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What have we learned from Mandela? Delivery Version Diana Brydon


What have we learned from Mandela?  Hope, a willingness to listen and negotiate, a commitment to the dignity and full personhood of all, and a willingness to put the larger public good above personal interests. A reminder that democracy is an ongoing process. It needs to be exercised and defended.

Some of you may be asking: “Why is a white woman standing up there talking to us about race?” My answer is that the history of race relations impacts all of us and we all need to take responsibility for them, for what we have inherited, and what we do now.

I began my career by looking to Australia for ways to understand Canada. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, I could see how class, religious, sexual, and racial oppression were linked and affected most dimensions of our everyday lives. I began to think about what it meant to live in a settler colonial society in which indigenous peoples were marginalized and stereotyped, and their history and cultural achievements denied.  I looked to Australia and other colonized countries for a way of understanding that history, because we need to know our past to avoid repeating it. I turned to literature to find alternative forms of remembering and creative ways to move forward together.

My work now asks how we can learn to see difference as a positive contribution to national resiliency and global survival. National community needs to be reimagined beyond defensive and fearful reactions against others. Mandela began to show us how. Appeals to race, ethnicity, and culture often function as the excuse for exercising economic control. The British ruled their empire through a policy of divide and conquer.

I study the stories people tell about the hurtful impact racist practices and stereotypes have on their daily lives, and the creative ways they develop to address such harm. As someone who specializes in the links connecting colonialism, racism, and globalization, I will stress nine points now that may serve as openings for further discussion.

1.How we talk about race matters. I speak of people as racialized rather than belonging to a particular race. When we understand that racism is a system for managing populations and making sense of the world, it is easier to resist claims that locate racism in the individual or nature alone. Of course, individuals can internalize racist beliefs but they are encouraged or discouraged from doing so by larger societal forces, including the media, governments, and schools.

2.Race has a history. One form of racialized thinking depends on chromatism; categorization on the basis of skin colour. It can seem natural. Yet looks can be deceiving. In North America, groups now considered white were once categorized as black. The Irish and Ukrainians, for example. Quebeckers who spoke French in the mid twentieth century were told: “speak white.”

3. Race thinking sees whiteness as the norm for the fully human, so that white people are just human while people from other places are categorized according to race, or increasingly by ethnicity, culture, or civilization. One problem these terms share is seeing individual people in terms of homogeneous categories, as if all members of a group share certain tendencies. In this system, only white people retain the privilege of choosing their affiliations. Others are seen as trapped by their race. Critical whiteness studies is a field that explores this problem of white privilege.

4. Constructions of blackness today have been heavily influenced by the struggles of black people in the Americas against legislated apartheid slavery systems that exploited their labour. We need to know that history, and to address it in productive ways, but we also need to be careful about how it is used. I support the current Caricom legal initiative to seek reparations from several European states once involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Caricom recognizes the effects of that trade continue today.

But if we think the Atlantic slave trade is over, and that it’s something we can deplore from our position in a more enlightened present, then it is harder to see its continuing impact today. It is also harder to see the ways in which contemporary forms of slavery still exist. Slavery today still relies on the belief that some people are less human than others. They are disposable.  Insofar as globalization encourages the exploitation and trafficking of people, it also encourages new forms of slavery.  Yet these attract little attention,

5. The media encourage attention to spectacular violence. What about the “slow violence” of new forms of slavery, gradual human rights restrictions, grinding poverty, and environmental degradation?

6. Racism is produced by the decisions we make, as a community, at all levels of our coexistence. It is too easy to forget the legislated restrictions on the lives of the colonized under colonialism and to neglect forms of oppression today. Critical race philosophers call this form of forgetting, “epistemologies of ignorance.” The point here is that ignorance can be taught and rewarded.

7.Today, racial prejudice still exists but it has also migrated into discussion of culture or civilizational difference. It is not helpful to talk about a “clash of civilizations” or to respond to calls for “white men to save brown women from brown men” (Spivak).

8. Race thinking thrives in times of financial crisis, insecurity, and rapid change. New racisms are coalescing around immigration and refugee policies and leading to the creation of spaces in which human rights are suspended. Guantanamo Bay. Australia’s island spaces where refugees are incarcerated indefinitely. Hostility to immigration is on the rise globally.

9. What can we do? Apartheid was a system of legislated racism. We need to ask: what forms of legislated racism are in place today, nationally and internationally? What forms of sanctioned ignorance support these? What might Canadian forms of ethical internationalism involve?

A related post from Visionary Conversations was my talk on Culture and Creativity which may be consulted on this blog

Want to learn more about Visionary Conversations topics? After the Conversation is a home for articles, studies and links to websites that allow you to further explore University of Manitoba panel discussions.

OUR EXPERTS: Dr. Diana Brydon, Dr. Joy Chadya, Ry Moran

What have we learned from Mandela? Race and ethnic relations around the world and here at home

Visionary ConversationsWhat have we learned from Mandela? Race and ethnic relations around the world and here at home

Some of you may be asking: “Why is a white woman standing up there talking to us about race?” My answer is that the history of race relations impacts all of us and all of need to take responsibility for them, for what we have inherited and what we do now. Tokenism in any form is part of the problem, not the solution.

I began my career by looking to Australia for ways to understand Canada. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, even as a young girl I could see how class, religious, sexual, and racial oppression were linked and affected most dimensions of our everyday lives. A little later, I began to think about what it meant to live in a settler colonial society in which indigenous peoples were marginalized and stereotyped, and their history and cultural achievements denied.  I looked to Australia and the history of other colonized countries for a way of understanding that history, because we need to know our past to avoid repeating it. I turned to literature and culture to find alternative forms of remembering and creative ways to move forward together.

My work now asks how we can learn to see difference as a positive contribution to national resiliency. I believe national community needs to be reimagined beyond defensive and fearful reactions against others. Mandela began to show us how. We need to find new ways of re-negotiating community beyond the kinds of ethnically -based violence that continues today. Appeals to race and ethnicity often function as the excuse for the seizure of power or the maintenance of economic control.

Because of colonization and exploitation, racialized people need to reclaim their dignity, their personhood, and pride in their heritage. That cannot be accomplished by making scapegoats of others. Nelson Mandela understood that. He would be saddened by the violence against immigrants from other parts of Africa in South Africa today, but he would also understand how such animosities are used to keep South Africans from addressing the structural inequalities that make their country one of the most unequal in the world today. Combatting inequality in our own communities and in our global interactions requires vigilance that is alert to the changing forms of racism today. 

Mandela’s vision of a fully democratic South Africa is now described by critics of the ANC’s neoliberal turn as a “dream deferred” but it remains a powerful symbol of how certain racist governance structures may be exposed and dismantled without recourse to violent revolution. We cam honour that vision and mobilize it for changing times. We can also recognize the civil society groups working within South Africa, such as Shackdwellers South Africa, that are continuing to assert their right to self-determination and democratic decision-making, often in collaboration with international partners.

We know that hierarchically-based racialized thinking has a real and negative material impact on peoples’ lives and how societies work. As a literary critic, I study the stories people tell about the very real and hurtful impact racist practices and stereotypes have on their daily lives, and the creative ways they develop to address such harm. As someone who specializes in the links connecting colonialism, racism, and globalization, I will stress several points for further discussion arising from my research.

1.How we talk about race matters. I distinguish between race and racializing processes because it helps us understand that racism is a process constantly undergoing change. Furthermore, that process is enabled by legal and governance systems, by scholarship, and by other ways of imagining who people are and whether or not they can live together. I deliberately speak of people as racialized rather than as belonging to a particular race. This matters because when we understand that racism is a system for managing populations and for understanding the world, it is easier to resist claims that locate racism in the individual or nature alone. Of course, individuals can internalize racist beliefs but they are encouraged or discouraged from doing so by larger societal forces, including the media, governments, and schools.

In fact, by ignoring certain stories and privileging others, schools can actually teach approved forms of ignorance. When I studied American literature at university, there was nothing by blacks or women on the course. For English honours students, there was nothing by people from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, or the South Pacific. There was nothing by indigenous peoples. It was hard to know where to turn to find their stories.

2.Race has a history. People did not always categorize each other in terms of the ways in which we now use race. Groups have always thought in terms of “us” and “them,” insiders and outsiders, but justifications for such divisions only took racialized forms in the modern period. It is society that slots people into races, and that kind of slotting can change over time. One particular form of racialized thinking depends on chromatism; that is categorization on the basis of skin colour. It can seem very natural. People do look different. Yet looks can be deceiving. In North America, groups now considered white were once categorized as black. The Irish and Ukrainians, for example. Quebeckers who spoke French in the mid twentieth century were told to “speak white.” Students of racism agree, then, that race is a category construction that has proved fluid throughout history. Insofar as it relies on magnifying difference between us and them, and then setting up hierarchies of value based on those distinctions, we need to be more creative in seeing the limitations of such thinking.

