Sunday, December 9, 2007


Here is C.A. Bayly on intellectual history, from his 2004 The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, which I have been reading at a more or less sedate pace:

“The history of political and social thought in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is an exceptionally vibrant area of study. But is suffers from two major weaknesses. First, many intellectual historians continue to equivocate on the question of how to relate intellectual history to social and political history, for the good reason that this is an enormously difficult enterprise. Secondly, the history of political thought remains resolutely centered on Europe and North America. If the rest of the world is considered at all, historians tend to assume that there occurred a relatively simple process of diffusion in which the doctrines of Western thinkers were slowly spread across the world to those elite members of non-European societies who knew European languages.” (284-5)

His criticisms are entirely just, and I think could be extended to less ‘vibrant’ areas of study. He says historians of science tend to do a better job—I wonder which ones I should be reading. I’ve been meaning to read the issue of MIH on south asia to which he contributed, perhaps I’ll get to it soon. The problem is obvious: it’s hard enough to have responsible knowledge of one small part of the world—it’s more than twice as hard for two parts of the world. This is, of course, no excuse.

So I’m making a start: the Caribbean. I’ve started my reading somewhat arbitrarily—An Intellectual History of the Caribbean (2006) by Silvio Torres-Saillant. I chose it because it was recalled, so...time to get reading. So far I’ve finished the lengthy introduction only, but it’s good to pause and reflect.

The Caribbean may be taken as an intellectual unity as well as a geographic one, Torres-Saillant asserts, and as such it ought to be regarded as a producer of theoretical, universalizable knowledge just as much as Europe. I’m not in a position to say whether or not the Caribbean presents the observer with any kind of genuine unity, but if Europe is to be taken as a unit, it’s hard to imagine that the Caribbean shouldn’t be. Similarly, when you put it the way he does, of course Caribbean intellectuals should have discursive access to the universal. Of course it seems wrong that the Caribbean may be measured by a European yard-stick, but not the other way around. Yet, I read this book, and what am I doing? I’m comparing the ideas and tropes he writes about with those that are more familiar to me. Indeed, the claim of the particular to universal validity is something I’ve been reading a great deal about this semester—for Laclau and Rancière at least it’s a crucial part of what politics is about. So already I’m measuring the non-European according to the European, but what else can I do if the European is mostly what I know?

Now, one answer to how Torres-Saillant thinks about this is suggested by which academics he castigates. He objects that Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy are insufficiently dedicated to their roots (i’m not sure I have a better name for it) as West Indians—insufficiently committed to the project of representing their homelands accurately to the rest of the world (41-42). Now, I’ll admit to not knowing that either of these scholars was ‘from’ the West Indies. I’ll also point out that in the above paragraph, I lumped together Laclau with Rancière, even though Laclau is originally ‘from’ South America. Now he’s a European, as far as his books are concerned. Isn’t this the whole problem? That it actually is possible for these people to appear, to me for instance, simply as any other academic would? This is bad, says Torres-Saillant, for the Caribbean.

Much of the argument he presents against postcolonial theory is the same as the common critique of potstructuralism that one finds many places now—see Peter Hall’s recent piece in boundary 2—which boils down to a charge of political uselessness. Which is odd for a number of reasons. Torres-Saillant’s version of this argues that in the 1960s, the Caribbean was well represented as a source of theory in the broader world, and that now Caribbean writers must subsume themselves into a postcoloniality that is dominated by French authors—they are examples of a genuine universality, nothing more. Torres-Saillant sees this coincide with the academic study of Caribbean music. He’s fairly scathing about this: music has replaced political thought because the energy for political change is gone. The ‘Musical turn’ is a sign of political hopelessness.

Torres-Saillant’s approach concerns me in that it seems actually to be moving backwards in terms of historiography. He talks about ‘the Caribbean mind,’ and justifies his project broadly as the presentation of globally useful (inspirational) knowledge in dark times. That is, he essentializes and instrumentalizes his subject. No doubt I’m being unfair, and there is an obvious polemical purpose in these strategies.

I’ve left out important parts of his argument in the above discussion, mostly because the proof of them will be in how they play out over the remaining 200 pages of the book. It’s at any rate exciting for me to plunge into relatively new topics.

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