Jan
02

Define and Rule - Mamdani

Mahmood Mamdani has written a number of essential reading books, including When Victims Become Killers, as well as Citizen and Subject and Neither Settler Nor Native (reviews on those to come in future posts). Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (2012) is the W. E. B. Du Bois lectures, presented in three chapters (Nativism: The Theory, Nativism: The Practice, Beyond Settlers and Natives). As lecture notes, this is a relatively short book, of 154 pages in a small size book. Nonetheless, an interesting read, and particularly interesting to see Mamdani's ideas develop from this 2012 book until his 2020 book (Neither Settler Nor Native). A lecture on the book is available here. A few notes:

"Nick Dirks has rightly argued that anthropology supplanted history as the principal colonial modality of knowledge and rule after 1857, creating an ethnographic state in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century India. Having characterized colonized societies as stationary, all efforts were invested in containing social change in these societies - and justifying it as protection of vulnerable minorities." (p. 30)

"Before managing difference, colonial power set about defining it. Nick Dirks called this "the ethnographic state," which wielded the census not only as a way of acknowledging difference but also as a way of shaping, sometimes even creating, difference. The focus of colonial power, after 1857, was to define colonial subjectivity. Thus I have titled this book: Define and Rule." (p. 44)

"With races, the cultural difference was not translated into separate legal systems. Instead, it was contained, even negotiated, within a single legal system and was enforced by a single administrative authority. But with tribes, the case was the opposite: cultural difference was reinforced, exaggerated, and built up into different legal systems, each enforced by a separate administrative and political authority. In a nutshell, different races were meant to have a common future; different tribes were not. The colonial legal project - civil and customary - was an integral part of the colonial political project." (p. 48-49)

"Did tribe exist before colonialism? If we understand by tribe an ethnic group with a common language, it did. But tribe as an administrative entity that distinguishes between natives and non-native and systematically discriminates in favor of the former and against the latter - defining access to land and participation in local governance rules for settling disputes according to tribal identity - certainly did not exist before colonialism. One may ask: did race exist before racism? As differences in pigmentation, or in phenotype, it did. But as a fulcrum for group discrimination based on "race" difference, it did not." (p. 73)

"In an era when it was fashionable to think of violence as the way to "smash the colonial state," Nyerere taught otherwise: first, that the backbone of the colonial state and its legacy was no the army and the police but its legal and administrative apparatus, and that it required political vision and political organization - not violence - to "smash" these. The creation of a substantive law from multiple sources - precolonial life, colonial modern form of the state, and anticolonial resistance - and the establishment of a single and unified law-enforcing machinery meant that every citizen in mainland Tanzania was governed on the basis of the same set of rules, enforced by a single court system. Here, I intend to focus on Nyerere's seminal achievement: creating an inclusive citizenship and building a nation-state." (p. 107-108)

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Sep
10

Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates' book on the Obama years (We Were Eight Years in Power, 2017) attracted the scorn of Cornell West. Coates' earlier book, Between the World and Me (2015), is a bestseller. In the form of a letter to his son, the book tells his journey of his own experiences and reflections of being Black in America. A few notes from that 2015 work:

"the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible." (p. 9)"Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more." (p. 25)

"Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life - love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehorses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?" (p. 32)

"We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was interior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior." (p. 43-44)

"A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. "Black-on-black crime" is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return." (p. 110)

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May
03

Critique of Black Reason

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian philosophy, based at WistU in South Africa. He has authored a number of influential works (such as Necropolitics), but given the importance of his works, is not as widely read and taught as he should be. Fortunately for English readers, his two recent books have been translated by published by Duke University Press. This post reflects on "Critique of Black Reason" (2013 original, 2017 translation). For anyone learning about, teaching, or researching race, this is essential reading.

"race does not exist as a physical, anthropological, or genetic fact. But it is not just a useful fiction, a phantasmagoric construction, or an ideological projection whose function is to draw attention away from conflicts judged to be more real - the struggle between classes or genders, for example. In many cases race is an autonomous figure of the real whose force and destiny can be explained by its characteristic mobility, inconstancy, and capriciousness. It wasn't all that long ago, after all, that the world was founded on an inaugural dualism that sought justification in the old myth of racial superiority. In its avid need for myths through which to justify its power, the Western world considered itself the center of the earth and the birthplace of reason, universal life, and the truth of humanity." (p. 11)

"Three historical determinants, then, explain the power and the fantasy of Whiteness. First of all, there were many who believed in it. But far from being spontaneous, the belief was cultivated, nourished, reproduced, and disseminated by a set of theological, cultural, political, economic, and institutional mechanisms whose evolution and implications over the centuries have been carefully analyzed by critical theorists of race. In several regions of the world, a great deal of work went into transforming Whiteness into a dogma and a habitus..." (p. 45)

"To reread Fanon today is also to take on for ourselves, in our own conditions, some of the questions he never ceased to ask of his own time, questions related to the possibility for subjects and peoples to stand up, walk with their own feet, use their own hands, faces, and bodies to write their own histories as part of a world that we all share, to which we all have a right, to which are are all heirs. If there is one thing that will never die in Fanon, it is the project of the collective rise of humanity. In his eyes, this irrepressible and implacable quest for liberty required the mobilization of all of life's reserves. Each human subject, and each people, was to engage in a grand project of self-transformation, in a struggle to the death, without reserve. They had to take it on as their own. They could not delegate it to others." (p. 162)

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