dipankard at gmail dot com
Composed by dd/ts, 2010.
Strategic Essentialism and
Mimicry of Overdetermination
I. Closure for Third World
In one sense Gayatri Chakrabarty Spivak is right. A third world local writer cannot speak globally as what she is: an illegitimate child of the West, that is, the Globe.
In order to speak, she must search for — invent — a father, her/his father. She is like Shakespeare’s Aerial speaking through the voice of Prospero, pretending that Prospero is Aerial’s master.
But, that, simultaneously, is a parricidal move on Aerial’s part. For he is destined to kill this father, in the final action, and turn Prospero into a ‘martyr’. He, Aerial, would bear the cross of this martyr (master): the name-of-the-father. That, precisely, is the lesson of Chapter One.
But, there must be somebody qualifying for the role of our father, and not just anyone can assume this role. For, we would like to tell our story, taking its shape in a part of the globe popularly called the third world, bearing the legacy of its historical past of colonial rule.
But how to begin our story of third world, when the postmodernist waves have written off its name almost entirely? In the first place we need to reinscribe this name — third world — in a postmodern space.
There was a time when we people used to believe in God. Modern man killed this God and put in His place a concept of perfect, that is, closed totality ruled by reason, to be worshipped as his ideal. But, unreason defies being entirely eliminated; it can only be suppressed. So, unreason survives and lurks in reason: as the repressed. Freud-Lacan-Žižek call it symptom. And the symptom must shine forth, and appear as a thing. We have seen such things: the colonies of the great nations (UK, France) — as symptoms of enlightenment. Then at one point, colonies disappear in history and in its stead third world appears, as the symptom of a closed totality called first world.
But, then, there can be third world only if people believe in a perfect totality. Such that people can read its symptom, as third world. Signs of unreason presume the science of reason.
But, postmodernism does not believe in a perfect closed totality. Therefore symptom itself gets suppressed in the postmodernist literature. And so, there cannot be third world. Edward Soja (and many such) says that third world is everywhere, that is, nowhere.
Then, how can we reinscribe third world in a postmodern totality? We can do it only if somebody in the West discovers — invents — some device to introduce closure to a postmodern totality. (Recall: we have chosen to write on the margin of Western discourses). Postmodern philosophers (Derrida, Lacan etc) leave their systems hanging in the air — as ever-open, forever flying high in the sky. Somebody must do some re-writing of postmodernism to put its feet on the ground — and introduce a closure to it. Such men as undertake this task qualify for being our predecessors. For, we will dis-cover third world on the margin of this closure, as its symptom.
We know two such pair of names: Resnick-Wolff (henceforth RW) and Laclau-Mouffe (henceforth LM). Both are ‘social scientists’, building on postmodern philosophy. RW’s system is called postmodern Marxism (also overdeterministic Marxism) and LM’s discourse is known as post-Marxism. We will see in two successive chapters (in this chapter and the chapter that follows it) — how postmodern Marxism and post-Marxism introduce closures in different ways to a postmodern totality. Our discourse begins where they end: on their margin, as a follow-up — discovery — of the consequences of such closures. Third world gets rehabilitated in a postmodern totality from such endeavors.
We could articulate third world — which, for us, is the site of postcolonialism — from just an interrogation of RW and LM. But, postcolonial cultural studies, deploying postmodernist conceptual tools, have already emerged as a distinct discipline. It is our impression that such studies would be richer, were it informed by RW and LM. So, in order to tell our story, we weave cultural studies — our brand of third worldism — with RW and LM, in chapters Two and Three of this book.
We have already hinted at a major proposition by Spivak: the subaltern cannot speak. But we have not yet dealt with the details of how she arrives at this proposition, in the context of a discussion on a stream of postcolonial cultural studies — to be specific, Subaltern Studies — in a postmodern (Derridean) vein. We will see that her contentious proposition — that the subaltern cannot speak — derives from a lack of closure in the Derridean system.
In this context, we find it interesting to draw a parallel between Spivak and RW who share the similar epistemological presuppositions. Surprisingly, in RW, the subaltern can speak — because the kind of postmodern system they are dealing with has a theory of closure woven into it. We can then take off from RW to interrogate this closure in order to articulate a specific kind of subaltern — deriving from this closure. We will call that strategic essentialism, which derives from an exogenous closure to a postmodern overdetermined system. Dominance-subordination relation following from this closure will be captured in terms of mimicry of overdetermination.
II. Spivak Disinterred
In view of the length and complexity of arguments involved in Spivak’s essay, it might be helpful to provide a brief sketch of Spivak’s argument and fix the terrain of our exploration into it. Spivak does pit Derrida against Foucault as she asks the question: can the subaltern speak?1 Spivak deploys Derrida to build up a position for the South/East2. Spivak’s arguments work through three distinct levels which intersect, reinforce, and compensate for one another.
Here we will be dealing with only the second and third parts of her arguments. In particular, we ask, whether the reconstruction (deconstruction) of the subaltern subject position as distinct from an essentialist notion of the subaltern as the subject of history serves any useful purpose or stumble into the traps laid out by the wholist elitist project that suppresses the differences within the subaltern. In this context, we bring out the linkage between Spivak’s theoretical position (the subaltern as a subject position) and her moral stance (complicity of the Western mind vis-à-vis the third world). Now about the details of Spivak’s argument.
In the current renditions on subaltern-elite power relations, subaltern and its subject position are considered as essentialist concepts operating in an autonomous (vis-à-vis the elite) domain. It is essentialist in the sense that its consciousness continues to operate as an independent phenomenon: in pure form. It understands the category of subaltern as a thing-in-itself (in RW’s terms, as a noun) and its subject position as emanating from the autonomous domain of subaltern (reflecting the pure subaltern consciousness residing in that domain). Here their relationships are constituted by the pure form of language (vis-à-vis the elite) prevailing in that domain.
