Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

September 23, 2017

Postcolonialism as theory often fails; it would be nice to actually know something

Filed under: Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 8:23 pm

The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer introduced me to the phrase “theory is information for free.” It’s a succinct way of saying that if you have a theoretical framework you can deduce and extrapolate a lot about the world without having to know everything. And, you can take new information and fit it quickly into your model and generate more propositions (you may not need to know everything, but you do need to know something).

But as we all know the utility of theory varies by field. In physics, there is a large and prestigious caste of theoreticians. In contrast, this group is a much smaller fraction of biologists. Biological phenomena are much messier, stochastic, non-linear, and historically contingent. Even highly abstruse fields such as population genetics have relatively limited powers of precise prediction in comparison to Newtonian physics.

When you move to history the problem is much more extreme than in biology. I am a major proponent of Peter Turchin’s work in modeling historical processes, as outlined in his series of books, War and Peace and War, Secular Cycles, and Historical Dynamics. If you read his works you know that Peter exhibits a punctilious attention to detail when it comes to historical phenomena. Not only does this mean that he presumably has good intuition about which formal models are plausible, but it allows him to “test” his predictions more quickly.

But it’s early times yet when it comes to “a theory of history.” There’s a reason that the older systematic method such as Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West fell out of fashion; they ended up reading like speculative fiction more than scholarship.

And yet when it comes to popular understandings of history and cultural dynamics theory is implicitly extremely dominant. Exemplified by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and now bracketed under the general term postcolonialism, a broad theoretical understanding of historical dynamics is assumed by many. Even if they do not know the term postcolonialism, or have never read Said or Fanon and their modern heirs, the postcolonial paradigm is highly influential and implicitly taken for granted. It’s part of our cognitive furniture.

Here is the definition of postcolonialism from Britannica:

Postcolonialism, the historical period or state of affairs representing the aftermath of Western colonialism; the term can also be used to describe the concurrent project to reclaim and rethink the history and agency of people subordinated under various forms of imperialism. Postcolonialism signals a possible future of overcoming colonialism, yet new forms of domination or subordination can come in the wake of such changes, including new forms of global empire. Postcolonialism should not be confused with the claim that the world we live in now is actually devoid of colonialism.

The key to understanding postcolonialism is that it is not a generic analysis of power relations between rulers and the subjugated. It is almost uniformly concerned with the relationship of European/white people and those whom they subjugated over the last 500 years or so. So powerful is this model that it often pushes white European supremacy back to antiquity. Works such as The invention of racism in classical antiquity only have a wider audience because the audience is primed to explore the original sin of the West, and moderns tend to see the origins of the West with the Classical world. The recent protests around racism and Reed college saw the promotion of a counter-syllabus which presented works which explored the racial attitudes of the Greeks.

To my mind this sort of analysis of the Greeks is nonsense. The Greeks were clearly racist, but to our understanding in the West today all premodern people would seem racist. Not only that, but Greek parochialism was different in kind from modern Western racism, so a genealogical connection seems implausible if you’re being generous, and ludicrous if you are being honest. One could make a similarly crazy case for the Jewish origins of racism in Western culture (any analysis of the Hebrew Bible has to confront strong ethnocentric and exclusivist sentiments, though tempered with works such as the Book of Ruth).

The primary issue is that postcolonialism takes the real and present dynamic of white supremacy, which crested in the 19th and 20th centuries, and extrapolates it back across all of history, and presumes that it will be the determinative factor in relations between peoples going forward. It’s like a theory of social physics; invariant across time. Bizarrely, this is a tendency that postcolonial theorists share with white supremacists.  Years ago when I read Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, I was struck by the fact that many of the racialist thinkers of the early 20th century would likely easily and comfortably accede to the generalizations made by the postcolonial theorists as to the sui generis disruptive and dominationist tendencies of white Europeans. It is simply that where postcolonial theorists place a negative ethical valence on this essential orientation, men such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard would have seen the generalities in a positive light.

This is all germane in light of a post over at Brown Pundits, which reacts to a piece with the title Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian. As I said at the other blog the piece was interesting because it was the perspective of a progressive South Asian Christian, which is very different from my own stance as a conservative South Asian non-Christian (atheist). But there was an implicit historical model within the piece which struck a false note with me:

Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.

Though there were Irish soldiers in British armies, I think it is a bit much to blame the Irish for Indian colonialism, seeing as how Roman Catholic Irish themselves were de facto colonial subjects. I also do not know of any Italian presence in India (aside from Sonia Gandhi)…if there was one, presumably there would be a delicious Indo-Italian cuisine? Finally, as a point of fact, the Dutch were famously ineffectual and apathetic toward Christianization in South Asia. Today in Sri Lanka there are many Catholics, but few Protestants, in large part because the Dutch did not exhibit the same zeal to convert the natives that the Portuguese did (British Anglicanism also did not take hold, many elite families converted to Theravada Buddhism at independence).

