On Frantz Fanon, Postcolonial and Middle Eastern Studies, and Palestine and Kashmir — Anthony Alessandrini in Conversation with Amrita Ghosh

May 14, 2021

Dr. Amrita Ghosh presents the transcript for an exclusive interview and conversation with Professor Anthony Alessandrini (City University of New York, USA) conducted on October 28, 2020, as a part of a MA course on Postcolonial theory that Dr. Ghosh taught during Fall 2020 as a visiting lecturer at Linnaeus University (LNU). The transcript is the result of an online conversation on Decolonization, Fanon, Middle Eastern Studies and multiple commentaries that include Professor Alessandrini's views on Palestine and Kashmir. Inverse Journal has included a list of relevant links for those interested in engaging further with Professor Alessandrini's work, research and academic writing.

Anthony Alessandrini is a Professor of English at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College, New York, and of Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is also a member of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change. He is the author of Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different and the editor of Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives, and his new book Decolonize Multiculturalism (to be published later this year). His areas of research are in postcolonial studies, Middle Eastern studies, critical race studies and he also writes poetry. 

This conversation was part of Amrita Ghosh's MA course in Postcolonial theory that Dr. Ghosh taught during Fall 2020 as a visiting lecturer at Linnaeus University (LNU). Ghosh invited Anthony Alessandrini to have an online conversation on Decolonization, Fanon, and Middle Eastern Studies for that class from which we are proud to publish this transcript with her exclusive persmission. Dr. Amrita Ghosh is currently a research fellow at Lund University, South Asia Center SASNET.

Introduction by Anthony Alessandrini

Anthony Alessandrini: I’m speaking from occupied territory, here in Brooklyn in New York City. I acknowledge that both my home and also my university stand on the traditional land of the Lenape people who have stewarded this land throughout the generations. I wish to pay my respect to elders both past and present. It is important to say that, certainly from the US context but I think from other contexts of settler-colonialism, and hopefully one of the things I will try to introduce into the conversation is this question of actually existing colonialism, which I think has been a real problem for postcolonial studies. I’m grateful for the questions Dr Ghosh has asked; I know they speak to some of the issues you all have been discussing in class. So, I hope that I will be helpful.

 

Amrita Ghosh: Since we have been reading Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth this semester in this class on postcolonial theory, I want to begin with Fanon and your work. So much has been said and misread about Fanon’s provocative ideas of violence as a means to decolonize. In your own work, you show how Fanon remains so important to our present moment—can you tell us how we can understand Fanon’s notion of revolutionary violence in leading a way towards decolonization? And how do we envision a future, as you call it, “Fanonian futures,” in your book?

 

Anthony Alessandrini: I’m grateful to you for referring to a book I wrote a few years ago called Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics. Yeah, much of the point of that book was an attempt to think about Fanon today on the one hand not simply as a kind of historical figure in the way that we sometimes do when we say well, they were a person of their time and etcetera…but also not in a too easy way to just sort of pull him into our moment. Rather than just going “well, as Fanon says, etcetera etcetera,” as though we can just use him to answer our questions rather than beginning to ask the questions I think Fanon really wants us to ask and that continue to be relevant.

So just in answering your great questions…first, I would say that the fact that you have been reading The Wretched of the Earth in class, you know, reading the book as a whole, that is already going to give you a more nuanced sense of Fanon’s notion of the role of violence in decolonization. The fact is that On Violence is the first part of a much, much longer argument, and the role and also the effects of violence will change as the book goes on. I should say that in the late 60s and early 70s, not long after the book started circulating in English translation, a number of political movements in the States, particularly the Black Panther Party, printed On Violence as a separate pamphlet, and that sort of helped to begin the tradition of reading that chapter alone. And I want to acknowledge and honor the reasons for that move, the kind of historical and political reasons for that at the time, which I think has everything to do with the histories of racialized state violence in the U.S.

But having said that…at the same time reading that chapter alone, especially in a more academic context, really does violence (violence, I’m going to use that word) to the argument that Fanon is making about violence, right? Because the role of violence in the book changes. Even between chapter one and chapter two, when we get to the strength and weaknesses of spontaneity, the sense of the role that violence takes on changes. I think what Fanon is trying to get us to think about in the opening of the book is the notion that the colonial context is a context of violence. Period. Violence is. So, it’s not a question of whether or not the movement for decolonization should bring violence into the scene. The scene is determined by violence. Every day is a violent occurrence, right? And the violence is both explicit violence and also just the surrounding everyday violence. I think this is still probably a fair description of the most policed sections of certainly U.S. cities and I would assume cities in much of Europe and elsewhere—this kind of constant sense of violence that is the essence of colonization.

And so for Fanon what really distinguishes the colonial context in the way he is trying to think, as a political theorist and a political actor, is the resultant absence of politics. The notion that you could engage with colonialism, that you could form a decolonization movement through the realm of traditional politics – what someone like Hannah Arendt or others would define in more traditional terms as acting together as a form of politics, is just not an option. And that’s just the hand that the colonized have been dealt. So the question is not where do we begin from. We are in violence, colonialism is “violence in its natural state,” as Fanon writes. We are immersed in violence in the colonial context. So, then the question is how does one engage with that violence?

But readers of The Wretched of the Earth know that the book as a whole is a very careful telling of the role and effects of violence. That’s the reason for the penultimate chapter, translated into English as Colonial War and Mental Disorders. At the beginning of the chapter, in a very Fanonian mode, he admits that it may not be apparent why this chapter is here. Why do I have a chapter here which are case studies from my work as a psychiatrist? As he puts it: “Perhaps the reader will find these notes on psychiatry out of place or untimely in a book like this.” And then he says, in essence, I’m not going to answer that question: “There is absolutely nothing we can do about that.”[i] So here it is. I’m not going to give you a rationale; I’m putting it here. And he then proceeds to make us read these, in some cases very painful case studies, which include an incredibly moving case of a political militant from within the FLN in Algeria whose actions involved, for example, bombings of sites that even within the terms of the “rules of war” would be considered valid military targets—in a sense performing what even international law would call “legitimate violence”—but essentially finding himself haunted for the rest of his life by the effects of what he had done.

So, one of the things Fanon wants to show us is that, as against those who see him as this kind of prophet of violence or who think he is saying that somehow violence will free us in and of itself, that it is a cleansing force, etc—as against all that, as one follows the argument through the course of the book, it is an argument for the necessity of violence against violence. Decolonization must overturn the context of violence that is colonization, but there is also always the acknowledgement in Fanon that this fight takes a horrific toll on those who are engaged in it. This is one of the reasons for the call for solidarity, for the notion of making decolonization a worldwide struggle—I’m thinking of the final section of the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, “On Violence in the International Context—so that this burden doesn’t fall disproportionately just on those who are struggling in the immediate colonial context. But violence for Fanon is both necessary and horrific. And I think that is one thing that gets lost in readings of his book.

The other is that, for me as a reader of Fanon, his work is very useful in getting us to really think about the line between what we call violence and what we call non-violence. Fanon of course has some very harsh things that he says about non-violence in the colonial context, about the role played by self-proclaimed “non-violent” movements in the opening stages of the struggle for decolonization. But if you look more closely, most of what he is criticizing is the way that these movements are taken up by (or are sometimes from the beginning simply the puppets of) the national bourgeoisie and other political actors who are more invested in maintaining enough of a relationship with the colonizing power that they are able to consolidate their own power after “independence.” So, in a sense, “non-violence” in that context is actually about maintaining a certain kind of status quo and in fact managing the anti-colonial struggle.

But I don’t think that is a final statement about non-violence per se. Fanon’s analysis is of the way non-violence is used and manipulated by those who want to create a kind of stable post-colonial regime in which colonialism will still remain de facto—you know, independence in name only. I think one can imagine non-violent movements that are in fact true struggles for decolonization, however. I think for example of the First Intifada in Palestine—not because it could be described in some simple way as “non-violent,” but because it was largely carried out as a kind of a larger social project, intended as a total transformation of the colonial situation in Palestine. I think Fanon would recognize that as a valid form of decolonization. At one point he even talks about the significance of armed struggle that is largely symbolic. So, I think this is a kind of an invitation that he presents us, to really think about the boundaries we place around the categories of “violence” and “non-violence.” As he writes in the first chapter, “colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence.”[ii] And sometimes I want to ask: is it possible that the “greater violence” that is necessary to overcome the violence that is colonialism could take the form of what would ordinarily be called “non-violence”? It certainly can’t be identical to the violence of colonialism.

