Friday, June 22, 2018

The False Promise of Vanguardism: MLA 2018, part nine

This is the ninth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, and part eight.

637. Du Bois in a Comparative Context.

I attended in order to hear Vilashini Cooppan’s “The Wince of the Flesh: Du Bois’s Embodied Humanism,” but nobody was coming in from the West Coast, so the “panel” turned into Brent Edwards introducing Gayatri Spivak. Spivak had no problem filling two time slots, even though she was also slated to give an award speech later in the evening. Over 100 people were in attendance.

Spivak made sure that the mic worked and everyone could hear her, then thanked Hortense and Nahum for being there. In 2009 she had given the Du Bois Lecture, asking why Du Bois referred to the fugitive slaves’ joining the Union Army as a “general strike.” Then last year, she co-taught a course on Pan-Africanism, wherein she and her co-teacher did not agree but were always supportive of each other. Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism differs broadly from earlier Pan-Africanisms. It is illuminated by his understanding of Russia and China, of Stalin’s origins.

Du Bois thought white people who were anticolonial in the metropole were marvelous and that their work was undone by the whites out in the colonies. In 1946, B.R. Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois asking that black America circulate a petition to the U.N. in support of the untouchables. Remember that postcolonialist and Pan-Africanist efforts predate current post-globalization class alliances! Du Bois wanted to get into struggles interior to colonial space. But look at Dark Princess: it belongs with Bulwer Lytton and H. Rider Haggard! He tries and fails to overcome the problem of the bourgeois understanding the subaltern, and creates an embarrassing fantasy of India. Ambedkar shows us how one can work in many rhythms on many fronts, but predigital as well as digital international struggles are helped when there is class continuity.

Look at this book on Gandhi, inscribed by Nehru to “W.E.B. Bois.” Du Bois is always invoked by the nationalist bourgoisie. You cannot just wish cross-class alliances into being! [William Empson knew that—jbl] Du Bois and Ambedkar were both middle-class men who struggled with discrimination out in the world. In The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar wrote of Gandhi, “The world owes much to rebels who dare to argue in the face of the pontiff.” Cf. Nahum Chandler on Du Bois’s biography of John Brown. But Du Bois’s “I have suffered from racism as you from casteism” did not catch on.

Consider the implications of Marx’s great commentary on the Times’s coverage of Jamaica. Now, Ambedkar wrote caste into reproductive heteronormativity. Spivak has worked hard in the past thirty years to learn what the subaltern were denied and how they were cognitively impaired by their deprivations. It is urgent that we understand how peoples can be deprived of frameworks of knowledge and understanding. She opposes the astonishingly resilient Christian conviction that we all already know everything: if that’s so we should burn the universities down. Now, without the abstractions that they’ve been denied a grasp of, colonial struggles cannot achieve subaltern agency (What’s distressing, Spivak added in a commentary on a slide she was showing, is the condition of Du Bois’s books and notes in Ghana. They are in open stacks in the library, where high school kids can come and study them for exams. There is no bibliographer, and much vermin. Soon they will be covered with mouse shit and teenagers). So much nonsense has been written on the “radically unknowable” subaltern, and Spivak is going to a conference on Monday where she’ll be celebrated and hear more such nonsense. Du Bois’s inability to imagine the subaltern episteme, or stateless social groups on the fringe of history, does not make the texts more good; it makes them less good.

When Spivak met Annan [?], he was impressed that she knew, when he said “the tall one and the short one,” that he meant Lumumba and Fanon. All were deeply aware of the postcolonial. But there are serious historical limitations to the flexibility of our identities, among them the inability to imagine colonial subjectivity from the outside. Du Bois in his 1948 revision of the Talented Tenth proposal wrote, “It is clear that in 1900, American Negroes were an inferior caste . . . “ Today, “leadership training” is all over the place, but what about the concept of followership? Du Bois had “assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow.” Expanding the range of the word “caste” is a form of Travelling Theory.

The academic intellectual needs to prepare the ground once again for an epistemological relocation. This is where we need Spillers’s concept of ambivalence, invoked by Chandler to discuss particularity. Reconstruction-era legislator Alfred Gray’s 1868 “The Constitution: I came here to talk for it, and if I get killed, I will talk for it” is . . . something something invoking Spillers, Glas, and the empty position left by the Constitution. By analogy, all the reading required is in the daily news: it comes from Flint, Michigan; it comes from Lagos, Nigeria.

Spivak ended her presentation with a long ontological question for Spillers and Chandler, and a reminded to Brent Edwards to speak into the mic.

