Sunday, June 20, 2010

Discarding the Post-Colonial Other: A Vindication of Plain Speaking

I'm going to quote two excerpts today, and I hope their bracing common sense will excuse the fact that they have nothing to do with crime fiction:
"For at a time when ten thousand dissertations and whole shelves of Subaltern Studies have carefully and ingeniously theorized about orientalism and the imagining of the Other (all invariably given titles with a present participle and a fashionable noun of obscure meaning—Gendering the Colonial Paradigm, Constructing the Imagined Other, Othering the Imagined Construction, and so on—not one PhD has ever been written from the Mutiny Papers, no major study has ever systematically explored its contents."
and
"The British histories, as well as a surprising number of those written in English in post-colonial India, tended to use only English-language sources, padding out the gaps, in the case of more recent work, with a thick cladding of post-Saidian theory and jargon."
Those are from the introduction to William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal, about the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the fall of India's Mughal empire, and the touching fate of its last emperor. I had not previously been interested in that part of history, but a colleague recommended the book, and it looks so far like a vindication of how thrilling history can be when buttressed by solid research and free of reductive intellectual bullying.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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39 Comments:

Blogger Mack said...

Thanks for telling us about Dalrymple's book. Pretty much all I know about The Indian Mutiny comes from George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman in the Great Game. Conan Doyle used it in The Sign of the Four but that hardly counts. Anyway, you've reminded me that the subject still interests me and it's available for the Kindle.

June 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome. I think the book could open eyes beyond just those of people interested in the Indian Rebellion, people looking for more searching examination of colonial powers' actions, but without the vacuous intellectual fashion-mongering to which Dalrymple alludes in his introduction.

June 20, 2010  
Blogger Snail said...

William Dalrymple is a fine writer. His earlier works, which are loosely shelved under 'travel', are entertaining, accessible and sympathetic explorations of the social histories of India, central Asia and the Eastern Roman Empire. Really good starting points for anyone interested in those areas.

I must re-read them ... after I get through this ever-increasing pile of crime fiction!

June 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

His love for Delhi comes across strongly in the introduction to this book. Delhi, he says, is parelleled only by Cairo and Istanbul for the overwhelming presence of its past.

So, what's in the crime-fiction pile? If you like crime fiction and you like the natural world, you might like David Owen.

June 20, 2010  
Blogger Snail said...

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read any David Owen, so I will give him a go.

The to-read pile is sealed inside a large plastic box to prevent it getting damaged by the Wet Season mould that's been covering everything in a woolly blanket. There's Peter Temple's 'Truth', a couple of Michael Robothams (one of which I set aside because I was so annoyed by it --- which was really disappointing because I enjoy his stuff. Still, it happens.), a Harlen Coben, Megan Abbot, some Lee Child, a Steve Hamilton, R.N.Morris, Frances Fyfield and Leonardo Padura.

I need to read faster!

June 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

David Owen is newly returned to crime fiction after a thirteen-year hiatus. (He may have have kept up his natural-history writing in the interim.) I've written about his "Pufferfish" novels, so search this blog for them, if you'd care to take a look.

You need to read faster or move somewhere with a drier climate.

June 21, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

"Reductive intellectual bulling"? Really? To what is that referring?

I can relate here only to the TBR mountain, with Stieg Larsson's third book, the new Denise Mina, the new Monkeewrench, a half-read Garry Disher, an early S.J. Rozan which will have to wait--and who knows what else piling up. And Hakan Nesser's "Woman with Birthmark," at the library on reserve.

I do not know how these book blogger phenomena read a book a day.

June 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The reductive intellectual bullying I have in mind is the sort that would reduce complicated facts of history to abstractions such as "colonialism" or "the Other" and regard anyone who questions their meaning as hopelessly clueless.

I have a rather large heap of reading to do myself these days.

June 21, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

You mean taking sides is "reductive intellectual bullying"? I kind of like the "Which Side are You on"? school of thought but reading more can provide even more information, so it's not a bad thing.

I forgot that "Hypothermia" is on the TBR pile.

I assume that all dedicated readers have a large TBR supply.

