Interview mit Prof. Ella Shohat und Prof. Robert Stam

In June of this year, Professor Ella Shohat and Professor Robert Stam inaugurated a five year series of international guest professorships titled Denkplatz Bremen. The goal of the series, organized by the Institut für postkoloniale und transkulturelle Studien der Universität Bremen (INPUTS), is to offer Bremen University students the opportunity to get to know and work with internationally renowned researchers and public intellectuals such as Shohat and Stam. Furthermore, the idea behind the long term project is to create an internationally visible focus of activity and attraction for academic and political reflection in the fields of Transcultural and Postcolonial Studies at Bremen University.

Ella Shohat is Professor of Art Politics, while Robert Stam is University Professor; both are at New York University. Both are well known for their contributions to such fields as Cultural Studies, Media Studies, and Postcolonial Studies. Professors Ella Shohat and Robert Stam were initially interviewed in Bremen by Melanie Eis, M.A. What follows are elaborated written responses to the questions posed in the original interview concerning their collaborative work.

Question (Melanie Eis): Do you feel there is much resistance in Europe toward postcolonial critique?

Shohat / Stam: There is resistance not so much to postcolonial critique per se as to any shifting away from Eurocentric perspectives. And that resistance exists in most sites, of course in the US but even in such countries as Brazil, where postcolonialism, and more specifically multiculturalism, is sometimes seen as a US export. In the US and the UK, postcolonial critique is fashionable in the academe and can lead to positions in various departments. It is no accident that so many of the best-known postcolonial thinkers work out of the Anglo-American academe, even if they maintain links, when they exist, to their countries of origin. It is hard for us to make any generalizations about Germany, since first we do not speak or read German, and second because we would be biased by the fact that we were located in one of the most vital centers of postcolonial and transcultural work! Nevertheless, our Bremen colleagues tell us that the problem in Germany is less one of resistance to postcolonial theory than to the actual inclusion of postcolonial individuals as professors and colleagues. While postcolonial questions in France and in the UK are directly related to the “colonial karma” that brought formerly colonized peoples to the metropole, in Germany that connection is much less clear, since Turkey, for example, was not really a colony, and Turks and Kurds were never directly colonized by Germany. Yet a diffuse colonial context still shapes the situation, and just as important, the discourses about it.

There are thus nuances within Europe itself. For a number of reasons, there has been considerable resistance to postcolonial currents in France, where until recently, postcolonial theory and critique had formed a kind of structuring absence in French intellectual discourse. It is only now that we find a major visible engagement with “postcolonial studies” (fn.1) in the form of conferences, special issues of journals such as Esprit, Labyrinthe, Rue Descartes, and Mouvements, and book-length studies have begun to treat such subjects as “the colonial fracture,” “the sequels of colonialism,” “the wars of colonial memory” and so forth.

In France, the word “post-colonial” has largely functioned, until recently, as a chronological marker, a synonym for after-independence rather than as the index of a discourse or field of inquiry.(fn.2) For complex reasons most French intellectuals, including on the left, have ignored at best, and maligned at worst, a constellation of inter-related terms and projects such as cultural studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies. In the mid-1990s all these projects were rejected, including by much of the left, in the name of a certain French hostility to Anglo-American currents in general, whether these currents came in the form of multiculturalism (associated in French discourse not only with the US but also broadly with the “Anglo-Saxon model of the communities”), or in the form of cultural studies (associated initially with the UK and later with the Anglophone world generally), or in the form of postcolonial theory (associated partly with the US because of the location of some of the movement’s leading thinkers, but also secondarily with the UK and India). In France, the debates have taken on national-allegorical overtones, both in terms of how France imagined itself and how it imagined other nations.

