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A Comment on Aijaz Ahmad's In Theory

Tala1 Asad

ijaz Ahmad has written a forcefully argued, erudite Marxist polemic. I found myself agreeing with many of the points it makes, but sceptical of its fundamental assumptions-especially those connected with the idea of history as a story of progress-and-reaction. Since In Theory invites argument, I shall argue against some of these assumptions in the hope that we can think them through in a constructive spirit. I begin with a very general question. Is it ever acceptable to talk of the world today being divided into the West and the non-West? Ahmad (in common with many other literary and cultural critics) is quite certain that it is not. A major reason given in his text for rejecting this binary opposition is that it is a product of essentializing thought, one found in all societies: "The kind of essentializing procedure which Said associates exclusively with 'the West' is by no means a trait of the European alone; any number of Muslims routinely draw epistemological and ontological distinctions between East and West, the Islamicate and Christendom. , . . And of course, it is common practice among many circles in India to posit Hindu spirituality against Western materialism, not to speak of Muslim barbarity" (183-84). Like others who have written on this subject before the appearance of In Theory and since, Ahmad argues that this kind of contrast is
This essay is part of a debate about Aijaz Ahmad's book In neory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992).
Public Culture 1993, 6: 31-39 0 1593 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0899-2363/94/0601 M)o3$01.oO


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an ideological device for expressing xenophobia and bigotry in all human societies, both European and non-European (184), and not a legitimate means of understanding cultural and historical realities. I do not accept this argument, and I will elaborate my disagreement below. But it is ironic that several binary concepts should be crucial to the overall argument of In Zheory- including the classic Marxist distinction between base and superstructure. For the thesis of this book is that changes in literary and cultural theory since the late sixties have been determined by global politicaleconomic shifts. I find this thesis unconvincing (as I find the too-ready application of the labels Right and Left throughout the book unsatisfactory)- but not because there is something fundamentally dubious about making binary distinctions. My complaint is that the deterministic thesis proposed here cannot really be sustained, because it fails to explain why global political-economic shifts should produce a variety ofparticular literary and cultural theories. After all, most theories taught in universities are not poststructuralist or cultural nationalistnor are these two supposedly linked positions accepted equally by most radical critics, whether they live in the metropole or in the ex-colonies. Indeed, among theorists of culture there is much more talk of democracy than of deconstruction. The trouble is that, despite its criticism of radicals on this point, In Zheory itself relies on too narrow a conception of literary and cultural production. For if we recall that practices of economic and political power are articulated through representations, it will be apparent that the production and manipulation of pictures, words, diagrams, numbers, and so on, take place not outside the material but within it. The binary separation between economic base and cultural superstructure is untenable - as critics of classic Marxism have long insisted because it grows out of a misunderstanding of material effectivity, not because a binary mode of analysis is always invalid. Thus, it is not possible to have a serious understanding of modem capitalist production without systematic reference to legislation, litigation, accountancy, insurance, advertising, and taxation - all in various ways signifying practices. And of course it is not only in production narrowly defined that representations are materially effective. However, if cultural representations have practical effects, they are within the material world, not reflections of it; if they are not allowed this material status, they cannot be accused of being retrograde. And if they do not have any practical effects, if they merely reflect psychological states and political-economic conditions, why on earth would a Marxist critic-a materialist critic-want to analyse them? In Zheory disapproves strongly of the binary categories West and Third