Edwards said that to him, the panel title “Du Bois in a Comparative Context” meant Du Bois read from elsewhere, but that Spivak was evidently thinking of Du Bois as a model comparative thinker. Look at that failed 1946 encounter between Du Bois and Ambedkar. Both were committed and deliberately working within the frame of constitutionality and the state/international politic, making efforts at generalization about the group that was not allowed to generalize. It is the elite talking to the elite. But Spivak, Edwards keeps telling her, speaks in shorthand: What is Du Bois and Ambedkar’s “amphibolic relation with identitarianism” that Spivak asked Spillers about? What was the amphibolism, Gayatri? How are they both breaking down identitarianism and building it up? Is Du Bois’s inability to get the struggle interior to colonized space a failure of method? Of comparativity? “Can we imagine this spectacular revolution?”—In Black Reconstruction Du Bois emphasizes the radicalism of recognizing the enslaved as human.

But “Worlds of Color” was published both at the end of The New Negro and in the Spring 1925 issue of Foreign Affairs. In it, he writes of The Shadow of Portugal, The Shadow of Belgium, The Shadow of France, and The Shadow of England, and he tries to think comparatively about the idea of “colored labor.” How much hope is there for bringing The Shadow of Shadows together? Is it something other than a differential ontology of social formations? Finally, what difference does it make to sit with Du Bois’s work in Ghana?

“Should I respond to this,” asked Spivak, “because then it would allow no time for questions. With respect to contact with the Du Bois archive, with his notes, that contingency of work that is not written for others allows me to . . . I don’t know. Others will tell me if it makes a difference. I’m not transforming it into data; I’m trying to internalize it . . . something happens to me, and I can’t give it up.”

Now the metonymic obligation is such that—“amphibolic identitarianism” was the only way to express what she saw in those authors. It’s like Hegel: Hegel keeps saying the same damn thing, and he both fears and hopes that readers will make the mistake of thinking he’s writing about a subject.

There is not some given figure of a comparativist: the failure of comparison is the normative deviation of the comparativist. There is even mishandling of the subaltern in Notebook 25. The methodic criterion is that we’re taught to think with the ruling class—vanguardism—we need the methodology to understand the subaltern and not elevate the ruling class. Marx is my brother, but I’m not a fundamentalist. The great failure of socialism-from-above is the idea that the global communities of color are ready to unite. Du Bois’s metaphors are fighting against the false promise of vanguardism.

Nahum Chandler asked whether the Du Bois/Ambedkar discussion might be read as not about success/failure or continuity/break but as the statement of a certain necessity and an affirmation of that difficulty for us: is there not an order of temporality in which that is useful? Think what it poses as our own limit today, in the century that’s ongoing. Chandler is interested in restaging a reading of Ambedkar’s story. Remember that Du Bois is already seventy-eight and Ambedkar is in a completely different place (“I don’t agree,” Spivak interjected): each is facing the post-1945 rearrangement of states across the globe.

Spillers said, that this was for her a relatively new Du Bois and that she’d have to think more about the relevance of ambivalence before answering; Spivak said she knew she could trust Spillers to come through on that implied promise to answer. Spivak mentioned that, as a student of De Man, she does not accept the idea of a rhetorical question: “I am suspicious of people who are suspicious of what they call a rhetoric of suspicion.”

An audience member noted that a shadow speaking to another shadow need not lead to yet another shadow. Another audience member said that what she found beyond brilliant in Spivak’s analysis was her reading of Marx, because Marx is generally read as a colonialist: anticolonial Marxists don’t like his 1857 letters. So she’s glad Spivak pointed out that Marx was making an argument about the way to think transnationally. She said she was not comfortable with the direction Marxist historians are taking, using the Critique of Political Economy transnationally to give workers agency: that makes an end-run around the problem of translation.

In response to the “shadow” question, Chandler cited a few thousand passages from Du Bois demonstrating his pre-1920 signs of his nascent colonial awareness, analyzing his engagement with Plato, and tracing the culmination of both in his notes for Africa and World Peace in the ‘40s. Boy these people know their archive! Spivak said, yes, we have to not immediately read Du Bois—and this has nothing to do with Eurocentrism—we reopen Du Bois to see him reading Plato and reading Marx. It’s a question of scholarship, that we must do this rather than reading him in light of our received understanding of Plato and Marx.

The sense of caste at work among the subalterns is almost impossible to grasp unless you make a no-holds-barred acknowledgment that they are not just Good People Because We Were Bad.

I began to worry about Spivak because she was sounding hoarse and she still had a major award acceptance speech to give later in the evening. She admitted to not being sure what the Marxist historian in the audience was asking. Was the historian saying that her fellow historians are generalizing the subject again? Visualize that sick little hunchbacked man still writing in prison so that we could be thinking. And we are thinking of the mass of the electorate in Asia, in the U.S., who are not generalizable, and citizenship would generalize them in a good way—and this is where our thinking stops. What’s amphibolic is history! That we imagine a straight line of a subjectivization scares me, because then who’s subjectivizing them into what?

Spivak offered her thanks and concluded.

No comments: