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book spotlight: postcolonial thought and social theory by julian go

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This is probably the book that Julian Go will be remembered for. For the last forty or fifty years, there’s been a stream of theoretical writings in the humanities that has been ignored by most sociologists and Postocolonial Thought and Social Theory is the book to bring it into sociology. It’s a joy to read and raises important issues. If Go succeeds in persuading sociologists that this is important, it would have a big impact on historical sociology, the sociology of race, urban studies, globalization, and related areas.

So I will briefly summarize the contents and then tell you about the strong and weak points in the book. First, in the humanities, there has been an extended discussion about the role that imperial politics and culture has on the literature, historical writing, and the arts. It might be summarized in the following way. The colonization of the world by European powers from 1500 to the mid-20th left an ubiquitous mark on everything. “Postcolonial” theory is a collection of ideas and claims about how one should incorporate an appreciation of imperial and colonial culture and politics into the study of arts and letters. For example, if a novel discusses brown and black people, you should think about the sense of “otherness” they feel since they are the subordinate class in a colonial society. Another example – the way we interpret “indigenous” cultures is wrapped up in our desire to either conform to narratives that support imperial power or the narratives that nationalists offer.

What does colonial theory offer positivist social science? Roughly speaking, Go suggests that social science should refine and amend its empirical focus. For example, there is a “metropolitan bias.” We use the imperial center as our model of global society. There is also an elaboration of standpoint theory, which suggests that there is great value to be had in exploration the social world of non-elites in the empire.There is a lot more in the book and I suggest you read it if you have an interest in the issues I raised.

Here, I’ll praise the book and critique it. One extremely strong feature of the book is that it is very well written. This is important to say because so much postcolonial theory is written like garbage. If Go’s only contribution to social theory were to produce a lucid account of Spivak, Bhabha, and others, it would be well worth reading. I use a social theory anthology when I teach, which includes a selection from Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and, frankly, it’s horridly written. This book will help me explain it better.

Another praiseworthy feature of the book is that Go does not get tangled up in the critical aspects of postcolonial writings. I have often found that authors in the postcolonial tradition spend too much time complaining about the Enlightenment, positivism, and science. This is bad for two reasons. One is that critique is valuable, but limited. I need the “so what?” Second, quite simply, a lot of these authors seem to know very little about intellectual history or the philosophy of science. Like a like of “critical theory,” they don’t really engage in the literature and often attack straw man versions of their opponents.Thankfully, Go reviews their arguments and moves on.

This brings to me some criticisms. Perhaps the biggest one is that Go let’s a lot of authors off the hook when they deserve more scrutiny. He takes a lot of postcolonial claims for granted. One example: the critique of the Enlightenment. Yes, it is absolutely true that many Enlightenment figures profited from or were active participants in colonialism. But it is also true that the Enlightenment also birthed the classical liberal tradition. For example, Adam Smith was an opponent of slavery, John Stuart Mill fought in parliament for relief for Jamaicans who were subject to colonial abuse, and Herbert Spencer was an anti-colonialist. So, yes, the Enlightenment included many hypocrites, but it included a lot of genuine criticism of slavery, servitude, and colonialism. Similarly, a lot of postcolonialists have other empirical and historical claims that should not be taken at face value.

Bottom line: If you like social theory, buy this book. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

