Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Friday, October 08, 2004

Escaping the Colonial Trap (IAPS seminar paper on postcolonial theory, Deleuzian theory and West Papua)

Andrew Robinson
Escaping the colonial trap: resistance, postcolonial theory
and rhizomatic politics

Introduction: the role of postcolonial theory

Postcolonial theory has achieved a great deal since its relatively recent
appearance on the academic scene. Authors such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha have
exposed the ethnocentric prejudices of other forms of critical theory and have served to draw
attention to situations and issues relevant to the three-quarters of humanity oppressed under
the burden of imperialist global politics. For this reason, I shall not attempt in relation to this
body of theory the kind of wide-ranging demolition I have attempted in relation to John
Rawls, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. Rather, my concern is to articulate postcolonial
theory in a “writerly” way, taking particular threads of its reasoning in order to take it in
particular directions. In order to do this, I shall provide an analytical critique of certain
aspects of what is today the dominant trend in postcolonial theory, an ethics of lack drawn
from the work of Lacan and the later Derrida. In my view, there are totalising implications in
this perspective which put it at odds with its own emancipatory agenda. To overcome this
problem, I shall suggest that postcolonial theory take a turn towards the work of Deleuze and
Guattari, embracing a rhizomatic model of politics and an associated critique of
universalising schemas. Finally, I shall discuss the situation in West Papua and the discourse
of the main resistance group, the OPM, in order to bring out the political advantages of the
alterations I propose.

The main focus of my examination of postcolonial theory will be the work of
two authors: Bhabha and Spivak. This is not because I downplay the importance of the work
of other authors such as Edward Said and Frantz Fanon, but rather, because the criticisms I
make bear most directly on the work of these particular authors. Both are major figures in
contemporary cultural studies, and to a considerable extent, their Lacanian and Derridean
orientations are setting the theoretical tone of a great deal of other work.

Between lack and hope: problems in postcolonial theory D The importance of Deleuze and Guattari’s work for postcolonial theory lies in their
critique of overarching systems of control and repression. Their political writings are focused
on attempts to break free from the forms of power they variously term “overcodings”,
“arborescent” structures and “striated” space, i.e. those in which people, things, relations and
spaces are subsumed into a structure which asserts itself to be based on a controlling force or
ground. Deleuze and Guattari affirm the importance of active desire as a force opposing such
overarching control. In other words, people seek freedom through the construction of social
relations unconstrained by the limits of striation, in which social relations are constructed by
the creative tendencies within active desire itself. However, people are often held down
within striated systems, either due to violence or because they have themselves come to
desire their own repression through a turning of desire against itself. The political solution
they have in mind involves a flowering of diverse forms of desire and the construction of
grassroots social movements which exceed and overflow the various apparatuses of control
and capture. In a postcolonial context, it is not difficult to see that this theory would
denounce both historical colonialism and the present regime of neo-colonial dominance by
institutions such as the IMF. The political agenda arising from such a denunciation would
counterpose to the dominant system a wide variety of rhizomatic groups and movements
which resist the intrusion of capitalism and colonialism into particular social spaces or which
deterritorialise spaces which have already been brought under these systems’ control. Such
resisting groups would be viewed as at least potentially a route out of the present situation, at
least the starting-point of lines of flight which could, at least in theory, escape entirely from
existing structures of domination and create a world in which no overarching system of
oppression exists.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, desire always overflows the systems and
axiomatics which try to encode it into fixed systems. This entrapment occurs psychologically
via the operation of the master-signifier and the entrapment of desire into the Oedipal family
and into other fixed categorical schemas. All schemas which fix identity into rigid categories
can be seen as an instance of this kind of process. It occurs sociopolitically through regimes
of repressive territorialisation which force bodies into particular spaces. One way of escaping
such entrapment is through “becoming-other” by resisting enclosure within a fixed identity.
Becoming-other means becoming minoritarian, i.e. rejecting the claim to belong to a group
deserving to bear an unmarked term or to be identified with the norm (a rejection which is
important whether one identifies with oppressor groups or with an oppressed but
ontologically self-privileging group). It involves a kind of “self-marking” which includes a
rejection of the claim to speak for “everyone” or for the norm when discussing one’s
subjectivity or way of life. (Such an imperative to reject self-normalisation is similar to my
account of oppressive discourse, which is typically a way of asserting one’s own standpoint
as “majoritarian” or dominant. Such an account is not itself majoritarian because its general
claims arise in the negative, directed against dominant social systems, and do not impose any
particular form of life). Another way to resist is to alter one’s relation to space in the
direction of “nomadism” and away from a subordination to architecturally predetermined
regimes of space. Initially, this kind of escape has a great deal in common with Derridean
discussions of marginality and Lacanian discussions of the return of the Real. However,
where Deleuze and Guattari break with these authors is in insisting on the possibility of
creating a world beyond structures of oppression and domination. Not for them the insistence
that change is “impossible” or that the logic of violence and repression “always returns to its
place”. Rather, hierarchic and arborescent assemblages can be displaced and overthrown by
rhizomatic forms of social relation. These operate without grounding in a master-signifier,
and put “desiring-production before social production”.
The spread of rhizomatic relations requires that the reactive forms of desire typical in
the contemporary world, such as Nietzschean ressentiment, be replaced by active structures
able to engage in affirmative creative projects which do not require the identification of some
unfortunate group as “radically other” and “constitutively excluded”. In other words, a
rhizomatic politics goes beyond the melancholic awareness of loss and lack which exposes
(for instance) the master-slave dialectic implicit in racial stereotyping and its foundation in a
system of repressive sameness, to prefigure the possibility of a world in which such
stereotyping and sameness, and resultant systems of violence and domination, are a thing of
the past.

To some extent, postcolonial theory is already engaged with the kinds of
issues I raise in this essay. Christine Sylvester describes postcolonial studies as being
concerned with social relations beyond the state, especially ‘unfixed, ambiguous locations’
(Sylvester 716). Whereas in a Lacanian approach the existing system is seen as basically
unchangeable, some postcolonial theorists agree with Deleuze’s conclusion that creative
possibilities can escape and overflow the fixed certainties of imposed schemas. For instance,
Ticio Escobar praises the ‘healthy opportunism’ and bricolage ‘which allows us… to collect
scraps, plunder ruins’ and otherwise use the materials of the present in creative ways
(Escobar 31). Similarly, Ashis Nandy calls for ways of conceiving of the non-west which do
not reduce it to western schemas or to the symptomatic position it is assigned in western
discourse. ‘We shouldn’t be reduced to being passive participants in the West’s dialogue
with itself and its chosen others… [I]t is not our responsibility to contribute to, criticize,
reform or defend that non-West which is a projection of parts of the West’s self-hood’.
Instead, the non-west should seek ‘new and creative possibilities’ which break down
totalising myths such as nationalism (Nandy 102-3).

Sylvester’s description is even true of the authors who are the main focus of my
critique. Both Spivak and Bhabha are concerned to focus on the marginal and the voiceless.
Spivak criticises ‘the tendency not to look at the margins’, where things escape the regime of
proper titles (Postcol Critic 4), and her political writings concentrate on exactly the kind of
marginal groups who would be the focus of a Deleuzian politics. For instance, her discussion
of the Flood Action Plan in Bangladesh is an exemplary account of the oppressive
implications of even the most well-meaning neo-colonial interventions. In counterposing the
violence and arrogance of the World Bank, ‘transforming land into information that will obey
a myriad minute rules of programming’ and which will be divided up into definitively owned
segments, to the creative practices of the Bangladeshi peasantry, who tend rather to create
unbounded spaces in which clear demarcations such as those between humanity and nature
break down (“Responsibility”, esp. pp. 54-5; c.f. CPR 377 on the Narmada Dam struggle),
Spivak unwittingly gives a demonstration of the validity of a Deleuzian perspective in
understanding western dominance and a strong case for the ethical primacy of desiringproduction
over social production. When she writes of attacks on indigenous, first nations
and nomadic peoples, she writes persuasively of an attempt by dominant groups to regulate
space into a ‘fantasmatic cartography’ and to reduce ways of life to forms easy to map into
the ‘traditional’ geography of a globalised world (CPR 380).

