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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 287-300
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The Emperor's New Clothes:
Idealism After All
Southeastern Louisiana University
Ethics After Idealism. By Rey Chow. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998
The question for me is how can [intellectuals] resist, as Michel Foucault said, the forms of power that transform [them] into its object and instrument in the sphere of "knowledge," "truth," "consciousness" and "discourse." Putting it another way, how do intellectuals struggle against a hegemony which already includes them . . . ?
—Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora1
"how do intellectuals struggle against a hegemony which already includes them?" If culture studies, more than any other human science, is committed to the investigation of the present because it is "here" and "now" that intervention is possible, "here" and "now" that theory and practice can contribute to change, then Rey Chow's question has become all the more urgent as globalization brings culture studies to crisis. Where culture studies saw itself and, to a certain extent, served as a subversive force within the academy, disrupting the closure of Western discourse and philosophy by [End Page 287] opening up disciplinary borders, globalization is drawing this subversive and oppositional self-definition into question because it can be argued that culture studies is functioning as a "gigantic information retrieval system" (Ethics, vii) for the mechanisms of globalization, while the academy is providing training in languages and cultures to better open up these cultures to the workings of transnational capital. Thus, just as area studies served as an arm of foreign policy during the Cold War, culture studies appears to be the handmaiden of globalization. This predicament of culture studies has led to a wide range of works addressing both the state of culture studies and the problem of resisting cooptation by the hegemonic dominant (globalization).
If one way of responding to the predicament of the intellectual is to adopt an oppositional stance, to engage in a critique of hegemony, and to declare solidarity with indigenous, emergent people's movements, and thus to link intellectual labor in a more or less direct way to a politics, and to do so by a rejection of poststructural theory, Rey Chow's Ethics after Idealism represents an alternative, if equally committed, response. Chow's work engages a "critical complicity" with hegemony, a stance characterized by Gayatri Spivak as "persistently to inhabit a structure one cannot not wish to inhabit." 2 As Chow's title indicates, this engagement is directed at an ethics and works within the hegemonic "fold" to displace and challenge its closure. What follows examines this strategy of critical complicity and its intervention in the ongoing debates on postcoloniality and globalization.
Culture studies is otherwise only a symptom. 3
Rey Chow begins with a diagnosis of the state of culture studies today. Starting from its most prominent feature—its mutual antagonism with poststructuralist theory—she suggests that the two disciplines are engaged in a battle for cultural capital whose stock in trade is a claim to otherness and to greater radicality in challenging hegemony. Where theory performs the "work of the negative" within Western thought, functioning as an "internal other," [End Page 288] culture studies challenges theory's radical credentials by questioning its embeddedness within the imperialist project (a claim that seems to allude to Gayatri Spivak's now canonical analysis of alterity in such poststructuralist thinkers as Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 4 ). Chow argues that this conflict covers over the co-implication of theory and culture studies in a broader cultural trend. 5 "The difficulty of seeing the mutual implications of a disdain for 'culture studies' and a disdain for 'critical theory' means that many are caught in a prevalent idealism in relation to otherness" (Ethics, xx). It is this disdain that leads, on the one hand, to accusations against theory of elitism and homogenizing and mystification of difference given the level of abstraction at which theory works, and on the other, to dismissals of culture studies as unduly positivistic and/or insufficiently rigorous in...