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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.



Works Cited

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Appadurai, Arjun.

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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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