Similarly, in her theoretical writings, she gives a good deal of space to issues
of repression and affect-blocking in the formation of colonial ideology (e.g. CPR 4-5), albeit
under the misleading label “foreclosure”, and she constantly warns of a need to be aware of
diverse and complex situations to avoid being tricked (CPR 378). Against this, she
counterposes marginality and movement. ‘Culture alive is always on the run, always
changeful’ (CPR 357). Partly for this reason, and partly because she values dialogue, Spivak
denounces those whose idea of “consultation” is too narrow. ‘You do not learn mindsets,
epistemes… by “consulting organisations”’ (CPR 392). Therefore she wants to ‘unhinge’
dominant binaries (CPR 397) and urges people to ‘unlearn’ dominant beliefs, a process which
could be interpreted in terms of breaking down character-armour and affect-blocking. She
also wants ‘recognition of the agency of the local resistance, as it is connected with the
people’s movements that girdle the globe’ (CPR 415). She claims that the expanded form of
value, which she identifies with Deleuzian microassemblages and smooth space, is constantly
being encoded by capitalism through the imposition of the logic of the general equivalent.
Hence, there is ‘local confronting global, diversified knowledge confronting monoculture’
(CPR 103-4). There is even a passage in which she reads capitalist society as domestication
by using an anti-Oedipal vocabulary (IOW 156-7, 175), and one in which she calls for a
conception of revolution as an escape from teleological logics through an expression of openendedness
(IOW 161).

Similarly, Bhabha devotes a good deal of space to a celebration of “how newness
enters the world” and to denouncements of the rigidity underlying colonial power. His
analysis of the role of stereotypes in colonial discourse emphasise how these fix meaning in
such a way as to make diverse and incomprehensible situations seem predictable by
projecting images which pin down meaning. For instance, stereotypes impede the circulation
and articulation of signifiers of race by refusing to condone anything other than the fixity of
such signifiers as racism (LC 66, 71, 75). This ideological subordination requires also the
material subordination of colonised peoples and their constant disablement (138). For
instance, to construct a nationalist state, ‘[t]he scraps, patches and rags of daily life must be
repeatedly turned into the signs of a coherent national culture, while the very act of the
narrative performance interpellates a growing circle of national subjects’ (LC 145). Through
relations of dominance such as racist finger-pointing, people are turned into “symptoms” of a
prior social system (LC 236).

Against this, Bhabha advocates hybrid readings and pluralising practices. ‘If
discriminatory effects enable the authorities to keep an eye on [subordinates], their
proliferating difference evades the eye, escapes that surveillance’ (LC 112), ‘turning the right
to signify into an act of cultural translation’ (LC 234). Further, when ‘the words of the
master become the site of hybridity - the warlike, subaltern sign of the native - then we may
not only read between the lines but even seek to change the often coercive reality that they so
lucidly contain’ (LC 121). Because relations of domination are not objects but rather, are
enactive, enunciatory sites, there is a constant potential for objectified others to become
subjects. This is ‘the indeterminacy that makes subversion and revision possible’ (LC 178-
9). Resistance can occur via an ‘unpicking’ of the closures of the dominant system through
forms of agency which are ‘the activity of the contingent’, such as hybridity, mimicry and
“sly civility” (LC 185, 187). Furthermore, the outcome of this process should be plural and
even incommensurable. It should involve ‘other historical sites, other forms of enunciation’,
‘a differential history that will not return to the power of the Same’ (LC 254, 237), and a
change which affects not only narratives of history, but also ‘our sense of what it means to
live, to be in other times and different spaces’ (LC 256). Methods could include radical
political action such as uprisings (see LC 155-7).

If there is so much common ground between postcolonial theory and rhizomatic
resistance, why is there a need for this critique? The answer is to be found in the ambiguities
in these authors’ work. This ambiguity has been noted by some critics who accuse
postcolonialism of lacking clear objectives and of resultant self- referentiality (Darby 1977, p.
13; Eagleton p. 3). However, it also runs deeper, affecting the most important concepts in the
postcolonial vocabulary. To take one example, the idea of hybridity in the work of Bhabha is
open to two readings. Firstly, it can be taken to refer to a space of open forms of subjectivity
which exceed and escape the dominant regime of power. Read in this way, the concept
dovetails with a Deleuzian analysis of “becoming-other” and of the construction of
rhizomatic forms of social organisation. This is the reading implied in the passages cited
above. However, it can also be taken to refer to a particular point within a social field
assumed to be fixed. On this reading, one cannot exceed or escape the existing system, but
this system is itself haunted by its own internal incompleteness, and this means that there is a
singular point at which it can be disrupted. One could then articulate Bhabha to Žižek’s
concept of the “act”, where politics is expected to take the form of an attempt to find and this
singular point and to identify with it, a politics which is fundamentally prescriptive and
authoritarian. Furthermore, the structure of the present would, on this reading, be taken to be,
on a deep formal level, unchangeable; one oppressive system must necessarily be replaced by
another. The differences between the two readings are not merely theoretical, but would lead
to radically different modes of political action. To take another example, Spivak urges one to
unlearn one’s privilege as one’s loss. Is this, however, a call to “become other” in Deleuze’s
sense, to reject and move away from majoritarian and repressive identities because of the
limitation and the loss they impose on oneself and on others? Or is it a call to adopt a
melancholic standpoint of endless mourning of the loss involved in being trapped in one’s
present subject-position?

The latter reading in each case is basically Lacanian, although in Spivak’s case, the
proximal source of this tendency appears to be Derrida (CPR 426-7). (Despite this difference
in origins, Spivak’s Derridean “other” shares a great deal with the Lacanian Real, such as its
constitutive character, its “impossibility”, and its emergence through unspeakable
“experiences” which nevertheless do not fully actualise it). I have examined in another
context (The Political Theory of Constitutive Lack) the general problems with this kind of
analysis, and I shall repeat these only briefly here. Firstly, a paradigm which treats the basic
formal matrix of social relations as ontological and unchangeable, and which posits lack at
the core of this matrix, is doomed to political conservatism. Social exclusion becomes an
unchangeable necessity, and the main political imperative is to “accept” and harden oneself to
the limits in social reality. The supposed “need” for a master-signifier and therefore for
relations of domination and exclusion is a central dogma of the Lacanian faith. Even in
“revolutionary” Lacanianisms such as Žižek’s, some of the worst aspects of the present are
assumed to return “after the revolution”. Secondly, on a theoretical level, the assumptions
are founded on essentialism and (Barthesian) myth. The necessity of lack cannot be
demonstrated empirically or analytically, and amounts to a point of faith. The relationship
between this assumption and particular examples one examines must therefore take the form
of projection. As a result, specific instances of antagonism and lack are conflated with the
structural category, rather than related to contingent sources of conflict or shortage. Thirdly,
the libidinal structure of an orientation to lack is reactive, in the sense given to this term by
Nietzsche and Deleuze. One is denied active desires, as if “one first has to say no in order to
say yes”. As a result, Lacanian theory encourages destructive and self-destructive emotional
structures, especially masochistic and melancholic structures. Ultimately, such a theory is
open only to the affirmation of negativity, and the way in which contingency is reified into a
singularity - including the way it functions in the theoretical vocabulary as a positive,
singular, nominal entity - operates to close whatever active and affirmative potentialities are
operative in a social context.

The kind of assumption I am criticising here is incompatible with a rhizomatic
politics, and indeed, Lacanian theory is a major target of Deleuzian critiques. The denial that
one can ever escape from an underlying constitutive void, the insistence on the need for
mastery, the reactive character of even the most affirmative gestures, and the reduction of
resistance to a structural effect of the incompletion of the all-dominant system are all barriers
to radical political action, and serve as extra bars in the cage of the present. For a Deleuzian,
it is possible to create new social relations through a “line of flight” which moves outside
existing social relations and which ultimately makes possible their elimination or overthrow.
The forces which emerge in resistance to the present are not inexorably tied to it; rather, they
can emerge into forces of opposition, machineries of metamorphosis which create situations
of dual or fragmented power and which open possibilities of emancipation. Furthermore, a
Lacanian model in effect forces resistance to “earn” recognition by conforming to a
preconceived theoretical model, whereas a Deleuzian approach is more inclined to favour any
and all lines of flight, provided only that they do not construct new relations of oppression.

Another world is (im)possible?