Spivak redefines subaltern as an identity in differential, as a name for the discursive space that she attempts to describe, and builds her basic theoretical position pitting Foucault and Delueze-Guattari against Derrida. She prefers Derrida’s ‘mechanics of the constitution of the other’ to Foucault’s ‘invocations of the authenticity of the other’.
Foucault and Delueze-Guattari reify power and desire respectively and hence their argument remains, in Spivak’s opinion, essentialist. They let the oppressed (subalterns) speak for themselves. Their theory calls for a non-representational theory: the role of the intellectuals is to report the encounters of the oppressed, that is, to appropriate the margin within discourse and thereby extend the gaze of discourse on it.
Spivak contends that Foucault lets the oppressed speak for themselves by posing their non-representational theory as constructed from a subject position of the West, as a part of its imperialist project. Here the West recognizes the other — but as a part of the Western knowledge production that is in compliance with the Western imperialist project. The object of this ethnocentrism is to produce such an other that the inside (and its subject position too) gets consolidated. In other words, Foucault and Delueze-Guattari posit an other only to assimilate it in the guise of non-representation. Spivak’s basic position is to resist such an assimilation of the subaltern.
Invoking Derrida’s idea of the ‘mechanics of the constitution of the other’, she calls for a ‘benevolent Western intellectual’. One who can ‘keep the ethnocentric subject from establishing itself by selectively defining an other’— done by presupposing a text inscribed with blankness where the thought as the blank part of the text is that of the other (subaltern). The other is a quiet other that cannot speak for itself since it constitutes the blank part of the text, the delirious interior voice of the elite. Spivak recommends and adopts this solution of Derrida (of demoting the subject) to the ethnocentric problem. She deploys this theoretical technique of constituting the other to transform the essentialist arguments of some of the current studies on power relations as examples of affirmative deconstruction.
To render thought or thinking subject transparent or invisible seems, by contrast, to hide the relentless recognition of the other by assimilation. (1988, 294)
Spivak’s critique of Foucault is that since the subaltern thought forms the blank part of the text, it cannot speak as a thing; it has to be represented discursively. Spivak poses this representational politics against the non-representational politics of Foucault and Delueze-Guattari. This difference between Spivak and her detractors takes a moral dimension as well. As Spivak notes:
The question is how to keep the ethnocentric subject from establishing itself by selectively defining an other. This is not a program for the subject as such; rather it is a program for the benevolent Western intellectual. For those of us who feel that ‘subject’ has a history and that the task of the first-world subject of knowledge in our historical moment is to resist and critique ‘recognition’ of the third world through ‘assimilation’, this specificity is crucial. (1988, 294)
Spivak charges Western intellectuals like Foucault with complicity. In the third world, the word used as the other of complicity in the West is collaboration. The post-colonial studies are replete with stories of how the elite, projecting themselves as liberators, turned out to be collaborators of the West. For example, the term ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ — a person collaborating with the West — is commonplace in the Indian Marxist jargon.
The concept of collaboration is used as a political weapon whose strength stems from the moral connotation it carries with its deployment. The collaboration of the third world (intellectuals) along with the complicity of the first world intellectuals is seen as a morally bad position to take. The morally good position is the one where this complicity and collaboration are abandoned. Both the groups — one who indulges in complicity and the other who collaborates — are charged with participating in, directly and indirectly, the imperialist project of the West. The morally bad position stems from the fact that the imperialist project constitutes and reproduces itself through force and domination. Participation in such a project is a position supporting such a force and domination.3
Before we move on, some word should be spent on describing Spivak’s characterization of subaltern as a discursive name. For the subordinate sector Spivak recommends that the current studies on power relations (Subaltern Studies, for instance) deploy the subaltern subject strategically, rather than as a part of some ‘authoritative truth of the text’, ‘caught in the game of knowledge as power’. Why in the historiography the subaltern is considered as a strategy rather than as ‘the establishment of an inalienable and final truth of things?’ Spivak asks.
The Subaltern Studies School, the particular lineage that Spivak refers to, basically charts out the failure of the subaltern consciousness and therefore the subaltern to ‘become’ (in the positive sense). The subaltern and the subaltern consciousness are located positively (that is, ideally) only to be rejected as an impossibility. This can only be operated through empirical examples, as the Subaltern Studies School does. This is close to affirmative deconstruction since it charts out the failure of the ideal to become. If a ‘continuous sign system’ is their object of study, then action lies in the disruption of that object. In this field of action — a state of crisis or change — the functional change in the sign system is always constituted by a lack of the signified — subaltern consciousness. So the subaltern and the subaltern consciousness cannot be the object of study. Subaltern is a plane of historiography. It has got to be a theoretical fiction. Spivak provides two reasons for why she does not consider the subaltern consciousness a functional one and therefore not as ‘...the ground that makes all disclosures possible’. The first reason is that she does not see the subaltern consciousness as a ground of theory or some univocal ‘reflection or signification theory’. Rather she understands the negative consciousness of the subaltern as a methodological presupposition of the group that is engaged in the study. This negative consciousness is a consciousness that is transformative, historical and that arises out of the image of the elite (henceforth the negative connotation attached with this term). In other words, the subaltern consciousness appears as the mirror image of the elite consciousness, that is a product of the thought process of the elite and read out of the elite domain. The true subaltern consciousness is never recovered and never found because the subaltern cannot speak.
