- Postcolonial Studies after 9/11:A Response to Ali Behdad
Ali Behdad's essay is situated at the intersection of postcolonial studies, American studies, and ethnic studies. It highlights the need to counter exceptionalist readings of the events of 9/11 by using a critical historicism that can simultaneously address the new turn Islamophobia and Orientalism have taken and explore their linkages to older modes of racialization. The point of Behdad's essay is less to offer a general theory of critical historicism than to demonstrate its strategic uses in countering "the amnesiac production and reproduction of race and ethnicity." This intervention traverses fields that, while sharing concerns about nationalism, minoritization, imperialism, and globalization, have often explored them in disparate historical and geographical contexts. The overlapping concerns between these fields have not often generated conversations that bring them into strenuous contestation and exchange with each other.
Given the asymmetrical intellectual flows that define relationships between ethnic studies and postcolonial studies, scholars from ethnic studies have been more intensively engaged in refitting postcolonial theory to engage racialization and its entanglements with shifting modes of US imperialism than have postcolonial studies scholars in addressing the specificities of US imperialism or the interconnected histories of racialization in the US. For scholars of postcoloniality, the diaspora model, with its emphasis on linkages between migrants and their homelands, has been the predominant model for thinking through the entailments of race in the metropolis. The westward movement of US expansion, its extension into the Asia-Pacific region, the hemispheric circuits linking it to Latin America and the Caribbean, and its belatedness to European imperialism have placed it outside the primary sites [End Page 300] of postcolonial theory, namely, Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. In contrast, American studies have, for nearly two decades, been intensively engaged in exploring the contours of US imperialism and its divergence from European models of territorial domination. Thus, Behdad's essay builds on existing projects in ethnic studies and American studies. However, from the perspective of postcolonial studies, his emphasis on immigration and nation formation in a white-settler colony represents a re-orientation from European to US hegemony and from diasporics and cosmopolitans to immigrants and minorities.
Most recent scholarship on the intellectual fallout from the events of 9/11—what it has rendered hypervisible, and what it has rendered invisible—restricts discussion to its domestic contexts and consequences. One way of engaging this national framing of events is to ask: shouldn't we question the privileging of this event as an epochal or threshold moment? What alternative histories could we write if we substituted 9/11 with other events, such as the 1984 Bhopal disaster or the 1956 Suez Crisis? Or, alternatively, if 9/11 was not just a national tragedy but an event that was telematically witnessed by and involved other countries, what meanings did it have in other parts of the world? Can a historicism that focuses on national contexts address the far-reaching meanings of the events? What narratives of US ascendancy or decline and what new geopolitical alignments can we discern if we view the events in an international frame? The answers to these questions would not only take us away from the framework of Orientalism and Islamophobia, which identify Western anxieties and axiomatics, but also point us toward new regional and global alliances that are creating an increasingly polycentric global order. There are other Asias than the ones authored by the West, and those circuits and networks have become more economically and politically powerful and have the potential to re-route the flow of capital, images, and ideas in ways that have often been unaddressed even in the recent scholarship on globalization.
Critical historicism, if it is to be effective for the study of race and ethnicity, must take account of diachronic and synchronic formations. While the study of Orientalism or neo-Orientalism does not preclude an attention to synchronic forms, scholarship that draws on this analytic model has often tended to privilege diachronic analysis or to undertake synchronic analysis by focusing on binary relationships between the oppressor and the oppressed. The direction in which the study of serial minoritization...