One can certainly find evidence of this kind of assumption arising in Spivak and
Bhabha, and it is for this reason that I raise concerns about the present formulations of
postcolonial theory. For instance, Spivak bluntly asserts: ‘I don’t think there is an extrainstitutional
space’ (Postcol. Critic 5), adding elsewhere that no group can ever be outside the
system (CPR 403). ‘”The impossibility of a full undoing” is the curious definitive
predication of deconstruction’ (IOW 154). Social structure is prior to the self and constructs
it by “interpellating” people as textual figures (CPR 314). People are them/ourselves
products of the social system, which is itself produced by various texts of philosophy, history
and literature (CPR 356). This “imbrication” is taken to be so deep that the system is
inescapable. In other words, forces of resistance can operate at the margins, but they cannot
ultimately escape the system. ‘[E]verything has already been determined from somewhere
else’ (CPR 397). Furthermore, this determination is taken to be inescapable, so that the
realisation of any radical agenda is irreducibly and indefinitely postponed (IOW 175). ‘[T]he
future is always around the corner, there is no victory’ (Spivak in Devi, Imaginary Maps,

The politics resulting from this kind of manoeuvre can often end up trapped in
reformist gestures unable to escape existing power-relations. Spivak sometimes suggests that
one “cannot not” want to be part of the present system and its ideology in various ways. For
instance, regarding the “we the people” of the American Constitution - an almost perfect
example of a repressive “we” - Spivak claims: ‘[o]ne way or another, we cannot not want to
inhabit this great rational abstraction’ (OTM 279). Spivak’s “deconstructive” stance
therefore ends in a critique which cannot actually escape the present system. ‘Persistently to
critique a structure that one cannot not (wish to) inhabit is the deconstructive stance’ (OTM
284). Lurking behind such claims is the usual Lacanian assumption of a foundational lack,
or, in Spivak’s words, a ‘primordial wound’ (CPR 333). Since the lack is primordial, it
cannot be overcome. In Mieke Bal’s words, ‘Spivak cautions time and again against the
temptation to reject that in which we are caught’. Any such rejection is nothing more than
‘unacknowledged complicity’ (Bal 5). Terry Eagleton underestimates the radicalism of
Spivak’s political agenda, but he is right that Spivak thinks the present system can be
‘ceaselessly “interrupted”, deferred or “pushed away”’, but not overthrown (Eagleton 6).
And, as he also points out, she ‘is logically mistaken to suppose that imagining some overall
alternative to the current system means claiming to be unblemished by it’ (6). One can
imagine and construct alternatives, without the need to claim an Archimedean point.
Spivak’s implicit confusion of the possibility of escape with the possibility of radical
exteriority in the present is a typical instance of the way in which Lacanians confuse belief in
contingency with their own conception of a primordial lack.
( This position is a refusal of radical political agency. If one thinks of
oppressive systems as akin to cages, one can consider how it is possible to inhabit a cage, and
to be for the moment unable to break free, without this necessitating a stance of reformism or
ontological fatalism. That one is inside the cage does not mean that one is unable to think of
anything outside it, or, indeed, that one is unable to seek ways out, and ultimately to escape.
Nor can one deduce the impossibility of escape from the fact that it must begin from a
standpoint inside the cage. By rendering the cage a deep fact of ontology, language or
psychology, the Lacanian/ Derridean paradigm leaves itself unable to even conceive of

The first chapter of In Other Worlds is a lengthy discussion of Lacanian
cultural criticism, which Spivak broadly endorses, even while suggesting a greater need for
caution in projective reasoning than is usually shown by Lacanians. The aspects she endorses
include the idea of a need for mastery and a master-signifier (c.f. IOW 296). Such
presuppositions often affect her analyses of political issues. Instead of conceiving of
oppressive systems operating to repress many different potentialities, she sometimes slips
into the Lacanian problematic of attempting to identify a singular element in a totallyconstituted
system, which can be identified with the Real. In Critique of Postcolonial
Reason, this element is given the name “native informant” (sometimes identified with
subaltern women in the “Third World”), and is treated as a voiceless and nonspecific element
which nevertheless can be used as a structural position from which to criticise dominant
projects. As an element ‘inhabiting us’, the native informant is not treated as a distinct figure
but as a symptom of the existing system. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, this tendency to
seek a singular “privileged oppressed” position leads Spivak to downplay the importance of
forms of oppression which are not reducible to the colonial system. Her accusation that
Foucault uses mental asylums and prisons as a fantasmatic screen to ‘foreclose’ and avoid
engaging with the real issues of colonial oppression (291) amounts to a denial of the
importance of anti-normalist and prison resistance struggles and a denial of the reality of
oppressions occurring within the kinds of institution discussed by Foucault. Such
impositions of voicelessness are a necessary effect of Spivak’s attempt to project a Lacanian
model onto the world system, because such a model necessitates a concentration on a single
site of the unspeakable “Real”. (If this selectivity never follows through into her analyses of
concrete situations, this is probably because she never identifies any particular group wholly
with the position of the “native informant”. Indeed, it sometimes does follow through, as
when Spivak concludes a previously “Deleuzian” passage denouncing capitalist monoculture
by criticising subaltern women for not adopting the perspective of “the native informant” -
CPR 104)1.
Incidentally, Spivak’s dismissal of mental asylums as a serious case of oppression reflects a deeper tendency to
normalism in her theory. Firstly, her misuse of the word “foreclosure” - by which she seems to mean
“repression” - echoes Lacan’s attempts to evade the subversive force of psychosis in relation to his essentialist
account of the “human condition” by declaring it to be founded on the absence - the “foreclosure” - of the
name-of-the-father, an element necessary in neurosis, i.e. by defining psychosis as not-neurosis. Secondly, she
refers to irrational capitalist and colonial structures as “insane” and ecologically sustainable alternatives as

The figure of the native informant emerges, in good Lacanian fashion, as the
element which stops the slippage of signifiers by returning matters to the question of the
master signifier. ‘[T]he subject-position of the native informant, crucial yet foreclosed, is
also historically and therefore geopolitically necessary… [F]rom the historically (im)possible
yet historial perspective of the native informant, the signs of a different periodization
disappear before a generic resemblance between Barthes and, say, Perelman’ (CPR 344). In
other words, this single element is taken to carve the field neatly into two camps, emerging as
in effect the “real” basis of social difference beneath the illusion of diversity. One should
also note in this context the peculiar importance of singularity in Spivak’s ethics, as distinct
from particularity (see e.g. CPR 383). Indeed, she sometimes constructs her ethical position
around a rigid binary: either one accepts her account of the ethical moment as a kind of
metaphysicised alterity, or one’s relation to the other takes the form of an attempt to impose
homogeneity (CPR 390). One could add a further possibility that the relation to others could
take an open, rhizomatic form in which interconnection is possible but not required and in
which the assertion of one’s own desire takes an active form which does not require the
suppression of oneself or of others for its realisation.

Furthermore, the structure underlying this model is taken to be universal, so that no
emancipation can ever lead beyond such basic aspects of the psyche. For instance, alienation
is supposed to be ‘an ontological necessity for the very predication of (the human) being and
doing’ (CPR 59; c.f. on the ‘vulgar’ concept of time as a transcultural universal, CPR 370-1),
and she assumes that there is no possibility of escaping Oedipus or other ‘pre-existing
structures of violence’ (CPR **). Instead, she calls for a ‘persistent effort and deferred
fulfilment’ which leaves one always ‘half in and half out’ of the present system (CPR **). In
other words, she heads in the right direction for a line of flight, but at the last minute she
stops short and reasserts the necessity of the present. She can move to the margins, but no
further. As Bhatt puts it, in Spivak’s work ‘the proliferation of metaphors of “impossibility”
must accompany every imagination of political futures’ (Bhatt 43). Shetty and Bellamy add
that it is the idea of an originary or archaic violence which leads Spivak to favour Derrida
over Foucault (S and B 31). The resulting ‘regressive logic’, constantly invoking limits and
abysses (Bhatt 43), is hardly a fruitful path out of the present system.

The impossible, foreclosed element (sometimes termed the “absolute other”, a term
with theological implications in Derrida’s work) is unable to realise itself directly in the
possible, calculable world, but one is nevertheless supposed to seek the rare moments when a
“sane”, as if these terms were somehow neutral (e.g. CPR 391, Resp. 60, IOW 169). Thirdly, she attaches an
overarching importance to normal empathetic modes of relation - for instance, ‘eye contact, the first gesture of
the ethical face to face’ (CPR 378) - which render normal forms of life universal and ethically valuable by
mythical manoeuvres.
possible element in the world somehow comes to carry or express this impossible element.

The radical or absolute other, which in this paradigm is “impossible” and unspeakable, is
‘disclosed’ through practices which nevertheless remain part of ordinary reality and therefore
incommensurable with it (CPR 427). The paradigm-case here is Derrida’s account of the
relationship between justice and law (see e.g. CPR 427, Resp 45-6). According to Derrida,
justice is never reducible to the law - it is something incalculable and “impossible”, based in
a call of the absolute other - yet it can only instantiate itself through the institutions of law, an
expression or representation which is “impossible” yet also “necessary”. One of the
implications of this analysis is that it is neither possible nor necessary to overthrow the law in
the name of justice. In other words, it has an alibi function which retains oppressive realities
by mystifying them as necessary for the expression of ideals they are structurally incapable of
realising. Disturbingly, Spivak also extends this model to the relationship between use-value
and exchange-value (e.g. IOW 164), suggesting that capitalism, too, is inevitable. This case
is especially significant, because it involves Spivak’s most overt collision with Deleuze and
Guattari. She accuses them of an ‘attempt to bypass the catachrestic’, i.e. the kind of
situation where an element carries simultaneously an official and a subversive meaning (CPR
105). In fact their analysis is a route through catachresis and beyond, to a situation in which
all readings are multiple and there is no longer a need for an “orthodoxy” as the alwaysreturning
basis for catachrestic readings.