3. Race thinking has tended to see whiteness as the norm for the fully human, so that white people are just human while people from other places are categorized according to race, or increasingly by ethnicity, culture, or civilization. Each of these terms operates to distinguish between groups of people but according to different criteria. One problem they all share is the tendency to classify individual people in terms of large, homogeneous categories, as if all members of a particular group may be lumped together as sharing certain tendencies. In this system, only white people still retain the privilege of choosing their affiliations. Others are seen as trapped by their race. Critical whiteness studies is a field that explores this problem of continuing white privilege.

4. In North America, race is often connected to stereotypes of African peoples based on the history of the Atlantic slave trade. Constructions of blackness today have been heavily influenced by the struggles of black people in the United States, the Caribbean, and South Africa against legislated apartheid systems that diminished their humanity and severely limited their freedoms and agency.

We need to know that history, and to address it in productive ways, but we also need to be careful about how it is used. I support the current Caricom legal initiative to seek reparations from several European states once involved in that slave trade. If we associate the Atlantic slave trade with the evils of a past we have now risen above, it is harder to see its continuing impact in US, Canadian, and African societies today. It is also harder to see the ways in which contemporary forms of slavery still exist, involving more people than ever before. Slavery today may not be so obviously race-based (although it sometimes is) but it still relies on the belief that some people are less human than others. Some people are disposable.  It can take age-old forms in places like Mauritania, India, and Pakistan, and newer forms, in complicity with contemporary capitalism, in places like Brazil, Eastern Europe, and North America. Insofar as globalization encourages the trafficking of people, it also encourages new forms of slavery. My point here is that race always needs to be analyzed in relation to other forms of discrimination, violence, and abuse.

5. Racism is produced by the decisions we make, as a community, at all levels of our coexistience. Derogatory stereotypes of other races persist, often because limitations have been legislated on their agency, their education, their employment, and their movements. It is easy to forget the legislated restrictions on the lives of the colonized under colonialism, including here in Canada. Critical race philosophers call this form of forgetting, “epistemologies of ignorance.” In other words, ignorance is actively encouraged, through ignoring how racist privilege is maintained and discrimination is enabled. These forms of ignorance help reify sexual, racial, and colonial hierarchies and create exclusive forms of national identities.

6.Today, racial prejudice still exists but it has also migrated into consideration as culture or civilizational difference. It is not helpful to talk about a “clash of civilizations.” Some of the tropes of racial discrimination remain in these new forms. Sometimes others are infantilized, seen as developmentally delayed, as children, or even worse, as trapped in a time bubble, dominated by their cultural traditions, which are seen as incapable of change. That form of racism persists in categorizations of Muslims today. It persists in a formula described by Gayatri Spivak as “white men saving brown women from brown men.” That formula describes the plot of many Hollywood movies and television shows, and was used to great effect in the invasion of Afghanistan.

7. Race and ethnicity-based thinking thrive in times of financial crisis, insecurity, and rapid change. New racisms are coalescing around immigration and refugee policies and leading to the creation of spaces in which human rights are suspended. Guantanamo Bay is the best known example, but Australia too has created island spaces where refugees deemed security threats may be incarcerated, without recourse, indefinitely. Hostility to immigration is on the rise globally.

8. What can we do? As a community, we need to attend to the ways in which we, as Canadians, find ourselves involved in supporting the conditions overseas that force people to flee their homes in search of a better life here and conditions locally that foster human rights abuses.. We need to work together to imagine ethical forms of internationalism through genuinely reciprocal team building with colleagues overseas. That will mean abandoning forms of charity and development work that have served us more than them in the past. What else might it involve? I invite your comments and advice. Moving beyond racism must be a communal task.

Further Reading

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. “Race” In Postcolonial Studies: the Key Concepts. Third Edition. London: Routledge, 2013. 218-25.

Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Bales, Kevin and Becky Cornell. Slavery Today. Toronto: Groundwood/Anansi, 2008.

Boehmer, Elleke. Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Crenshaw, Kimberle et al, ed. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: New Press, 1995.

Goldberg, David Theo, ed. Anatomy of Racism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Henderson, Jennifer and Pauline Wakeham, ed. Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Lee, Jo-Anne and John Lutz, eds. Situating “Race” and Racisms in Space, Time, and Theory: Critical Essays for Activists and Scholars. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Murji, Karim. “Race” In Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris, ed. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 290-295.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Razack, Sherene, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani, eds. States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2010.

Razack, Sherene H. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Rethmann, Petra. “After the Thrill: Global Capitalism and the Search for South African Autonomy.” Globalizations. 6.3 (September 2009): 365-378.

Sullivan, Shannon and Nancy Tuana, eds. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Students and Researchers as Global Actors: developing new learning cultures

I wish to thank Dr. Carolyn Ives, Dr. Paul Martin, and Dr. Valerie Henitiuk, of the Centre for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence, for the invitation to speak here today, and the Canada Research Chair’s program for funding to support my research. It’s a pleasure to be here.

What is the point of global awareness week? The question may seem too obvious to ask, but I ask it seriously, because it can be answered in many different ways. Most of the common answers we hear stress the need for our national economy to remain globally competitive or for our national culture to adapt to our migrant-led demographics. These are some of the drivers, certainly, that are motivating Canada’s recent turn to the global. People are asking: what is at stake for Canadians in global trends? But this may not be the best way to frame the issues. It assumes the nation exists in isolation from its global and international contexts, as if it were one potted plant among many instead part of an ecosystem, where what happens in one part of the world impacts other parts. To see the nation as singular and separate is to assume, as poet Jeff Derksen notes sardonically in his long poem Dwell, that “The fish instinctively know where the international / boundaries are” (1). Put another way, there can be no such thing as a “no peeing section” in the global swimming pool.

The implications for how we understand knowledge production are similar. For Ulrich Beck, we have inherited forms of research that rely on “methodological nationalism,” a mode of proceeding no longer suited to how the world operates today. Beck suggests replacing that focus on a single nation in isolation by learning to think through “methodological cosmopolitanism,” a mode of understanding that seeks to understand the kinds of border crossings that seem to characterize life today. Beck is not opposing the national to the cosmopolitan so much as insisting that they co-constitute each other interactively and noting that the national is only one component of the many categories that shape our subjectivities and imaginations today.

Global awareness involves many components—most fundamentally, how we situate ourselves in time and place, through media, and the interpretive strategies (including different kinds of literacies) available to us today. I am currently involved in two research teams investigating how to theorize transnational literacies, forms of meaning-making that can prove adequate to understanding our globally interconnected world in ways that can do justice to the insights of the many peoples whose values were dismissed by the modern expansion of Europeans around the globe. One partnership team, Brazil/Canada Knowledge Exchange: developing transnational literacies, funded by SSHRC, is explicitly devoted to working with English language teaching in ways to expand its capacity to encourage critical thinking while resituating English as just one language among many and turning it away from its imperialist legacy. The other team is global, funded from Finland. This project, Ethical Internationalism in Higher Education, studies “how epistemic difference, transnational literacy and notions of global citizenship and social responsibility are constructed in internationalization processes of higher education.” By epistemic difference, we refer to those “forms of knowledge and subjectivity historically marginalized” by academic knowledge production.

Transnational literacy, then, revalues epistemic difference, and through that revaluing changes both what we value knowing and how we learn to know. Epistemic difference is located within the globe’s many different languages, as well as in the specialized forms of discourse associated with different disciplines. According to Gayatri Spivak, transational literacy therefore requires “deep language learning” and dialogues across disciplines. It is hard to be globally aware if you are monolingual. Yet one of the trends in the internationalization of higher education is to move away from linguistic diversity. Anglophone Canadian students can take courses at universities around the world without ever needing to know the local languages where they are studying. This can be an illusory advantage.

Historically, literacy, especially literacy in English, was used to discriminate between types of knowledge and the people who generated them. While some trends in globalization perpetuate those uses of literacy; other trends create conditions in which truly transnational forms of literacy may be developed. Transnational literacy, in its fullest sense, enables us to reimagine the possibilities of our world. This matters because there can be no global social justice without global epistemic justice (Boaventura de Sousa Santos et al).

Canadian philosopher Lorraine Code suggests that globalization stretches our imaginations. That stretching takes many forms, some painful, and many pleasurable. Theorists interested in the ways in which “a people imagine and act as world-making collective agents” (Gaonkar 1) have termed this process a “social imaginary.” Social imaginaries “build upon implicit understandings that underlie and make possible common practices,” “mediating collective life,” and enabling individuals to “understand their identities and their place in the world” (Gaonkar 4).  Modern social imaginaries, they suggest, take many forms beyond the national, but in one way or another, they are “based on relations among strangers” (Gaonkar 5) and they constitute a “world-forming and meaning-bestowing creative force” (6). In other words, the imagination is no longer seen as “derivative, the mere reflection of what is already there” (6). Instead, it is seen as an agential and creative force in its own right. It is the “structuring matrix” through which we are able “to conceive of the real in the first place” (7).