It is recovered in so far as it is read out of the elite thought, but, then and there it disappears. Here The trace of the origin is of importance and not the element itself. The true subaltern is a theoretical fiction, a neutral name, or as Spivak quotes from Derrida, "...thought (subaltern consciousness) is the blank part of the text". Subaltern consciousness forms the blank part, the part that remains silent. Since the subaltern and subaltern consciousness are not fully recoverable, the true subalternity cannot be posited (in reality); it is only a part of the theoretical fiction. Note that Spivak is not saying that the subaltern cannot speak in a literal and simple sense. Of course, the subaltern speaks out but never to be heard. Their voice is appropriated by the elite domain. The peasant speaks out through insurgency but we never hear their viewpoint of this struggle. The voice of the subaltern is appropriated and consumed up by the elite metanarratives. It is in this sense that the subaltern cannot speak.
The second point relates to the fact that subaltern consciousness cannot be grounded positively, because, as Spivak argues, the category of subaltern is ambiguous. Spivak mentions the dominant indigenous groups at regional and local levels existing in between the elite and the people as an antre (in between) of situational indeterminacy. This category belongs ideally to the subaltern; but in ‘reality’, this group is neither in the elite nor in the subaltern. This group floats from area to area, siding with the elite and the subaltern in different time and context. Its position becomes ambiguous and contradictory. But this group ideally belongs to the subaltern and therefore carries its ambiguous nature to the ideal category of subaltern itself.
Therefore, the category of subaltern becomes ambiguous. The object of study cannot be the true subaltern but this difference from the ideal. The argument that one cannot posit subaltern as a definite autonomous category goes against the grain of Subaltern Studies School. Note: Spivak rejects the existence of an autonomous ontological domain but not that of subaltern as an ideal (epistemological) concept. The point that Spivak makes is that subaltern as an ideal exists but it cannot be captured by concrete flesh and blood. Subaltern as an ideal only exists as part of a theoretical element of text. That is, subaltern exists as a noun but is constituted by theory. It is a noun in fiction.
This description of subaltern completes our exegesis of Spivak. We have developed the theoretical tools used to build up the category of subaltern as a noun in fiction that cannot know and speak. The statement does not intend to imply the tautology that this subaltern cannot speak because its speaking would automatically invoke a false transparency. No discourse can speak in that general sense. But that the space of the subaltern is so displaced that it finds no space to situate itself.
To the extent the subaltern is the name of the place which is so displaced that to have it speak is like Godot arriving on a bus. (Spivak 1995, 91)
The subaltern can only (or at best) be a discursive category — it is a name for a certain kind of discursive space.
There is a space in post-imperialist arenas that is displaced from empire-nation exchanges. Where the ‘emancipated bourgeoisie’, ‘organized labor’, ‘organized left movements’, ‘urban radicalism’, disenfranchised ‘women’s arena’, (these words are all used in quotes), all of this is constituted within that empire-nation exchange, reversing it in many different kinds of ways. But in post-imperialist societies there is a vast arena which is not necessarily accessible to that kind of exchange. It is that space that one calls subaltern. (1995, 90-1)
Spivak, thus, articulates south/east as a discursive space detaching it from its inscription within an essentialist paradigm.
III. Spivak versus Resnick-Wolff
We appreciate Spivak’s gesture (patriotism) to save an academic movement in her homeland (India) from slipping into (what many people think) a disgrace (essentialism) by thrusting into it a fresh lease of postmodernist blood. But we are skeptical about the efficacy of subaltern as the strategic discursive category in the postmodern space speaking out on behalf of the subjugated (in) the third world. We believe that Spivak’s move to re-instate the subaltern in a postmodern space may, to some extent, block parallel moves to detach some of the Marxian categories (such as the working class) from their current inscriptions within an essentialist discourse, which, in turn, might make way for a discursive space for what we call third world.
Our discussion will center around the conceptualization of ‘working class’ and ‘capitalist class’ as subject positions from within a non-essentialist framework. The objective is two-fold:
It is in this context that we invoke RW. RW’s position, as described in Knowledge and Class, is more than its worth in gold. This point needs to be hammered home that Knowledge and Class represents the greatest intervention in the Marxian discourse during the last quarter of a century.
Let us first quickly state the story as narrated by RW. We will then see what the deceptive simplicity of their style of writing hides.
Overdetermination, contradiction and entry-point: these are the three key concepts that mark the nodal points of RW’s intervention in Marxian discourse. Marx never used the concept of overdetermination, Freud thought of it, Althusser imported it into Marxian discourse, and his disciples postmodernized it. And RW added surplus meanings to those that flow from this concept of overdetermination and the other new and fresh categories woven into the system of RW.
To say that theory is an overdetermined process in society is to say that its existence, including all its properties and qualities, is determined by each and every other process constituting that society. Theory is the complex effect produced by the interaction of all those processes. (Page 2)
Overdetermination makes one think of processes that mutually constitute and determine — affect — each other, none of which is the ultimate cause, origin or essence for the others. RW even resisted any ranking of explanatory importance. By contradiction they mean
…the tensions and conflicts produced by different directions that inevitably characterize any overdetermined process, that is, any process understood as the site of interaction of all other processes. (Page 5)
For instance, individual is a site of location of plural, that is, a site of divergences: the economic (he works in a factory); the political (he is a voter); the religious (he has faith in Jesus); and so on. In short, he occupies many subject positions that work in different directions producing tensions and conflicts in him and in society. What is he, the individual? A worker? A voter? A Christian? A husband? A white man? How could one ever take a position?
The notion of entry-point informs the answer of RW. We all have to start somewhere to break the hermeneutic circle. Some may choose power as an entry-point, others utility. With a nod to Marx they choose class as an entry-point.