But I am amazed at the bloggers who can read a book a day. I wonder what the secret is. Maybe speedreading.

June 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I mean that accusing anyone who questions wifty abstractions of Eurocentrism or of being anti-this, that or the other is intellectual bullying.

Dalymple deals in the specific, and he eschews theory in favor of archival research that includes knowledge of the relevant languages.

June 21, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, if one does archival research and reads more and still has the same theories or one's point of view is even more solidly reinforced, then what?

And if one says someone is Eurocentric in his/her thinking about a specific matter, is one guilty of intellectual bullying? Or is one merely espousing an opinion? Or a disagreement with another person's point of view, which is a good intellectual exercise.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To ask the question is to answer it, Anonymous. If one has an opinion, then butresses that opinion through reearch and reflection and turns it into an argument, my hat's off to him or her.

If one uses "Eurocentric" as a term of abuse, as the end of an argument rather than the begining, one is guilty of intellectual bullying, yes.

Dalrymple manages in his introduction, Anonymous, to point out that previous research in his area was lacking because it failed to use Urdu- and Persian-language sources. He has harsh words for the barbaric cruelty and chilling bureaucratic efficency of the British. He manages to say this without ever lapsing into abstractions such as "Eurocentric."

June 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

So if one has an opinion, then backs it up with facts and information, and then argues a particular position, that's okay.

What about those who argue without knowing facts or information, not even what's in a current newspaper article, but just gets aggravated about something.

This is a pet peeve of mine--that someone is annoyed about something and vents and then I say, "well, that's not exactly what's happening. It was just explained in yesterday's newspaper, with information, that..." And the individual vehemently disagrees without knowing the facts.

However, we all have opinions and are partisan to one viewpoint or another.

If one doesn't know that someone is espousing, let's say, "Eurocentrism," and when realizing it, says it and then the discussion ends, then that's it. It may not be intentional, only a revelation said out loud.

Dalrymple sounds interesting, however, I wouldn't blame him for using "Eurocentric." Many would do so, even in an analysis, of something. It's a good word which says a lot and saves quite a few words; it cuts to the heart of the matter or could.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, my argument is less with ways of arguing than it is with media labels and name-calling, the sort of non-argument that won't articulate reasons the president's health-care policy is bad, but will invoke "Obamacare," as if that stupid word explains everything.

Dalrymple may yet use "Eurocentric," but I suspect he has too much respect for his work so sully discussion of it with abstractions like that. The trouble with a word like "Eurocentric" is that it can start off meaning something, then end up meaning anything.

June 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I agree with using "Obamacare" to dispense with the whole system by the media.

Hmmm, "Eurocentric," have to think. I've had discussions with friends about art and conclude their views are "Eurocentric," after a lengthy discussion comparing art from different countries, periods and genres. I'm more of an "art is art" and all should be appreciated, whether by Impressionists, Chinese sculptors of celaldon in 400 B.C.E., Persian artists,Inuit sculptors, quilt makers in Alabama, and so on.

But I hear what you are saying about "labels" and one-word categorizations rather than an analysis and explanation, although I could think of a few one-word descriptions of those who yell "Obamacare" or worse.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Why call someone "Eurocentric" when you could call him narrow-minded, parochial, ignorant, or simply innocent of the world around him?

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Eurocentric and the bypassing of meaning were especially on my mind since, along with the Dalrymple book, I bought a small book about the great Japanese printmaker Hiroshige. Now, it’s a commonplace that Western collectors valued Japanese woodblock prints before the Japanese themselves did. Does that make appreciating such art Eurocentric, or is it just possible that Japanese learned from Westerners to appreciate a Japanese art form – that something positive resulted from this cultural interaction?

Furthermore, the book says that certain Japanese pictures were called floating, or ukiyo because their Western-style receding perspective made objects appear to float in space.

Now, most discussions I had seen used “floating world” as a synonym for the urban, idle, pleasure-seeking life around the red-light district of Edo.

So, which is the Eurocentric perspective: the one that says the style owes its very name to Western influence, or one that defines it in terms of idle pleasure-seeking, two tropes of Western thought about Asia?

