always be able to produce a time line for the globe whose structure is like this:
Area X Area Y Area Z
Area X Area Y Area Z
It does not matter if any of these areas were inhabited by peoples such as the Hawaiians or the Hindus, who (unlike, as some would say, the Chinese or the Arabs) did not have a "sense of chronological history"—as distinct from other forms of memories and understandings of historicity—before European arrival. Contrary to whatever they may have thought and however they may have organized their memories, the historian has the capacity to put them back into a time we all are supposed to have shared, consciously or not. History as a code thus invokes a natural, homogeneous, secular, calendrical time without which the story of human evolution/civilization—a single human history, that is—cannot be told. In other words, the code of the secular calendar that frames historical explanations has this claim built into it: that independent of culture or consciousness, people exist in historical time. That is why it is always possible to discover "history" (say, after European contact) even if you were not aware of its existence in the past. History is supposed to exist in the same way as the earth does, for instance.
I begin with the assumption that, to put it strongly, this time, the basic code of history, is not something that belongs to nature (i.e., is not completely independent of human systems of representation). It stands for a particular formation of the modern subject. This is not to say that this understanding of time is false or that it can be given up at will. But, clearly, the kind of correspondence that exists between our sensory worlds and the Newtonian imagination of the universe, between our experience of secular time and the time of physics, breaks down in many post-Einsteinian constructions. In the Newtonian universe, as in historical imagination, "events" are more or less separable from their descriptions: what is factual is seen as translatable from mathematics into prose or between different languages. Thus an elementary book on Newtonian physics can be written completely in Bengali alphabet and numerals, using a minimum of mathematical signs. But not so with post-Einsteinian physics: language strains wildly when trying to convey in prose the mathematical imagination contained in an expression like "curved space" (for, thinking commonsensically, in what would such a space exist if not in space itself?). In this second case, one might say that the assumption of translatability does not quite hold, that the imagination of Einsteinian physics is best learned through the language of its mathematics—for we are speaking of a universe of events where the events cannot be separated from their descriptions. Modern physics, one might say, took the linguistic turn early in this century. Post-Einsteinian cosmology, as the physicist Paul Davis puts it, makes even mathematical sense only so long as we do not try to take "a God's-eye-view" of the universe (i.e., so long as one does not try to totalize or to view the "whole"). "I have grown used to dealing with the weird and wonderful world of relativity," writes Davis. "The ideas of space-warps, distortions in time and space and multiple universes have become everyday tools in the strange trade of the theoretical physicist.... I believe that the reality exposed by modern physics is fundamentally alien to the human mind, and defies all power of direct visualization...."
Historians writing after the so-called linguistic turn may not any longer think that "events" are completely accessible by language, but the more sober among them would strive to avoid absolute lunacy by resorting to weaker versions of this position. As put in the recent book Telling the Truth about History by Lynn Hunt and her colleagues, historians, writing in the aftermath of postmodernism, would work toward an ideal of "workable truths," approximations of "facts" that can be agreed to by all even after it is granted that language and representations always form a (thin?) film between us and the world (in the same way we can mostly ignore the insights of Einsteinian or quantum physics in negotiating our everyday movements in practical life). The higher ideal of translatability between different languages—thus Vietnamese history into Bengali—remains something worth striving for even if language always foils the effort. This ideal—a modified Newtonianism—is, in their view, the historians' protection against the sheer madness of postmodernist and cultural relativist talk about "untranslatability," "incommensurability," and all that.
Unlike in the world of the physicist Paul Davis, then, the imagination of "reality" in the discipline of history is dependent on the capacities of "the human mind," its powers of visualization. The use of the definite article is critical here, for this "reality" aspires to achieve a status of transparency with regard to particular human languages, an ideal of objectivity entertained by Newtonian science where translation between different languages is mediated by the higher language of science itself. Thus pani in Hindi and water in English can both be mediated by H2O. Needless to say, it is only the higher language that is capable of appreciating, if not expressing, the capacities of "the human mind." I would suggest that the idea of a godless, continuous, empty, and homogeneous time that history shares with the other social sciences and modern political philosophy as a basic building block belongs to this model of a higher, overarching language—a structure of generality, an aspiration toward the scientific—which is built into conversations that take the modern historical consciousness for granted.
A proposition of radical untranslatability therefore comes as a problem to the universal categories that sustain the historian's enterprise. But it is also a false problem created by the very nature of the universal itself that aims to function as a supervening general construction mediating between all the particulars on the ground. The secular code of historical and humanist time—that is, a time bereft of gods and spirits—is one such universal. Claims about agency on behalf of the religious, the supernatural, the divine, and the ghostly have to be mediated in terms of this universal. The social scientist–historian assumes that "contexts" explain particular gods: If we could all have the same context, then we would all have the same gods as well. But there is a problem. Whereas the sameness of our "sciences" can be guaranteed all the world over, the sameness of our gods and spirits cannot be proved in quite the same objective manner (notwithstanding the protestations of the well-meaning that all religions speak of the same God). So it could be said that while the "sciences" signify some kind of sameness in our take on the world across cultures, the "gods" signify differences (bracketing for the moment the history of conversion, which I touch on, very briefly, in a later section). Writing about the presence of gods and spirits in the secular language of history or sociology would therefore be like an act of translating into a universal language what belongs to a field of differences.