To conceive of the imagination in this way is important because the conceptual frameworks through which we understand the global challenges of our times carry implications for how we understand our current options, how we imagine the future, and how we envision our roles in bringing it into being. As a literary critic, I am especially interested in how this increased role for the imagination as a force in social life brings my work into closer dialogue with that of social and political thinkers. I study the simultaneous interplay of Canadian, decolonial, indigenous, global, and postcolonial imaginaries within fictional and theoretical productions. Within these spheres, the imagination confers agency. There are strong pressures in many currently dominant imaginaries that deny the human imagination agency in imagining how the world could be otherwise. It is important for us to resist such ways of seeing our potential to make change in the world because such views are not fair representations of our potential and because they deny our capacity to make a better world.

Globalization is often presented as if it were an irresistible process of capital expansion, environmental devastation, and cultural imperialism that can neither be changed or resisted. To be globally aware, we need to question such myths and test them against what is actually happening both here and in other parts of the world. Amartya Sen notes that both anti- and pro-globalization theorists often share the mistaken belief that globalization is largely the same as Westernization 124-5). This illusion ignores the long history of global interactions and exchange across many borders. As Sen puts it: “Europe would have been a lot poorer—economically, culturally, and scientifically—had it resisted the globalization of mathematics, science, and technology coming from China, India, Iran, and the Arab world, at the beginning of the second millennium” (129-130). Globalization has a longer and more complex history than is often recognized. And it has always involved choices among priorities. There was nothing predestined about it.

Sen wrote his lectures, Identity and Violence, to challenge what he called “the illusion of destiny”—the diminishing belief that people are determined by a single aspect of their identity, usually ethnicity or religion, leaving them little freedom to determine their own priorities among the many features that comprise their identities and the many communal memberships in which they participate.  Despite the efforts of indigenous and postcolonial scholarship, there is still a widespread failure to appreciate the global roots of democracy and the global heritage of knowledge production. Sen reminds us it is important “to see how so-called Western science draws on a world heritage” (56). He believes that “Decolonization of the mind demands a firm departure from the temptation of solitary identities and priorities” (99). Literature and story telling more generally are human technologies developed to explore the multi-faceted character of our human identities. Tom King tells us: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are” (153). Ben Okri adds: “we live by stories, we also live in them” (quoted in King 153).  And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the danger of the single story (TED Talk). Global awareness stresses the positive side of her warning: the value of listening to other stories, including what Erna Brodber calls “the half that has never been told” (Myal)

Like all times, ours is a time of competing stories. A dominant story argues we live in unprecedented times. We live in a transitional moment. The key question to ask is what makes this transitional moment matter? What choices do we face and what are the limits constraining our choices? This is a time when many national institutions are reframing their international mandates, seeking input for charting new directions forward. These institutions include the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada – AUCC, the Canadian Association of University Teachers – CAUT, the Canadian Bureau for International Education –CBIE, and the International Council for Canadian Studies – ICCS. They are asking: what is Canada’s place within the evolving global higher education regime? How should research and teaching practices be adapted to address changing global realities?

We can learn at least two things from the tenor of these questions. Firstly: global awareness and national awareness are co-dependent. They implicate each other. Secondly: educational systems both reflect and influence these changes. These are both important lessons because they refuse some of the common sense of earlier times. We can no longer usefully oppose the local to the global. Thinkers have coined new words, such as the glocal, to stress the ways in which local and global regularly interact. Other thinkers write about the shift from stable geographies to “process geographies.”  This is a complex shift. Our orientational compasses opposing West to East, North to South, are changing in tune with shifts in global power relations and imaginative stretchings. We now understand that how ideas, products, and people circulate plays a role in how place is understood. Spivak challenges older, stable imaginings of Asia in her book called Other Asias. Regional frames such as Indian Ocean, Pacific, and Atlantic studies assume more prominence when circulation becomes the focus. Investment firms are changing their understanding of what global allocations mean in a balanced portfolio, moving away from a focus on the location of a firm’s head office to incorporate attention to its global reach.

This January, our federal government launched “Canada’s International Education Strategy,” subtitled “harnessing our knowledge advantage to drive innovation and prosperity.” It classifies international education as a priority sector under Canada’s global markets action plan, and includes a chart showing the economic impact of benefits to Canada of such a strategy. This is a start. Canadians need to be persuaded of the values of redefining our interests in terms of developing our global awareness. Nonetheless, this phrasing remains an example of old thinking, telling only part of the story.  We need to think harder about the strengths and weaknesses of thinking in terms of a Canadian “knowledge advantage.” It is true that the global spread of English, our proximity to the United States, and our established universities convey a genuine, if possibly short-term and short-sighted, advantage in comparison to parts of the developing world. But there is danger if the thinking behind that language use assumes we have little to learn from the rest of the world. It sounds arrogant, and if we really are arrogant, then we will not get far for long. Europe is taking a more thoughtful approach. Last December, they held a seminar called “For Mutual Gain: Euro-African co-operation in higher education.” That should be Canada’s stand too. We need to think in terms of mutual gain. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the only strategy that works in the longer term.

The International Education Association of South Africa held a Global Dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in January 2014, to ask, in part, “What, if anything, should the developing world be doing differently in their practice of Higher Education Internationalisation to be relevant globally?” Recognising that the current debate originates in the developed world, they ask about the rethinking that will be necessary to make internationalization meaningful for them, especially given the uneven levels of development of higher education systems globally. They argue the need to set inclusive new ground rules, “where all participate as equals and not as mere invitees.”

Ethical internationalism requires deeper thinking about reciprocal knowledge exchange. How might it be facilitated? What could it mean? A conference call for later this year announces the following theme: “Higher Education and its Principal Mission: Preparing Students for Life, Work, and Civic Engagement.” Global awareness involves each dimension of this mission. Today, national citizenship education must involve education for emergent ideals of global citizenship. As we make these adjustments, the very frameworks through which citizenship is understood also need to change. Citizenship involves rights and duties. Citizens have a right to education and they have a duty to inform themselves. With the rapid pace of global change, which operates both within and outside the nation, it is not obvious what we should be learning or how best we might continue to learn. Many of the solutions currently on offer are piecemeal. That is not good enough. We need to revisit some of the most basic assumptions on which such ideas rest. I come to these conclusions through my own educational experiences, and my subsequent research.

I offer my own educational trajectory to show how some things have changed but much has not. At the end of my first year of university, I asked my introductory history professor what courses I should take in my second year. He asked me what degree I was pursuing. When I said English, he said I should take all my history courses in the history of that small island. Sixteenth century English literature from England with sixteenth century English history, and so on through the centuries. They would complement each other. By the end of four years, I would be a specialist. When I said I would like to learn more about Canada, he dismissed my views. Just by living here, he suggested, I would absorb enough knowledge of Canada by a kind of osmosis. I tested his advice the next year, but found it claustrophobic. I was reading some of the same books in both history and English courses, and while the different disciplinary perspectives that emerged on these texts were interesting, I wanted a broader education. The next year I took Russian and Chinese history and have never regretted it. At that time, there were no Canadian literature courses I could take for my honours English degree. In my fourth year, a French professor offered a course, in English and French, under an interdisciplinary rubric, and I began to realize how much more I needed to learn about my own country.  For my doctoral studies, once again, I decided to ignore the advice of my favourite professors, who had advised me to study in the United States. Instead, I travelled to Australia in search of a comparison to help me understand Canada. That context led me through Commonwealth, postcolonial, settler colonial, and interdisciplimary globalization studies, to the point today, where I see a consensus emerging from many different parts of the world and from every section of the university campus, that education itself needs to be decolonized. I am not suggesting you should ignore your professors, but I am saying that the questions we ask about the world and the ways we as a human community have developed to know our world, must constantly be tested against the challenges of our times and our human aspirations for a good life.

In my first year history course in 1968, we studied Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. That book remains as compelling today as it was then, yet my students are reading it differently today in the light of everything that has happened since, and their own life experiences.  Civil society activists in South Africa are also reading Fanon for their own purposes. We need to develop ways to connect these different groups of readers and share their understandings. Transnational literacy involves learning to read Fanon in the context of his times and of ours. So what has changed? The 1970s saw Canadians embracing the agenda of the Symons Report on Canadian Studies, To Know Ourselves. That nation-based agenda is now being revised, from knowing ourselves within the contexts of a methodological nationalism, to knowing ourselves within shifting global and transnational contexts, looking back as well as forward through time. To know ourselves as Canadians is to know about the history that preceded settler colonialism in this country, to understand the devastation wrought by that period of ongoing colonization, and to start to address it by learning to learn from indigenous knowledges, both here and around the globe.

How we decolonize will depend on where we live and the goals we set ourselves. Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste subtitles her 2013 book, Decolonizing Education, “nourishing the learning spirit.” That is the first task. In Canada, as she argues, nourishment comes from acknowledging indigenous knowledge alongside those forms of Eurocentric knowledge that have dominated the very definition of knowledge to date. Decolonization will only come from revaluing the diverse contributions of the many place-based knowledge systems created across the world.  To stress their inderdependence, Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls this an ecology of knowledges approach. For me, that’s part of what global awareness means. It is learning to understand, on the one hand, how global systems of imperialism and capitalism have used education to divide the world (as John Willinsky argues), privileging some ways of knowing and denying others by actually rewarding an ignorance of them. That ignorance involved the denial of coevalness to conquered and marginalized peoples; that is, they were seen as trapped in traditions of their past and confined to a singular identity conveyed by birth, whereas only Westerners were seen as capable of growing and changing through time. To move away from such beliefs, which still drive much of the rhetoric of the war on terror, we can learn instead to re-see the world through other eyes (Andreotti and de Souza).

To re-see the world through other eyes. That is not as easy as it sounds. In a book provocatively titled, Against World Literature: on the politics of untranslatability, Emily Apter writes of her uneasiness “in the face of the entrepreneurial bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources,” and the “tendency to zoom over the speed bumps of untranslatability in the rush to cover ground” (3).  Her metaphors are suggestive. Too often, global awareness can be confused with consuming other cultures without gaining nourishment from them for the truly learning spirit. The bulimic gorges and purges without taking time to digest. Speed bumps refocus attention from the end of the learning journey to the nature of the journey itself. In that sense, I find them similar to the metaphor of friction offered by Anna Tsing in her book Friction: an ethnography of global connection.  Polite Canadians sometimes see friction as a negative thing.  But Tsing argues that “the messy and surprising features of [such] encounters across difference should inform our models of cultural production” (3). To develop global awareness, she suggests we focus on “zones of awkward encounter, where words mean something different across a divide even as people agree to speak” (xi).

Marta Dvorak and I worked with that focus in developing our book Crosstalk: Canadian and Global Imaginaries in Dialogue. We began our book by asking: “How do readers negotiate meaning in contexts where norms of understanding diverge? What are the fictions that shape Canadian engagements with the global and how are they changing?” (1). To answer such questions, we refused to turn away from the frictions that come with such negotiations, which we labelled crosstalk. According to Tsing, “Rubbing two sticks together produces heat and light; one stick alone is just a stick. As a metaphorical image, friction reminds us that heterogeneous and unequal encounters can lead to new arrangements of culture and power” (5). Friction can be productive if approached in the right spirit, if it enables us, as Tsing suggests, to get a proper grip of the global. If it can lead to negotiations that do not end in stalemate. I have been criticized for saying I want conversations to be productive. Some people think university should focus solely on critique. But I see critique and creation as part of one another. They function best together. Denying ourselves a productive as well as a critical role is to misconstrue how knowledge work functions.

My research with the SSHRC-funded Globalization and Autonomy project and the Ford-foundation-funded Building Global Democracy project suggests that current frameworks through which internationalization is understood need to be revised in the light of the diversity of global knowledge systems and the interlocking global trade relations, which ensure that Canadian lives are linked to garment factories in Bangladesh and mines in parts of Africa and Peru. As part of that revision, each element in the title of this talk also requires rethinking. My title suggests that students and researchers are also global actors, and that together we are involved in developing new learning cultures. The roles of students and professors are clearly distinguished within our higher education system, but in referring to us as students and researchers, I also wish to suggest that increasingly some dimensions of our roles also overlap. Students are increasingly, even at the undergraduate level, participating in research; and researchers are lifelong learners. In our dedication to learning, students and researchers share a common purpose.

As a literary scholar, I have a special interest in stories, language, and reading as a way of making sense of the world. Globalizing and decolonizing processes are changing how each of these forms of acting are understood, and how change itself can be imagined. As governments and citizens increasingly require research to be explained, shared and justified with a wider public, the Canadian academic community has become interested in the idea of the public intellectual. Edward Said has famously defined the job of this figure as speaking truth to power. To date, this has been a highly gendered role, confining its function to a contestatory relationship within an elite constituency and usually operating within a national framework. As such, the role is being rethought within decolonizing, democratic, feminist, and international contexts. Furthermore, with transnational connectivities being widened and deepened by the world wide web, migration, and travel, what we mean when we call something “public” and what we might mean by “intellectual” is also changing.

In “Beyond the Book: Reading as Public Intellectual Activity,” Daniel Coleman suggests two important revisions to the ways we conventionally think about intellectual activity and the act of reading. He suggests that “we think of public intellectualism as a set of activities rather than as a person, activities that many people already participate in” (205).  This move from a focus on the individual toward collaborative and more democratic team work is beginning to change how those of us in the humanities think about our mandates. We already read work created by a global network of academics. The next step is to work more closely with them on an ongoing basis, co-creating the work as we go rather than waiting for it to be externally vetted and published. Here is Coleman’s second point: through analyzing the history of the Haudenosaunee two road wampum, with “its iconography of equity, autonomy, interrelationship, and ecological responsibility,” a form of text the arrrivant Europeans to North American did not know how to read, he argues convincingly that “we need to reconceive reading, the central activity of the humanities, in broader terms than we often do” (221). Reconceiving reading as culturally-specific forms of meaning-making is what developing transnational literacy is all about. Coleman’s specific argument is that Euro-American understandings need to learn from indigenous forms of meaning-making within Canadian contexts, but this argument is also relevant for renewing global awareness, and for challenging currently dominant narratives of globalization as driven solely by Western capitalism.

People use the term globalization as shorthand to designate many different things. For some, it’s a sign of triumphant capitalism, to be deplored or celebrated, depending on one’s values; for some it is a homogenizing force that is creating a borderless world, and for others, such as myself, it’s a more complex process in which borders are being redefined, concepts of time and space are changing, local and global are not opposed but are becoming entangled, and change seems to have sped up its pace. Globalization has not killed the nation-state, nor has it hollowed it out, as once was feared. But globalization is not the same as internationalization either. The two systems currently co-exist in simultaneously supportive and resistant relation. When we talk about global awareness, we mean more than just a knowledge of other countries beyond our own. We also mean a sensitivity to the spread of transplanetary relations connecting people in one part of the world to people elsewhere, to the kinds of transworld simultaneity and instaneity that media enable, and to a shared sense of vulnerability to global climate change and global economic crises.

Global awareness week gives us an occasion to think about the big picture questions that can get crowded out as we live our daily lives. Attention-getting details that remind us of our global involvements at the level of our everyday lives erupt from time to time. Our clothes were being manufactured in those factories that burned down in Bangladesh. Related dimensions of such entanglements are less visible. Our Canada Pension Plan is invested in the global arms trade (Nutt). Only globally-focussed research can help us discover such entanglements and only globally-informed critique and its companion, the creative, stretched imagination, can help us begin to unravel and reweave our transplanetary relations. It’s our job in the university community to follow Spivak in thinking about what it might mean “to unlearn our privilege as our loss” and to learn to learn again, though engagement with the ecology of global knowledges. Working across established borders that block such thinking is a big challenge, but we need to try if we can truly begin to answer the question of how we, as students and researchers, can better prepare ourselves for working across boundaries of culture, geography, and language in the future.

Partial Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2009) “The danger of a single story.”

Apter, Emily. (2013). Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability. London & New York, Verso.

Battiste, Marie. (2013) Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit. Saskatoon: Purich.

Code, Lorraine. (1998) “How to Think Globally: Stretching the Limits of the Imagination.” Hypatia. 13.2 .

Coleman, Daniel. (2013) “Beyond the Book: Reading as Public Intellectual Activity.” In Faflak, Joel and Jason Haslam, eds. The Public Intellectual and the Culture of Hope. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 205-225.

Derksen, Jeff. (1993) Dwell. Vancouver: Talonbooks.

King, Thomas. (2003) The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi.

Nutt, Samantha. (2011) Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, and Aid. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Santos, Boavenura de Sousa, ed. (2007) Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies. London: Verso.

Sen, Amartya. (2006) Identity and Violence: the illusion of destiny. New York & London: Norton.

Spivak, Gayatri. (2008) Other Asias. Malden: Blackwell.

Tsing, Anna. (2004) Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press.

The pasts and futures of Higher Ed

Diana Brydon:

This is why it’s important that so much bad history is mobilised in discussion about universities – by governments, by Vice-Chancellors, by commentators, and perhaps worst of all by “educational innovators” who, in their calls for change, cast the past in terms that would have been unrecognisable to those who inhabited it. We call on all those who care about the past, present and future of higher education to contribute examples of such #BadEdHistory

Originally posted on Revisions Required:


Welcome to Revisions Required, a blog maintained by Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui) and Tamson Pietsch (@cap_and_gown) from York and Sydney/Brunel universities, respectively.

It traces the temporal dimension of current talk about higher education – how certain versions of the history of education are invoked alongside interpretations of its present, and predictions for its future.