I’m adding a few brief thoughts to the transcript, specifically about this question of violence and non-violence, just before this interview is to be published in May 2021. I just wanted to underline the importance of noting that the response of settler colonial states to non-violent movements that actually threaten to carry forward the struggle for decolonization is inevitably to confront the non-violence of these movements with brutal state violence. We’re seeing this in the U.S. context at this very moment. The popular protests against racialized state violence in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd during the summer of 2020 involved millions of people and were overwhelmingly non-violent—indeed, by some accounts, they constituted the largest non-violent movement in U.S. history. By contrast, the police response to these protests was massively violent, so much so that even mainstream media referred to the state response as “police riots.” Last month, during the three weeks in which the trial of Derek Chauvin (the police officer who murdered George Floyd) was held, more than three people a day were being killed by the police. So we can debate violence and non-violence when it comes to movements for social justice, but it should be with the acknowledgement that the one constant in this is that a settler colonial state’s response to any truly transformative movement will always be overwhelming violence.

If we were all in a proper conversation right now, this is where I would ask you for your own thoughts after reading Fanon on violence. Because the more time I have spent with The Wretched of the Earth—and I have spent about 25 years now of definitely thinking hard about it—the more time you spend with it, the more complex the engagement becomes and the more the text invites us to think about our own tendency to make easy distinctions between violence and non-violence. As though it wasn’t always a continuum, right? And as though we had control over the situation, right? I mean, what forms of violence have we inherited simply by finding ourselves in the historical context that we are in?

What I am trying to think about is the question of what’s the particular form of struggle against violence that can carry us into a different state of things? How do we get out from the context of pure violence which is colonialism? And I think Fanon would say we are not there yet.

There is a line from early on in The Wretched of the Earth that I have been turning over my mind for years now, where he says, “At a descriptive level, any decolonization is a success.”[iii] I have thought and thought and thought about that. I think where I have come to in the thinking is, you know, if you are declaring yourself to be setting forth on the route known as decolonization—“Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder”—if that really is your goal, then the responsibility is on you to continually check in with that question. Are we on that path still? It provides a certain kind of stringency to the struggle. But this in a way gets to the second question, so let me use that as a transition.

 

Amrita Ghosh: This is a larger question—recently there have been debates that the term ‘decolonize’ is overused and it is losing its real meaning and specificity, and no one knows what to do with it. Firstly, How do you understand the term decolonization; we also have had many discussions on it in class and time and again the question comes up-- is decolonization ever really possible, given we are now seeing newer structures of global imperialisms, and a trajectory when once colonized nation-states are now replicating the same colonial technologies?

 

Anthony Alessandrini: My definition of decolonization again is Fanon’s which is that it is an agenda for total disorder, right? An overturning of all existing things. There is a terrific quote from Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang from an article called “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor” and I’m just going to read that quote because I think it nails it: “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.”[iv] Right, so if we talk about decolonizing the academy, for example—which is something I’m thinking a lot about, since I’m writing a book called Decolonize Multiculturalism—that has to be the question to come back to: to what extent is it a movement for repatriation, for reparation, for a restoring of that which has been destroyed by colonization and then also to what extent is it oriented beyond that, right?

The way I would put it in trying to be pithy is that Fanon’s notion of decolonization is what comes after postcolonialism, which means we’re not there yet (we’re not even close, actually). I think part of the problem is that decolonization and postcolonialism have been sort of conflated, as though the contemporary postcolonial condition is decolonization. And again if you are readers of The Wretched of the Earth, you have read the chapter on the national bourgeoisie, you know the story he is telling us there, and in a sense Fanon is telling us the future. I mean he is writing this book before this particular form of neocolonialism has been established and cemented in most places—it certainly hasn’t happened yet in Algeria, although the signs were already there—but even the verb tense he uses in the chapter is like – this is what will happen, the national bourgeoisie will ruin everything, right? And we will be left with a form of independence which is in no way identical to or really even related to what Fanon is going to conceptualize as decolonization.

So, you know, I think this book branches into two directions as it reaches its middle point. With one voice, Fanon says, here is what will almost certainly happen, and indeed what has come to pass in most places. And then there is another voice saying: but here is what might happen, right? What might happen after that happens. What would carrying through decolonization, including carrying it through after independence – after the postcolonial has been established—what would that involve?

