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In State of Grace
Ideology, Capitalism, and the Geopolitics of Knowledge
In A Terrible Beauty: A History of the People and Ideas That Shaped the Modern Mind (2000, 761), Peter Watson concludes that the chief intellectual effort of non-Western cultures in the twentieth century has been coming to terms with modernity, or, “learning how to cope with or respond to Western ways and Western patterns of thought, chiefly democracy and science.”
Unsettling as it may be, his opinion should not be dismissed as mere ethnocentric babble. It would serve little purpose to denounce yet again (as Watson himself does) the persistence of such phenomena as ethnocentrism or an unjust world order. For what matters is to understand that the promise of management itself—that of “progress” as a necessary effect inscribed in the structure of the modern—rests on an error.
The error is twofold: first, it consists of a series of theoretical assertions that are central to post-Kantian conceptions of history and happen to have been influential in recent years in neo-Kantian, neo-Hegelian, or Marxist forms. These assertions are based on the view that human action is inherently “purposive.” “Purposive human action” is in turn related to the operation of final causes in history. I will call this set of assertions “a transcendental philosophy of history” and will object to it on the grounds that “final causalism” is fundamentally incoherent.
Second, the error of the promise of management is based on a set of ideological beliefs about the operation of modern (Western) practices and discourses of knowledge (Watson's “democracy” and “science”) in non-Western societies. I refer to the notion that the acquisition of Western patterns of knowledge by non-Western peoples (e.g., literacy) is inherently [End Page 15] progressive. This belief fails to acknowledge that there is a relationship between literacy as a global design (the secular religion of the civilizing mission) and the process of colonial spatial differentiation initiated in the sixteenth century (the early global period), which is being reproduced today on a planetary scale.
Misrecognition of the uses of literacy in reproducing colonial difference and colonial power results from a failure to consider knowledge production and circulation within the frame of transnational capitalist production and the rising of a transnational capitalist class. Latin American dependency theory has long insisted that this class was a critical element in the shaping of modern (Western) nation-states and markets; it has also argued that the extraction of non-Western wealth and knowledge was key to the development of Western centrality in the world-system. Locally produced knowledge, once severed from global politics and economics, is taken to derive its meaning from an imaginary relationship with the purposive experience of humanity, a view that erases class relationship and colonial difference from the equation.
Following Sylvia Scribner (1986), I call this ideological displacement “literacy as state-of-grace.” I argue that the relation thus described is in fact a transferential relationship of the individual (the local peoples producing knowledge) toward a material cosmopolis (the global state-market), which provides the latter with an ideological foundation of its own.
Thus, the topic of this essay is the ideological foundation of the global state-market, as it is inscribed in an account of knowledge production that blinds us to the political and economic differentiation at work in the formation and transformation of the modern/colonial world-system.
On the Sex of Angels
Literacy is an ideological apparatus in Louis Althusser's (1994 , 100–140) sense. That is, it is a state apparatus in the sense that it is a function of state power and political struggle, for it contributes to the reproduction of modern/colonial relations of production.
Literacy accomplishes this by hailing individuals as state-subjects through institutional practices and rituals. This means that literacy has the function of transforming concrete individuals into subjects by inserting them into practices governed by its rituals, so that they “recognize”...