In a recent book on postcolonial studies, Neil Lazarus offers a familiar critique of the field: as practiced by bourgeois, western-based academics, postcolonial studies remains remarkably inattentive to class diversity and, more broadly, resistant to rigorous Marxist analysis. As one of those bourgeois, western-based academics, I am intrigued by his claim and by the opposition it suggests: dominant postcolonial studies, on the one side, and a Marxist-inflected anti-imperial studies, on the other. Or perhaps a Janus-faced postcolonial studies. What most intrigues me about this formulation is its persistence, indeed, one could argue, its founding within postcolonial studies.
Lazarus’s poster-child for bourgeois postcolonial studies is Homi Bhabha, the favorite whipping boy for those who dislike the abstruseness of poco studies. Bhabha and those writing in his shadow privilege
A constitutive anti-Marxism; an undifferentiating disavowal of all forms of nationalism and a corresponding exaltation of migrancy, liminality, hybridity, and multiculturality; an hostility toward ‘holistic forms of social explanation’ (toward totality and systemic analysis); an aversion to dialectics; and a refusal of an antagonistic or struggle-based model of politics.
While I agree with Lazarus that these assumptions govern too many critical readings—as he notes, “to read across postcolonial literary studies is to find, to an extraordinary degree, the same questions being asked, the same methods, techniques, and conventions being used, the same concepts mobilized, the same conclusions drawn”—I want to return to a now-obscured element of poco studies as it emerges in England, that is, not with Edward Said and Orientalism, but with black British scholars, notably, those working in cultural studies.
Describing the emergence of what came to be described as poco studies, Bhabha explains that it was an attempt to inject race into dominant Marxist paradigms. Indeed, the turn to Fanon was precisely an attempt to foreground race. Seen in this light, poco studies might have a far longer trajectory than we grant, and would include the race interventions of Claude McKay and George Padmore and C.L.R. James and other black activists, artists, and scholars who experienced Marxism as a violent erasure of race-work. As grateful as I am to those scholars who have recovered black Marxism—Bill Maxwell, Barbara Foley, James Smethurst, to name a few—it would be irresponsible to overlook those black artists and activists who experienced Marxism’s indifference to race-work, who experienced its violence as black diasporic subjects. (The question of a black Marxism working in Africa is, I want to suggest, very different; to say, as Lazarus does, that a Ngugi working in Kenya can be reasonably compared to a Bhabha working in England is to erase race-work in England. It is, in other words, to erase precisely that attention to location that Lazarus ostensibly privileges.)
I am not, here, trying to re-draw boundaries between Marxism and race-work paradigms (African American studies, African diaspora studies, Caribbean studies, Postcolonial studies, and so on). Even as I am very intrigued by the race-work accomplished by Marxist paradigms—embraced mainly by white men in graduate school, if my history and the profession I occupy are any indication, and often used as the stick with which to beat down minorities. One could not talk of race without being told that class was the most important element—one would then want to discuss the racialization of class, but had gotten tired of explaining intersectionality. I couldn’t do my homework and educate my white colleagues—it was too tiring.
Indeed, one might argue that a certain white Marxist love for Ngugi springs precisely from his attention to intra-racial class divides in Kenya. Working through Ngugi, inter-racial conflict recedes to a colonial past and the white Marxist critic can focus on black-on-black exploitation. Thus, Ngugi’s new book, Globalectics, focuses on the bourgeois black middle class instantiated in the English department. He suggests that the 1968 essay about abolishing the English department at the University of Nairobi gave rise to what we now call postcolonial studies. Since I dislike single origin stories, I will say that it’s an interesting claim and leave it at that.
My broader claim is that a turn to Ngugi, as the route toward a responsible, Marxist-inflected postcolonial studies, can be an excuse for not engaging the difficult race-work of poco studies in England and the U.S.
Paul Gilroy rightly notes that theories and practices of “impurity”—“liminality,” “hybridity,” and “multiculturalism,” to use Lazarus’s categories—can be remarkably, even, impossibly difficult to engage. One can disengage from the difficulty they pose, from the race-work they demand, by dismissing them as “trendy,” “overdone,” “repeated,” “boring.” I need not remark on the violence of this gesture.
I spent last week teaching Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” and I was struck, as I always am, by the persistence of ideology. About what Althusser describes as the “obviousnesses of obviousnesses,” about the difficulty of seeing the “reproduction of the conditions of production.” Here’s Althusser on ideology:
What thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing). Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).
(Do I cite Althusser to boost my non-existent credibility with Marxists? Is that performative gesture, drawn from feminism and queer studies, the confirmation of my bourgeois status? The anxiety of the well-fed?) Althusser is, of course, interested in class, but one could also talk about the reproduction of racial categories, or what I’m terming race-work, which is coterminous (a friend from Howard argues) with the rise of capitalism. I cite Teju Cole to note the persistence of white saviors as a symptom of race-work–all the way from white Jesus to Jeffrey Sachs.
I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies, one that is so often ignored by those who critique it as not as attentive to race as, say, African American studies (I’ve heard this before); I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies as it circulates within a global north that is differentially raced than a global south (to expect Ngugi to write or sound like Bhabha is silly); I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies as it contends with the difficulties of impurity, with trying to intervene against the purifying discourses of nationalism by offering impure, hybrid, collective-making enterprises (I’m wary of things such as “black nationalism” or “African nationalism” to the extent that they erase multi-roots—Kenya is not a black country, you know. It really isn’t. Also, not a Christian country. We are not a Republican-imagined America in blackface.); I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies as it makes visible the persistence of paradigms that use class to avoid race.
To be sure, race-work is hard work: despite certain similarities, race-work happens quite differently across spaces—whiteness in Kenya is not whiteness in the U.S.; brown-ness in the U.K. is not brown-ness in Uganda; the designation black British always fucks with U.S. heads; and I don’t even want to go into Mayotte Capecia’s claim about the sixty races in Martinique. Race-work is classed.
A final note: Bhabha is often attacked for his prose. It is too abstract. It is nonsense. It is unnecessarily difficult. How can “common” people understand him? Where is his sense of responsibility to the masses? To which one wants to respond: it is a mistake to believe that race-work is one thing rather than an aggregation of strategies. It is a mistake to believe that “the masses” can only understand or appreciate the “Jack and Jill” directions provided by those who exploit them and those who want to save them. It is a mistake to believe that ideas remain stuck within their original pages or languages. And it is irritating to read how brown and black people should and should not write or speak. Irritating and also a symptom of race-work at play.