Class as an economic concept is an entry-point and focus — not an essence for — Marxian theory and the knowledge it produces. (Page 50)
We will see later (in section V) that Richard Wolff modifies this essence: class is an essence that is provisional and contingent. But these details are unimportant for our present purposes. What is important that the concept of entry-point — here, class — brings closure to an otherwise ever-open overdetermined system. Class is a critical theorists’ way of looking at and analyzing the process of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus labor.
So, for RW, class is an adjective, and not a noun. It is not a subject-position, but signals a position taken up by the critical theorists in order to abstract from the multiplicity of process. It does not imply even interpellating a working class position, and move by an as-if — surrogate subject. What is at stake here is not the question whether one can do practice from a surrogate subject position. The question is: can working class be the position of a viewer (though not of a voyeur)? Can the critical theorist view society, and speak from this position, forgetting the rest of plural and conflictual instances? Is working class as a position of a viewer possible? Can working class be a discursive gaze?
If anything, RW show the possibility of working class, as a gaze of the critical theorist. This position is a timely retort to that offered by LM which has gained currency during the last two decades: impossibility of working class. Let us have a very quick glance over this position, leaving out — deferring — the details of LM to be taken up in the following chapter.
Impossibility of working class means its impossibility as a subject position. This proposition derives from the premise that the working class as a subject position carries the metaphoric surpluses of the other subject positions. For instance, our writing of this book — it is a quasi-academic intellectual project. But, simultaneously and as a parallel move, it announces a political — quasi-nationalist — project: to rehabilitate third world. As these two projects intersect reinforce and compensate for each other, they simultaneously negate, negotiate with and neutralize each other. So, what are we writing? A book or a manifesto? Such doubts mar and destabilize our subject position as an author. One might as well announce the impossibility of the author. Impossibility of working class is a variant of such a position.
It is the merit of RW that they change the way we were used to ask questions. What is at issue is not the possibility of having a specific subject position, but of a specific kind of subaltern position as a discursive gaze: that of working class.
IV. Can the Savage Speak?
On Resnick and Wolff’s scheme, then, working class is a name for a discursive space that one can define and describe as what it is and what it is not, in terms of what it includes, excludes, and the space of its interrelationship with other categories. And one can discursively situate this working class because it is not only a name but a context specific name; working class is a process related to the generation of surplus labor. Surplus labor, in turn, is discursively defined through the Marxian analysis of value and abstract labor. Overdetermination as the epistemological entry-point concept establishes the concrete site of the working class as overdetermined by manifold other labels (race/gender/caste). Thus, it is possible to speak from a working class standpoint.
Spivak, too, is keenly aware of the exigencies of contexts, but she does not name (define, describe, locate) them while dealing with subaltern space. And that entails a whole range of problems. Is subaltern the name for a discursive space because subaltern is not a thing (a noun) but a standpoint (an adjective)? Or, because it is something parallel to the Kantian thing-in-itself that can be known only through discursive practices (as in Lyotard, or, in Laclau and Mouffe) giving it plural divergent and often conflictual (or symbolic) forms? While appreciating the importance of exploring this question, we would like to abstract away from the second way of positing the subaltern because the very act of positing it immediately (that is epistemologically) distances us from Spivak. Our epistemological presupposition is that working class is not a thing (a noun) to be known via discourses, but a discursive stance (an adjective). We will therefore like to interpret Spivak’s subaltern space as an adjective, a standpoint. But Spivak’s subaltern as such recalls the sense of a wholist project: an umbrella word epitomizing all kinds of specific subaltern positions. As such it defies differences, at least defers them for further analysis; we eagerly wait to see how she specifies the subaltern space. It is important to stress that without such sub-classifications, the subaltern view would represent only one view of the world implying its other — the elitist view.
Even Laclau and Mouffe (1985), who posit working class as a noun (albeit a symbolic noun) are aware that dominance or oppression (elitism) does not immediately imply its other — subordination (subalternity); it is a moral position which itself may be overdetermined by elitism. As Laclau-Mouffe observe:
We enter here onto a terrain...which has ended by establishing a synonymity between ‘subordination’, ‘oppression’ and ‘domination’… But if we reject this essentialist perspective, we need to differentiate ‘subordination’, ‘oppression’ and explain the precise conditions in which subordination becomes oppressive… The problem is, therefore, to explain how relations of oppression are constituted out of relations of subordination. (1985,153-4)
The elite can subordinate the other only by constituting, on the plane of morality, the notion of subaltern. Resistance includes fighting, among others, elitist moral positions which might imbricate the notion of subaltern itself.
Though we have not stated it (in order not to confuse the reader about Spivak’s position and keep her argument as unified as possible) till now, it is not crystal clear how Spivak defines the subaltern space. There seems to be two contradictory currents (one in the 1988 article and the other in the 1995 article) in Spivak’s description of subaltern. These contradictory currents make Spivak’s subaltern space problematic by producing a contradiction in Spivak’s description of subaltern when it comes to the question of inclusion or exclusion of working class within the subaltern category. Let us explain this important point. On the one hand, using Derrida, she describes the category of subaltern as that ‘quite other’ (as opposed to the self-consolidating other) that renders
...delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us. (1988, 294)4
On the other hand, the contradictory current in Spivak can be demonstrated by remembering, once again, in a fuller length, the quotation from Spivak that we have already used in our section II of this chapter.
