Interrogating the Project of Military History

February 19, 2004 - I said before that Malek Alloula considers The Colonial Harem an act of resistance.  It's worth asking in what ways that is the case.  It might be said that it is an act of self-defense--as Alloula puts it, an "exorcism."  It might also be said that, by analyzing the malevolence of the colonial gaze, Alloula is rallying the troops and articulating the rage in the hearts of the colonized.

But beyond that?  Have power relationships shifted one whit as a result of Alloula's work?  For that matter, have they shifted as a result of the sustained critique of postmodernist, postcolonial scholars as a whole?

It is hard to see how.  Indeed, one of the frustrations for those who may otherwise find the PoMo, PoCo turns appealing is their lack of utility in terms of actually effecting change.  Thus David Roediger in the introduction to his book of essays, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (1994):

A telling joke that has made the rounds among African American scholars comments on the distance between academic trends in writing on race and life in the "real world."  "I have noticed," the joke laments, "that my research demonstrating that race is merely a social and ideological construction helps little in getting taxis to pick me up late at night."  The humor here is sufficiently ironic that the joke does not signal a rejection of the idea that the social construction of race is worth talking and writing about, but it does focus attention on the fact that race may be more easily demystified on paper than disarmed in everyday life."

My colleague Claire Robertson has a similar reservation.  Deeply sympathetic to the African women who form the subjects of her research, she speaks with a certain impatience of authors who seem to think it possible to slay an oppressive status quo on paper; or more precisely, who think that having demolished the rhetorical defenses of those in power and laid bare the embedded assumptions in the language of power, they have in fact "spoken truth to power," as the hackneyed saying goes.  I cannot think of a place less calculated even to be noticed by those in power than an article in an academic journal or a monograph with a press run of eight hundred copies.

The problem with a lot of this stuff (though not all) is its inability to persuade--its disinterest in engaging and educating anyone not already within the author's camp.  To my mind, a cri de coeur like Alloula's will only get you so far.  Sooner or later you have to convert your enemy--or kill him.  I'll get to the latter in future entries (it's about time a whiff of gunpowder crept into this blog), but surely the principal end of scholarship is education, and you can't educate someone you can't reach.

This is not, by the way, a fault confined to those on the left.  Visit the "Politics and Government" section of any large book store in the United States, and you'll find the shelves full of partisan polemics.  Compared to the likes of, say, Anne Coulter, Alloula is Captain Kangaroo.  And for every best-selling rant there are literally dozens of would-be Anne Coulters, all more concerned with feeding the fears and prejudices of their politically ghettoized readerships than with providing judicious analysis.



By contrast, I very much like the way Andrew Hacker explains his approach in the preface to his bestselling work on race in America, Two Nations:  Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal:

My early training was in philosophy, where I soon discovered that we should not expect a consensus on social and moral issues.  Not the least reason is that we frequently disagree on what we feel are the facts.  While research can be useful, past a certain point we must bring intuition and imagination to bear.  .  .  .  So the reader should be forewarned, [part of this book] will rely on subjective interpretations, since statements about how we behave in the realm of race are seldom amenable to evidence, let alone conclusive proof.

At the same time, in treating these and other topics, I have tried to provide enough plausibility to keep the conversation going .  While the reader may not be asked to agree at every stage, it may be that he or she may say, "You could have a point; I'm still willing to listen."  [Emphasis supplied.]

The last sentence ably captures the goal of effective resistance within the realm of words.  You can't start at a point so far removed from the world view of those who disagree with you that nothing short of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus can win them over.

But even if you patiently dismantle the arguments and rhetorical tricks that legitimize oppression, even if you successfully set forth the unfairness of a lopsided power relationship beyond the ability of even your oppressor to deny, can it make any difference?  Can't an oppressor simply reply, "Yeah, you got me.  I'm robbing you.  But I'm the one with the gun."  Do those who benefit from power relinquish it without a fight?

Often enough they don't.  The rebellions, revolutions, and wars of national liberation in developing countries are certainly proof of that.   But I think it's revealing that so often the oppressor feels a need to justify oppression.  The funny thing about Thucydides' Melian Dialogue--that classical exchange so beloved of realists--is that the powerful seldom talk like realists.  Unlike the Athenians, they do not say, "For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences--either of how we have a right to our empire . . . or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us--and make a long speech which would not be believed; . . . since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."  Instead the powerful constantly and carefully maintain of web of political and cultural beliefs that legitimize their power:  a web of beliefs so closely interwoven  that ideally it imprisons thought, and manages to do with words what would otherwise have to be done, at enormous effort and expense, through direct coercion.

This gets at what is for me an article of faith, something that is inherently unprovable but which is for me a first premise:  morality matters.  It's almost as if human beings are hard-wired to evaluate the world in moral terms, and they share the same basic ideas concerning what is moral.  For example, even a child has a sense that some things are "fair" and others "unfair."  This awareness of fairness and unfairness can be enhanced and refined.  It can also be distorted and appropriated.  But it can't readily be ignored.  Somebody's view of what you are doing really matters--if not that of your victim that of a bystander looking on.

In Claire's class the other week a graduate student from India remarked that it would be altogether refreshing if the United States abandoned its pretenses to altruism and candidly said that it was pursuing its own self-interest.  But the United States is not going to do any such thing.  The moral opinion of people in other countries matters too much to ignore.  Some would argue that the penchant for unilateralism has already rendered American rhetoric about its good intentions threadbare, that American behavior is too nakedly that of a hegemon.  But even if we Americans aren't convincing anyone else, it is apparently vital that we convince ourselves.

In contexts both public and private, individual and corporate, we--and now I speak of all human beings, not just Americans--need to convince ourselves that who we are and what we do is good, decent, well-intentioned, benevolent, responsible, just.  Often we manage to do so too easily. But the very fact that we appeal to a universal standard of behavior means that we have acknowledged a power beyond our own--if not God then at least a moral code of extraordinary influence.  If the standard is universal, then it offers a basis for dialogue common to humanity.  And if we can appeal to that standard, then so can others.  I scarcely think that friendly persuasion can solve all problems and right all wrongs.  But I do think that for many of us the need to think well ourselves is maybe, just maybe, ultimately more important than the material benefits we derive from being in a position of advantage as a result of our race, gender, class, or nation.  That reality of that need is not just a pious thought.  It is also, as Gandhi well understood,  a political target.  To exploit that need can be a very effective act of resistance.

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