Yet a number of ironies hover around the longtime French aversion to postcolonial studies in particular. The most obvious and oft-noted irony is that postcolonial studies itself has been very much shaped both by Francophone anti-colonial discourse and by French poststructuralist theory. A second irony is the oft-noted impact of “French theory” not only on leading postcolonial thinkers (Foucault on Said; Derrida on Spivak; Lacan on Bhabha) but on the postcolonial field in general, where references to Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari. Lyotard and de Certeau are ubiquitous.(fn.3) A third irony about the aversion to postcolonial theory is that France in the 1960s and early 1970s had been the epicenter of European “Third Worldism,” precisely the tradition that postcolonial critique was both embedding and “going beyond.” A fourth irony is that contemporary France, as a product of colonial karma, is itself a postcolonial nation par excellence. A final irony is that what might be called “postcolonial debates,” while largely absent from the French academe, have been noisily present in the French public sphere, including in Parliament. Many of the polemics of recent decades have turned, directly or indirectly, around the question of the colonial, often in the most literal sense. Thus a colonial thread runs through a very diverse set of discussions: the debates about the veil, the debates around the commemoration of slavery and abolition, the debates in Parliament about the “beneficial effects of colonialism;” the debates about ethnicity-based statistics and Affirmative Action (pejoratively labeled “la discrimination positive”) a la Francaise and so forth.

Question: It is worth reflecting on the deeper reasons for the initial defensiveness vis-à-vis postcolonial studies in France. What “specific histories,” “historical unconscious,” and “categories of perception and thought” - to use Bourdieu-style language - molded this wariness about the postcolonial?

Shohat / Stam: It is important not to see this question in a stagist and linear way, as if it were merely a question of French intellectuals “getting up to speed.” One reason for the reluctance to join the postcolonial bandwagon arises from what was actually a French intellectual strength, in that France had long been a privileged terrain for such debates, thanks to a vibrant tradition of anti-colonial, anti-neo-colonial, and anti-imperialist writing both by French and Francophone writers. Second, in France, the terrain of the postcolonial was already occupied not by a transdisciplinary field called postcolonial studies but rather by work within the traditional disciplines. As a result, what in the Anglophone world would have been called “postcolonial” in France might be simply called “history” or “anthropology” or “economics” or “law” or “literature.” In literary studies, what was elsewhere called “postcolonial literature” might be called “literature and development,” or “emergent literature” or “Francophone literature.(fn.4) What was lacking, perhaps, was the metatheoretical and transdisciplinary dimension that characterizes postcolonial studies, even though that metatheoretical thrust was partially inspired, at least initially, by French critical theory.

Much of this hostility has changed in recent years, and we now see a surge of writing on topics having to do with race, slavery, postcolonialism and so forth. While only some of the work is performed under the rubric of the “postcolonial,” it is all directly or indirectly related to colonialism and slavery and their aftermath. In terms of basic trends, we find, somewhat schematically: 1) works of witness, which gather evidence of everyday racial exclusion and discrimination as experienced by its victims, who are, in the end, the long-term descendants of colonialism, slavery, and neo-colonialism. It is within this trend that we find the first attempt to found a discipline of French Black Studies, in the form of Pap Ndiaye’s 2008 book La Condition Noire: Essai sur une Minorite Francaise. Second, an enormous body of work focuses on the hidden history of French colonialism and the contradictions inherent in “Republican colonialism.” Third, we find work on colonial/ imperial popular culture as consumed by French citizens within the Hexagon. Fourth, we find work on the “war of memories” spiraling around slavery and colonialism. Fifth, we find extensive work on immigration and discrimination in France. Finally, we find work that questions the western Eurocentric metanarrative in works that examine the impact of colonialism and imperialism on dominant French thought. Building on the earlier work of Cesaire and Fanon, and to a lesser extent on that of Edward Said, we find such books as Odile Tobner’s Du Racisme Francais: Quatre Siecles de Negrophobie, and Alain Ruscio’s Le Credo de L’Homme Blanc.

Question: Could you elaborate on your concept of Eurocentrism, which plays a major role in your co-authored book Unthinking Eurocentrism?