World, and yet it employs another distinction that appears to mirror them. While the logic of capital is now irreversible in Asia and Africa, we read, the great majority of these countries simply cannot make a fully fledged capitalist transition of the European type, now or at any point in the foreseeable future. European transition occurred when there were no external, imperialist, far more powerful capitalist countries to dominate and subjugate the European ones; when the worlds resources - from minerals to agricultural raw materials to the unpaid labour of countless millions -could form the basis for Europes accumulation; when vast reservoirs of European populations could simply be exported to other continents; when the European working classes could be pressed into service for commodity exports to the markets of the world, establishing a global hegemony of European capital (315). In this contrast between hegemonic European capital and the great majority of Asian and African countries that cannot follow the European model, a gesture is made toward the well-known Marxist story of the expansion of West European states and their colonization of the rest of the world-a story of dialectical progress. The process by which the global hegemony of European capital was established was, of course, far more than a political-economic one. As Marx himself indicated, it involved a massive transformation of laws, manners, and morals in the countries dominated by West European states. Nevertheless, Marxists have always held that the process as a whole was determined by the logic of capital. Yet the logic of capital has turned out to be less predictable, the mode of production less monocausally determining (even in the famous last instant), than either Marx or generations of later political economists (including nonMarxist ones) have assumed. This suggests that the expansion of European power over the last three centuries is not adequately described in terms of the binary logic of dialecticand contradiction,that other concepts (developed in probability theory and catastrophe theory, for example) will be needed to write that history. My point here is that some readers may wonder why In Theory accepts the idea of a hegemonic structure in which European capital dominates African and Asian countries and yet rejects the idea of a hegemonic relationship in which the West dominates the Third World. It is true, as Ahmad is at pains to show, that the Third World is not a neatly bounded, homogeneous entity. But who can affirm that African and Asian countries are-or that Europe is? It is, after all, only in modem times that political entities have acquired precise, internationally recognized borders, and no social entity (not even the individual person in her biographical trajectory) is ever completely homogeneous. Are entities real only

Comment on In Theory

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if they fulfill the condition of clear boundedness and homogeneity? In any case, the fact that populations are linked by cross-cutting economic ties and migration flows surely does not mean that we cannot identify a major structure of global inequality, in which industrial capitalist countries dominate others. The more important reason for the books rejection of the WesUThird World dichotomy is the claim that it really belongs to a political ideology called Third Worldism, an ideology that is alien to Marxist analysis and progressive socialist politics. We are told that in Britain and America Third Worldist ideology (also known as cultural nationalism) i s defended by middle-class immigrants from Asia and Africa, for whom it is a way of addressing personal identity problems. Unfortunately, this kind of familiar rhetorical move will not do because it attempts to assess the soundness of ideas by reference to their supposed psychological function. The books overall reasoning is summed up in the last few pages of the concluding chapter thus: First, the world is not divided into monolithic binaries; it is a hierarchically structured whole. . . . Second, if the universalist character of the answering dialectic-namely socialism- implies an international character of the revolutionary project, the fundamental and irresolvable contradictionof global capital . . . equally implies that it is the struggles of those direct producers in the backward formations which constitute the primary site for struggles towards the realization of the socialist project. . , . Third, the nation-state is neither the site for the reproduction of capital in the zones of advanced capitalism nor the primary site of resistance to imperialism in zones of backward capitalism; decolonization is now too firmly behind us, the logic of capital is now too deeply entrenched in all our societies, for nationalisms of the kind which are centred on the existing state apparatuses to be the answering dialectic, if they ever were (3 16-17; emphasis in original). I find this reasoning unsound on several counts. First, the use of binary distinctions does not necessarily presuppose that the things so divided are in themselves unified or homogeneous or permanently set (monolithic). All it implies is that in some important sense they stand counterposed to each other. Attention to an asymmetrical relationship between two entities can be important, but to ignore completely other, nonbinary, relationships in which the entities are enmeshed is surely to vitiate ones conclusions. And yet, curiously, that inattention is evident in the second and third propositions. They return us to the fundamentalcontradiction of global capitalism. (Ironically, the books identification of backward countries as the primary sites of revolutionary struggle brings its argument close to a Maoist one and is not grounded in Marxs Capital; many European Marxists

