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Postcolonial Investigations and the Role of Necessary Discontinuity

A Review of Iain Chambers’ Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities

In Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities, Iain Chambers is preoccupied with the critical foreclosure that impedes our perception of the ways contemporary migration, as well as “the racism that precedes and accompanies it,” is not abnormal or exceptional.[1] In face of the waves of violence that convulse the landscape of the Occident — from the drownings in the Mediterranean, the unwarranted police shootings in the United States, to the bomb attacks in Europe — Chambers poignantly argues, it has become imperative that we acknowledge racism, and the exclusions and displacements that come with it, as an intrinsic aspect of the sociopolitical character of Western democracy as we know it.[2] In attempting to resist and subvert such a critical foreclosure, Chambers’ book brings to the forefront a discussion concerning the omnipresent political pitfalls of “those processes that have brought us to where we are today.”[3] (2). In doing this, it delivers a compelling account of the ways in which public responsibilities are constantly obscured by the assumptions and the agenda of a “planetary modernity” implicitly crafted by means of silence(s) and exclusion(s). The undoing of these omissions, according to Chambers, implies a revisiting of the ways unequal relations of power have mutilated our understanding of history, for the sake of cultivating a capacity to incorporate “other accents and rhythms” in a way that allows us to process (and value) resonance and dissonance.

In practice, this revisiting translates into a critical engagement with the bedrock assumptions that characterize Western self-realization; or, to use Chambers’ own words: “the colonial imperatives that have made the West the West” (3). Central to Chambers’ analysis is thus the desire to interrogate the theology of progress and the linear conquest of space and time that have historically sustained the hegemonic self-narration of the Occident; and its ultimate goal is to underscore the pervasiveness of the past, and the way in which the ramifications of its injustices — be it the effects of its colonial legacy, slavery, or its capricious economic inequality — are actively shaping our present. It is in the midst of such a troubled present that contemporary migration and the inextricable racism that sustains it and perpetuates it should be located and understood.

Embracing Chambers’ “postcolonial interruptions,” thus, entails a twofold project, for it both requires a willingness to reject uniform accounts of time and space in order to make room for alternative conceptions of modernity as envisioned “by other bodies and histories,” while also inviting a meticulous consideration of the ways in which subjects and objects from the non-Western world, in being and having been appropriated for Western purposes, became a constitutive part of Western-self-realization, and ultimately render its hegemonic conceptual repertoire (e.g., south and north) inadequate at best, unintelligible at worst. It is in this way that Chambers’ argument not only challenges the solipsistic self-regard of imperial thought in a way that demands room for plurality (other modernities are possible); it also poses (albeit implicitly) that any honest attempt to engage in an exercise of Western self-perception should be grounded on what I — to put it mildly — call an acknowledgement of (moral and economic) indebtedness.[4] To the extent that the exploitation of “the expropriated aboriginal, the enslaved African American, or indentured Asian” was of utmost relevance to the conception and development of the kind of ‘progress’ to be delivered by modernity, their suffering should in no way be considered ‘peripheral’ or ‘exceptional.’ Rather, it should be perceived as an intrinsic aspect of the configuration of the modern nation state, and its articulation and enforcement of democracy and citizenship, of rights and the rule of law.

Chambers does a powerful job at exposing the ways in which what I call subliminal indebtedness is constantly disowned by the political denial enforced by Occidental colonialism. In lieu of said denial, Postcolonial Interruptions offers us an opportunity to welcome a proliferation of modes of classification and meanings, of necessary discontinuities, which at times cannot but challenge the (re)productive logic sustaining the ways in which a Western audience is to conceive of argumentation and language itself. It is fascinating to observe how Chambers enacts this invitation to rethink the limits of significance and the parameters that define it by means of a critique of the limitations of ‘scholarship’ and knowledge-production in general. In this way, Chambers attempts to enable the fostering of an unfolding critical space that could present an alternative to the semantic and procedural binds enforced by an academic world defined in terms of institutional support and standards of erudition. Leaving the logic of Western academia behind results in the possibility of — at least momentarily — escaping its disciplinary apparatus and the lust for certitude and continuity that accompanies it. Only then, Chambers insists, will we be in a position to learn “from the modern migrant.” Only then, could we make ourselves receptive to the undoing of “historical and cultural settlements” that takes place when the refugees of history (that is, those whose displacement is the result of colonial speculation and sacrifice) arrive at the shores of our consciousness and make explicit the ways in which their history has always been ours, even if our (Hi)stories have not.