Shohat / Stam: The concept of “Eurocentrism” is often misunderstood, as when our hosts in Europe sometimes introduce us by saying: “They are anti-Eurocentric, yet they write affectionately about European artists and intellectuals.” For us, there is no “yet.” We cite an infinity of progressive European thinkers, from Bartholme de las Casas to Etienne Balibar. We are also pro-European in the sense of favoring the welfare-state social democracies of Europe to the predatory hyper-capitalist US model. But in any case, Eurocentrism is not a synonym for “European.” For us, it refers to western hegemonies rooted in colonialism and imperialism. It refers not to Europe but to a perspective on the relationship between the West and its Others. To avoid confusion, alternative terms might be “westernism,” or “western hegemonism” or “Occidentalism” as a monological way of looking at the world, one that embeds many arbitrary hierarchies. Europeans can be non-Eurocentric, and non-Europeans can be Eurocentric. It is not Eurocentric to love Proust, and to go to bed early reading À la Recherche du Temps Perdu - but it is Eurocentric to use Proust as a stick to beat up Zulus. It is not Eurocentric to teach the canon; it is Eurocentric not to notice that the Caribbean is “in” The Tempest, that Belgian colonialism is “in” Heart of Darkness, that the native American is “in” the Renaissance, that debates about Haiti are “in” the French revolution, and so forth.

“Eurocentrism” is also not a synonym for “racism.” The term is falsely seen as a “gotcha” accusation, as when people respond to our work with the reverse “gotcha,” expressed in endless variations on the following sentence: “While criticizing Eurocentrism, aren’t you still being Eurocentric when … Aren’t you still being inside the system you are criticizing?” Such formulations suggest that there is a simple binarism between the West and the Rest, when the whole thrust of our work argues for looking into the overlapping syncretisms that predate even modernity. We do not believe the world lines up easily into the bad Eurocentrics on one side and good non-Eurocentrics on the other. Identity and location do not preclude Eurocentrism. Even the “Black Jacobins” who created the first black led revolution in Haiti could be seen as Eurocentric in that they looked down on Africa. Eurocentrism is not usually an explicit ideology but rather part of the discursive and mediatic atmosphere. Our critique of Eurocentrism does not propose a nostalgic return to some pre-European mode of thought, nor a utopian projection of a post-European future; it is meant as a cognitive prod, a non-segregationist way of thinking that hopes to prod critical projects into relational enunciations - where a kind of translational zone would be at the core of the critique. It is a way of seeing Europe and non-Europe, coloniality and modernity, East and West, South and North, as mutually imbricated and mutually constitutive within asymmetrical relations of power.

Question: Why could you not just say colonialism?

Shohat / Stam: For us, the term “Eurocentrism” points to the ideological substratum common to colonialist, imperialist, and racist discourse; a substratum that still undergirds, permeates and organizes many contemporary discourses, practices and representations - even after the formal end of colonialism. While “colonialist discourse” explicitly justifies colonialist practices, Eurocentric discourse takes for granted and “normalizes” the hierarchical power relations generated by colonialism and imperialism, without necessarily even thematizing those issues directly. We argued that Eurocentrism's links to the colonizing process are obscured within a buried epistemology. Like phallocentrism, Eurocentrism can be an implicit or unconscious way of organizing the world into systems of knowledge around Europe.

Question: Are not all cultures "multicultural" today?