I also would want to say that decolonisation as a project of total disorder reminds me of what Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba and others have said about abolition—the abolitionist movement in its contemporary form, which of course draws upon the centuries-long struggle for the abolition of slavery. Abolition is a crucial sort of a corollary of decolonization, in that it is not just about getting rid of things but it is actually a creative process. Gilmore talks about how it’s not about “being” an abolitionist, but rather becoming an abolitionist – as a kind of continually unfolding project that takes in everything as in need of transformation. That’s the great phrase that Gilmore uses and which has become the title of her new book: abolition only requires us to change one thing: everything.[v] And I think again that’s how one has to conceptualize decolonization. It is an unfolding project and it is an attempt to create a new condition that’s on the other side of colonialism. Political independence alone will not get you there.

So this is both good news and bad news. In a sense, Fanon is saying to us that the neo-colonial state that would follow from independence, and even the new forms that you’ve described, newer structures of global imperialism and new deployments of the same old colonial technologies—that was always going to be the most likely outcome of independence. But it’s up to us to make it a temporary outcome. Like, that probably will happen, and then the struggle continues, right? I mean it needs to carry through. So, in a sense, it’s about not stopping or not even pausing at the point of the “postcolonial,” that’s what I think Fanon is calling us to.

 

Amrita Ghosh: Recently you gave a talk on “decolonizing multiculturalism.” Could you tell us why should we decolonize multiculturalism in the first place? In the context of Sweden, there is a lot of discussion on the need of “integration”—and to me it seems somewhat of a problematic term even though one understands the systemic minoritization of certain communities and people that produces large gaps in a seemingly multicultural society—still, what do you make of the concept of integration within multicultural societies?

 

Anthony Alessandrini: This is a great question. These are all great questions and I’m grateful for them. I’ll try to talk about the integration part of it first. I would, of course, want to know more about the context of Sweden, about which I know very little. But whenever the topic or even the term “integration” comes up, I think of something that the great writer James Baldwin asked in his extended essay, The Fire Next Time, talking about integration in the US context in the 1960s, where Baldwin famously asked: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”[vi]

In other words, coming back to that discourse that you mentioned, the “need to integrate” certain populations—it implies or assumes a relatively stable entity into which one can enter and be absorbed. But in fact that entity has defined itself to begin with by the violent exclusion and destruction of those elements, which one day it decides to say, oh well actually, come on in! you know, on our terms of course! That will never work. So, that’s not actually “integration” in any real meaningful sense. It’s just a different version of the same old violence.

A less glib way to answer the question would be to think about and with Cedric Robinson’s work. I think the book that we all probably should be reading is Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, which I will admit to not having read carefully enough until the past year and it has been really transformative for me. I’m thinking here about his argument about the origins of what he calls racial capitalism, which I think people misunderstand as being just a particular stage or mode of capitalism, you know, once it is involved in slavery and colonialism and once there is this kind of contact between East and West or between Europe and Africa. But what Robinson really argues is that racialization is ingrained in capitalism tout court, from the very beginning. Ruth Wilson Gilmore sums this up in her great phrase, “capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.”

So, in fact European capitalism, before there ever was this question of the African or the Asian or the Native American Other, was racial capitalism. From the moment it arose in what became Europe it was about the systematic racializing and minoritizing and enslaving and indenturing of communities – that process has in fact always been part of Europe. Robinson takes it all the way back to Aristotle, to the form of “Natural Law” non-Greeks, laborers and slaves, and of course women were understood to be inherently inferior. “And from the twelfth century on,” he writes, “one European ruling order after another, one cohort of clerical or secular propagandists following another, reiterated and embellished this racial calculus.”[vii]

So coming back to the contemporary context and the demand for “integration” and the whole question of multiculturalism: all that I’ve just said is another way of saying there was never a before multiculturalism. There was never this supposed monocultural (white, Christian) Europe into which all sorts of trouble-making “others” invaded from the outside. Robinson has a terrific essay on multiculturalism where he basically says, Europe has always had a form of multiculturalism. It’s just that Europe’s dominant monocultural reaction to “other” cultures has been one of, you know, horror, the notion of contagion, you need to keep it out. [viii] But “difference” always been “inside” and part of Europe. And the only question now is what kind of a multicultural society are we going to imagine, are we going to fight for? Because it is not a new thing. There is nothing new about this, right? How are we going to re-define a sort of fighting multiculturalism against both the racist demand for integration but also against the neoliberal sort of multiculturalism which is really about managing difference in order to make it part of the extractive process of late capitalism?