But this is secondary to the fact that mentioning Kerala misleads the reader as to the nature of Christianity in that region of India. The St. Thomas Christians are an old community, with attested connections to the ancient Church of the East in Mesopotamia. Though European intrusion into South Asia had a major impact on their affiliations and identities (they are splintered into many groups), their Christianity predates European presence in South Asia by many centuries, and perhaps over one thousand years!

The author, being of South African Indian heritage, and raised in Canada, may not know these well known facts. But, they are bathed in the paradigm of postcolonial theory, and in postcolonial theory European agency is paramount. If you did not know much about the history of Kerala, that is, specific details of fact, then your natural prediction based on your theory is that like Goa and Pondicherry Kerala’s Christianity is due to European influence and coercion.

Unfortunately, the sorts of mistakes of inference made by the author of the above piece are not atypical. It seems that she is conflating white evangelical Protestant Christianity (which her family likely converted to) with Christianity writ large. Why would you do that? Books like The Next Christendom report extensive numbers which illustrate that global Christianity is now a post-white religion. The same author also wrote The Lost History of Christianity which credibly makes the case that the majority of the world’s Christians were non-European until sometime after the year 1000 AD.

Not only does postcolonial theory extend the model of white supremacy toward one that is temporally and spatially maximal (that is, white supremacy is relevant at all times and all places), but it also collapses the complex multi-textured power relations between various peoples and groups into a dyad. From a comment over at Brown Pundits:

The tribals of the NE were converted to Christianity by European (and American) missionaries during colonial rule. They obviously weren’t Hindus before they converted, but to imply that colonialism has nothing to do with their conversion would be mistaken – if, indeed, that is what you’re implying.

It is obviously true that conversion to Christianity in India among groups such as Dalits and Northeastern tribal populations has to be understood within the colonial context. Many of these converts are joining denominations of Western provenance. This seems the sort of analysis which postcolonial theory would be useful. The problem here is that since postcolonial theory tends to privilege the dyad between Western and non-Western, it masks the complex relationships between non-Western groups and individuals.

Dalit populations within South Asia were and are subject to marginalization and deprivation by the majority groups. Though one may question the usefulness of converting to Christianity, it is clear that this is an act driven not by Western oppression, but by deep structural inequities of the native non-Western culture.

Similarly, the tribal populations of the Northeast convert to Christianity in part to block assimilation and subordination into a South Asian culture from which they are distinct. Christianity in this framing is not an expression of Western domination and oppression, but an alternative identity to those preferred by the assimilative majority. It is an escape hatch from the inevitable forces of assimilation.

This is not an exclusively South Asian phenomenon. Dayaks in Borneo, Karen in Burma, Montagnards in Vietnam, and Koreans during the Japanese colonial period, all looked to Christianity to buttress and solidify their ethnic identity against dominant populations who were of a different religion. Reducing power relations to purely Western vs. non-Western collapses many degrees of affinity within and between non-Western cultures, which are obviously not a formless whole.

Much of the problem that I’m concerned about would be obviated if people actually read world history. Having a multitudinous array of facts at your fingertips automatically allows you to vet propositions you derive from some grand theory of history. But assembling facts together takes time, and it is relatively arduous. This is why I ended up studying evolutionary genetics instead of neuroscience; I prefer theories to facts. But sometimes there is no choice in the matter if you truly want to understand something, as opposed to simply striking a virtuous pose.


August 6, 2012

It takes a village to murder

Filed under: Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 10:44 pm

In a small follow up to Zach’s post on honor-killing. Let’s reiterate something: individuals are responsible for horrendous crimes, and their acts of horror reflect their own choices. But choices don’t occur in a vacuum. Most people are conformist, and deeply reliant upon social networks, and the succor which that provides. Therefore, it is not surprising that Muslim men (and to a lesser extent women), to give one example, go through a “liberal” phase, before reasserting “traditional” values. Why? Because not reaffirming a commitment to those values entails an alienation from family, kith, and kin.

This alienation is not distressing for many people. For example, if my relatives are discomfited by my life choices because of their barbaric superstitions, I don’t hesitate to tell them to fuck off. So it has been, and so it will be. But most people are not willing, or capable, of being so aggressive about asserting their individuality. Social norms matter. If we are truly horrified by acts of barbarism which are commonplace in Muslim communities in the West, then we need to address the root cause. Culture. Legal sanction won’t change the underlying dynamic.


July 4, 2012

Barbarians on the blog!

Filed under: Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 4:36 pm

Omar says below:

Razib Re Anurag, As someone who once more or less took for granted all that Anurag has written, I have a few observations:

1. These beliefs are integral parts of a certain “elite” Brown worldview that is so normative that it is not even visible AS a worldview. Its not just left wingers. The brown elite, right, left, fascist, all share this view. Since it is also then normative in academia, the usual method of “look it up” also doesn’t help much. So Anurag is not being personally retarded. It’s like saying Newton was retarded because he believed in alchemy. That was the normative view. Everyone believed it. Why wouldnt he?