The emergence of the “ethical” element (such as justice or use-value) is always
something fragile, barely graspable, unsustainable and unascertainable (see CPR 383), more
messianic than revolutionary. It is more like a momentary experience of sublimity than a
process of social transformation. Furthermore, its emergence is difficult and unpleasant -
Spivak writes of the ‘necessary impossibility of the ethical’ and the ‘painful imperatives of
the impossible within the ethical situation’ (CPR 382). She does not want to ‘lose’ the
‘ethical overshadow’ of an ‘experience of the impossible’ (CPR 389), a moment she refers to
as ‘an (im)possible secret encounter’ (CPR 390). ‘Full formalization itself must be seen not
as impossible but as an experience of the impossible, a figure of the impossible’ (Resp. 22).
One example of the negativity of this model arises in Spivak’s glorification of the suicide of
Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (307-8). Shetty and Bellamy describe
the figure of Bhaduri in Spivak’s work as ‘Antigonal’ (S and B 47), and her discussion has
many parallels with Žižek’s concept of the “act”. In other words, nihilistic gestures, valued
for their incomprehensibility to the dominant system/s, are elevated into the space left vacant
by the absence of an analysis of logics of social transformation.

The psychological basis for the emergence of the impossible element is negative and
reactive. In one passage Spivak even describes her own position as ‘reactive’ (Postcol. Critic
69). ‘It is’, says Spivak, ‘the genius of deconstruction… to unmoor “the experience of
necessity” into a necessary experience of the impossible’. The radical alterity which emerges
in such moments ‘is not “what refuses desire” but what keeps desire going’ (CPR 326); ‘to be
human is to be called by the other’ (CPR 397). The self is supposed to be ‘programmed’ to
imagine radical alterity in the form of a master-signifier such as God (CPR 355), although she
also represents it in terms of radical evil (Resp. 29). One must assume the existence of an
absolute other in order to make sense of the existence of life, and ‘life is lived at the call of
the wholly other’ (CPR 427). This absolutely-other, as befits an essence, is
‘undeconstructible’ (CPR 427-8). Freud also links responsibility to Freud’s concept of the
superego (Resp 48). Hence, Spivak naturalises the authoritarian structure of the
neurotic/normal psyche. In other words, Spivak assumes desire to be reactive in its basic
structure. I shall show below how the “painful” imperatives of the ethical are structured
phenomenologically in Spivak’s ethics as a demand for the adoption of a masochistic subjectposition.
Furthermore, the logic involved here is basically that of transubstantiation, in which
an aspect of the mundane world suddenly and miraculously comes to carry an absolutely
incommensurable significance. Like every transubstantiation, however, the worldly objects
continue to look, feel and taste the same. It is only in the mind of the believer that they
change significance.

Furthermore, the way in which the mundane world remains necessary for the
impossible element to instantiate itself leads to reformist and fatalistic attitudes to institutions
such as the state and the law (e.g. CPR 391). Responsibility to the absolutely other must be
instantiated through ordinary institutions such as the legal system; it is differentiated from
their ordinary functioning only by its justification being incomplete when assessed on the
terms of the system (CPR 427-8). Hence, responsibility is ‘caught between an ungraspable
call and a setting-to-work’ (Resp. 23). For instance, the integration of minorities into the
modern state is according to Spivak ‘urgently needed’ (CPR 385); she does not even consider
taking up a position of radical minoritarianism against the modern state. She also insists on a
need for the law as a disciplinary system (Resp. 52). Similarly, she urges that capitalism be
pushed away, rather than overthrown (CPR 430) and that responsibility occur within
exchange-relations (Resp 45). “Our” relationship to capitalism is supposed to be governed by
the same logic as in the case of justice and law (Resp. 39). For all the radical rhetoric, her
idea of an ‘experience of the impossible’ realises itself politically in such moderate demands
as call for capitalism to be turned into a pharmakon (a cure as well as a poison) through
redistribution (CPR 402). The momentary emergence of the “impossible” ethical moment is
unlikely to enact any lasting change in social relations, although Spivak seems to think it will.
It is hard to see how the rare moments her analysis implies can overcome the persistent
solidity of existing systems of oppression. This is particularly the case since the paradoxical
necessary-yet-impossible emergence takes for granted the very institutions it indicts. In other
words, the point never comes when the demands of justice exceed law completely, or when
the demands of use-value take it beyond capitalism. When this happens, it apparently returns
from impossible-yet-necessary to simple impossibility. The resulting politics may well at
times be militant, but it cannot achieve a radical change in global social relations.

On an analytical level, one could add that Spivak is overly quick to assume that an
excluded element operates as a necessary extimate grounding of a theory, as opposed to being
excluded in a more mundane sense by it. For instance, her analysis of Kant treats his
exclusion of the Neuhollander and Feuerlander as symptomatic, founding his conception of
man on a constitutive exclusion. However, Kant’s argument appears to have a simpler
structure. Since he assumes value to reside solely in one’s ability to do one’s duty according
to an absolutely noumenal moral law, Kant directly excludes as inhuman and valueless any
kind of human life which falls outside this law. Needless to say, he excludes the “primitive”
peoples Spivak emphasises, because their value-systems do not involve, or are deemed by
Kant not to involve, the correct kind of reactive/hierarchic relationship between humanity and
an externalised law. He also excludes a range of other groups, varying from children to
psychotics. Since the desire to suppress one’s desire renders one resentful and hostile
towards those whose desire is, or whose desire one imagines is, structured more actively, this
is easily explicable on a theoretical level. One should see, therefore, spectres of Nietzsche
and Reich where Spivak imagines a Lacanian structure.

A question also arises as to how transformation is to emerge from an awareness of the
repressed elements in the existing system, for it rapidly becomes clear from her political
writings that Spivak has some kind of transformative agenda. It is naïve to assume that
simply pointing to these elements is enough to have the social equivalent of a
psychotherapeutic effect. This is nevertheless what Spivak implies when she suggests that
her use of the figure of the native informant ‘may move capital toward socialism’ (CPR 355).
Furthermore, the subaltern who cannot speak or the native informant who emerges in the
gaps in the colonial text does not seem much of a revolutionary agent. What transformative
strategies does Spivak advocate? On the positive side, one could refer to her campaigning
activities on behalf of oppressed groups such as the denotified tribes, and her focus on
education as a process of overcoming prejudices and misconceptions. For instance, she
suggests that involvement in campaigning activity should extend into ‘a concurrent
involvement in the mind-changing work’ of ‘educating educators’, so that strategic support
for philosophically problematic aspects of political movements is not the last say on the
subject (Denotified and Nomadic Tribes 599).

However, problems re-emerge when one examines Spivak’s positive ethics. The
concept of “responsibility”, borrowed from Derrida, is at the core of her ethical beliefs. She
specifically counterposes this concept to any kind of ethics based on rights, calling for a
‘collective, responsibility-based ethics’ (CPR 85) focused on ‘learning to resonate with
responsibility-based mindsets’ (CPR 409). There is little room for valuing intent in Spivak’s
politics; rather, ‘we must learn to be responsible’ because ‘history is larger than personal
goodwill’ (CPR 378). She identifies self-actualisation and self-assertion with capitalism and
consumerism, and instead calls for an ethics which orients primarily to the other (CPR 101).
Responsibility arises from ‘a figure of the alterity that defines the human as being called by
the other’, and is expressly distanced from any positive or active quality which could lead to
demands for rights (CPR 389). Responsibility is supposed to be ‘a burden of being human’
(CPR 4-5), and implies a reactive structuring of ethics. The situation of division which
necessitates responsibility is supposed to be constitutive, although one is supposed to
continue dreaming of an undivided world even while recognising that it is impossible (CPR
382). Spivak expressly limits her politics to critique rather than radical challenge. ‘A
caution, a vigilance, a perpetual taking of distance, always out of step with total involvement,
a desire for permanent parabasis, is all that responsible academic criticism can aspire to’
(CPR 362). Hence, the unlearning of privilege unlearns it as loss, rather than as a
minoritarian position.