Derrida is not my prophet. I’m not talking Derrida, I’m talking about the introduction to the first volume of Ranajit Guha’s Subaltern Studies where he is making an analysis of how a colonial society is structured, and what space can be spoken of as the subaltern space. There is a space in post-imperialist arenas that is displaced from empire-nation exchanges. Where the ‘emancipated bourgeoisie’, ‘organized labor’, ‘organized left movements’, ‘urban radicalism’, disenfranchised ‘women’s arena’, (these words are all used in quotes), all of this is constituted within that empire-nation exchange, reversing it in many different kinds of ways. But in post-imperialist societies there is a vast arena which is not necessarily accessible to that kind of exchange. It is that space that one calls subaltern. (1995, 90-1)
Therefore, we see that Spivak defines subaltern space as the other of (within) that deriving from empire-nation exchange. One then, first of all, needs to specify the categories deriving from empire-nation exchanges, their field of articulation, how they reproduce and sustain themselves, and their limits in order to mark out subaltern space as the other of this field. We are likely to stumble here into the traps laid out by empiricism, because categories deriving from empire-nation exchanges themselves are so displaced that they require theoretical labor to recognize them. The first definition, however, contradicts the above description. There, if subaltern space is viewed as one flowing from the inner voice of the other within the West, then it should include, among others, some of the categories deriving from empire-nation exchanges too. Marx’s working class position can be interpreted as recording one of such voices. This stance conforms to some mainline Marxist positions, such as that of Lenin who interprets Marxism as the synthesis of English classical political economy, French socialist thought, and the German philosophical tradition. If we define subaltern as the outside of empire-nation exchanges then it excludes working class because the later is obviously a legacy (heritage) of empire-nation exchanges. On the other hand, if subaltern is defined as the inner voice of the other within the West, then it should include working class as a subaltern. A contradiction.
Let us therefore combine (synthesize) Spivak’s two apparently contradictory positions into one in order to redefine a subaltern space: subaltern space is the inner voice within the West transgressing itself onto the shadowy terrain of the other, deriving from empire-nation exchanges. In other words, the West overflows — albeit its inner voice turning on itself, the rebellious other within it — into the unknown to meet its comrades outside in that eternal dusk where all cats are gray and all men are savages.
As we noted, the categories within the empire-nation exchange description of subaltern themselves might be displaced, they need to be located specifically. This must intersect with the description of subaltern "as the inner voice of the West" in order to re-articulate the space of subaltern. Only that intersection (subaltern) space can include working class as a discursive standpoint. Subsequently, however, the term subaltern then becomes problematic as a concept. It belongs to the center (working class), margin and a possible outside that we will construct. It is everywhere, that is, nowhere. The term becomes so general that its usage loses its bite and its meaning lapses into vacuity. If, for example, one can carve out concrete spaces for center, margin and outside from a reading of Capital, then why bother with the general and abstract category of subaltern. Similar concrete spaces could be created from, say, gender or caste analysis.
In this context, let us address the issue of complicity of Western intellectuals that Spivak talks about. It is important to stress that we are dealing here with an intersection space between the West (its interior voice or margins) and its outside (other of empire-nation exchange). Therefore, it is only to be expected that the subjects in both space will participate on the project to reconstitute the subaltern space; some will do it better than others. The charge of complicity or collaboration has the harmful effect of foreclosing this space of intersection as the object of study.
We, on the contrary, hold that this complicity is a serious question — a sociologist’s and philosopher’s question. And it must be resolved on the terrain of theory. What does complicity, or, for that matter, its other, collaboration by third world intellectuals mean? Quietly, surreptitiously, straits of essentialism (that die hard) creep into the heart of Spivak’s analysis: the non-West has (had) a pure body and soul maligned (raped) by the West. Late in the twentieth century this view is hard for us to accept. We are living in a world — a global system — where everything is overdetermining and being overdetermined by everything else: the West by the non-West, the modern by the non-modern, capital by non-capital and vice versa. The non-West is already West, determining and constituting its other, the West itself. The West is everywhere and so is the third world. Like Spivak’s subaltern, the third world is so displaced that one cannot carve out a place for it in the world map. It can only be a discursive space whose precise nature needs to be theoretically elaborated by us — the disciples of Marx world-wide — because Marx did not do it as he did it for working class. The received concept of an empirical ‘third world’ must perish in order that we can build up a discursive space for the third that is neither the North nor the South, neither the West nor the East — let us name it third world.5
We are reluctant to mix up moral issues pitting Derrida against Foucault on the terrain of morality that itself first needs to be interrogated. Spivak’s moral stance might backfire on us in the worst sort of ways: producing and sustaining a group of intellectuals thriving on (blackmailing) the good West’s sense of guilt, displacing (and suppressing) us, the third kids of the third world? What is at issue is the precise nature of this global system articulating the modern and the non-modern as its moments overdetermining one another. While the ruling order would like it to evolve in certain specified ways, we Marxists could offer competing perspectives to shape it differently. It is in this context that Foucault, Derrida, and others become relevant for us; we examine whether, in what ways, and how far their insights can be put to productive use to produce this discursive space for the world of the third — third world.
One might argue, as Spivak does, that Derrida promises richer insight than Foucault whose strategy, like many of its counterparts offered by the third world intellectuals, would only strengthen the hegemonies of discourses. Others might hold a contrary opinion. The question needs to be resolved on the terrain of a theory that does not imbricate race, color, geographical sites or moral issues. To produce and sustain a Marxist discourse that includes the world of the third (as distinct from the received concept of the third world) as a discursive space in the context of late twentieth century world capitalism: this, and not ethnic morality, animates us.
We are beginning to realize the consequences of this moral stance: occlusion of the world of the third from the postmodernist discourse. Kalyan Sanyal (1995) talks about two kinds of moral positions on the part of western intellectuals occluding the third world from the postmodernist discourse: sanctioned ignorance (third worldism is not our cup of tea, after all), benign indifference (who are we to talk about their problems). Perhaps we can add another to the list: third world arrogance (who are you to talk about our problems).