have therefore dismissed such arguments as symptoms of Third Worldism.) According to the progressivist position adopted by In fieory, this perspective makes it possible to judge nationalism favourably or unfavourably depending on whether it promotes or inhibits the revolutionary project. This flexible realism is supposed to be unavailable to Third Worldists since they are committed to nationalism for reasons of class interest (at home) and of psychological predicament (abroad). Hence the third proposition, which dismisses the possibility that contemporary nation-states can have any essential importance for resistance to imperialism. The power to resist imperialism- and to further the revolutionary project - is attributed not to the nation but to the class of direct producers within it. Workingclass struggle is said to be not only essentially and internationally revolutionary but also independent of the (postcolonial) state that is always and necessarily nationalist. (In this perspective, national legislation and industrial litigation for protecting and extending trade-union rights would have to be dismissed as insignificant for the struggle that matters.) In Theory is profoundly committed to the familiar story of progress that works itself out through the dialectic of class struggle between direct producers in backward countries (who stand for revolutionary socialism) and global capital (which depends on reactionary imperialism). In this struggle-so it is argued-the only progressive position available to intellectuals is as allies of the working class. Third World nationalism, radical literary theory, and poststructuralism are all said to be linked together as reactionary because and to the extent that they repudiate this story of progress. But like all stories of moral and social progress, Ahmads version of it is highly problematic. It does not address itself to the European project of reconstructing colonised countries, a process that has made the discourse of progress-andreaction plausible. The definition and management of work and consumption-at national and regional levels- has always been part of that project. But so too has the translation of particular moral-legal relations that crystallized in the course of European imperial history into universalprinciples, principles that gave us the individual as an inviolable subject of tights, as a self-constituting person, as an autonomous agent of economic and moral choice, and as a citizen in a body of citizens equally representable in a representative state. And, more generally, the translation has also involved the creation of an expectation that it is the nation-states task to undertake-or, at least, to foster and regulate-the moral and material transformation of its peoples lives in a progressive direction. (The relatively new concepts and practices of the national economy are integral to this expectation.) If that

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is what the European project has constructed-or, rather, sought to constructit is surely significant that Ahmad does not examine its implications for debates about the West versus the non-West. Some readers will object, Why call this the European project and not simply modernization?I respond, What makes this question so significant? Up to the Second World War most people felt no need to ask it. The preferred term until then for the idea of progressive change throughout the world was civilization rather than modernization, and no crucial difference was perceived between the former and Europeancivilization. Civilizationas word and concept emerged in the early eighteenth century, with the beginnings of European empire building in Asia and Africa, and was conceived of at once as a teleological process and a state of material and moral accomplishment within universal history. Hence the various practical versions of Europes civilizing mission in non-Europe. Civilization (as verb and noun) presupposes a story of progress-and-reaction. Particularly since the Second World War, with the political independence of colonial countries, the terms modernization and modernity have helped to incorporate into that story the role of the state in the planning of socioeconomic development. Even in the most recent (free market) phase, the concern is still with the proper role of the state in securing economic and social development. I call this project European even though not all its agents were Europeans (on the contrary, most eventually were not) and even though it did not insist on imposing every kind of European convention throughout the non-European world. Indeed, the project has never aimed at producing homogeneous, cultural forms everywhere-not even in the West. There has always been scope for variety and invention in matters that do not conflict with the basic premisses of the project. The European project requires not the production of a uniform culture throughout the world but certain shared modalities of legal-moral behaviour, forms of national-political structuration, and rhythms of progressive historicity. It invites or seeks to coerce everyone to become the West -to express their particularities through the West as the measure of universality. I call this project European because Western power has been necessary to it from the beginning and because it was (and continues to be) integral to Western power. This does not mean that the project or its advocates are unchanging and unchangeable. Nor does it mean that it did not meet with resistance. However, to talk coherently of change one has to assume the existence of an identity that is the subject of change. Equally, to speak of resistance is to acknowledge the presence of an intrusive, restructuring power. The concept of the European project seems to me necessary in order to identify and analyse the nature of just that