Shohat / Stam: In a sense, yes, and that is very visible in Germany. But for us the idea of multiculturalism does not mean simply the fact of “many cultures.” We distinguish between de facto multiculturalism and multiculturalism as a political and epistemological project, one especially important in the Black Atlantic countries. For us, the concept of multiculturalism has to be defined in relation to colonialism and Eurocentrism. Without that relationality it becomes the kind of feel-good pablum derided by Marxist critics. Furthermore, the very word “multiculturalism” came in the 1990s to be the word that summed up what was actually a vast constellation of discourses and adversary forms of scholarship, including critical race theory, postcolonial studies, transnational feminism and scores of others. The caricature of multicultural scholarship as a naive celebration of the many cultures of the world, all dancing around the maypole, points to the ignorance about the hundreds of scholarly books performing legal, philosophical, historical, literary, or ethnographic investigation, and complicating the taken-for-granted production of knowledge. We refer to this work as the” left multicultural corpus,” and it is that corpus that is often ignored by critics. Many of us have criticized certain liberal versions of multiculturalism. At the same time, we need to be aware how the attacks on multiculturalism by right-wing and some leftist intellectuals serve to reproduce Eurocentric premises and power. Ultimately, we can say that the heated debate over multiculturalism suggests that the term is a sliding signifier onto which conflicting anxieties and hopes are projected. In any case, we prefer the term polycentrism - which evokes a decentering and dispersal of power - to multiculturalism.

Question: Could you say a few words about your current work?

Shohat / Stam: Our current work, The Culture Wars in Translation, will explore the various ways in which North American, Latin American (especially Brazilian) and European (especially French) intellectuals have formulated these debates over race, multiculturalism, etc.. The debates, we argue, must be seen in transnational terms, within a relational framework that transcends the confines of single national geographies. Our specific goal is to develop a historicized, poly-chronotopic and relational approach by seeing the culture wars against the broader backdrop of the history of an Atlantic World shaped by the violent “encounter” between Europe and indigenous America, by the exploitation and transplanting of African labor, and by the evolving attempts to go beyond “master-race democracy” to full, participatory, polyphonic equality.

Our larger goal has been to forge a relational method for charting the transnational movement of ideas and debates across various cultural geographies and national borders. What often gets lost in these debates is the actual work, which “flies” under diverse names and rubrics - critical race theory, radical pedagogy, revisionist history, border theory, critical multiculturalism, subaltern studies, comparative diaspora studies, transnational feminism, postcolonial theory and so forth. But they all share a common element - a radically critical and transdisciplinary engagement with the legacies of colonialism, slavery, imperialism, racism and Eurocentrism. For us, what such projects have in common is various forms and paths to destabilize the naturalized, or even unconscious, norms of Eurocentric epistemology.

Throughout The Culture Wars in Translation we are concerned with the ways that cultural and ideological debates move across borders; the ways that they are translated, both literally and figuratively. We ask what anxieties and hopes are provoked by words such as “race” and “multiculturality” and “postcoloniality” in diverse national, institutional, and discursive contexts. What happens in the movement of debates from one geographical space and cultural semantics into another? We try to identify the rubrics and “keywords” that multicultural and postcolonial work performed in diverse spaces. We focus on the ways the terms themselves shift their political and epistemological valence as they “travel” or as they become “out of place.” We examine how contemporary debates were anticipated by debates during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Intellectual arguments about cultural geographies are themselves shaped within specific sites, and the ways national comparisons and contrasts are mobilized tell us something about the premises, or the anxieties and projections that come into play.

Question: What role does hybridization play in a critical rethinking of traditional fields of knowledge? How does this complication of the issue of “the West versus the Rest” carry over to individual disciplines like art history?

Shohat / Stam: Within the discipline of art history, “art” has traditionally meant Western art. Artwork from Asia, Africa and the Americas is viewed as the domain of the respective “area studies,” or of the field of anthropology. (Often the required languages for a Ph.D. degree in art history tend to be English, French, German and Italian; even Spanish tends to be excluded, not to mention non-European languages.) As we know, art in the West is deeply linked to the idea of the individual artist’s signature and to the Museum as an institution. Art in many other parts of the world had a different kind of history; it was not segregated from everyday life or cultural practices, and formed an integral part of various cosmologies. As such, this kind of art could not be subsumed under the aura of “Art” (with a capital A) within the museum space. The term “artifact” signified objects that were inferior to “Art,” and therefore were displayed in separate sections or museums - folklore or natural history. Art history, as a field, is embedded in such distinctions. This terminological distinction is classed and raced, and has its origins in Eurocentric, capitalist-colonialist modes of seeing the world. Even the very idea of the Museum has to be understood in the context of colonialism. The Museum emerges in conjunction with transporting new “exotic” objects from the “discovered” continents of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Categorizing and classifying this wealth of new objects were ways of mastering their foreignness, and defining the West vis-à-vis the rest. The ethnographic museum, the exposition, the circus and the fair - all exhibited objects, plants, animals and people from the colonized world. The ethnographic museum, such as the Musée de l'Homme in Paris or the Museum of Natural History in New York, has allotted a space for the “Other,” signifying an inferior culture. In contrast, the “Art Museum” exhibited the subjecthood of the Western artist as an individual genius creator. In other words, the Museum contains in its foundation an epistemological project, with a rather ambivalent genealogy.