January 27, 2017 at 12:22 am

5 Responses

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  1. This is an extremely awful review of a wonderful text. In fact, the review shows just how important the work is, because it seems the entire point of the book was missed. The point of the book is that we as social scientists need to engage with the epistemic critiques that postcolonial thought puts forth. Julian offers us very useful ways to proceed if we first take postcolonial theory’s challenges seriously. However, this review doesn’t even engage with the strongest points of the text, mainly Go’s theoretical moves for postcolonial relationism and perspectival realism. Could the praise for the book be any weaker? You seriously decided to focus on how clearly the text is written—which believe me I appreciate—rather than on any thing of substance from the book. I see no engagement with the actual ideas offered in the book here. If your only criticism is that the book takes postcolonial thought for granted, I’m unsure if you actually read the book. Go makes it very clear that postcolonial thought has its own problems, mainly its disavowal of social science while simultaneously relying on a baseline sociological perspective to make its claims (at least when it comes to what Go calls the second wave of postcolonial thought). This critique doesn’t actually seem based on the book, because the book isn’t really about the enlightenment. (Herbert Spencer was a social darwinist (btw)… so I’m not sure what to do with your claim that he was an anti-colonialist.) Again, here, we run into your lack of engagement with the actual ideas of the book. Do you actually have a critique of the subaltern standpoint that Go skillfully elaborates? How about a critique of the idea of postcolonial relationism and moving beyond methodological nationalism? Do you have a critique of his elaboration of the problems of social science and the imperial episteme? These are the core of what the book is about, so dear readers, if that is something of concern for you, then run out and buy this book. Do not rely on this “book spotlight” to guide your interest. Please and thank you.

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    Confused

    February 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm

  2. Dear Confused:

    A few points. First, I have spent a fair amount of time reading the type of literature that Julian discusses in his book. And I am constantly frustrated by its opaque writing. And there are a lot of academics that simply refuse to engage with post-colonial writing because of its horrid writing style. So, this praise may seem weak to some, for me it is the opposite. The book is enormously important because it demystifies an important branch of social thought. To be honest, a lot of people will simply not read any book with “post-colonial” in the title. Julian shows that this an error.

    Second, the reason that I picked on the section on the Enlightenment critique is that these writers (and yourself) over simplify and get wrong some important intellectual history. I don’t want an erroneous reading by post-colonialists to be carried over into new dialogues. Spencer for example, was an evolutionist (social structures evolve over time) but not a social darwinist in the modern sense (belief that social status implies moral superiority or fitness). And what is interesting is that if you actually read Spencer (Man vs. the State, or the Chicago anthology of Spencer, for example) he thinks that colonialism is bad, which is germane to the entire mission of post-colonial discourse. In other words, the Enlightenment was way more diverse and interesting when it comes to race and colonialism than the the book lets on.

    Fabio

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    fabiorojas

    February 13, 2017 at 6:12 pm

  3. Hi Fabio,

    Thanks for reviewing this book and starting this discussion. I found the book a joy to read and let’s hope that the writing style will in fact be inviting to sociologists. But that is not the reason the book is noteworthy and revolutionary to the discipline. It is important to highlight the real contributions Julian makes and to carry out a conversation about the substantive debates he started with this book.

    To me, he smashed open the door for new kinds of questions and frankly a new kind of sociological imagination. He allows us to draw links between global and metropolitan developments, forces us to think differently about modernity and its legacies and in his analysis of the global, he puts colonialism front and centre. This means he shows how inadequate methodologically nationalist or bifurcated analytical frameworks are to understand the events and processes sociologists are interested in and the kinds of patterns we seek to illuminate. His subaltern standpoint approach similarly makes obvious how sociologists continue to think through the categories of the state or from an imperial episteme more broadly because we simply don’t yet have a comprehensive sociology of dispossession, displacement or slavery – all social processes the colonized/marginalised subject experiences but we fail to study. In short, this book is not a review/summary of postcolonial theory but a template for a new kind of sociological knowledge creation and we should treat it as such.

    Regarding your critique about the totalizing tendency in postcolonial theory: I think Julian would be the first to agree with you and call for nuance with regards to how we treat the Enlightenment. This becomes clear with his commitment to science and the concept of the social and his critique of postcolonial theory for being too broad-brushed when it calls sociology inherently epistemically violent. So this part of your critique is really directed at some postcolonial texts rather than Julian’s book.

    Thanks again for starting this conversation,
    Rici

    Liked by 2 people

    Rici

    February 13, 2017 at 7:14 pm

  4. Thank you for this recommendation. I am also waiting for my copy of your theory book.

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    Guillermo

    February 14, 2017 at 8:18 pm

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