One of the problems with this concept is that it is difficult to separate it from
its usual location in grammars of domination. Spivakian responsibility involves a great many
things: loving contact is taken to be ‘responsible contact’ (CPR 383), responsibility is taken
to include or require dialogue and openness to difference (see Resp. 53-4), and it is
sometimes synonymous with “transnational literacy”, the term Spivak uses to denounce the
blunders and simplifications of naïve and hasty commentators on the non-western world.
However, she is unable to remove from the concept the traces of its reactive origins.
“Responsibility” implies a structure of “holding responsible” and a related discursive and
social hierarchy. It tends to be inscribed reactively, in such a way as to subordinate desiringproduction
to prior social orders of place and equivalence. Spivak’s conception is clearly not
the same as Blair’s, but it is nevertheless disturbing that she shares his preference for
responsibility and collectivity over rights. One can only be responsible within an order of
place, and this requires authoritarian gestures of the imposition of fixity. Such gestures in
turn require a type of subjective response which is reactive and submissive. This echoes
Althusser’s approach of setting up a positive pole which one is supposed to adopt, and then
trying to force oneself and others to conform to this pole by alleging “complicity” if one does

In other words, the subject-position Spivak urges her readers to adopt is not
the kind of radical subjectivity proposed by Deleuze, Nietzsche and Reich; it is a masochistic
and melancholic standpoint which involves flogging oneself for one’s continued “complicity”
and attempting an ongoing engagement even while believing its failure to be guaranteed.
Shetty and Bellamy actually describe Spivak as melancholic as if this were a compliment (S
and B 44). There is, Spivak says, a need to ‘emphasise our complicity, which we must
acknowledge in order to act’ (CPR 370). The concept of “complicity” plays a dubious role in
her work, because she defines it so broadly that it seems impossible to avoid being
“complicit” in one way or another. As Bhatt puts it, ‘Spivak leaves little or no space…
outside of “complicity” with “imperialism”’ (Bhatt 38). One is complicit, for instance, if one
pays taxes which go to fund an imperial war machine or if one drinks tea which has been
produced in oppressive conditions, even while ‘talking… against US military aggression’.
The former involves ‘paying taxes to destroy survival ecobiomes of the world’s poor’ while
the latter involves ‘possibly endorsing child slavery’ (Resp. 35).

If complicity is defined so broadly, even the most oppressed people would seem to
end up complicit to the extent that they benefit in even the slightest way from any aspect of
the present world system (for instance, the denotified tribes become complicit when they use
the Indian courts to prosecute police violence). Indeed, her denouncement seems to be less of
“complicity” itself than of others’ refusal to accept their complicity. In the case of the
American academics mentioned above, her accusation seems to be less the fact that they are
complicit than the fact that they also sustain a ‘happy euphoria of being in the right’ (Resp.
35), in other words, that they lack the kind of self-flagellating subjectivity Spivak advocates.
Furthermore, as Stephen Morton notes (although he seems to specifically exempt Spivak), an
emphasis on complicity can leave postcolonial theory with no basis for criticism (Morton
605). Mieke Bal dissents from this conclusion, denying that the so-called acknowledgement
of complicity is an inconvenience (Bal 20). However, he does not address the question of
what theoretical function this “not inconvenient” gesture is supposed to achieve. I suspect he
reveals its function in his defence of Spivak against Terry Eagleton’s critique. There are
indeed problems with what Eagleton says, especially his tendency to use the difficulty of
Spivak’s work as a pretext for rejecting it. However, Bal’s response is basically to dismiss
Eagleton’s remarks as worthless because he is irreducibly complicit. This is not a
constructive way of engaging in theoretical criticism - though it is quite clearly “not
inconvenient” for those who use it. “Responsibility”, as so often, turns out to be rather less
“inconvenient” for those “holding responsible” than for those who appoint themselves as the
judges. Perhaps the most important point in Eagleton’s critique is his accusation that to
denounce the system without trying to escape it is as much ‘bad faith’ as any refusal to
acknowledge one’s complicity. He portrays fatalistic tendencies in postcolonial theory as a
way of salving one’s conscience without actually changing anything (Eagleton 5-6), and if
postcolonial theory continues to refuse to contemplate structural transformation, he certainly
has a point.

If Spivak sees complicity as inescapable (as she seems to), the question arises as to
why she is so concerned that others recognise it. Since it cannot be for the purpose of
overcoming one’s complicity, it can only be a stepping-stone to the creation of melancholic
or masochistic subjectivities. It also has the effect of allowing Spivak to claim to speak from
a standpoint of truth - to expose others’ elisions and ignorance - even while problematising
the idea of such a standpoint. Although in principle everyone is complicit, Spivak is still able
to target those who refuse to admit it because, by disavowing responsibility, they are part of
the problem (CPR 397) and therefore can be rendered voiceless by being classed as a
‘symptom’ (CPR 391). It is via this kind of gesture that the function of holding-responsible
is introduced through an aggressive rhetoric of accusation. One is “held responsible” by
being allowed a partial immunity from accusations of complicity only if one adopts the
approved standpoint of “being responsible”. Instead of self-emancipation, Spivak’s ethics
culminates in a self-denying and self-submerging gesture. Indeed, the impression is
unavoidable that one’s supposed “openness” is something one is supposed to impose on
oneself through self-flagellating gestures.

Deleuzian alternative would be to call for affirmative kinds of subjectivity which
sometimes open to others precisely because they are not constructed around reactive
exclusions. One might say, in Hirschmann’s language, that instead of rejecting desire
entirely, one needs to restore the “passions” by breaking down the present regime of
“interests”. There is no reason why a standpoint of struggle for freedom needs to begin with
a primary submissiveness towards an other, absolute or otherwise. It is only necessary that
one’s own pursuit of freedom be articulated to a struggle against oppressive systems in
general, so it can ally itself with others’ struggles for freedom. Otherwise, the reactive desire
within oneself will become a barrier also to the emancipation of others. It is hard to see how
one could avoid projecting the masochistic schema outwards in such a way as to subsume and
overcode the very people one is trying to liberate. The emancipatory and opening
implications of one’s “responsibility” to them are negated in the inevitable progression to a
position of demanding that they, too, be “responsible”, and therefore conform to one’s own
conception of a proper ordering of space. The position of the assigner of responsibility arises
as a result of Spivak’s own claim to be able to expose the ruses of imperialism (c.f. Bhatt 38).
It is significant that Spivak’s clearest assertion of the need to acknowledge one’s complicit
arises in a criticism of an activist text denouncing the rulers of the world (CPR 370).
Contrary to Spivak’s view, it is not necessary to acknowledge complicity in order to act; it is,
rather, necessary to emphasise the ways in which one is not complicit, or the ways in which
one can avoid being complicit, so that one can seek ways to escape the closure of the system
and to construct different kinds of social relation outside it. Indeed, there are situationist
texts (i.e. Rev. Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself) which in Spivak’s terms could be said to
“acknowledge complicity” without developing a melancholic or masochistic disposition and
without assuming complicity to be inescapable. Rather, in such texts, the interrelations of the
world system become a reason why individual emancipation requires global emancipation.

It is also worth noticing that, when it comes to concrete issues, Spivak is quick to
declare that complicities are not all equivalent, and that well-meaning Green Party activists
are not “complicit” in the same irreducible sense that World Bank executives are “complicit”.
‘All responsibility is a simulacrum of responsibility, perhaps. But all complicities with this
necessity are not equivalent’ (Resp. 59; c.f. Resp. 54). The difference is sufficiently great
that those who fall far enough short of “responsibility” are not even owed a deconstructive
reading (Resp. 53-4). The idea of complicity does not, therefore, become a barrier to
Spivak’s radical activism. Speaking of her involvement in the DNT-RAG, a campaign group
run by members of denotified tribes in India, she declares, ‘I cannot be dissuaded from being
a member of the group because such activism might be philosophically incorrect. No
decision can ever be philosophically clean’ (Denotified and Nomadic Tribes 598). However,
if the concept is not irreducible, and if its political implications vary between different
instances, it is unclear why all the phenomena it covers should be subsumed under the one
label - especially one with such strong negative connotations. The difference in position
between those who run the world system and those who are unable entirely to escape its
material and/or discursive reach is sufficiently great, and qualitative, enough to justify using
different words. One consequence of the failure to draw clearer boundaries between different
kinds of “complicity” is that Spivak uses a pragmatic and reformist rhetoric in a situation
which requires a principled and revolutionary rhetoric. She writes as if the issue is one of
greater and lesser evils, rather than of qualitatively different phenomena. This is misleading.

The political implications of Spivak’s fatalism regarding transformation are that her
critiques, for all their radicalism, can never bring her to the point of a rupture with the status
quo. Indeed, her claim that the subject is always centred implies that authoritarian social
assemblages cannot be overcome. Since centring is inescapable, one is supposed to avoid
declaring ‘ruptures’, and instead content oneself with ‘repetition’. ‘Every declared rupture is
an undeclared repetition’. Indeed, Spivak goes as far as to accuse those who believe in
ruptures of nascent totalitarianism. Deconstruction may appear to decentre, but it cannot
allow the emergence of a new kind of politics in which the subject becomes decentred (CPR
323). I shall discuss below an example of a decentred struggle by an oppressed group, but for
now let it suffice to mention Susan McManus’s radicalised interpretation of deconstruction as
dovetailing with the politics of the Zapatistas, a clear example of a political movement
tending to construct a decentred political subjectivity. In this context, Spivak’s position is
unnecessarily pessimistic, and at a crucial point in the argument becomes a barrier to social

Bhabha and difference: one or many?