The history of work in South Asia provides an interesting example of this problem. Work and labor are words deeply implicated in the production of universal sociologies. Labor is one of the key categories in the imagination of capitalism itself. In the same way that we think of capitalism coming into being in all sorts of contexts, we also imagine this modern category work or labor to emerge in all kinds of histories. This is what makes possible studies in the genre of "history of work in...." In this sense, "labor" or "work" has the same status in my posing of the problem as does H2O in the relation between water and pani. Yet the fact is that the modern word labor, as every historian of labor in India knows, translates into a general category a whole host of words with divergent and different associations. What complicates the story further is the fact that in a society such as the Indian, human activity (including what one would, sociologically speaking, regard as "labor") is often associated with the presence and agency of gods or spirits in the very process of labor itself. Hathiyar puja or the "worship of tools," for example, is a common and familiar festival in many north Indian factories. How do we—and I mean narrators of the pasts of the subaltern classes in India—handle this problem of the presence of the divine or the supernatural in the very history of labor as we render this enchanted world into our disenchanted prose, a rendering required, let us say, in the interest of social justice? And how do we, in doing this, still retain the subaltern (in whose activity gods or spirits present themselves) as the subjects of their histories? I will go over this question by examining the work of three subaltern studies historians who have produced fragments of histories of work in the context of "capitalist transition" in India: Gyan Prakash, Gyan Pandey, and myself. And I hope that my discussion will have something to say about the historian's enterprise in general.
Let me begin with an example from my research in labor history. Consider the following description from the 1930s of a particular festival (still quite common in India) that entails the worshiping of machinery by workers:
In some of the jute mills near Calcutta the mechanics often sacrifice goats at this time [autumn]. A separate altar is erected by the mechanics.... Various tools and other emblems are placed upon it.... Incense is burnt.... Towards evening a male goat is thoroughly washed ... and prepared for a ... final sacrifice.... The animal is decapitated at one stroke ... [and] the head is deposited in the ... sacred Ganges....
Excerpted from The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital by Lisa Lowe, David Lloyd. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
NATIONALISM, MARXISM, FEMINISM, AND THE QUESTION OF ALTERNATIVES,
CULTURAL POLITICS AS ALTERNATIVE RATIONALITIES,
I CRITIQUE OF MODERNITY,
THE TIME OF HISTORY AND THE TIMES OF GODS,
THE GENDER AND LABOR POLITICS OF POSTMODERNITY,
OUTLINES OF A NONLINEAR EMPLOTMENT OF PHILIPPINE HISTORY,
DEVELOPMENTALISM'S IRRESISTIBLE SEDUCTION—RURAL SUBJECTIVITY UNDER SANDINISTA AGRICULTURAL POLICY,
NATIONALISMS AGAINST THE STATE,
CULTURAL POLITICS AND BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY: STATE, CAPITAL, AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS IN THE PACIFIC COAST OF COLOMBIA,
FIRST STOP, PORT-AU-PRINCE: MAPPING POSTCOLONIAL AFRICA THROUGH TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE AND HIS BLACK JACOBINS,
THE VEIL IN THEIR MINDS AND ON OUR HEADS: VEILING PRACTICES AND MUSLIM WOMEN,
OUTLAW LANGUAGE: CREATING ALTERNATIVE PUBLIC SPHERES IN BASQUE FREE RADIO,
III "UNLIKELY COALITIONS",
ANGELA DAVIS: REFLECTIONS ON RACE, CLASS, AND GENDER IN THE USA,
"FRANTIC TO JOIN ... THE JAPANESE ARMY": THE ASIA PACIFIC WAR IN THE LIVES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN SOLDIERS AND CIVILIANS,
WORK, IMMIGRATION, GENDER: NEW SUBJECTS OF CULTURAL POLITICS,
WOMEN WHO WALK ON WATER: WORKING ACROSS "RACE" IN WOMEN AGAINST FUNDAMENTALISM,
IV WORLD CULTURE AND PRACTICE,
OF ZAPATISMO: REFLECTIONS ON THE FOLKLORIC AND THE IMPOSSIBLE IN A SUBALTERN INSURRECTION,
STAGING RESISTANCE: THE INDIAN PEOPLE'S THEATRE ASSOCIATION,
THE DISCOURSE OF DECOLONIZATION AND POPULAR MEMORY: SOUTH KOREA,
IN THE SHADOWS OF STONEWALL: EXAMINING GAY TRANSNATIONAL POLITICS AND THE DIASPORIC DILEMMA,
WOMAN AT THE CLOSE OF THE MAOIST ERA IN THE POLEMICS OF LI XIAOJIANG AND HER ASSOCIATES,