power- even though (especially because) powers that are intrusive and those that resist are discursively as well as practically interdependent. But the intrusiveness of Western power, as I see it, consists in the first place in its reshaping of the social spaces in which distinctive kinds of struggle now take place, and not simply in its being the expression of a dominant protagonist. But why - someone may say -should any of this matter to Ahmads argument? Because- so I reply -the self-validating premisses of the European project (and not simply a description of the logic or capitalism) underlie In fieory. They inform its moral judgments, its historical interpretations, and its political faith and yet are themselves not examined, let alone justified. Indeed, in my view Ahmad shares these taken-for-granted premisses with many of his opponents, for they too are committed to progress-stories. For while strict Marxists insist that the imperial encounter between Europe and the Third World was historically necessary and-for all its painful contradictions- was on balance a step forward, non-Marxist progressivists contend that progress could have been achieved without the dehumanization that imperialism has been responsible for. Both kinds of progressivists thus accept the legal-moral language constructed in the imperial epoch. (Incidentally, even writers who claim that they have long abandoned the progress-story have not in fact done so to the extent that they still conceive of political activity toward an increasingly liberated world. It makes no essential difference to that story to say that progressive liberation is always accompanied by cruelties and interrupted by moments of reaction. These are merely complications, qualifications, in its telling.) There is, therefore, an account of global transformations to be fully written. But unlike many progressivists today, I argue that the conceptual contrast between a West and a non-West is essential for understanding that account. Because that binary distinction is to be made in relation to a transformative social project, I also hold that there is a Western discourse on the non-West-that is to say, representations inserted into practices directed at transforming the non-West which is massively dependent on accumulating knowledge about the non-Western world in order to carry out that project. I argue that as social knowledge integral to social power, these representations are not deplorable expressions of psychological states (bigotry, arrogance, xenophobia) but elements essential to the restructuration of social and moral institutions. It is for this reason that one can say, contra Ahmad, that there is no parallel discourse in the Third World on the West. It is not that non-Westerners cannot be prejudiced about the West (of course they can be, and often are). Still less, that knowledge is vitiated merely because it is Western (a view so silly that it does not merit serious discussion).

Comment on /n Theor).

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But all this is irrelevant, because the argument here is not a moral one: it is about describing a particular structure of power and a particular process of destruction/ reconstruction that we identify in the non-European World as modernity. This account of the European project is not itself a progress-story, but it helps us to understand how such a story comes to be told and regarded as natural. I want to stress that the account I want Ahmad to undertake does not presuppose that either the West or the non-West is pureor monolithic-that the boundaries between them are permanent and always clear. It requires that he focus on the practices by which European politicians, bankers, military men, and journalists construct their civilizational identity as Western and universal in relation to the rest of the world. It will not do for academics to repeat that there is no such thing as Westhon-West opposition if far-reaching actions are continuously (albeit not invariably) undertaken precisely on the assumption that there is. Given that opposition, however, the question to be decided is not how far Europeans have been guilty and Third World inhabitants innocent but, rather, how far the criteria by which guilt and innocence are determined have been historically constituted. The problem I want Ahmad to address is not whether European capital has helped to develop or to underdevelop the non-West but what practices have made such arguments appear natural and urgent. The analysis I want him to carry out is neither about literatures place in the class struggle nor about the dehumanizing images in Western high culture that have helped to legitimize European imperial rule. It is about how particular concepts of literature, and of being truly human, come to be historically institutionalized and politically invoked in particular times and places. In brief, an analysis of the European project addresses the question of precisely how (in what times, places, ways) the Wests powers have enabled the translation of certain concepts of justice, reason, and the good life into the practices of dominated (developing, modernizing) societies-and how incomplete or unsuccessful translations have come to be seen as evidence of failure on the part of entire societies and not as indications of other kinds of history. That there have been gross accumulations of wealth, knowledge, and power in the world (especially in the West) over the last two or three centuries is undeniable. It does not follow, however, that it is impossible to oppose the politics of the Bharatiya Janata party in India, or the Islamist assassinations in Egypt, or the racist currents in contemporary West European states, without invoking a story of progress-and-reaction. Nor does the existence of global economic flows, and of international patterns of political interdependence, mean that only a singular, progressive narrative linking the past to the future is now conceivable.

To conclude: an analysis of the European project is more than an account of the expansion of capitalism, more than the story of imperial suppression and anticolonial struggle, more even than a register of successes and failures in the fight for equal inclusion within the circle of modem civilization. It problematises, rather than taking for granted- as In 7heory does -a singular story of progressand-reaction.
Tala1 Arad

Comment on / n Theory

teaches anthropology at the New School for Social Research. He is the author most recently of Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1993).