Consequently, a section of the intellectuals in the dark continents intimately connected with the West usurp the right to speak for the so-called third world people in the West, working as intermediaries or perhaps priests, mediating between Gods (the West) and the plebeian (the populace in the dark continents). Implicit within this is a particular political strategy: a forced unity within the so-called third world vis-à-vis (opposed to) the West, ruling out alternative possibilities of global alignment (a section of the third world people being united with selective groups in the West) or new international. The label (libel) of complicity blocks the West, and that of collaboration stops the willing third world. Therefore Spivak with her implicit third worldism bears the marks of a violence (a murder): the theoretical stance stifles a political strategy that seeks realignment of people on a global scale bypassing the intermediaries, the pimps, the priests, and the mediators, laying to absolute rest the legacy of Hegelianism: mediation. Perhaps that constitutes the message of overdetermination in the context of contemporary global capitalism: different groups can (do) constitute and determine one another on a global scale. It is wrong to adopt the moral stance that ‘who are you to talk about our problems, for ‘we’ and ‘you’ resist strict separation: ‘you’ constitute ‘we’ and ‘we’ constitute ‘you’. If we must situate us, we have to situate ‘us’ in a space overdetermined by ‘them’ and ‘us’.
If some variant of essentialism is destiny, We can imagine that essentialism only in an overdetermined context, as a discursive device. Let us call it strategic essentialism. Thus said, Resnick-Wolff are spokesmen of strategic essentialism.
Something akin to strategic essentialism is also evident in Spivak, but only in an untheorized, and sometimes, unconscious form, in an ad-hoc way. Therefore, one finds her oscillating like a pendulum between the two poles of deconstruction and essentialism: some deconstruction here, some essentialism there, and most often deploying a combine of both. She never comes up with a theoretical device to fit in her brand of essentialism-n-deconstruction. In short, she does not seem theoretically equipped enough to negotiate differences between deconstruction and essentialism.
This problem comes to the surface sharply in her revision of the position of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ as rendered in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999). There she comes off, explicitly and vocally, with the theoretical position of native informant who deploys deconstruction, among others, as a discursive device. And one is left in suspense (suspicion) as to who this native informant is, a category that Spivak never explains. As for us, we are still in search of native and his nation. All we know is the local, if you like, local-global, for the local is always already overdetermined by the global.
V. Re-entry of Hegel: Strategic Essentialism
It is in Richard Wolff (1996) that we find strategic essentialism in its theoretically nuanced form. Wolff posits, explicitly, the re-entry of Hegel into the neo-Althusserian framework. It is no longer the case that Hegel is the saint of essentialism and Althusser of anti-essentialism. Rather, the Hegel–Althusser combine produces a very special kind of bind between essentialism and overdetermination that allows for both the presence and absence of essentialism within the logic of overdetermination. Let us replay the basic argument of Wolff.
For the first time it is openly acknowledged that overdetermination has an essentialist component to its name. The entry-point concept — putting in place the object of analysis — is exogenously selected and, hence, essentialist. It is not the question of the selection being a discursive privilege (as against ontological privilege in essentialist analysis) that has been used so far to defend the anti-essentialism of entry-point within the overdeterminist logic. The question is that of a moment of explanation — the initial moment of explanation — that announces the connection of the object with its surroundings.
This initial moment creates its spacing by blocking other elements from entering into the discursive plane. The neo-Althusserians point to class as their entry-point concept that excludes other elements like gender, caste, etc from becoming the initial moment of explanation. This selection, even though exogenously posited, reflects a partisan standpoint for the neo-Althusserians. This is quite natural because, according to the neo-Althusserians, all theories have entry-points, and entry-points, by definition, announce the partisan standpoint of the participant.
Thus, this exogenously given partisan standpoint is acknowledged and accounted for in the neo-Althusserian framework. This is unlike the essentialist mode of analysis where such partisanship is not acknowledged — thereby rendering all explanations under its rubric as naturally true and the rest as false.
Despite the aspect of accountability of the entry-point concept within the neo-Althusserian framework, the fact remains that this initial moment of explanation is not explained or theorized or produced as part of the logic or process of overdeterminist mode of explanation, and is hence essentialist.
However, just after the explanation, at the very next moment, the initial essentialist moment dissolves itself since the other blocked elements now show up in another moment of constitution that transforms the very initial moment from its posited truism to falsity. We can say that the explanation becomes class-focused but no longer class-specific.
Overdeterminist explanation is then a sequence of moments where the essentialist point of reference, via its relation with other entities, is converted into this series of contradictory moments. Each moment is true at a point in time and, via its contradictory movements, false at another point in time. This dialectical logic — overdetermination — generates this series of moments as both true and false in a coherent and divided manner.
Essentialism at one moment gives way to non-essentialism at all subsequent moments. In contrast, essentialist explanation is out and out essentialist from the originary point of explanation to its final point. The initial entry-point essentialist moment is projected as true throughout the analysis, and hence, the rest as false.
The dialectics of contradictory movements of moments in the overdeterminist logic of explanation may be construed in terms of the Hegelian logic. Wolff does not argue exactly in this manner. But, we believe that our approach is the precise formulation of his point. Recall the Hegelian concept of determinate being with its:
Entry-point concept of class/surplus-labor sets the reality albeit overdetermined within itself. The rest is its negation — entry-point setting the limit for other elements by blocking and suppressing their entry into the discursive stage. However, over time, as we have explained earlier, being-by-self (the entry-point element) and being-for-another (the excluded elements), via their mutual constitutivity, give way to a higher unity.
