how we speak constructs knowledge to convey information and maintain power

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Of primary significance to Said were Foucault’s arguments that how we speak constructs knowledge and that powerful groups in society therefore get to direct the discourse and thus define what constitutes knowledge. (Pg.70)


To Fanon, by 1961, colonialism represented, above all else, a systematic denial of the humanity of colonized people: so central is this theme to Fanon’s analysis that he speaks throughout of the literal erasure of people’s identity and dignity. (Pg.69)


Said presented his new ideas in the book Orientalism, published in 1978.6 This book not only laid a foundation for the development of postcolonial Theory, but also brought the concept of applicable postmodern Theory to an American audience.


In Said, we see applied postmodern discourse analysis, which reads power imbalances into interactions between dominant and marginalized (regional) cultural groups, and aims to rewrite history from the perspective of the oppressed. Such rewriting often takes the highly productive form of recovering lost voices and perspectives to give a fuller and more accurate picture of history, but it is also frequently used to rewrite history in accordance with local or political narratives or to simultaneously elevate multiple irreconcilable histories and thereby implicitly reject any claim to objective knowledge.


Spivak’s postmodernism is especially evident when she adopts from Derrida the deconstructive idea that there is subversive power in maintaining stereotypes within power-laden binaries, while inverting their hierarchy. She calls this “strategic essentialism.”14 Essentialism, she tells us, is a linguistic tool of domination. Colonizers justify their oppression of the subordinated group by regarding it as a monolithic “other” that can be stereotyped and disparaged. Strategic essentialism applies this same sense of monolithic group identity as an act of resistance, suspending individuality and in-group diversity within the subordinated group for the purpose of promoting common goals through a common identity. In other words, it defines a particular kind of identity politics, built around intentional double standards.


As befits one who is radically skeptical of the ability of language to convey meaning at all, Bhabha’s writing is notoriously difficult to read. In 1998, he won second place in Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest—beaten only by Judith Butler—for the sentence,

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline, soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.17

This bewildering sentence does have a meaning—a thoroughly postmodern one. Broken down, it means that racist, sexual jokes are told by colonizers initially to control a subordinate group, but that, ultimately, they are attempts by colonizers to convince themselves that their own ways of talking about things make sense because they are secretly terrified that they don’t. This particular mind-reading claim permeates Bhabha’s work and underlies his belief that the rejection of stable descriptive categories can subvert colonial dominance.18 This is, of course, entirely unfalsifiable and, when expressed as above, incomprehensible.19


Postcolonial Theory’s most notable progenitors formed the first branch of the applied postmodern tree, as it grew from its Theoretical trunk. This postmodern focus has consequences. Theirs is not an investigation of the material realities affecting countries and people that were previously under colonial power and the aftermath of that but an analysis of attitudes, beliefs, speech, and mind-sets, which are sacralized or problematized. These they construct simplistically from assumptions that posit white Westerners (and knowledge that is understood as “white” and “Western”) as superior to Eastern, black, and brown people (and “knowledges” associated with non-Western cultures) despite that being precisely the stereotype they claim to want to fight.21 (Pg.74)

“Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody” by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay

Cover photo:

WE&P by: EZorrilla.

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