So, again without knowing very much at all about the Swedish context, thinking about Europe more generally, I think this is one of the things that the lens provided by Robinson and others gives us, a different purchase on the fact that it has always been multicultural. And that this notion of “integration” of supposedly new elements actually is nonsense if you think the world in terms of racial capitalism. This sense of created inequality has always been fundamental.

That’s not a full answer, but that would be my thoughts about integration without really knowing the context there in Sweden carefully.

In terms of decolonising multiculturalism in the US context, as Dr Ghosh mentioned, I had the opportunity to do a webinar sponsored by Warscapes, with several brilliant colleagues including Sophia Azeb who teaches at University of Chicago, where the really important “More Than Diversity” movement is happening. Well, for me the notion of decolonizing multiculturalism in the US context, if I was going to say it as simply as I can, it is about attempting to return it to its radical roots. There are now these almost entirely depoliticised, deracinated programmes in multiculturalism and diversity which are terms used more or less interchangeably in a kind of administrative speak. But these things function as…I’m using a term that Avery Gordon and Angela Davis and others came up with, which is a kind of diversity management, an attempt to manage difference in the name of “creating diversity.” Essentially from an institutional perspective, making difference work for the institution, which means among other things making it extractive, right? Nick Mitchell has written really brilliantly about this: diversity as “the difference that makes no difference.”[ix] But also diversity as a money maker.

But the reason that the notion of multiculturalism, diversity etcetera is even on the managerial agenda in the first place is because radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, especially student movements, forced it onto the agenda and forced the integration, the literal de-segregation of US universities, and then to some extent of university curricula. When people think about US history they usually think that it only happened in the South, the national guard having to escort Black students into universities in Mississippi and Alabama and so on, but the urban university where I teach – the City University of New York, which today uses its embrace of a particular kind of “diversity” as a marketing tool—was one of the most segregated institutions in the country, really in the world, up until the late 1960s. And it is really only popular struggles that changed that, or at least changed that to some extent.

One of things that immediately happens in response is the ongoing imposition of economic austerity. So you know, once these public institutions have been to some extent, let’s use the word “decolonize,” the decolonization process has just begun, they are immediately defunded. But the other thing that happens is massive violence is brought to bear against these movements. And alongside this very direct and deadly violence unleashed against student movements and other popular movements is this institutional form of diversity management. So in a sense the institution claims to be honouring the struggles through these contemporary forms of multiculturalism and diversity programs, but its only real purpose is to manage those struggles, to deradicalize them, with the threat of continuing violence against these movements always in the background (the period during which “diversity” programs were being created by administrators was also the period during which campuses were becoming not simply policed but literally militarized).

So, you asked the question why decolonize multiculturalism? Why multiculturalism and diversity? And in a word, again this speaks to the US context. It may not be applicable elsewhere. But in terms of the sorts of codewords now used administratively, “diversity” to me is what became of radical movements for anti-racism in the wake of the violent counterassault unleashed upon them (which, obviously, continues). And the institutional codeword “multiculturalism” is in turn what became of radical internationalism that was at the heart of so many of these student and other popular movements.

And one of the things I that is most inspiring and most important about those movements of the 60s and 70s in the US context was that they had an explicitly internationalist orientation. The thing that they were struggling for generally would have been named in most places as not ethnic studies or even postcolonial studies but Third World studies. And there was this explicitly third world internationalist aspect at the heart of these movements, which needless to say is nowhere to be found in the sorts of “global” perspective now prized by institutional multiculturalism, which is completely about the first world and its “others.” My view is that this is one of things that made these movements seem particularly dangerous to the state and led to the massive forms of violence that was brought to bear against the Black Panther Party, against the Young Lords, against students at Jackson State, the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina State College and the better known state murder of student protesters at Kent State University, and really against all movements that were attempting to rethink the US racial and economic context in a global…what we now call the global context what then would have been understood as an internationalist context. I think putting that struggle back on the agenda is arguably our most important political mission today. I’m going to go ahead and say that about the making a kind of new viable radical internationalism. And that is what I’m trying to dig out, in going back to the roots of what created what now is called “multiculturalism” in the US context – going back to its roots in radical internationalism.

This is also a moment for me to call out to and acknowledge the International Solidarity Action Research Network, a project that I am involved with alongside a number of scholars and activists from a number of places, trying to think together about what international solidarity might look like today.

 

Amrita Ghosh: Your work brings together postcolonial studies and Middle Eastern Studies, something which rarely gets talked about together—could you give us a sense of how this bridging is possible and why is it so significant to have that intersectional study?