There is an important way in which, in light of this last observation pertaining to the constrictive ways of academic writing and its possibilities, no review could pretend to do justice to Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities. If nothing else because all attempts to evaluate the work risk falling prey to the same shortcomings and illusions that Chambers so carefully works to expose; that is, the shortcomings of an approach to knowledge that prioritizes the logic of value and justification over that of the enriching experience delivered by an approach that cannot be reduced to the terms of the here-and-there, or the now-and-then that so adamantly pervade our conception of ‘understanding.’ Yet, there is much to be said (and to be praised) about Chambers’ book without pretending to measure the relevance of the work, without succumbing to what Kristie Dotson defines as the “pervasive culture of justification” that she claims contaminates academic philosophy.[5] Following Dotson’s line of thinking, which advocates for an engagement with theoretical work in a manner that casts it according to a culture of praxis, I’d argue that Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities has to be embraced as an opportunity for a deconstructing act of — individual and collective — introspection.[6] To the extent that the book exhorts us to think of colonialism as a historical process that is actively (re)producing the cultural and political order that best suits its perpetuation, the text has to be in sharp contrast with the epistemic bastions that have shaped our consciousness for the most part. This is to say that what we take home from Chambers’ reflection cannot simply fit nicely into the big-picture of our already-existing conception of knowledge. Instead, it has to convey a tectonic crisis in our capacity for self-recognition. It has to complicate our capacity to articulate our sense of belonging as well as our ability to ground our political loyalties moving forward.

Welcoming Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities as an complementary outlet of experiential articulation puts us in a better position to embody the critical intention infused in its writing without predisposing us to think of ‘knowledge’ and ‘action’ in the terms handed to us by the advocates of a hierarchical ordering of the world, which have consistently trained our eye and our moral intuition to embrace their cherished — and divisive — political topologies (e.g., north vs. south and us vs. them). In this way, Chambers’ writing prompts us to re-imagine maps in order to notice that the south of the world should not be understood in terms of geographical coordinates but in light of how unequal relations of power “produce a south within every metropole.” Lastly, one of the most laudable aspects of Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities is the virtuosity with which it manages to expose the fact that even our epistemology and ethical framework can and should be deemed as a metropole of sorts, and thus shall be extricated from the web of ill-informed assumptions and dispositions that compulsively privilege the unilateral entitlement conveyed by a ‘pure’ modernity, which is, of course, a trade-mark of the Occident, and which was crafted as a cultural and political monologue. The liberation that results from such purgative realization can hardly be defined in terms of a loss; rather, it should be conceived in terms of a deliverance of abundance that can only take us further into the contours of togetherness.

Dora Suarez is a PhD student in Philosophy and an Onassis Fellow at The New School for Social Research. Her research revolves around the intersection of Epistemology, Social, and Political Philosophy. 

Footnotes

[1] Chamber, Iain (2017) Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities. Rowman & Littlefield International: Maryland, USA.

[2] Iain Chambers consistently uses “Occident” and “West” interchangeably. In this review, I follow his example.

[3] Understanding what Chambers has in mind when he speaks of this ‘critical foreclosure’ requires that we pay attention to the ways in which ‘the contemporary organisation of awareness and knowledge’ invariably serves the status quo. In stating this, Chambers is preoccupied with showing that the accuracy of history (that is to say, the history we are taught) is itself the product of mechanisms of knowledge and power whose main goal is to legitimate the present sociopolitical order. Hence, opposing this ‘critical foreclosure’ involves an investigation of the repressed blind-spots of the discourse through which Westerners have come to conceive of their modern-selves, and this is precisely the goal of Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorized Modernities.

[4] Of course, this is not a kind of indebtedness that can be treated as a routine economic transaction. Not only because the parties involved cannot be said to have agreed on its terms and realization, but also because its ramifications cannot be easily addressed, nor identified for that matter. Yet, I use the term ‘indebtedness’ because I think the concept serves the purpose of showing the ethical obligations that should be brought into the spotlight, while also being helpful to dispel the illusion of self-sufficiency that commonly characterizes the way in which the children of colonialism tend to regard themselves.

[5] Dotson, Kristie (2012) “How is this Paper Philosophy?” Comparative Philosophy, Vol 3, No 1. pp. 03-29

[6] Dotson is talking about work developed within professional Philosophy but I contend that her insight applies very well to interdisciplinary works of the kind Chambers has produced.

Dora Suarez

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