The unity of being-for-self that as a differently new element can be treated as a new being-by-self and is involved in a new constitutivity relation with its condition of existents or beings-for-another and… ad infinitum. This sequential movement of an initially exogenously posited determinate being through a dialectical relation of contradiction captured by mutual constitutivity between the being-by-self and being-for-another is nothing but the overdeterminist logic of explanation.
Overdetermination can be understood not in terms of Hegelian dialectics and contradiction involving telos, rational order and supersession but, rather, as the contradictory movement of moments involving the dialectical play of being-by-self and being-for-another at the level of Hegelian logic. So Hegel is back, right into the game of the civilized discourse. No longer as the exorcised but as the exorciser of all that which was wrongly attributed in his name. At a certain level, the turbulent relation between Marx and Hegel is, in fact, secured and lasting.
And yet we are not satisfied.
VI. Limits of a Closure: Mimicry of Overdetermination
To begin with, let us go back to the first principle: entry-point setting the limit. Our intervention shows: this limit is ambiguous and includes a twilight zone. This limit shuts the door, but, that door does have cracks and fissures.
At the definitional level, this limit blocks other elements from showing up. Thus, the entry-point of class refers to the production, appropriation, distribution and receipt of surplus-labor which has nothing to do with either wage-labor or commodity. Capital implies production of surplus value with equal exchange and does not require any other conceptual entity to hold it up. Similarly, commodity is defined only in terms of abstract labor — presupposed on equal exchange of labor-power.
Thus, conceptually, class is distinct from commodity and capital — capital is distinct from commodity — and so on. These concepts are unambiguously produced in the neo-Althusserian framework that goes in perfect harmony with the spirit and content of Hegelian logic.
The basic point we intend to make is very simple: the entry-point concept, class, closes the ambiguities of the concepts as much as it discloses them — on different planes and in new directions. Consider a discursive site: individual. It is a location of contradictory processes: economic (the individual works in a factory); political (he is a voter); cultural (he writes novels). As such, individual is an ambiguous category. We have noted this in Chapter Two.
Class as an entry-point concept closes these ambiguities. One is viewing the individual from a definite standpoint — that of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus-labor. Not only that. It also helps the critical theorist to resolve the theoretical problems produced by antagonisms in the subject position in the Laclau-Mouffe sense of the term. Recall what antagonism is: a subject position containing metaphoric surpluses of other subject positions. The concept of entry-point helps a critical theorist to abstract from the metaphoric surpluses in order to focus upon a single instance of a subject position. So, the critical theorist obtains a gaze, a class gaze. We have already noted this point in section III.
But the entry-point concept — class — can concurrently invite — produce — antagonism on a new plane: what class position the critical theorist is talking about? Does not a specific class position carry the metaphoric surpluses of other class positions?
Consider an individual himself producing and appropriating the surplus-labor. In other words, we are considering a self-exploitative producer in the Resnick-Wolff sense of the term. Now imagine this self-exploitative producer in a market economy. It might quite happen that the surplus-labor she produces would just vanish from her/his account and get concentrated in the hands of the capitalist class through the market mechanism.
What is she then? A self-exploitative producer? Or, a wage-laborer? His class position as a self-exploitative producer will then carry the metaphoric — more accurately, metonymic — surpluses of another class position — that of working class. Silently and surreptitiously, antagonisms (in the Laclau-Mouffe sense) creep into Resnick-Wolff’s discourse. The closure that Resnick and Wolff insert shows cracks and fissures.
The important point to note is that an entry-point concept — here, class — is not neutral to the elements of the system. It privileges a few elements of the system, while downplays some others. Resultantly, what emerges is a hierarchical system where some concepts dominate over the rest.
For instance, working class is the entry-point concept in Resnick-Wolff’s conceptualization of Marxism in the context of an overdetermined system comprised by the economic, the political and the cultural. Class as an entry-point concept helps us to focus on the instance of the economic from the standpoint of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus labor, while keeping in view the constitutive influences of the political and the cultural on them. On the other hand, the economic itself emerges as an overdetermined system of plural class processes such as the class process in a capitalist economic and those in the other kinds of the economic that include, among others, self-exploitative class process and communistic class process.
The key point we want to make is that class as the entry point privileges, as a concept, working class in a capitalist economic in that the surplus labor in a capitalist economic only has an explicit measure. Surplus labor in a capitalist economic acquires the form of surplus value that can be measured in as much as labor here becomes equal and homogeneous, in short, abstract. Labor in no other economic, as far as we know, has a measure, at least an explicit measure.
The rest of the economic, thus get inflected by the measure of labor in the capitalist economic. To put it in a different way, capitalist class process constitutes the other class processes through its metonym, the measure of its labor — in short, through money. Different kinds of labors now get ranked in terms of this measure. It affects all, including affective labor. Silently, surreptitiously, this measure enters into the household and values its labor, that is, devalues it, compared with labors engaging in high-paying concerns outside, in the market economy. This process is irresistible.
The rest of the economic has no such metonyms that can include and subvert the capitalist economic. A capitalist class system only appropriates their metaphors. The metaphors of self-exploitative labor and communistic labor are invoked, glorified and productively used by a capitalist system to enhance its laborer’s efficiency.
What is at issue here is the moment of asymmetry involved in the processes of mutual constitutivity of the different instances of an overdetermined system. The entry point concept serves as a nodal point that structures the floating signifiers in an overdetermined system. But it turns out that the structuring process is such that a few signifiers get privileged and can dominate over the rest, reducing overdetermination to its mimicry. Mimicry of overdetermination, then, is a phenomenon of hegemony or dominance in the context of overdetermination.