June 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'd just say that it's a Japanese form of block printing, that they originated it and did it, irregardless of who promoted it.

It's theirs, historically and now.

And on the "Eurocentric" discussion, I think one had to be there. It was with someone who knows a lot about art and its history, not a naive soul.

It's probably best not to use labels with friends or colleagues, but rather to discuss issues out, but sometimes it happens.

If I were discussing something with someone I don't know well, who used labels that were narrow-minded, I might respond to that, without an intellectual discussion. Sometimes it's not worth it.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One advantage of a discussion in person is that if someone says, "Eurocentric," I can say, "What do you mean by that?"

I liked the relation of ukiyo-e to Western-style perspecive because it makes sense in the case of Hiroshige's work.

June 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

No, I'm probably the one using the term "Eurocentric" with art fans I know who only appreciate European art. They wouldn't say that of me.

I'm an appreciator of all art and its forms and music, and hopefully, if I can get out of the U.S./English/Scandinavian rut I'm in, mystery and other fiction from everywhere, which I am in the abstract.

June 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, be gentle and instructive when you call your friends Eurocentric. Seek to open their eyes gradually to the unfamiliar -- and then call them dopes if they refuse.

It's good to be interested in crime and other fiction from everywhere, but don't forget that the U.S., England and Scandinavia are part of that everywhere.

June 23, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, be gentle, not impatient after seeing some beautiful art that is non-European and some folks don't appreciate.

Yes, I know that the U.S., England and Scandinavia are part of the world, but it's too easy to fall back on reading these books (and a few Australians, Denise Mina, Fred Vargas and Donna Leon thrown in), rather than pushing on to new horizons.

June 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Immerse yourself in good Australian, Scottish or French crime fiction, and you may see some of the familiar stuff with fresh eyes.

June 24, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, I may never get through "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," (yes, galling my proofreader's eye, the U.S. version says "Hornet's") as it's quite long and I have a lot of things to take care of which are interfering with my reading.

There's so much to read, as the International Daggers' list (pre-shortlist) shows and I must catch up with some of these titles.

June 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you're not the first to notice that the book's U.S. publisher is ignorant of correct apostrophe usage, doesn't care, or maintains that the kick was aimed at the nest of a particular hornet.

June 24, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, it's so weird that the European and U.S. versions differ about that darn apostrophe. Wonder if they differ in any other ways.

June 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There were some disagreements between the American translator and the British publisher leading up to publication of the first book. I don't know if the US and UK editions of any of the three books differ beyond the American publishers' ignorance of punctuation.

June 24, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

It's all about sales, not appreciating language or ideas, I fear sometimes. What will be a blockbuster? What will be purchased?

Anyway, TGWKTHN is proving to be quite a good read, very elaborate scheme, lots of conspiratorial moments, characters. One nearly has to do a chart, but all good.

I had thought that Indridason's "Hypothermia" should win the Dagger, but now that I'm reading book III I am torn.

June 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, yes, publishers are in the game to make money. But the question then becomes what qualities they think will make them that money.

In any case, I've expressed surprise that reviewers and critics mention language less than I would expect. One can't blame publishers for everything.

June 26, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Strangest thing about cover of TGWKTHN is that there are no less than 13 hornets on the book's cover.
How could this be the "hornet's nest" when there are 13 on the cover?

Yikes, punctuation has shot downhill.

How can this happen?

Book is great though, let me encourage all would-be readers.

June 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You appear to have solved a mystery, then. The U.S. publisher is insufficiently literate to care about putting an elementary punctuation mistake on the cover.

June 26, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, despite the incorrect punctuation in the U.S. title, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' (or Hornet's) Nest," is a great read.

The conspiracy is so deep and explained so well that it is riveting. And the characters are good, too; there are some new ones.

It's well worth the time spent reading it. Now what to read next is a problem. It's the kind of a book one doesn't want to leave or else one can get a case of the bends, or re-entry syndrome.

There will have to be a break, then on to either Monkeewrench or Denise Mina's latest, unless I can hold out until Wednesday, when I get "Truth" out of the library.