 

Anthony Alessandrini: Again I’m hugely grateful for this question. My work as a scholar when I was in graduate school began in what was just beginning to be called postcolonial studies. This would be in the mid to late 1990s – at a time when it is really becoming kind of an institutional category. And one of the things that really struck me from a fairly early point was in fact how absent the Middle East, or what we think of as Middle East and North Africa area studies, was from postcolonial studies. This was particularly strange given that the two most likely to be acknowledged founding figures in the field were Frantz Fanon, who of course was intensely involved in the Algerian Revolution, and Edward Said, who was intensely involved in the struggle for Palestinian liberation. So I was curious about what happened for that conjunction, right, the intersection, to use Dr Ghosh’s word, to not be happening in the field? I tried to write about this in a very short piece as part of a roundtable we did on Jadaliyya few years ago about the question of 1967. It was for the 50th anniversary of 1967, which of course is a key date in the larger history of colonization in Palestine.

So we might say that there is the more benign part and then the less benign part of this absence. I think the more benign part is that the particular model of colonialism that’s often thought about in postcolonial studies just doesn’t perfectly fit a lot of the situations of the Middle East or North Africa. You know, if one talks about Egypt, if one talks about Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, there are moments like the British Mandate or the French Mandate period where the sense of “classical” colonization becomes more clear, but in a sense the traditional categories break down a bit. And there have been attempts to use and refine these categories, for example Timothy Mitchell’s amazing book Colonising Egypt does that and I can think of others.[x] But the model as I say doesn’t entirely fit, which of course makes you say, well then there is a problem with the model and we need to rethink that model – which would be a much longer conversation about the institutionalization of postcolonial studies and the way it comes to function, particularly in literature departments. I think postcolonial studies found a home very often in literature departments for various reasons, but partly because most of the people who were doing postcolonial studies in literature departments when I was in school were fleeing from other departments where they weren’t allowed to do it. People love to kick literature departments, and often rightly so. But I think, you know, they acted as refuges in some ways for people who wanted to do this work. But that did also institute a kind of limitation in the field I think.

But the more polemical thing I want to say is that Palestine and Algeria, you know, were the two sites that came from Fanon and Said, and Algeria gets taken up in a big way by postcolonial studies, although it is generally taken up without much attention to it as part of the MENA region. Palestine does not and I think part of the reason is that postcolonial studies in its institutionalized form can’t think contemporary colonialism, can’t think current, ongoing colonialism, whether settler colonialism or colonial occupation. It means thinking about colonialism as a historical thing; even the name postcolonial implies that. So, the attempt to engage with Palestine as a settler colonial project—again I cannot speak to the context in Sweden, but that is one of the most controversial things you can even say in the US academic context right now. Even attempting to apply the framework of settler colonialism is not just highly disputed but you know, essentially the US state is attempting to legislate that out of the conversation. Especially via the silencing of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is based on the analysis of settler colonialism, there are ongoing attempts to make it illegal to even discuss that or at least to impose penalties for even using that framework.[xi] So, needless to say, it is clear that there is a lot at stake here.

 

Amrita Ghosh: My final question brings back conflictual spaces like Palestine, Kashmir and postcoloniality—not to homogenize the two specific conflicts as the same, but is there a lack in the vocabulary within postcolonial studies to theorize and understand violence and unique forms of postcoloniality in such spaces that have a continuous war like situation for a long time?

 

Anthony Alessandrini: Yeah, I am really grateful to be able to conclude on this question and I want to honour the notion that one cannot just say “Palestine and Kashmir” together as though they were homogenised or in some way identical. But I also remember being part of a panel discussion, it was probably around 2008 or so, which was on the context of Occupation – it was Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq – and the work of bring those three contexts into conversation was politically very powerful. And just to say that if it’s the case that Palestine is not talked about in the context of colonialism and postcolonialism, certainly it’s even more the case that Iraq is never talked about in this context, the notion of the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a continuing, ongoing colonizing project…in fact, in the U.S. context, the silence about Iraq, including in postcolonial studies and the academy more generally, is just deafening.