While Richard Wolff builds his concept strategic essentialism (essentialist closure to an overdetermined field) on the Hegelian notion of determinate being, our idea of mimicry of overdetermination is predicated on the possibility of existence of plural determinate beings within an overdetermined field. In Hegel’s scheme, determinate being is a finite entity that is determined by what it is — its reality — and what it is not, its negation. We conceptualize an overdetermined field as an overdetermined unity of such plural and conflictual determinate beings. Different subspaces within an overdetermined space lend themselves to be imaged in the metaphors of determinate being.
Now imagine two subspaces A and B. Subspace A understands itself in terms of what it is and also in terms of what it is not, that is, in relation to its difference from B. Now, one might imagine a situation where a conflation occurs between differences from B and the metonymic surpluses of its reality. In this case, constitutive impact of B on A remains unrecognized by A, and A suffers from a false consciousness. On the other hand, if B receives the surplus meanings of the reality of A in their metaphorical forms, then that is readily recognizable. Under this circumstance B suffers from no such false consciousness. We conceptualize such a scene in terms of hegemony of B on A.
We capture such phenomena of hegemony of one space over the other in terms of the concept of mimicry of overdetermination.
So, mimicry of overdetermination occurs if there exists a subspace, within an overdetermined field provisionally closed by some entry-point concept or hegemonic rule, where the mutual constitution relapses and is relegated to unidirectional determination. The play of equivalence in differences gives way to hierarchy in differences. One element in this subspace lies on top of its other in the true sense of a dominant concept or entity.
It is important to stress that we are not ontologizing this dominance of one element over its other. It depends on a particular and contingent set of circumstances. It presumes a discursive closure (either by some entry-point concept or a hegemonic nodal point) done upon an overdetermined field leading to what one might call strategic essentialism.
Richard Wolff (1996), among others, talks about such strategic essentialism. In his scheme, the entry-point concept that brings about this closure is not subject to the law of overdetermination. As such, this discursive closure signifies a strategic compromise with the idea of essentialism.
But it turns out that in this scheme laid out by Resnick and Wolff, this element that closes an overdetermined field (be that an entry-point concept or a hegemonic nodal point) does not remain neutral to the rest of the system. It privileges a few signifiers or sites and plays down some others. Resultantly, a subspace might emerge where the played-up and downplayed elements/sites confront each other in a hierarchical order leading to a play of mimicry of overdetermination.
At this point, we should qualify the rather loose representation of the mimicry of overdetermination we rendered earlier: mimicry of overdetermination = overdetermination + hegemony (dominance). There is no doubt that the mimicry of overdetermination derives from a hegemonic closure, but its effect does surpass the limit of the usual meanings associated with hegemony. Mimicry of overdetermination often signifies a dominance not necessarily matched by a corresponding consent. Hegemony, on the contrary, presumes consent. But mimicry of overdetermination is a phenomenon that happens irrespective of the consent of agents. It is an irony that consent at one point might invite dominance at some other point. The concept of mimicry of overdetermination signifies, among others, such kinds of dominance too.
The motivation behind the articulation of the mimicry of overdetermination is the compelling urgency to pinpoint the complicity among theory, vision and power within the domains of postmodern radical thinking itself. While the concept (world-view) of overdetermination has liberated human perceptual apparatus from chains of a whole range totalitarian essentialist engagements, it has served to usurp from conscious humanity the means to distinguish among good, bad and ugly as if everything goes and is reciprocated. On the contrary, essentialism has a ready answer to the question — what is morally bad: it is morally bad to deny or deprive of someone her/his essence. If the principle of right is the essence of bourgeois man (as in Hegel), then it is morally bad to take away or encroach upon her/his property that embodies her/his rights. A transgression upon right then demands legitimization. Transfers of property are thus premised on mutual consent expressed through a voluntary contract.
It is Marx’s merit to pinpoint how human consent can sometimes stand over against itself. A worker enters into a wage contract with the capitalist class, voluntarily, out of his own choice and consent. Exploitation of the laborer (appropriation of the surplus labor by the capitalist class) that follows, as a consequence, is thus cloaked in the fairness of the equalitarian wage contract — a form of exploitation that he himself invites and sanctions by his own consent. The key-point to note is that the worker’s consent here produces a subspace (the interior of the wage contract operative within the workshop) that brings forth effects in it turning over against him leaving little room for his further consent. One encounters here what might be called sanctioned exploitation.
Mimicry of overdetermination is clearly intended here as a counterpoint to this concept of sanctioned exploitation to highlight the moment of ‘sanctioned colonization’, ‘sanctioned ignorance and forgetfulness’, ‘sanctioned exclusion’ — or, the modality of power working through sanctions and lurking behind a hegemonic closure. It explores the interior of an overdetermined field where the law of overdetermination undergoes mutation through a whole lot of metaphoric and metonymic transformations, and sometimes even abrogates itself. In the context of overdetermination as the epistemological entry-point concept, mimicry of overdetermination signifies the counter-part of what it means to do violence to essence in an essentialist framework (that includes, among others, refined or sanctioned violence). Put it bluntly, it means refined postmodern brand of sanctioned violence.
1It is interesting to note that Spivak (1988) also critiques Foucault on the ground that the latter’s move to push the frontiers of Reason by way of internalization of the margin serves in the final analysis to fulfill the imperialist project of appropriating subaltern. However, we have more to say: this appropriation simultaneously displaces a subset of subaltern. One section of subaltern gets highlighted pushing the rest deeper into darkness and oblivion.
2 Spivak, of course, like others, is oblivious of any possibility of the other of others — the outside of a constructed (fissured, sutured) postmodern totality that we want to posit and elaborate here.
3 The burden of the fear of this complicity and collaboration is evident in the writing like those of Lazarus (1990) and Rooney (1990).
4 By us, Derrida implies the West.
5From now on when we talk about third world in our framework, we imply the world of the third or the margin of margin.