Education itself is tied up with an imagined future in that we still hold on to the dream of shaping society through controlling what people learn. The assumed power of education is that it should mitigate past systemic problems inherited in the present, while producing for us a particular version of the future – and that through education, we can choose which future that will be. We can see this in media accounts of the “failure” of education to produce the right kinds of citizens, or to eliminate social and economic problems that…

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Pourquoi les Canadiens n’ont pas de temps à consacrer à la politique (L’inégalité et la méfiance qu’elle engendre nourrissent notre apathie politique)

Diana Brydon:

Rien ni aucune réforme ne fera bouger les citoyens désintéressés tant que nous ne nous attacherons pas à résoudre l’inégalité grandissante et la perte de confiance qu’elle engendre. Ce n’est qu’en ramenant un peu d’humanité dans les politiques publiques que les gens recommenceront à s’intéresser à la politique.

Originally posted on Alex's Blog:


Traduction libre de Why People Have No Time For Politics, un article paru en anglais dans le Toronto Star du 17 juillet 2013.

Samara a publié récemment une autre étude montrant que les Canadiens, en particulier les jeunes, sont profondément désintéressés de la politique traditionnelle. Les citoyens sont moins nombreux à voter et à participer aux activités des partis politiques, mais aussi à écrire ou à lire sur la politique partisane, voire à en discuter entre amis. Bon nombre d’entre eux continuent de donner temps et argent pour soutenir des causes, mais la chose politique leur semble sans valeur.

Bien sûr, ce n’est pas la première étude du genre. Chaque année, on nous montre une fois de plus la chute marquée de confiance à l’égard des politiciens, du gouvernement et de nos institutions démocratiques. Chaque élection semble voir le taux de participation des électeurs s’abaisser et amène, inévitablement, son…

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The problem with being ‘in solidarity’

Diana Brydon:

Lisa Patel is a researcher, educator, and writer. With a background in sociology, she researches and teaches about education as a site of social reproduction and as a potential site for transformation. She is an Associate Professor of Education at Boston College and works extensively with recently immigrated youth and teacher activists. Prior to working in the academy, Professor Patel was a journalist, a teacher, and a state-level policymaker. Across all of these experiences, her focus has been on the ways that education structures opportunities in society, and her daily work has been with youth who are marginalized through those structures.

Originally posted on Decolonizing educational research:

Activist spaces are relatively new to me. I was raised in a home where meritocracy, individualism, and competition were more doctrine than questioned discourses. As an adult, I have situated my immigrant homespace in both my heart and schooled-up sociology mind, and I have also found chosen home spaces amongst many activists, scholarly and community-based. So it follows that I experience these activist spaces with a newcomer’s set of eyes and ears. This has meant that I have, at times, needed time to understand the nuances of what is able to be short-handed by others because they might have a working fluency with the history of important terms, such as People of Color. There have also been moments when I’ve heard a phrase or seen a way of being that while seemingly de rigeur in activist cultural spaces strikes me as off, or flat out wrong.

“In solidarity” is…

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Autonomy, Transnational Literacies, and Planetarity: Emergent Cultural Imaginaries of Research Engagement


Diana Brydon speaks to the paper

Jessica Jacobson-Konefall (Queen’s) responds

Daniel Costa (UFAL) responds

Round Table on Diana Diana Brydon’s Text

This paper introduces my engagements with cultural studies as an interdisciplinary and collaborative activity devoted to understanding how people make meanings within different cultural contexts under changing historical and economic pressures.[i] I will argue, first, that how communities imagine the spaces open to their agency is crucial in shaping the futures we can devise, and secondly, that the three concepts named in my title, can together provide helpful directions for a renewed postcolonial studies  The work conducted under the auspices of my Canada Research Chair in Globalization and Cultural Studies is shaped by my formation within postcolonial studies, understood as a decolonizing project linking global cognitive and global social justice (a phrasing I borrow from Boaventura de Sousa Santos and his colleagues).  I speak from that location today.

I begin with this premise: the decolonizing project set out in postcolonial studies has not been realized, in either the academy or in the world beyond academia. While philosophically, there is a sense that justice will always be “to come,” that recognition, while inspiring humility, should not deter efforts to move toward ending injustice now. As a university professor, my first concern is with epistemic injustice, whose ties to other forms of injustice are too often neglected. Decolonization of the imagination is an ongoing project, but even so, there is more that we teachers and researchers could be doing to move us closer to that goal. Internal disputes within the postcolonial cultural studies field are missing the potential of postcolonial thinking to recast our work within a different mold. I am referring here to the ongoing disputes pitting theory against practice, university work against political work, and resistance against complicity. This way of posing the issues is part of a discourse that misrepresents the challenge of the postcolonial field to reconceptualize human relations to each other and to the world. These opposed arenas, once understood as separate, are now being understood as connected within a larger epistemic frame associated with the now ebbing dominance of European modernity. But the potentially transformative impact of postcolonial thinking (in dialogue with other forms of decolonial thinking) has yet to be felt. Globalization is superseding colonialism/imperialism as an interpretative frame, but many disciplines have been slow to reconsider their categories. Pavan Malreddy concludes that “a neo-assimilatory process is already underway as most mainstream disciplines (sociology, psychology) list postcolonialism as just another methodology in their respective disciplinary traditions” (669) instead of considering the more fundamental challenges it poses. Most assessments concur: postcolonial critique has had an additive impact, enlarging the scope of disciplinary investigations without achieving a fully transformative impact.[ii] Spivak argues the same process has blocked feminist analysis. In both fields, the research imagination has yet to be “deparochialized” (Appadurai 2000; 2007). “Global cognitive justice” has yet to be achieved (Santos et al).[iii]  Yet at the same time, under other names, similar projects are underway.  The editors of Decolonizing European Sociology conclude their Introduction with the claim that “our aim is to open up a space for a multiplicity of critical projects that may not use the same term for labeling themselves, but which pursue common goals” (Boatca, Costa, Rodriguez). This openness to multiple inflections of naming represents a promising redirection, especially for those of us engaging in border-crossing team-based research.

In this context, Gayatri Spivak’s notions of “transnational literacy” and “planetarity” offer emergent cultural imaginaries for revived research and social engagement. “Planetarity,” as Spivak conceives it, offers an alternative to globalization and a way of defining the self that does not depend on opposition to an Other or separation from a sense of communal responsibility. “Transnational literacies,” as I employ the term, which may depart in some ways from Spivak’s usage, refers to the modes of meaning-making that will arise as we educate ourselves in the differences of planet-thought and the linguistic diversity that “was closed by colonialism” (Spivak, Nationalism: 34). Planetarity and the transnational invoke large scale border-crossing possibilities not usually associated with autonomy, which at first glance, does not seem to belong in this grouping.

Autonomy is generally viewed as a liberal concept tied to Western traditions, and is often criticized as readily adaptable to neoliberal demands. It is either ignored or attacked by mainstream postcolonial theory, yet I suggest it requires renewed attention.  Timothy J. Reiss’s subtle argument (2002) in Against Autonomny: Global Dialectics of Cultural Exchange, addresses key problems with how the liberal concept of autonomy has been deployed in the cultural field.  I take his arguments seriously, yet still believe that autonomy designates a value that is worth retaining, in modified form. Redefining autonomy is what is at stake in Spivak’s groundbreaking essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?“ Spivak defines subaltern as referring to “those removed from lines of social mobility” (180). If autonomy refers to that system of relations that gives some people access to audibility, visibility, and mobility (hence, to agency) while blocking others from access to such lines of social mobility, then how do the liberal definitions of autonomy as a right and a value need to be revised?[iv] If definitions of the human, agency, and responsibility need to be rethought to address what makes the subaltern subaltern, then autonomy, given its history, must be part of that rethinking.

In referring to autonomy, then, my focus falls on the relational rather than the bounded definitions of autonomy as a concept, framing the capacity to give laws to oneself as a relational social rather than an individual enterprise, while also seeing the need to open ideas of what constitutes sociality or what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “being-with”. In other words, I think autonomy needs to be freed from its role in legitimizing the possessive individualism analyzed by C.B. Macpherson and in producing a self-consolidating otherness for agents of imperialism as described by Spivak. Rethinking autonomy involves respect for others as fully representative of the human rather than as confined to particularity in opposition to the Western-determined universal. This rethinking is one of the goals of transnational literacy. Our “Globalization and Autonomy” project began by thinking of autonomy in terms of the self-governing nation-state, and then expanded to recognize its importance in also constituting ideas of the human person. As we moved to think more deeply about what we meant by interdisciplinarity, we began to grapple with the autonomy of the disciplines.

Yash Ghai claims that “Autonomy is increasingly becoming the metaphor of our times” (2000:2). Yet mainstream postcolonial and cultural theories have engaged this metaphor much less often, at least directly, than have democratic, feminist, philosophical, and political theories. Closer attention to current debates over autonomy will be necessary for postcolonial cultural theory to move beyond its current position. Too often, postcolonial theorists simply dismiss the idea of autonomy as a Eurocentric imposition without interrogating its complex and sometimes contradictory usages and its undeniable importance within current discourses of democracy, human rights, medical care, and social justice.  It is important to ask the question, with John and Jean Comaroff: “Is the idea of ‘the autonomous person’ a European invention?” (267). It is also important to recognize, as they assert, that African notions of person hood are both complicated and diverse, requiring rethinking hegemonic notions of the autonomous person. Nonetheless, the idea of the autonomous person they challenge is the simplified and distorted version advocated by neoliberal theory. Neoliberalism, based on an ideology of the possessive individual cast in opposition to the state and society, has led to a version of autonomy that feminist philosopher Lorraine Code labels “a perversion of autonomy.” That is not the kind of autonomy I am advocating here, nor is it the same as versions advocated by many feminist, liberal, and Marxist theorists.

My understanding of autonomy is influenced by the work of feminists such as Code on “relational autonomy” and by Cornelius Castoriadis’s work in changing how the social imaginary is understood. For him, autonomy is the meaning-making creative power that constitutes society and enables people to imagine what is real. That definition comes close to what the Comaroffs describe as African theories of personhood as “an irreducibly social process” (273). As Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar explains, “Castoriadis’s account of the social imaginary as the matrix of innovation and change is linked to his central political project of promoting autonomy. According to Castoriadis, one cannot strive for autonomy without striving simultaneously for the autonomy of others” (8). This was the conclusion our Globalization and Autonomy research team arrived at in composing the volume, Renegotiating Community: Interdisciplinary Perspective, Global Contexts (Brydon & Coleman 2008). To engage in that project of collectively striving for autonomy from a postcolonial perspective requires moving away from what Gaonkar calls Castoriadis’s  “staggering Eurocentrism” (9) and his masculinist bias. Postcolonial and indigenous theories encourage us to question the distinction Castoriadis makes between heteronomous traditional societies and autonomous modern societies, a distinction accepted by Charles Taylor in his Modern Social Imaginaries. I see Spivak’s embrace of planetarity as an attempt to get beyond theories that distinguish between static traditional societies where norms are assumed to be incapable of change, on the one hand, and self-identified modern societies where self-questioning enables change, on the other.

Indigenous and postcolonial work often refuses that tradition/modernity distinction and the assumptions on which it is based, which include assumptions about autonomy. From the modern point of view, individuals from so-called traditional cultures are seen as victims of their culture, unable to revise their inherited social norms, whereas modern individuals are autonomous, capable of critique and effecting change. Spivak describes one dimensions of this thinking when she dismisses the colonial trope of  “white men saving brown women from brown men” and she moves away from this “tradition versus modernity” optic in suggesting that her idea of planetarity is perhaps “best imagined from the precapitalist cultures of the planet” (Spivak, Death: 101). She sees in these precapitalist imaginaries an alternative to the need for self-consolidating others that characterizes European modernity. The challenge posed by these alternative imaginaries constitutes part of her project of training “the imagination to be tough enough to test its limits” (Spivak, Nationalism: 47), “unlearning our privilege as our loss” (Spivak, Postcolonial Critic: 9) and “learning to learn from below” (Spivak, Other Asias: 43).  These catchphrases set out an agenda for developing transnational literacies we teachers in the field continue to explore.

What are transnational literacies and why do they matter? This is the question my current research project, “Brazil/Canada Research Exchange,” explores, in the context of Brazil/Canada relations. They may appear differently when examined through a different lens. Spivak introduces the term in the singular, to revise what literacy means, beyond conventional notions of reading and writing, by insisting that it include an awareness of the power relations built into knowledge production in local and cross-cultural contexts. As such, this kind of critical literacy is a task for everyone. How it is to be achieved will depend on the local circumstances in which learners function and what it involves will vary with those circumstances. At a general level, it requires in learners an ability for self-critique, vigilance, and openness to challenge. In Spivak’s formulation, transnational literacy also requires multilingualism, what she calls “deep language learning,” and a special attentiveness to what she terms the precapitalist cultures of the world, best developed, she suggests, through a process of mutual interruption between the multidisciplines of comparative literature and Area Studies as practiced within the United States (Spivak 2003).

Transnational literacy as a concept, however, carries significant potential beyond the contexts in which Spivak first developed it. The principle of mutual interruption can be employed in different transnational and transdisciplinary contexts. Our group pluralizes literacy to recognize that older and often ethnocentric notions of literacy are being challenged, both by technological changes and decolonizing initiatives. Literacy in the plural acknowledges the many ways in which people make meanings, and the many different languages in which they make them. In pluralizing literacy, we link our work to the “global cognitive justice” movements associated with Latin American decolonial thinking and their critique of what Walter Mignolo has called the oppressive and Eurocentric dimensions of colonial modernity. “Transnational literacies,” as we conceive them, combine hemispheric awareness and global consciousness with the development of competencies and performances suitable for full participation in the knowledge society. That includes the capacity to change its direction and influence its development. These literacies encompass the digital, multimodal, informational, visual, textual, and critical literacies associated with both traditional reading and writing skills and the range of new literacies required by evolving information technologies, new media platforms, and think tank inputs into dialogue about local and global issues. In modifying literacies with the adjective “transnational,” we refer to the fact that our lives are becoming global in ways that are changing our experience of what it means to be a national subject, speak a national language, and live in a particular locality. Such changes in how we live our nationality do not, as some fear, necessarily erode our sense of national belonging and obligation. In fact, they may deepen it. But we do recognize that what the nation means for people and what it can do in a globalizing world are shifting.

Our approach to transnational literacy works through considering the changing roles of English (as a language and a discipline) and what it means to teach English in different local contexts, each of which engages the global in different ways, but that is not the only locus through which transnational literacies can be developed. My colleagues work with school teachers and teacher-in-training to develop site-specific and context-sensitive modes of promoting genuine learning through language and literature instruction. In Brazil, this choice of focus addresses a crucial need. As a literature teacher in Canada, I appreciate the interaction with specialists in linguistics and educational studies while my own work is involved in thinking about how literacy connects to poetics, rhetoric, and representation. I am currently reading Andrés Ajens’s Poetry after the Invention of América, which poses postcolonial challenges to literature and its categories.[v] The Preface argues that “Ajens isn’t peddling a theory of the border and its ‘semantic largess.’ Nor is he bracketing ethnic experience for analysis. On the contrary, he is scrutinizing the brackets that history and naming construct as he considers the kinds of organization such brackets impose. The poetic isn’t a rational supplement, he suggests, but an inherently and sometimes incommensurable form of insight. If we read Ajens well, read beyond our own borders, our old presumptions crumble.” Ajens notes, they continue, that “Our representational systems … have often become machines for exterminations” (Erin Moure and Forrest Gander). This connection between epistemic and other forms of violence lies at the heart of postcolonial work.

Ajens’s unconventional and multilingual essays bombard “the historical-destinal character of what is called literature with the tinnitus hum of copenetrating discourses”    reveal[ing] and revel[ing] in writing as contested site” (Moure and Gander). This approach to language and discourse fits with difficulty into the work of my two other team projects, “Globalization and Autonomy” and “Building Global Democracy.” These put me in touch with a range of disciplines in the social and human sciences and with civil society practitioners who take a different approach to language. They are the kind of practically-oriented projects that have been trained to believe they cannot afford the uncompromising utopianism of Spivak’s Derridean thought or forms of language that insist on its instability and opacity. These different epistemic communities work in daily negotiations across cultures and within a variety of institutional sites, from classrooms to non-governmental organizations, and trade and policy circles (Brydon 2010). They too seek to end subalternity yet it is difficult to share ideas across these institutionalized divisions.

Literary practitioners need to work harder to show the ways in which our insights into language can advance forms of knowing more often associated with social science disciplines, including helping practitioners see that pragmatism is also a theory. Literature and culture are still often assumed to exist within an autonomous sphere freed from the market and the state. Some postcolonial theorists still defend this autonomy of the aesthetic, holding it to be an important value (Bongie). Culture holds a more complex position due to the interests of several disciplines in claiming culture as their terrain. Lawrence Grossberg (2010) notes that “culture has increasingly moved from a transcendental autonomy to a form of quotidienization” (147) but without necessarily shedding belief in its autonomy.  Grossberg defines this kind of autonomy as a particular form of “embedded disembededness” (147).  This allows the cultural sphere to claim a separate and privileged status within an often invisible system of unquestioned assumptions about how things are, even as this order is changing.[vi]  Teasing out how this definition of autonomy as “embedded disembededness” connects to autonomy understood as self-determination is a task that postcolonial cultural and border studies are well suited to consider.

The UBC Press Globalization and Autonomy Series our team is publishing set an agenda focused on autonomy as self-determination.  But the ambition of our goals compelled an interdisciplinary approach, and that approach led us to consider the ways in which assumed disciplinary autonomies complicated our ability to answer our border-crossing questions. In Renegotiating Community, we ask what happens to the ability of communities to govern themselves under globalization. To answer that question, we concluded that we needed to redraw the conceptual maps through which community, globalization, and autonomy are understood. With the rise in importance of the global knowledge economy, epistemic communities may be replacing national cultures as drivers of knowledge societies (See Cetina). We need to find ways to think about how these different kinds of community cultures and different uses of autonomy work together to enable and constrain the intellectual work performed within cultural studies.  As part of that task, Spivak’s notion of “planetarity” suggests that models of creolity and rhizome could replace the “model of family” as a model for community (“World” 108).  Her ideal “planetary reader” (“World” 107) conceives of “transnational literacies” in this light. To think beyond the family as a model for community involves a radical rethinking of how identity, agency, community, and meaning-making practices are currently conceived.

In Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, Grossberg notes but then sidelines this kind of attention to the conditions available for knowledge production today. He provides a list of important issues he was unable to address in this book: “the environment (and the materiality of the world; religion; globalizations; various structures of belongings; militarism and violence; and the changing practices of knowledge production (under specific conditions of new technological, institutional, and postcolonial developments)” (5). A long list. These are questions that postcolonial and globalization studies prioritize and they are not so easily dismissed. Today, however, I take issue only with his suggestion that all these issues are somehow equivalent, and their omission can be discounted given that “cultural studies need not seek completeness” (5). In my view, the changing practices of knowledge production are not just one domain like the others; they constitute the changing context out of which we work and the emergent challenges we face within an academic system that is increasingly becoming internationalized in some respects while remaining dangerously parochial in others. Furthermore, currently dominant paradigms of internationalization stress competition between nation-states over transnational cooperation. Yet cooperation is needed if solutions are to be found. In other words, how we make sense of the other issues he lists depends on the changing practices of knowledge production.

Grossberg does not quite see the connection when he admits another weakness of his book is that of the particular location out of which he writes: “I know that the fact that I am trying to tell a story from inside the United States limits me in profound and sometimes disabling ways, for I can only follow the lines of transformation and struggle so far. And I know that the conversations I am calling for are already taking place in various regions of the world. I have tried to acknowledge and even enter into conversation with some of them, but I realize it remains too gestural” (5).  This is an honest and important admission, but a more serious problem than he implies. I say this with no sense of superiority. I work with a similar sense of my own limitations and a recognition that my Canadian location, and within Canada, my prairie location, while in some ways ex-centric to the academy he addresses (which in his words is “largely the highly professionalized, capitalized, and formalized U.S. and European university systems)” (5) is insufficiently differentiated from them so as to afford much of an alternative view. What is needed now is more than what any single individual or location can provide. We need the kind of interregional, interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and collaborative dialogue that carefully designed team-based research can provide. We need to take seriously the UNESCO statement that “the cultural wealth of the world is its diversity in dialogue.”

This can sound like a platitude, but what might it mean if we truly tried to realize its potential in practice? If we genuinely listened to those we most disagreed with, to ideas that make us cringe, or make us fearful, and to ideas we privately think are misguided? Can we learn to work together for a greater goal, even if we disagree on many things, even things that deeply matter to us? I take this effort to be the project of developing “transnational literacies.” It can be a difficult practice and leads to difficult forms of knowing. The “Globalization and Autonomy” and “Building Global Democracy” programs have played leadership roles in starting these conversations. Centres such as the Linnaeus Concurrences project and your own Borders project here in Trosmo are providing innovative models for this work. With the Brazil/Canada Knowledge Exchange, we are working against some of the established imperatives and power imbalances of the global knowledge system to develop the kind of transnational literacies that we think can better engage what Levander and Mignolo call “the possibilities and the impediments of global south as an emergent dis/ordering system” (2). That emergent dis/ordering system is linked to language and literary form in Ajens and to a series of questions with which postcolonial studies continues to grapple. Ajens asks: “How might we be responsible when simultaneously faced with two conflicting demands? “What about the possibility of a translation that would not appropriate, or steamroll between, different traditions of transmission and inscription?” “What about writing that refuses to erase or even recombine the differences between traditions of inscription, but rather, by bringing them face to face and exposing them, makes way for an encounter between different cultural provenances and languages?” In Globalization and Autonomy and Building Global Democracy, we found ourselves asking: What about workshops that proceed along these lines? This is where the sparks flew in our team workshops, pushing experts in many fields to rethink what we thought we knew. Three of us are now grappling with this dis/ordering of initial assumptions in writing the capstone volume to the Globalization and Autonomy series.

In response to Grossberg, then, I wish to make several points. 1. A Canadian or Scandinavian location is different and they do provide alternative formations enabling different views (as Grossberg would no doubt acknowledge). The Canadian academy is certainly not fully autonomous, but the nature of our “embedded disembededness” in the global higher educational system is different. I suspect the same is true for you. 2.  Not just the practices, but also the enabling conditions of knowledge production, and the status of knowledge producers, are changing more quickly than Grossberg’s acknowledgement of them at this point in his text recognizes. 3. The hegemony of the United States in global knowledge production is very powerful, but its attendant parochialism is also more limiting than many within that system are able to see. 4. The global power of the English language is an important element in that dominance but it could lose its pre-eminence very quickly (See Ostler 2010). 5. Some of the global conversations that Grossberg admits are already happening are more accessible than he suggests. Although he implies that his focus on the academy rules out engagement with other knowledge producers from outside the university system, to take such a stance is to ignore the many partnership projects between such civil society groups and the universities. These borders are less heavily policed than he suggests. 6. In his conclusion, Grossberg calls for cultural studies to engage in new conversations with such alternative knowledge-producing groups. Such conversations, he argues, could be “trans-institutional,” “trans-epistemic,” “transnational and trans-regional,” and “trans-disciplinary” (291).  I endorse such a call, and hope this paper can begin to suggest some of the transformations that answering it may entail.

Conversation has become an important metaphor for describing the changing demands of intellectual work. To prioritize conversation is to recognize the need for dialogues across difference. Grossberg is correct when he claims that “one cannot be interdisciplinary by oneself, and the collaboration cannot simply reproduce a disciplinary division of labor (e.g. I bring culture, you bring economics…)” (292). As long as we continue to accept the current disciplinary divisions of labour, and the implied autonomy of their concerns, we will not be able to make the connections that globalization increasingly suggests will be essential to our survival. The challenge is how to make those connections and keep them productive.

In this talke, I suggest that Spivak’s theorizations of “transnational literacy” and “planetarity” offer connected ways of cutting across some of the problems associated with the “embedded disembeddedness” of current disciplinary terrains and their divisions of responsibility. Each concept, as I understand them, is based on respect for the autonomy of others; that is, for their right to make their own kinds of sense of how the world operates and to make their own choices about how to run their lives. This is where autonomy can become quite complex. It is important to be clear in understanding Spivak’s description of education as the “noncoercive rearrangement of desire.” If education has traditionally entailed the coercive rearrangement of desire, we have to push ourselves to ask what the noncoercive rearrangement of desire might mean, how it operates, and to what end. In Western classrooms, the rearrangement of desire is often what happens when a person awakens to her agency in making her own decisions through learning and unlearning the scripts she has been given and the influences that are making her who she is discovering herself to be. The engaged teacher can support this process but should not seek to determine it. “Noncoercive” is the important factor here.  As Spivak puts it: “the only sense in which one can say ‘uncoerced’—something unexpected will have happened” (“Response”:99). That is, the teacher and the student will be surprised.

Still, it is one thing to recognize the value of the autonomy of others, as Grossberg does when he claims that “it is not my job—as a critical scholar—to tell people what they should be or should desire” (97). It is another to ask how to adjudicate when competing autonomy claims clash in the politics of knowledge production or the making of public policy, or to ask if it is possible, in theory, for someone to choose, autonomously, to restrict or abdicate her own autonomy.  That latter question is most often asked in reference to women, children, or the cognitively disabled, suggesting that original definitions of autonomy based on the male as norm still trail some of that history with them and have not been as amenable to revision as earlier feminists had hoped. These are questions taking visible shape around current efforts in many places, including Quebec and Canada, to legislate the wearing of the veil. Significant work in feminist philosophy, critical race, globalization, postcolonial, and multicultural studies wrestles with these challenges. The resolutions of such questions carry material consequences for how we choose to live our lives together. One of the major obstacles to resolving some of these debates is the asymmetrical ways in which culture is understood as operating within different configurations of power.