So to come to your question, again I think part of the answer, part of the problem is that postcolonial studies as an institutional formation can’t effectively think colonialism in the present. In a sense, South Africa becomes sort of the last instance and the fact that the end of Apartheid, the partial victory of the struggle against Apartheid is happening at the moment that postcolonial studies is constituting itself…it almost sort of becomes like okay, now we can start doing postcolonial work because colonialism is finally over! So the easy thing to do is to say this is the problem of postcolonial studies and just leave it at that. But I think it is all of our problem. What framework do we have to understand ongoing forms of colonial violence? How do we think about and resist contemporary sites of war without end? Think of the US context since 2001- war without end is a good definition for that. We are 20 years into the Global War on Terror, so called. How can we bring to bear and maybe adapt some of the models of analysis and praxis from postcolonial studies and anti-colonial movements for struggles in the present?

What I honour in the work of people like Fanon, or in a different way Michel Foucault—I wrote a piece on Fanon and Foucault, and some of the surprising resonances between them, which is part of a collection of essays by folks who are thinking hard about what we might call the “postcolonial contemporary”—is that they are trying to think theory and practice in terms of new and unknowable, as of yet unknowable situations.[xii] So, I think Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Syria, others that can one can think of in the present moment are the sites of challenge for engaged intellectuals…if we want to be engaged intellectuals to be able to say, you know, our theories are limited in giving us what we need to confront these contexts, and the contexts become the fire with which we can sharpen our tools. If we want to respond we need to think of ways to do that.

I’m able to speak at least a bit about the context of Palestine since I’ve had the honor of being involved in Palestine solidarity work and have thus learned from folks who know a great deal. But I’m more hesitant to try to speak in any sort of authoritative way about Kashmir. I would just note that where I go most often to try to follow developments there is The Polis Project. And I’ve learned also from Dr. Ghosh’s own work on Kashmir[xiii].

I think, maybe as a way of coming to a conclusion and maybe coming back to the question of decolonizing multiculturalism…maybe the question we need to ask today is what are the struggles that need to be taken up within institutions, and what are the struggles to be taken up that in fact maybe will carry us beyond those institutions? And increasingly, certainly in the US context, you cannot even talk about the university in crisis anymore. “The university” as anything like a functioning system is, I think, over, it’s just that the acknowledgement of this has yet to come. It’s not working in terms of labour exploitation, in terms of the exploitation of communities, in terms of any number of things like the pure commodification of what is still called “education.” The university is broken beyond repair. So, if we think this moment dialectically it is an opportunity, right? The fact that so many of our frames break down at a certain point in trying to think the present moment, I think gives us an opportunity to say what kind of intellectual and political work do we need to do to get us into that next moment? And again, thinking with Fanon, thinking decolonization as not postcolonialism but what lies beyond postcolonialism, I think in some ways that could define our moment too.

 

[i] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), p. 181.

[ii] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, p. 23.

[iii] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, p. 2.

[iv] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1 (2012): p. 1.

[v] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021).

[vi] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (London: Michael Joseph, 1968), p. 101.

[vii] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. xxxi.

[viii] Cedric J. Robinson, “Ota Benga’s Flight Through Geronimo’s Eyes: Tales of Science and Multiculturalism,” in David Theo Goldberg, ed., Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994).

[ix] Nick Mitchell, “Diversity,” in Keywords for African American Studies, ed. Erica R. Edwards, Roderick A. Feguson, and Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

[x] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

[xi] For a thorough overview of what I mean here, see the excellent report produced in 2015 by Palestine Legal, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.

[xii] Anthony Alessandrini, “Fanon, Foucault, Intellectuals, Revolutions,” in The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present, ed. Jini Kim Watson and Gary Wilder (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018).

[xiii] Ghosh, Amrita. “Reading Discourses of Power and Violence in Emerging Kashmiri Literature in English: The Collaborator and Curfewed Night.Review of Human Rights. Winter 2018. Vol. 4 (1). 30-49. Winter 2018.

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Anthony Alessandrini

Anthony Alessandrini

Professor of English & Middle East Studies, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

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About the Contributor

Amrita Ghosh has a PhD in postcolonial literature and theory from Drew University, USA. She was a lecturer and taught at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, prior to moving to Sweden for a postdoc at Linnaeus University's Center of Postcolonial Studies. She is currently finishing two book projects: "Kashmir's Necropolis: New Literature and Visual Texts", Rowan & Littlefield, Lexington Books (2020) and "Tagore and Yeats: A Postcolonial Reenvisioning", by Brill Publications, UK. She is the Co-Founder Editor of Cerebration.org and a visiting researcher at Lund University's South Asia Network (SASNET). She tweets at @MsBiryani