Similar criticisms can be made of Bhabha. Benita Parry suggests that ‘Bhabha’s
many fecund insights… are paradoxically denatured by the theoretical modes which inform
his work’ (Parry 7), and, while my critique of his theory is some distance from Parry’s
(especially regarding her political commitment to molar totalities as the bases for solidarity),
this seems an accurate observation. While Bhabha distances himself from pessimistic and
negative ontologies (LC 181), his discussions do not always fulfil his goal of avoiding such
theories, and the ambiguity of the significance of the “hybrid” or “marginal” standpoint is in
some passages expressly resolved in favour of a Lacanian reading. Such a development
begins with his oversimplistic dismissal of all theoretical discussion of otherness, including
citing and quoting, as a form of domination (LC 31), as if relations with otherness must
necessarily take the form of conflict and oppression, and continues into his own formulation
of the concept of difference. Particularly significant is the way in which he sometimes
differentiates the concept of “difference” from various other terms which would seem to be
synonyms. For instance, difference is supposed to be incommensurable with such concepts
as fragmentation, bricolage and particles (LC 238), and is constructed in a binary with
diversity (LC 32). While the differentiation from diversity is partly justified in light of what
Bhabha rightly terms ‘ethnocentrist’ accounts of the latter, and while it is often clear that such
accounts are Bhabha’s main target in such passages, it is not clear that one must counterpose
to such accounts an idea of difference as radical incommensurability and as a reified idea of a
single “limit to culture” which seems to bear on all cultural production in Bhabha’s account
(LC 34). According to Bhabha, ‘[t]ime-lag… does not collude with current fashions for
claiming the heterogeneity of ever-increasing “causes”, multiplicities of subject-positions,
endless supplies of subversive “specificities”, “localities”, “territories”… [I]t is the problem
of the not-one, the minus in the origin and repetition of cultural signs… What is in modernity
more than modernity is this signifying “cut” or temporal break… [I]t halts the endless
signification of difference’ (LC 245). The gesture involved in such discourse, in which the
privileging of difference against the other words is clear, seems to be a Lacanian gesture of
denying the significance of differences between particularities in the face of the constitutive
lack and the boundary between the whole of social reality and the singular “Real”. In such
passages, difference is implicitly essentialised and is identified with the Lacanian Real as the
supposed limit to signification.

Furthermore, this essentialised “difference” is given an identity as a kind of
essential negativity - for instance, as productive non-sense (LC 132), constitutive absence
(LC 47), a ‘stain’ within the subject (LC 49), ‘the negating, splitting moment of desire’ for
‘something other than life’ (LC 51) and as ‘putting the original oral void into words’ (LC
165). This is a void of the usual Lacanian type, which is empty yet somehow manages to
avoid being a vaccuum (LC 198). It is also characterised as a lack founding identity (LC 52)
and as a ‘death drive’ (LC 55), while in another passage, alienation and aggression are
declared to be constitutive (LC 43). Far from such concepts being specific to the colonial
system (an assertion which may well be defensible), Bhabha claims to be discussing ‘the
structure of symbolic representation itself’, a structure he explicitly declares to be
independent of anthropological differences between languages (LC 36). This is a clear
example of a Lacanian politics, to which one could counterpose rhizomatic resistance as a
third choice which avoids equally the ontological negativity of Lacanianism and the extreme
complicity of liberal multiculturalism.

Rather than being affirmative, Bhabha’s force of “difference” is something
inherently negative and destructive, ‘damming the stream of real life’ (LC 253) and putting a
mote in the eye of history (LC 168). Such negative force is not taken to be an effect of an
affirmative process of metamorphosis. Rather, metamorphosis is taken to be a byproduct of
the anti-narcissistic force of the singular disruptive element. As Parry puts it, Bhabha
construes resistance as an effect of the aporia within the discourse of imperialism (Parry 16).
It is ironic and significant that Bhabha writes of damming metaphorical streams even while
Spivak campaigns against the damming of real ones. The singular intrusive element of
Lacanian theory has a lot in common with the intrusive and destructive force of actual
systems of violence and oppression, and the glorification of this element as a good in itself
reveals the oppressive implications of Lacanian theory. In the Papuan case, it is the
imperialist intruders who appear as the “mote in the eye”, not their own resistance.
Furthermore, such models of resistance as the internal self-destruction of the system
downplay the role of agency. As Parry puts it, ‘since the ambiguities of discourse are
attributed to the semiotic process… no input of social tension and contradiction [is] required
to render enunciation indeterminate’ (Parry 11). In other words, disruption is taken to be
internal disintegration, rather than active creative reading.

The idea that resistance can only emerge from a single structural space also involves
denying the autonomous agency of the oppressed. By putting resistance down to the inner
contradictions of colonialism (LC 129), by using the Lacanian language of “extimacy” and by
downplaying distinctions between different people and different groups in historical analyses,
Bhabha implies that autonomous agency does not exist and that resistance is simply a
function of the coloniser’s own neurosis. This downplays the extent to which resistance
emerges from and constructs assemblages outside the dominant structure. As Benita Parry
puts it, Bhabha’s ‘elaborations dispense with the notion of conflict - a concept which
certainly does infer antagonism, but contra Bhabha, does not posit a simplistically unitary and
closed structure to the adversarial forces’ (Parry 6). By ‘re-presenting the colonial encounter
as a process of complicities’, Bhabha ‘ruins the representation of colonialism as a conflict’
(Parry 17). The unitarity of structuralist models of social systems impede the
conceptualisation of movements, flows and therefore escape.
YOne can also find echoes of Lacan’s concept of the master-signifier when Bhabha
introduces his concept of the “third space” (36-8). In Lacanian theory, the relation between
any two people is supposedly sustained by the imagined presence of a “third”, for whose gaze
the relationship is enacted. This “third” is the “big Other”, the imagined agent of guarantees
founded by the master signifier, as Bhabha makes clear in one passage (LC 57). The concept
of the “third space” is clearly intended to have a variety of implications, so this reading is not
exclusive of its meaning. However, this kind of Lacanian reading is implicit whenever
Bhabha invokes the “third space” as an absent presence in binaries or as an invisible
backdrop behind communicative situations. The paradox is that Bhabha conflates the third
space with lack and also associates it with the possibility of open or writerly reading.

A danger of the reintroduction of mastery also emerges in Bhabha’s tendency
to adopt communitarian assumptions and to direct his critical fire primarily against
individualism (a tendency which is even stronger in the work of Chatterjee) (see e.g. LC 115)
and which also arises in Spivak, when she denounces the individual as a product of
imperialism (CPR 412). Bhabha expressly refers to communities as minoritarian (LC 231),
yet the concept of a community clearly involves the idea of a fantasmatic unity, and, as Iris
Marion Young has shown, it is usually a device for constructing imagined molar totalities and
excluding outsiders. The danger is that, although Bhabha supports a diffusion of power, the
power-apparatuses resulting from his theory would remain what Deleuze and Guattari term
“molar totalities”, and would reconstruct themselves on arborescent and striated models.
This danger is only exacerbated by Bhabha’s contempt for ‘theoreticist anarchism’ (LC 110,
182) on the spurious reactive Lacanian ground that the agent is always interrogated by a prior
other (185), elsewhere termed the primacy of the gaze of the Other (LC 44). There are also
passages in which Bhabha expressly endorses the role of the master-signifier in Lacan’s
theory (see LC 184).

There are also some implicitly Lacanian formulae in the libidinal outlines of Bhabha’s
project, which suggest that the emotional forces identified as transformative are those of
reactive character-formations and that for Bhabha one must first say “no” to have the right to
say “yes. He discusses desire as a negating activity (LC 8), and this involves psychoontological
assumptions which lead him into disturbingly negative emotional prescriptions.
For instance, he asserts that love requires hate in order to exist (LC 149), writes of ‘the
pleasure of pain’ (LC 41), embraces melancholy (LC 164) and celebrates panic and anxiety
because they are unrepresentable (LC 200-2, 205, 214). When, on the other hand, Fanon
calls for ‘the world to recognize, with me, the open door of every consciousness’, Bhabha
denounces his words as ‘overcompensation’ and as ‘banal’, preferring what he terms
‘Fanon’s insight into the dark side of man’ (LC 61). In the same passage, he makes clear that
he wants ‘subversion’ by slippages in signification, not as a way to open up lines of flight,
but as an alternative to breaking out of the present system - a possibility he conflates with the
mistaken idea of a ‘higher unity’ (LC 62). On the other hand, one is still supposed to seek
such a unity, even while feeling out of joint with one’s context (LC 9). Perhaps it is not
surprising, therefore, that he ends up aligning himself with reactionary modernisers in the
Labour Party (LC 28) in a passage which reveals dramatically his lack at a crucial moment of
what Spivak terms “transcultural literacy”. Alongside this case of naivety, one could add
Bhabha’s rather strange belief that academic theory provides ‘a productive matrix which
defines the “social”’, a view which leads him to reject the distinction between theory and
everyday life (LC 21-2).