It is at this point, it can be helpful to ask what makes the Spivakian turn to “planetarity” different from theorizations of cosmopolitanism, environmentalism, worldliness, or globalization?  Spivak is clear she “cannot offer a formulaic access to planetarity. No one can” (“Death” 78). I like the openness to the unforeseen here. Spivak admits she keeps “feeling that there are connections to be made that I cannot make, that pluralization may allow the imagining of a necessary yet impossible planetarity in ways that neither my reader nor I know yet” (92). We feel ourselves to be on the cusp of opening horizons, but pluralization alone will not be enough, as she recognizes. Pluralization is so often the default mode of current theorizing it no longer functions as a viable solution in itself.[vii]  When she starts to delimit planetarity by clarifying what it is not, and what she hopes it might do, the stakes become clearer. Spivak proposes planetarity as a model to replace both her idea of postcolonialism (which I do not share) and what she sees as its investment in “mere nationalism,” claiming “I outline this utopian idea [of planetarity] as a task for thinking ground because otherwise a ‘reformed’ comparative literary vision may remain caught within varieties of cultural relativism, specular alterity, and cyber-benevolence.” She continues: “Transnational literacy may remain confined within a politics of recognizing multiculturalism or of international aid, in the interest of a ‘Development’ of which the promise of cyber-literacy is increasingly a part” (“Death” 81). These are dangers to guard against as educators rush to embrace the agendas of critical digital and multi-literacies.  But when she claims that “Cultural Studies is heavily invested in New Immigrant groups,” and continues, “It seems to me that a planetary Comparative Literature must attempt to move away from this base” (“Death” 84), she shortchanges the necessary politics of renegotiating the social contract in multicultural nation-states and the potential of critical race studies to redefine urban and national imaginaries. She dismisses both cultural and postcolonial studies too quickly in Death of a Discipline, equating them with a simplistic form of identity politics, which she labels as “neither smart nor good” (“Death” 84).

In contrast, Paul Gilroy is much more forthright about what he means by planetarity: “The planetary consciousness I am invoking was a precious result of anticolonial conflict. It is now a stimulus to multi-cultural and a support for anti-racist solidarity. It was linked to a change of scale, a whole re-imagining of the world which had moral and political dimensions. That world became not a limitless globe, but a small, fragile, and finite place….It is a critical orientation and an oppositional mood…” (290). Gilroy’s adoption of the term picks up on its usefulness for forging anti-racist, postcolonial, and environmental alliances but at the cost of downplaying radical alterity, which for Spivak is at the heart of the concept. I don’t want to give up on the possibility of thinking these two versions of “planetarity” together. This is a project requiring more concentrated attention.[viii]  Furthermore, if Spivak’s planetarity is to grip locally-situated imaginations in ways that can take them out of their own inherent biases, then we need to find ways to articulate its premonitions of radical alterity more closely to the histories and modalities of particular places in their specificity.[ix]

Ursula Heise (2008) dismisses Spivak’s theorization of “planetarity” as of limited value for ecocriticism due to its lack of attention to more practical issues of how to negotiate within and across currently established boundaries of difference and identity claims.[x] Heise finds the trope of “planetarity”” lacking because she finds it hard to see how its alternative framing of understanding can have any purchase in our contemporary world, which is structured around the nation-state system and the largely Eurocentric imaginaries that these tropes minimize. But surely this is the point. Spivak is making a utopian argument less interested in negotiating change on the ground, at least immediately, than in working to rearrange desire through the slower work of teaching. She issues a more radical challenge to the imagination, a challenge she sees as necessary if current trends are to be altered. Yet there are dangers in this approach.

The open-endedness of  Spivak’s advocacy of “planetarity” has made it vulnerable to co-optation by projects with very different orientations. There is no time today to explore some of my reservations about how Americanist Wai Chee Dimock conscripts planetarity to support her analytic shift toward “deep time.” “Deep time” highlights “a set of longitudinal frames, at once projective and recessional, with input going both ways, and binding continents and millennia into many loops of relations, a densely interactive fabric” (3-4).  This is potentially exciting but it in her hands, the centrality of power relations gets lost. The method becomes a modernist reading-back into history through the key preoccupations of our times: with cosmopolitanism, circulation, intertextualities, hybridities, and mobilities, What remains is modernity’s urge to universalize from an insufficient base and its denial of the power relations distorting its constructions.

In a related move, Susan Stanford Friedman claims her adoption of “planetarity,” in opposition to Spivak’s utopianism,  for the very modernity that Spivak critiques. Friedman concludes her essay, “Planetarity,” with the claim: “Planetarity is not a threat, it is an opportunity. It means leaving the comfort zone for the contact zone” (494). She offers thirteen ways of looking at planetarity, and none of them involve power disparities. In contrast, Spivak’s “planetarity” is a threat. And it is the kind of opportunity not everyone will welcome. Friedman and Dimock embrace “planetarity” as an opportunity to expand modernist studies and American studies respectively, along what Friedman describes as “three main axes—the temporal, horizontal, and vertical” (473), Spivak questions the logic of expansion itself, and the versions of exchange on which it thrives.

Dimock and Friedman show how literary studies is working hard to absorb “planetarity” into a continuation of the modernist project. Spivak (2011) now regrets using the word “planet” given the associations it arouses with custodianship of the earth, which she believes “has led to a species of feudality without feudalism coupled with the method of ‘sustainability’, keeping geology safe for good imperialism, emphasizing capital’s social productivity but not its irreducible subalternizing tendency” (“Response”: 101-102). She insists that her use of planetarity “does not refer to an applicable methodology” (“Response”: 101) and explains: “I have given up hope that my counter-intuitive use of ‘planet’ will fly,  though many have claimed ‘planetarity’ a la Spivak, even Christian theologians” (101). What she wished to invoke, she now describes as “a sense of the forbidding (non)place of planetarity” (101), a perspective from which liberal humanism, modernist aesthetics, and deconstructive theory alike look irrelevant. Planetarity is valuable, then, for its humbling of human pretension but it is not meant as an excuse for disengaging from immediate issues of injustice or the task of educators to rethink our functions within a changing system. The effort to think beyond contemporary understandings of what is possible is at the heart of what learning through transnational literacy can enable. An engagement with the challenges of Spivak’s thinking can help postcolonial cultural and border studies clarify what is at stake within current educational restructuring and maintain our commitment to finding the unexpected openings that Spivak associates with the uncoerced rearrangements of desire within our classrooms and transnational knowledge exchanges.



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[i] The research for this paper was funded, in part, with support from the Canada Research Chair’s program. I am also grateful to SSHRC for funding the MCRI om “Globalization and Autonomy” and the Partnership Development Grant, “Brazil/Canada Knowledge Exchange,” and to the Ford Foundation for core funding in support of the “Building Global Democracy” program. This is a revised version of a paper first delivered at the 2011 conference of the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies. I am grateful to that audience for their questions and discussion. It was revised while I was a visiting scholar at the Linnaeus Conncurences Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies  at Linnaeus University in Sweden. I am grateful for their hospitality.

[ii] Amin Alhassen, in contrast, argues that the postcolonial perspectives that Communications Studies relegates to its margins have actually been at its centre all along but only as an unacknowledged influence (110) and a “structuring absence” (115). His argument requires closer attention but does not substantially alter the general conclusion to be drawn.

[iii] Some versions of postcolonial theory seem to prefer things this way. Robert J.C. Young, for example, clings to the idea of “resistance” as “a concept that is especially prized within postcolonial theory” yet which, he argues, remains relatively under theorized. Two things strike me about his essay. He ignores work by Canadian David Jefferess, who has dedicated a thoughtful book to exactly this question. Secondly, he develops a contorted argument for a “right to resistance” when a right to autonomy could make a clearer case in a more positive formulation. This paper argues that some branches of postcolonial and decolonial analysis are developing alternative interpretative models with greater scope for moving beyond current impasses than that offered by the stance of resistance.

[iv] Spivak seems more suspicious than I am of the democratic urge to self-government. She writes: “I am not convinced that the story of human movement to a greater control of the public sphere is necessarily a story of progress” (Nationalism 20).

[v] I am grateful to Erin Moure for bringing this text to my attention.

[vi] Ann Hetzel Gunkel (2011) identifies the heart of Grossberg’s text in “his effort to disaggregate and deterritorialize three domains that have achieved conceptual autonomy within euro-modernity: Economy, Culture, and Politics” (323). Her conclusion is similar to the argument I make here: “In this historical moment, cultural studies as a project will need to engage in stgruggle about the nature of intellectual and pedagogical labour” (328). Unlike the authors in the Forum on Grossberg’s book, I am less interested in reviewing his work than in using it as a starting point for making a larger argument about transnational pedagogies and research.

[vii] Nicholas Birns notes that substituting pluralities for binaries risks substituting new platitudes for the old. He sees the need to go beyond certain ”easy pluralities that different schools of theory hail as beneficial. For deconstruction it is difference; for feminism, desire; for race and ethnicity studies, mestizaje; for post-colonial studies, hybirdigy; for gender studies, a particular definition of the queer” (317).

[viii] Henry Saten (2005) asks some important questions about what Spivak’s investment in “radical alterity” might actually mean in different specific contexts of colonization and civilizational debate. See also Ezra Lee (2011) who mentions the unease I feel about the use Spivak makes of the figure of the tribal woman in Imaginary Maps. He presents my position as more categorical than it is but usefully points to potential problems in the uses to which ideas of “racial alterity” can be put.

[ix] As James Clifford argues in his preliminary musings on “an emerging Native Pacific Cultural Studies,” “Native Pacific conditions are importantly different from those generating North Atlantic cultural studies….if Black Atlantic and South Asian diaspora theory is to travel well in the Pacific, there needs to be a significant adaptation to a different map and history” (30).

[x] She criticizes Dimock on similar grounds (pp.214-5, fn 28).


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