Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Material geographies and postcolonialism

This is a based on the discussions at the Durham Geography Development Reading Group that gets together every week on Tuesdays to discuss journal articles/book chapters focusing on development and the Global South.
McEwan, CMaterial geographies and postcolonialismSingapore Journal of Tropical Geography. 2003;24:340-355
An open access version of the article can be found on Durham University website.

Abstract or Description

While postcolonial studies have inspired new ideas, a new language and a new theoretical inflection for a wide range of teaching and research in human geography, there have been few sustained discussions about what might constitute a postcolonial geography. This paper attempts to deal with this absence by exploring the possibilities of material geographies of postcolonialism. It suggests that geographers are particularly well placed to respond to criticisms of postcolonialism as remaining overwhelmingly textual, cultural and/or historical in focus by contributing towards a productive engagement between postcolonialism and the material realities of global inequalities, and towards a revivified political and ethical project. It explores how particular tactics might inform postcolonial methodologies within geography and makes some tentative suggestions on what a postcolonial political praxis might look like.
This paper was discussed by the reading group on 12th November 2013. Below are reflections on the paper and the reading group discussions by a member of the group:
Reflection I
Written about 10 years ago as a ‘speculative work’, this article by Cheryl McEwan covers a wide range of critiques of postcolonialism and tries to encourage geography and geographers to respond to these. To this end she argues that “geographers are particularly well placed to respond to the criticisms by contributing towards a productive engagement between postcolonialism and the material realities of global inequalities and towards a revivified political and ethical project” (pg. 341). In summarising the postcolonial debates McEwan engages with the ideas of western centrism, ‘othering’, the politics of race and most importantly that of ethics. Postcolonialism ends up being seen as a profoundly ethical engagement looking at commonalities rather than differences. It does not ignore the fact that we are different but tries to look at the common points to understand differences.
One of the important contributions of the postcolonial approaches is to “demonstrate how the production of western knowledge forms is inseparable from the exercise of western power (Said, 1978; Spivak, 1990; Young, 1991; 2001) and reassert the value of alternative experiences and ways of knowing (Fanon, 1986; Ngugi, 1986; Spivak, 1987; Bhabha, 1994)” (pg. 350). The contestation between knowledge and power contributes to particular understandings of the world and particular engagements with the world (as was also discussed in the first reading group). This comes back to the point of western centrism. Spivak (1993) (as interpreted by McEwan) seems to propose a way of breaking the hegemony of knowledge by “politico-intellectual global activism” (pg 348). In this context it is worth quoting McEwan in full (pg. 348):
In much of her writing, Spivak alludes to the significance of the unlearning of privilege as loss. In terms of educational opportunity, citizenship and location within the international division of labour most academics are privileged. Privileges, whatever they might be in terms of race, class, nationality, gender, and so on, may have prevented us from gaining access to other knowledges, not simply information we have not yet received, but the knowledge that we are not equipped to understand by reason of our social positions. Spivak’s “unlearning” of privilege involves working hard to gain knowledge of others who occupy those spaces most closed to our privileged view and attempting to speak to those others in a way that they might take us seriously and be able to answer back.
This idea of knowledge, “unlearning” and an awareness of ‘lack of knowledge’ can thus be seen critical when researchers attempt to ‘give voice’, ‘speak for’, ‘speak about’ or ‘speak with’ those whose narratives are currently suppressed.
knowledge is power?

As an end to this short reflection on the paper and postcolonialism, it could be proposed that one needs to be inherently postcolonial while researching other cultures whether that is in the other corner of the world or nearer to home. After all “the “other” world is “in here” rather than “out there” and “back there” (pg. 340 referring to Chambers, 1996: 209).
(The reflection includes views and ideas expressed by the participants of the reading group i.e., Professor Cheryl McEwan, Andrew Telford, Chaoqun Liu, Hanna Ruszczyk, Lara Bezzina and Arely Cruz)
References in the text:
Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin White Masks, London: Pluto.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1986) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of language in African Literature, London: James Curry. 
Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge. 
Spivak, G.C. (1987) In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. London: Methuen.
Spivak, G.C. (1993) Outside in the Teaching Machine, London: Routledge
Said, E. (1978) Orientalism, London: Routledge
Young, R. (1991) White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, London: Routledge. 
Young, R. (2001) Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.
The original version of this article appeared on the Durham Geography Development Reading Group blog.

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