“Just leave us, please”

I shall now discuss the political significance of the problems I have delineated in
postcolonial theory, in relation to a particular instance of resistance to capitalism and
colonialism. The case I shall discuss is that of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua
Movement, OPM), a resistance group active with widespread support in West Papua,
currently controlled by Indonesia and subject to massive intrusions by western corporations.
The OPM example is special, as is every movement of resistance, but in many ways it is not
unique. In relation to the theoretical points I am trying to make, I could also have referred to
the Bougainville revolution, the Kabylie uprising against the Algerian state, the Argentine
insurrection, the Zapatistas and/or dozens of other examples. The source I shall use to
discuss the OPM is an interview provided by an anonymous OPM member to the ecoanarchist
journal Do or Die. This voice of resistance is a doubly mediated voice, passing
once through the interviewer’s questions and once through the translations made by the
interviewee, who presumably is not a native English speaker.

The situation in West Papua is indicative, because it does not involve the kind of
extimate inside/outside relation to the western world suggested by postcolonial theory.
Rather, the area still contains a great many people who have had no contact with western
society and its ideas. ‘For many of them the first contact they have with [western] culture
will be when they are forcibly removed from their lands’ (MM 227). They are under threat
from western corporations and the pro-western Indonesian government, which want to
‘develop’ the area by building dams, mines and shanty towns. ‘The occupying regime’s
attempts to impose a modern economy throughout the outer islands has brought poverty,
social conflict and ecological damage. The massive transmigration schemes plus logging,
plantation and mining concessions have deprived local populations of their traditional land
and thus destroyed their way of life’ (MM 226). People thrown off their land are to be
resettled in newly built industrial towns. This new attack comes on top of a genocide carried
out against the local population by the Indonesian regime, which involved the extermination
of entire villages.

The local population are mostly hunter-gatherers and small-scale farmers and
gardeners, and they are immensely socially and linguistically diverse. The inhabitants of
West Papua speak over 25% of the world’s languages. However, while this should make
clear that they have their own voices, they are rendered voiceless by the western and
Indonesian elites who oppress them. A referendum on the inclusion of West Papua in
Indonesia was carried out by Indonesian officials who trained locals, who could not speak the
national language, to recite particular pro-Indonesian phrases they could not understand (RJ
229-30). A representative of the Papuans tried to attend the UN Indigenous People’s
Conference in 1999 but was not allowed to speak (MM 226). They are largely ignored in the
west because they are isolated in relation to the world system. As a Do or Die contributor
remarks, ‘[i]t is unreasonable to expect hunter-gatherers and pastoralists to learn our ways,
our legal systems, in order to stop us destroying them’ (MM 228).

If I was attempting a detailed discussion of the OPM, I would have to pay more
attention than I can here to the heroism of their resistance to the Indonesians, to the atrocities
that continue to be committed and to the western corporations involved in the destruction of
their land and their culture. Suffice to say that their social organisation is of the kind
advocated by Deleuze and Guattari. They have social structures which emphasise the local
and which are responsive to their immediate environment. This relation is under attack. The
OPM activist says: ‘Indonesia have a policy of uniting the diversity; everybody’s Indonesian
and must speak the Indonesian language, behave like Indonesian people and don’t say
anything which distinguishes you from the others’ (RJ 230). ‘There is a certain way you
must have your hair, how to put on your clothes. If this is not the way they want then you are
rebelling’ (RJ 232). The interviewee’s uncle was killed by Indonesian soldiers for being
dressed untidily. The Papuans are therefore victims of a majoritarian agenda which attempts
to transplant the western model of the nation-state. Their ways of life are being destroyed in
order to carry out a “real subsumption” of West Papua into the Indonesian state and the
global economic system. Thus, the imagery of “motes in the eye”, disavowal,
supplementation and the hidden underside of the western system become irrelevant. The
situation is closer to one of entrapment and overcoding, violent territorialisation and struggles
to prevent it, and a struggle between (relatively) deterritorialised and smoothly organised
resistance groups and (relatively) territorialising and striated hierarchic impositional
assemblages. The OPM is a Deleuzian “war machine” disrupting the spread of capitalist

It is not necessary that a movement be perfectly “Deleuzian” in order to qualify for such a label. However, it
should be noted that the OPM is rather less “conservative” than its tradition-defending rhetoric would imply.
The section in the interview which deals with women reveals how traditional gender roles are changing due to
the situation of resistance. Another interesting development is the way that, to the chagrin of the eco-anarchist

Postcolonial theory would presumably support their struggle, as would the kind of
Deleuzian approach I advocate here. However, the Papuans’ struggle is of a kind which fits
badly with the Lacanian and Derridean models discussed above. The Papuans resist the
imposition of western and Indonesian regimes of knowledge and power. The OPM member
says, ‘I would say that we have our own way, which is better. We know how to balance the
ecosystem’ (RJ 231). Thus, they are less a disavowed symptom of western power than a
group which has remained - so far - predominantly outside its grasp. Indeed, companies and
the Indonesian state are attacking the Papuans precisely because West Papua is substantively
outside the capitalist world system, and they wish to bring it inside. In response to this
attempt, the OPM insist on their right to remain outside this oppressive system. An OPM
communique makes this clear. ‘[P]eople might ask, “Do they want a nation state called West
Papua?” The answer of course is “Nein!” We instead want to be left alone as we have been
and as we are. It does not matter if we are regarded as primitives. The struggle to free West
Papua is not to take away one government and then replace it with a new government. We do
not want to administer ourselves the capitalists “profit-making”. It is a struggle between
modern society and tribal people. It is a struggle between an ecologically harmonious life
and an environmentally exploitative one’ (communique, WPAU 7).

A careful reader will notice immediately that the primary declared aim in the
communique is not to be heard - to be cast in the role of the “absolutely other” in a Derridean
dialogue - but rather, to be left alone. Such slogans arise constantly in OPM discourse. Their
central demand is ‘Yi Wa O’, translated in the West Papua Action Update as “just leave us,
please”. This sits badly with the Lacanian and Derridean themes in Spivak’s and Bhabha’s
theories. After all, the demand to be left alone would seem to require the belief that it is
possible to be outside capitalism and colonialism. They are also, one should note, calling for
solidarity from western activists. They want to be heard (RJ 236), and they seek advice from
western activists on how best to influence corporations and governments (RJ 240). The
Brighton-based OPM-SG rises to the call. ‘The OPM is at root a tribal war of stateless
peoples, anarchist peoples, against the destruction of their land by the global industrial
machine. As long as that remains so our responsibility as radicals in the heart of the empire
that attacks them is to aid them in whatever way we can’ (WPAU 7). But such solidarity
does not necessarily take the archetypal form laid out in Spivak’s theory of responsibility. It
is a solidarity to defend the locality and cultural distance of the Papuans against the
juggernaut of western colonialism, not to create some kind of (im)possible understanding
between Papuans and westerners. Indeed, its main means are not so much theoretical - a new
understanding of the repression involved in western “civilisation” - as practical - campaigns
against corporations involved in West Papua. (A list of targets for demonstrations and direct
action is included at the back of the OPM-SG magazine). Most likely, the activists involved
in OPM-SG would be the last to declare their “complicity” in global capitalism. They are
interviewer, the OPM activist advocated eco-tourism as a means to make enough money to keep access to
western communication technologies (RJ 240). This is apparently the only part of a western way of life that
some Papuans wish to incorporate - a sign both of their “writerly”, nonconservative relation to their own culture
and their apparent openness towards decoded, as opposed to impositional, cross-cultural flows.
most probably seeking their own emancipation too, and creating rhizomes of resistance in
their own locality. It is not difficult to imagine links between the OPM-SG and such
neighbours as Brighton Anarchist Teapot, the SPOR squatting group and the local free
party/rave scene. Most probably, they are more active than reactive, more Deleuze than
Lacan. Most likely, they seek links with the OPM because they have a fellow-feeling with
others who are seeking freedom from capitalist repression and monoculture, not as a
byproduct of melancholy, masochism or feelings of guilt.