June 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe something a bit lighter, such as Monkeewrench, could tide you over until Truth day.

June 27, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, thanks for drawing our attention not only to this particular book (looks very interesting; it’s now in my amazon.com cart as a gift for my father) but to the generally sorry state of contemporary scholarly, historical research and publishing and a plea for common sense.

You said: “Why call someone ‘Eurocentric’ when you could call him narrow-minded, parochial, ignorant, or simply innocent of the world around him?” and “…[if one] uses ‘Eurocentric’ as a term of abuse, as the end of an argument rather than the beginning, one is guilty of intellectual bullying.” Thank you!

I was finishing my art history Master’s around the time Derridean deconstruction and “post-Saidian theory and jargon” began to ooze into and infect scholarly writing. As my mentor was insistent that his students tell the “what” “why” and “how” of any assertions we made, sloppy, almost meaningless terms and phrases such as “Eurocentric” “the gendered body” “the Other” “the male gaze” and the dead-end navel-gazing of deconstruction theory etc. ad nauseum were strictly taboo. And we were better critical thinkers and writers for it.

No way would he accept such drivel as “The culture of the gaze is homologous with the construction of the image” that is ubiquitous in today’s art historical writing.

As you extracted from the Dalrymple's introduction, there are also an appalling number of American historians who don’t know a foreign language, and thus cannot access primary sources, yet write about the history of non-English speaking countries. But I guess in this era of “your truth may not be my truth” such details are increasingly irrelevant.

June 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The male gaze" offers such rich punning opportunities, though only when pronounced and not when written.

Funny the term "Eurocentric" should come up. I've been looking for J. Nehru's "Glimpses of World History" precisely because I want to see what history looks like from an Indian standpoint. I like the thinking that in theory lies behind the term Eurocentric -- the elementary but surprising idea that others may look at the world differently from the way we do. This opens up worlds of possibility, but I don't people who use words like Eurocentric are necessarily interested in such possibilities.

I could as easily have called this post "Gazing at the gendered body" without any discernible loss of (or gain in) meaning.

July 01, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I like the thinking that in theory lies behind the term Eurocentric -- the elementary but surprising idea that others may look at the world differently from the way we do. This opens up worlds of possibility, but I don't [think] people who use words like Eurocentric are necessarily interested in such possibilities" -- precisely. As you say, simply employing the word "Eurocentric" (or whatever) is supposed to be explanation in itself, at least to the self-anointed cognoscenti.

And of course the West doesn't have a lock on centrisms. Ran across this online article: "Deconstruction of Eurocentric Art by Two Afrocentric Artists" -- had to laugh as it hits many of the critical jargon buttons: postcolonial, the Other, the [Yoruba] Self, context of postmodernism, etc. But had to stop reading when I encountered the words "Derrida" and "rigorous criticism" -- a non sequitur in my post-postmodern mind -- in the same sentence.

July 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder what the history of the word "Eurocentric" is. It could well have had an honorable beginning.

The question of why Eurocentric is bad and Afrocentric is good, of course, another question, one in which I have no interest whatsoever. I'm interested in the Euro and Afro parts of those words, not in the centric.

The (Yoruba) self? I'll come to my own curiosity about Yoruba culture through its manifestation in Afro-Brazilian music -- through something like direct, old-fashioned curiosity-stimulating experience.

Elsewhere in his introduction, Dalrymple mocks the notion of colonialism as simplistic, the idea that it encompasses a single type of experience. He has a refreshing view of the world, in other wirds.

July 01, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

No, it was a bad thing from the get-go; at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary (first usage = 1927).

"...the notion of colonialism as simplistic, the idea that it encompasses a single type of experience" -- this simplistic notion is compounded by the number of scholars who can't read any foreign language. It boggles the mind to think that one could claim to speak with any authority on "colonialism" in Asia, Africa, the Americas, wherever, and not be able to read what those colonized had to say about it, or listen to their oral histories.

v-word = paldario Wasn't he a member of Perugino's workshop?

July 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Often confused with Palderino, Palderuccio, and Palderazzaccio il Vecchio.

July 01, 2010  

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