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New Texts Out Now: Hamid Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think?

[Cover of Hamid Dabashi, [Cover of Hamid Dabashi, "Can Non-Europeans Think?"]

Hamid Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think? Chicago: University of Chicago Press and London: Zed Books, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Hamid Dabashi (HD): This book is the most recent culmination of years of thinking about the thorny relation between knowledge and power, which was the subject of sustained critical reflections by a range of critical thinkers long before me, most recently Michel Foucault and of course Edward Said. Although the disciplinary formation of my own thinking is more deeply rooted in the revered tradition of the sociology of knowledge, still, as I have had many occasions to repeat, the shadow of Edward Said’s inaugural work will continue to engage and nourish us for the foreseeable future. Even at moments when we may see things slightly differently than he did, he enabled that vision and unleashed our thinking and loosened our tongue.

The current series of work I have done, of which this is the most recent, in effect begins with the relation of knowledge and power in the post-9/11 world, and now has assumed more critical importance in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, the Indignado in Europe (most recently evident in the Greek austerity crisis), Occupy Wall Street in the United States, and thus the more structural crisis of capitalism around the world and the vagaries of US empire. All of these and much more have occasioned the necessity of thinking towards a new regime of knowledge, of which this book is among my most recent engagements.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HD: It addresses the range of critical thinking from Marxist to postcolonial literatures with which I have been conversant over the last few decades, pushing them forward to engage with our own contemporary issues around the globe. This is an engaged book, dealing with the most compelling contemporary crisis we face—we as critical thinkers, as revolutionary activists, as labor union organizers, as people concerned with women’s rights, LGBT rights, and student movements. By its rhetorical and provocative title it moves to overcome enduring, mostly colonially manufactured, bifurcations between the East and the West, between Europe and all its alienated others—all by way of searching for and performing an alternative mode of critical thinking, rooted in our received radical traditions but fully conscious of exhausted clichés that are no longer responsive to our changing realities. It is a book actively in search of creating new modes of solidarity beyond color-coded or racialized or gendered regimes of divide and conquer.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HD: It is immediately related to my work on the Arab revolutions, and before that on the Green Movement in Iran. It is more epistemically rooted in the last chapter of my Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (a paperback edition of this book just came out, and almost at the same time I was delighted to see a magnificent Arabic translation), where I write about the necessity of changing the interlocutor. It also anticipates my forthcoming book Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene, where I take Edward Said’s groundbreaking work a few steps forward by placing his articulation of the relation between knowledge and power on Habermas’ concept of the structural transformation of bourgeois public sphere. But here I try to overcome Habermas’ notoriously Eurocentric limitations by turning to two towering Marxist thinkers of our time: Aijaz Ahmad from India and Kojan Karatani from Japan. Triangulated among Habermas, Ahmad, and Karatani, my Persophilia pushes the ideas I broach in Can Non-Europeans Think? to some of their most radical conclusions.

So all of these books together mark a critical passage towards the recognition of an emerging world and its contingent worldliness far beyond the exhausted binary of “the West and the Rest.”

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HD: I believe this book would be of interest to anyone concerned with the range of issues, topics, and concerns in the groundbreaking works of Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Walter Mignolo, and many others we call “postcolonial studies.” But as you may know, my thinking over the last decade or so has moved beyond the condition of postcoloniality and explores the more dialectical modes of knowledge production that are more fully conscious of our particular point in history. I believe all of us concerned with a more enabling spectrum of a liberating regime of knowledge are witness to the opening horizons of new vistas of worldly consciousness—one that does not just oppose and dismantle the flakey hegemony that seeks to distort the world to rule us better, but that in fact seeks to overcome it. Over the last decade or so I would say I have become ever more closer to Walter Benjamin, and his theory of fragments, ruins, and allegories, which I find exceptionally prophetic for our time. Edward Said was said to be the last Jewish intellectual in New York. In that paradoxical vein, I must be the first Muslim intellectual in New York. And yet our link remains to quintessentially towering Jewish philosophers who prophetically anticipated our fate as they theorized their own.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HD: I just finished the final editorial work on my forthcoming book with Harvard University Press, Persophilia: Persian Culture on Global Scene, which is both an engaging tribute to Edward Said’s magisterial and groundbreaking Orientalism and yet through Habermas, Ahmad, Karatani, and Mignolo puts a further critical twist to it. What it does is to seek the devil of orientalism, as it were, in the details of Persophilia. It is far more (and necessarily so) historically detailed than Said’s Orientalism, and it does not remain stationary on the European scene and moves [through Said’s own notion of “Traveling Theory” (1982)] to one specific site of postcolonial nation building to see how its echoes and reflections become transformative in the region. It is also a far more decidedly Marxist reading of capital, labor, and the marketplace of ideas. Aijaz Ahmad, Kojan Karatani, and Walter Mignolo are my immediate interlocutors here as I put Habermas’ amazingly potent notion of bourgeois public sphere into a global spin and see in what way a transnational public sphere (along with what I call “parapublic” space) becomes the conduit of new ideas and social movements that link capital and the colonial together. Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Marx’s theory of revolution has also had a serious impact on my thinking in all of this. But these all pertain to the theoretical foregrounding and epistemic mechanics of the new book.

Over the last three books I have published with Harvard University Press, including this new one, I am really after an excavation of the formative forces of both the public sphere and the postcolonial subject formations it occasions. We have never done anything remotely resembling this kind of archeological excavation as to how we as postcolonial creatures have become subjects, without commanding agency of our own history, our destiny, our being-in-the-world.

J: Could you talk a bit about the title of the book: how does the question of "can non-Europeans think?" inform your analysis in the book. 

HD: It is a rhetorical device, augmented by the title of my Introduction, “Can Europeans Read?” Both titles mean to make us pause and wonder: how do we know what we know, how do we think, in what terms, and do we really read what we read, or do we assimilate what we read backward into what we already know? It is an ontologically predicated epistemic question I ask, rhetorically, but of course deadly seriously. I wanted to perform the overcoming of East versus West by paying a rhetorical tribute to it. It is a liberating moment.

You see, ours is the subtitle generation—the first-generation immigrant intellectuals who were condemned to add subtitles in our books so “white people” could locate our thinking provenance. Subtitles are the damnation of the first generation immigrant intellectuals. Heidegger could title his book Time and Being, or Derrida Of Grammatology, and their editors would not ask them to have a subtitle added to it: “In Germany,” or “in French.” They were allowed to universalize their particulars. We, meaning the world at large, need to ponder and meditate new modes of a more embracing universality from our varied particularities. I am very happy that I have a few books to my name that have no subtitles, and I hope to have a few more of them!

Excerpts from Can Non-Europeans Think?

From the Introduction

“Fuck You Walter Mignolo!” With those grandiloquent words and the gesture they must have occasioned and accompanied, the distinguished and renowned European philosopher Slavoj Žižek begins his response to a piece that Walter Mignolo wrote in conversation with my essay “Can Non-Europeans Think?” Žižek is quite eloquent and habitually verbose: “Okay, fuck you, who are these bloody much more interesting intellectuals...? Let’s say I was not overly impressed.”

What was the reason, you might wonder, for the eminent European philosopher’s outburst: why so intemperate a reaction? What had Walter Mignolo said to deserve such precise elocutions from a leading European thinker?

A Simple Question

In January 2013 I published on the Al Jazeera website the playfully titled essay “Can Non-Europeans Think?” The essay soon emerged as one of the most popular pieces I have written in my academic career. It went viral on the Internet, to the degree that a polemical essay on philosophical thinking can go viral. It received more hits than anything I had ever written on that website. It had touched a nerve and people began to read and reflect on it far beyond my own limited reach or expectation when I wrote it. That piece is now the title of this book, which points to a mode of thinking I have marked as beyond the limits of the condition called “postcoloniality.” This book comes together, in effect, as a declaration of independence, not just from the condition of postcoloniality, but from the limited and now exhausted epistemics it had historically occasioned. Here you will perhaps have detected a cautious searching for the paths ahead, for a condition and urgency of thinking beyond coloniality, beyond postcoloniality, and thus above all beyond the explicit or implicit presence of a European interlocutor looking over our shoulder as we write.

And there precisely was the rub! Soon after the publication of my essay, Santiago Zabala, a research professor of philosophy at the University of Barcelona, responded to it. He did so in the belief that I had written it in response to a piece of his and thus felt obligated to reciprocate. This response to my essay, though quite welcome, seemed a bit odd to me, for I had not written it in response to his, but rather had just used something he had written earlier as a hook on which to hang my argument. He appeared to have taken offense at my essay, thought I was accusing him (and by extension other European philosophers) of Eurocentricism, and in turn took the fact that I had mentioned the eminent Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci as an indication that I was completely out to lunch, accusing him of something with which I was myself afflicted! It was a very bizarre response indeed to a charge I had never made. In general I find the charge of Eurocentricism punishingly boring, have no interest in the inflated argument, and consider the entire diction of Zabala’s piece rather juvenile, akin to the schoolyard pissing contest I had left behind in my high school back in Iran decades ago. Of course Europeans are Eurocentric, just as our Molla Nasreddin famously thought (in jest) that where he had nailed the rein of his mule was the center of the universe—and why shouldn’t they believe this, the Europeans or Molla Nasreddin? I was not addressing Zabala, or any other European philosopher for that matter. But he thought I was.

Soon a schoolmate of Zabala, Michael Marder, joined forces with his European brother and wrote another piece against me in Al Jazeera, in which he too read my piece as addressed to Zabala and thought of it as somewhat comical. Mardar’s objection was that I had ignored the fact that the philosophers Zabala had cited were all “counter-hegemonic” and thus quite radically subversive, and by virtue of which honorific title they were on my side of the false divide. Again, he could read my piece in whatever way he wished, including this outlandishly silly reading, but what greatly amused me was that these young European philosophers were so self-conscious of being “European philosophers” that they felt obligated to come out gang-like and defend themselves against the colored boy who had dared to piss on their territory. My late mother used to remark that as soon as you pick up the stick the cat that has just stolen something runs away. You may not have intended to hit anyone, but the cat knew he was a thief. At any rate, I was not addressing Zabala or Marder. I was in fact addressing no European philosopher at all. But whenever something happens anywhere around the world they think it has something to with them. It does not. And that precisely is the point: people like me are no longer interested in whatever it is they fancy to be “hegemonic” or “counter-hegemonic” in Europe and for Europeans. We have been to much greener pastures. Yet these belated defenders of the dead interlocutor they call “the West” were not up to speed with where we were. We (by which I mean we colored boys and girls from their former colonies) were mapping a new topography of the world (our world, the whole planetary disposition of the globe we are now claiming as ours) in our thinking and scholarship; while they were turning their ignorance of this body of work into a critical point of strength for their philosophical arguments—just as their forebears did with our parents’ labor, abused and discarded it. They did not know we had told their Žižek to go enjoy himself long before he said to our Mignolo “Fuck You!”

It was at this point that Walter Mignolo wrote his learned piece in direct response to my essay, in which he returned my question as an answer. Mignolo’s was the first essay I took seriously, for in it he began to address in earnest the issues I had raised. My essay had occasioned many other responses, among them—and perhaps the most poignant so far as the substance of my argument is concerned—the magnificent piece by Aditya Nigam, “End of Postcolonialism and the Challenge for ‘Non-European Thought.” The advantage of Nigam’s piece was that he was deeply informed by my work in general, and to the degree he engaged with my argument did so from within my work. Nigam’s piece made a critical point very clear to me: that folks like Zabala and Mardar really have no clue about my or anyone else’s work beyond their European nose, for they had no interest or reason to do so. Mignolo, Nigam and I are part of a generation of postcolonial thinkers who grew up compelled to learn the language and culture of our colonial interlocutors. These interlocutors have never had any reason to reciprocate. They had become provincial in their assumptions of universality. We had become universal under the colonial duress that had sought to provincialize us.

It was in direct response to Walter Mignolo’s essay that Žižek had started with that superlative opening and then proceeded to make his case as to why he does not take anything non-Europeans say seriously. I will leave Mignolo to fend for himself, for he is more than capable of doing so when dealing with Žižek. My task here is no longer to defend or fortify the arguments in my essay “Can Non-Europeans Think?” For, whatever it is worth, it stands on its own two feet. Instead I am far more interested in the curious question of whether or not European philosophers can actually read something and learn from it—rather than assimilate it back into what they already know. It is in this context that I wish to ponder what it is that brings a European thinker to use such expletives when confronted by something that a Mignolo or a Nigam or a Dabashi might say.

[Excerpted from Can Non-Europeans Think? by Hamid Dabashi, by permission of the author. © 2015 Hamid Dabashi. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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