A crucial issue arises repeatedly in the interview: can a westerner understand
the views of the interviewee? On the one hand, a certain political agenda is absolutely clear.
The interviewee is not only opposed to the violence of the western and Indonesian attacks on
West Papua. He also does not want to adopt a westernised way of life. He does not want to
live in a city. In these sentiments, in the negation of the colonising projects of capitalist
monoculture, there is a link providing the possibility of solidarity. But even while being
aware of this negative link, is it possible to understand his subjectivity and his positive claims
for his way of life? ‘Many people here don’t understand me’, he says (RJ 230). ‘I am here
and it is stressful. And I want to go back quickly’ (RJ 232). Similar comments abound.
How is a western reader to make sense of his claim that ‘we feel we can talk to the land’, or
his claim that to him, western life seems ‘modified’ and lacking (RJ 230, 232)? What of his
sense that his people are being killed when their land is destroyed, or his relationship to land
through the mediation of spirits (RJ 232, 235)? Why does he say when asked about the
Papuan environment, ‘I don’t have any words to describe it’ (RJ 232)? One should not
assume that such ideas are somehow a lack of something the west has, especially since the
Papuans have some special abilities as a result - for instance, they can become almost
invisible in the jungle (RJ 233). The specificity of the assemblages constructed in the
creative relationships between Papuans and their environment are of a kind which it is
difficult, if not impossible, for a western observer to understand. But why should this be a
barrier to supporting their struggle for freedom from western and Indonesian domination?
‘We don’t want any policy which comes from outside and changes everything’, the
interviewee remarks (RJ 233). This statement could apply to a great many resistances to
global capitalism, even though the movement from which it arises is irreducibly specific.
This demand is easily supported based on the Deleuzian suggestion that desiring-production
should precede social production. Clearly the imposed system is a system which attempts to
subsume locals, against their will, into a global reactive assemblage.

It is less clear that the OPM’s core demands can be consistently supported
from within a lack-based variety of postcolonial theory. One of the problems with Spivak’s
concept of responsibility is that it seems to operate by an impositional logic. In the first
instance this is not obvious, because her articulation of the concept mainly “imposes” it on
people who identify with oppressive categories. Its main function is to urge these people to
become aware of structural asymmetries and privileges and to become more open to the
voices of oppressed people. However, its broader implications are problematic. Firstly,
Spivak would seem to be insisting that all people adopt a single ethical standpoint, and this
insistence could itself have colonising implications. The demand that, say, the Papuans adopt
a Derridean ethics of responsibility could easily operate as an impositional gesture.
Furthermore, the pull this ethics exerts is negative, introducing a masochistic self-flagellation
for one’s “complicity” into the various forms of life it subsumes. In this sense, the Papuans
could not be “left alone”; they would have to be subsumed in the Spivakian assemblage
instead. Secondly, the other-regardingness of Spivakian responsibility is only benevolent so
long as the “other” in fact wants to be part of an ethical whole with the self. While the
Papuans are calling for solidarity against western and local colonial oppressors, their core
demand - “leave us alone” - suggests that they have no intent of becoming the permanent
object of someone else’s “ethics of responsibility”. They want to be left alone, not
necessarily understood, by others. Indeed, the interviewee’s remarks suggest that he is in any
case unable to articulate his own way of life, let alone those existing in other parts of West
Papua, in a way a western audience could understand. He does not see such understanding as
his central goal (and why should he?).

Thirdly, Spivak is demanding too much for an achievable political project because she
fuses the issue of overthrowing oppression with the issue of attaining understanding of
oppressed groups. (This fusion also has the effect of blunting her critique by stopping her
from formulating a clear definition of oppression). While her approach is viable so long as
concentration is focused on a single “privileged oppressed” figure, it becomes unwieldy once
the victims/survivors of oppression are conceived in multiple and open-ended terms. Not
only are the victims of colonialism themselves subdivided along lines such as ethnicity,
national identity, class, caste, gender, clan, tribe and language, but a discourse which focuses
solely on colonial oppression could be accused of other “elisions”, for instance, of issues of
oppression of the psychologically different or of people with disabilities. Once one
establishes that a group is oppressed by a particular discourse as long as its voice is “elided”
in or absent from the discourse, it would seem that every text, regardless of its cultural origin,
would be oppressing numerous others. Spivak herself could be accused of elision because
she writes about Bangladesh instead of Vietnam, or because she does not mention blindness.
She partly covers herself against this criticism by declaring the ethical moment, such as a
discourse without elisions, to be “impossible”. However, this hardly solves the problem of
oppression; indeed, it seems to be a fatalistic let-out. If one declared one’s goals more
narrowly - recognising the irreducible multiplicity of the voices oppressed by existing
structures, and struggling for a world where these voices would have the space for selfassertion
- one would have a project which is not in principle unachievable, and which would
if successful eliminate oppressive social relations. In other words, the emancipation of the
Papuans does not depend on westerners or western theorists coming to empathise with them,
to understand the actual content of their discourse or to engage in the kind of “ethical
encounter” Spivak advocates. Rather, the ethical imperative should take the form of
solidarity, i.e. support for the Papuans’ self-determination whether or not one understands or
sympathises with the positive content of their beliefs and practices.

A fourth problem is that a Spivakian ethical encounter does not seem to have
transcended identitarian models of community-formation as the basis for ethics. Rather, the
ethical moment is still constructed around a model of understanding and of the achievement
of a lost fullness, even though the full achievement of this moment is deemed impossible. An
assumption that ideally (though impossibly), everyone should be, or aspires to be, subsumed
in a universal speech-community is implicit in the gesture of reading every “elision” as an
oppression. The idea that ethical solidarity requires as its prerequisite an identitarian relation
such as empathy restores the imperative to reconstruct sameness even while declaring
difference to be irreducible. It tends to construct the world as a single text, whereas lines of
flight and forms of resistance are multiple and centrifugal. On the other hand, one can
identify structures of oppression from the structure of the discourse of an oppressor-group,
and one can therefore offer solidarity to those who resist oppression, without any need to
directly feel any kind of oneness with them. In this way, resistance can become minoritarian,
plural and expansive. It then becomes possible for resistance to occur within itself
reformulating any particular form of life as a molar totality.

As regards Bhabha, it is quite clear that the resistance organised by the OPM is not
emerging from the underside of colonialism itself. Indeed, the interviewee makes clear that
attacks by Papuan resistance fighters against Indonesian forces had a local origin. It seemed
shocking that such attacks were viewed as terrorism, or even as guerrilla war (RJ 233). In
addition, one sees repeatedly that the collision in West Papua is not interior to the western
text, but occurs as a collision between two distinct texts which are to all intents and purposes
incommensurable. Furthermore, it is the activities of corporations and the Indonesian army
which is “damming the streams” of the Papuans’ everyday lives, not the other way around.
Indeed, one part of their plans involves quite literally damming the streams of the
Mamberamo valley. Finally, Lacanian-inspired authors such as Bhabha might have to face
up to the possibility that their universal models of the psyche do not apply in contexts such as
West Papua. The social structures of societies without states preclude the universality of
many of the claims of Lacanian theorists - for instance, that social antagonism with an
“excluded element” is a necessary part of social life.

Conclusion: postcolonial theory beyond the abyss

I have already emphasised that this critique is not meant to be a dismissal, and there is
still much one can learn from Bhabha and Spivak. Their theories are hardly uniform or
unilinear, and there are strands within their work which support a thoroughly emancipatory
politics. However, there are fundamental problems in their underlying philosophy which can
be resolved by adopting a more Deleuzian framework and by dropping the negativistic
assumptions of Lacanian theory. This article has suggested ways in which such a framework
would differ from the present Lacanian and Derridean tendencies which crop up repeatedly in
the work of Bhabha and Spivak.

As the case of West Papua reveals, colonial violence remains a major problem.
Therefore, postcolonial theory remains an important field of research. However, in place of
the emphasis on lack and the constant pursuit of abysses and “(im)possibilities”, postcolonial
theorists should seek lines of flight which create the possibility of undermining and
destroying the systems of overarching control which impose capitalist and colonial violence
and repressive territorialisation. Instead of seeking to construct melancholic and masochistic
subjectivities fixated on questions of complicity and inescapability, postcolonial theory
should seek active structures of desire which are able to break down internal controlstructures
and produce motivations to resist systems of external control. In short,
postcolonial theory should become a theory of globalised resistance to capitalist and colonial
systems of control. To the extent that postcolonial theorists can play a role in spreading and
encouraging such struggles, it is by revealing the roots of oppression in structures of
domination and in oppressive forms of discourse, and by campaigning to expose and
eliminate these. One might say: postcolonial theorists, one more step if you are to become
theorists of the escape from colonialism!


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