- Otherwise Occupied: Pedagogies of Alterity and the Brahmanization of Theory
Dorothy M. Figueira puts forward a scathing indictment of multiculturalism and postcolonial theory that neatly connects philosophical-political critique with an incisive materialist analysis of North American academic practices and their agendas. She goes beyond noting the paradox, which has often been done, that multiculturalism seldom involves study of any non-Western culture in any depth, and postcolonial theory, rarely ventures outside the safe venues of poststructuralist analysis, tends to treat non-Western writing as “raw material” for Western intellectual “processing.” Figueira insists upon a material-institutional base for such intellectual practices. She argues that dual administrative imperatives—the need to appear to be meeting external and internal demands for diversity plus the desire to accommodate the provincial backgrounds and interests of students and faculty alike—leads provosts, deans, and department chairs to promote pedagogies that are diverse in name only. While “multiculturalism” is a concept philosophically incoherent about what, if anything, gives a culture value, and the paradigm of the multicultural is American (different ethnic groups with their own identity and traditions but part of a greater whole, however vaguely conceived), “the third world is studied in many American universities under the umbrella of multiculturalism. The practical reason for this packaging of alterity is obvious: multiculturalism is easy…. It does not involve learning about another culture or demand learning another language” (24–25). Instead, texts in English, most written for North American audiences, may be labeled as offering “otherness” so as to provide “a nonthreatening element of diversity, without having to engage real diversity” (25). The same holds for postcolonial theory, which evokes European-derived modes of textual analysis that allow non-Western material reality and history to be ignored: “The Other is eclipsed by the critic’s conception of it—a conception whose major function is to validate the theorist within the community of theorists. The intellectual quest is thus bound up in the idealized image of the critic’s own theory or theory itself as an ideal” (41). So, for example, Deleuze and Guattari can articulate a “project of nomadology [that] has nothing to do with [End Page 413] real and actual nomads because they are not important; only the critic has significance” (87). Predictably, the exotic Other (such as the nomad) turns out to affirms the usual suspects of postmodern celebration: “Notions of mobility, fluidity, provisionality, and process are deemed preferable to stasis and fixity” (86).
Figueira draws upon and summarizes a broad array of scholarship and published argument along these lines. But she adds the claim that constructions of abstract theoretical entities which have occluded the study of actual cultures and substituted for engaging with the concrete experience of real people follow from the highly material interests not just of university administrators but also of elite, highly educated immigrants, whose ability to move by choice from positions of privilege in the non-Western world to highly desirable positions in Western academia has been facilitated by a racial politics in which an upper-class non-European “counts” as a minority American faculty member. Indeed, there is a vested interest in ignoring non-Western history and cultural practices, particularly when indigenous forms of oppression or exploitation are involved. The ability of an elite exile by choice to represent the non-Western Other, including victims of forced immigration (for political or economic reasons), depends upon ignorance of, and lack of interest in, all that might make people hailing from or descended from different parts of the world be more than, to use Hegel’s phrase, so many cows all black at night.
As the abundance of textual references in Figueira’s work attests, it is hard for anyone either with experience of academic politics or who has tried to work in the field of postcolonial literary criticism not to recognize the broad justice of much of what she argues, though one might qualify particulars. One might agree that the inability of postcolonial experts to acknowledge any Islamic roots of the 9/11 attacks...