Tuesday, July 24, 2007

68. Even More Still on the Kalahari Debate

As any good student of Derrida should realize, there is an important difference between deconstructing a concept and demystifying or debunking it. A deconstruction can be extremely revealing, even devastating, but is never definitive, never adversarial, never final. A demystification, on the other hand, in "exposing" a concept as simply false or deceptive, ends by reinforcing the fundamental opposition that gave rise to it in the first place. Thus, in attempting to "debunk" the "essentialism" behind notions such as authenticity and indigeneity, the Kalahari revisionists launched a puritanical crusade, a postmodern inquisition that only succeeded in re-establishing Western hegemony in another guise, with devastating consequences for some of the very people they were claiming to liberate.

The extent of the damage is the topic of an eloquent book, Theory in an Uneven World (Blackwell, 2003), by Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan, who writes quite bitterly of its effects on Third World cultures in the first chapter, "Postmodernism and the Rest of the World":

If modernity functions as a structure-in-dominance that regulates and normativizes the relationship between the West and the Rest, postmodernism, despite the so-called break from modernity, sustains and prolongs this relationship. . .(p. 5)

For the deconstructive attitude towards Identity to attain universal purchase, postmodernism sets up something called “essentialism” as the ideal straw enemy. In spite of prolific scholarship in the areas of “essentialism” and “strategic essentialism,” it is still not clear what essentialism is precisely, or why it holds such a dominant position in contemporary debates in theory, cultural studies, postcoloniality, and gender and ethnic studies.Why is essentialism bad, why are essentialists naive/stupid and/or evil, and why has anti-essentialism secured a monopolistic hold over theoretical–moral virtue? (p. 14)

. . . the postmodern counter-memory quite conveniently forgets the history of essentialism as it has been foisted on the non-West. It was during the modernist regime (in collusion with colonialism) that traditions were invented by the colonizer on behalf of the colonized, and as Lata Mani had demonstrated brilliantly in the context of sati, the so-called authority of indigenous traditions was created and constructed by the colonizer to legitimate and inferiorize indigenous traditions, all in one move. This so-called authority was really not representative of indigenous practices and worldviews. (p. 16)

This last sentence is especially important and deserves further discussion. If the "indigenous" identities imposed on subject peoples by the modernist "essentialism" of their masters were unrepresentative, i.e., inauthentic, as Radhakrishnan claims, then the reasonable way to redress this wrong would not be to attack essentialism per se but to take the trouble to understand and promote what is representative and authentic. Under the postmodern regime, however, where authenticity itself is understood as tainted by essentialism, there can be no such redress, with the result that the baby of authentic indigeneity must be tossed out with the bathwater of inauthentic colonialist "essentialism."

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