2. Particular counter-examples mean nothing. They can be set aside and the argument continued with new books about the Congo. The list of actual crimes (as you know better than most of us) is very long. And coming from a more advanced civilization, they are also better documented. A lawyerly argument can easily be sustained for decades (and can be backed up with quotes from hundreds of well respected historians and intellectuals, not just fringe elements).

3. For many of us, somewhat distanced from our traditional religions, its is an almost religious understanding of the history of mankind and of good and evil. Anyone not fully convinced is not just challenging a particular historical fact. He is challenging beliefs that give meaning and structure to our lives (that nothing much changes if you do drop it is irrelevant…..thats not how it feels while you are within the religion).

Interesting points. This reminds me of the problem I had with some readers when this blog started: they objected that I made fun of their moronic religions, and advised that I should tone it down. This of course led to their banning. I simply don’t follow the normative view common among many brown-folk that savage ancestral superstitions should be given due deference, or that they should be organizing principles of self-identity even if you don’t accept the truth of the belief system (e.g., “cultural” Muslims and Hindus who won’t intermarry and will readily kill each other over retarded religions they don’t believe in). I am not “secular” in the way that Indians (or Pakistanis or Bangaldeshis, etc.) are. I’m secular in the way that Baron d’Holbach was secular, your gods are figments of your imagination, and I don’t feel it relevant to give due respect. Of course doesn’t mean I’m a militant atheist. I think most people are stupid and tend toward supernaturalism, so religion will always be with us like the poor and shit.

In regards Anurag’s comment, I am conscious of the fact that that perspective is normative among many brown folk. Even among Indian Americans raised in households which inculcated a sense of Indian nationalism this view is common. Obviously I don’t agree with it. Ethiopia is stinking pile of crap despite its evasion of colonialism. Additionally, in many cases the economic history seems to make it clear that colonial enterprises were a transfer of payments from the national fisc to the petite nobility, and enterprising rent seekers (e.g., Cecil Rhodes), because only the nation-state could provide the institutional infrastructure for their “adventures.” Anurag, the savage barbarian that he is, didn’t understand that when I was contrasting Spain and Scandinavia I was being sarcastic. The landfall wealth of Spain’s New World colonies resulted in inflation, and a long term disincentive toward investment in human capital, as opposed to the quest to seek rents (e.g., “conquistadores”). In contrast, nations with no overseas colonies for most of their history, such as Sweden and Germany, entered into economic take off because of their endogenous human capital. The same reason that East Asians have taken off. This is not a controversial position among economists, though rejected by many sociologists immersed in postcolonial theory.

As for people like Anurag, apologists for Islamic science, or Han Chinese befuddled with why their nation is now having to catch up with barbarians, I don’t really give a shit. They’re as interesting as a Papuan tribesman with superstitions about ghosts with a bone through their nose. Of anthropological curiosity only.


July 19, 2011

When gods become demons

Filed under: Culture,Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 8:36 pm

This comment is interesting to me:

—yes, a pox on poco jargon. Virtually every kind of high culture (be it performance or visual art) in South Asia has been almost entirely reinvented in the past century (with help from white devils), though in the poco academy it remains shrouded in the mists of hoary antiquity, while everything barbarous about modern life is inevitably attributed to the curiously still omnipotent hand of an inchoate colonial influence. It’s a bit like the folks who believe that man learned to do only the bad things (war, aggression) and was born with the blueprint to do only the good things (bonobo conflict resolution).

Nandalal Nagalingam Rasia here points to what seems to me the reality that post-colonial theory has within it the same tendency as the expositors of the “noble savage” concept in the 18th century. In other words, this hyper-critical school in reference to the West is in all likelihood a product of the West itself! Just as post-colonialism transforms the white gods bringing civilization to the coloreds into Promethean demons who tainted the edenic state of colored nature with their particularly pernicious discourse, so it is an inversion of the self-concept of the West. Pride becomes shame, and self-congratulation turns into self-flagellation. The contrast with the noble savage has an ancient pedigree, it is clear in Tacitus’ Germania, but the tendency is not just Western. The same inversion and elevation of the Other crops in some strands of Daoism anarchism for example.

In some ways you can think of it as a self-correcting aspect of any civilization. There must be some internal culture of critique. The problem emerges when the partisans of negation and evisceration confuse their critical role in the ecosystem of ideas for the Idea itself. It is frankly as coherent as building a society on atheism; not too coherent. Atheism is a critique, it is not a positive assertion of anything as such, and so can not serve as the ground of a society in a fully fleshed out sense.

Powered by WordPress