We have also been concerned with the stagist discourse on the sequencing of the history of the arts and aesthetics. This field is framed around a linear meta-narrative: realism leads to modernism, which leads to post-modernism, where everything else is assumed to be pale copies of European originals; where the “Rest” (the non-West) follows the cultural innovations of the West, the so-called “advanced world.” This temporality is totally questionable, since realism was not an aesthetic that was dominant in most parts of the world. The avant-garde rebellion against modernism has to be seen as a local European rebellion, rather than as a universal transformation. Aesthetic ideas have always traveled in multiple directions, in parallel fashion or crisscrossing each other. Even the notion of modernist avant-garde cannot be narrativized in a vacuum without taking into account all these kinds of cross-cultural dialogues. At the very same period when the European avant-garde was experimenting with breaking away from mimesis, colonial Western institutions were spreading institutionalized mimesis to the colonies as an artistically superior mode to the “local” aesthetics. Verism was genealogically linked to the discourse of modernization - a discourse shared by both imperialist and nationalist ideologies. As appendages to the modernization project, art schools were founded in cities like Istanbul, Alexandria and Beirut. Artists of the “Orient” were learning to “disorient” regional aesthetics by mimicking Western styles of mimesis. Figurative art signaled a world in transition, in contrast to the largely abstract art of Islam, now rendered “traditional,” an obsolescent practice that would inevitably have to be abandoned in favor of the forces of progress. Within this melioristic meta-narrative, mimesis conveyed not merely learning a mode of artistic technique, but also the process of becoming conversant with the aesthetic and cultural norms of so-called Western modernity.

In this strange rendezvous between “East” and “West,” realistic aesthetics signified modernity; while non-figurative art was implicitly cast as archaic. But such an encounter generates some fascinating paradoxes. During the same period that the “Orient” was learning realism, the “Occident” was unlearning it. The ideology of political and economic modernization found its aesthetic corollary not in avant-garde modernism, but rather in realism. In the same period that the modernist avant-garde was rebelling against mimesis, opting for new modes of abstract, geometric and minimalist representation, Arab-Muslim aesthetic practices were moving toward mimesis as an integral part of modernity. The introduction of aesthetic modernization in the Middle East was done as though this geography existed in a different temporal stage of history, without links to its contemporaneous modernist experimentation with the new languages of Futurism, Surrealism and Cubism - even as, ironically, these Western movements were borrowing and dialoguing with diverse non-mimetic aesthetics. The so-called non-West has not only been cast out of the meta-narrative of art history, but also presented within a developmental discourse - seeming to always lag behind. But it is a whole other matter if we move beyond such segregationist intellectual paradigms, viewing cultures as heteroglossic, rather than hermetically sealed off from one another. In a sense, our scholarly project is to offer a multi-perspectival approach, a kind of a “Cubist” re-reading of the multi-directional travel of aesthetic ideas.

Question: Could you say a few words about your Bremen experience? How do you see the role of this kind of international exchange?

Shohat / Stam: Apart from the fact that we enjoyed ourselves immensely, and enjoyed meeting the colleagues and the students, we would also like to say we are very impressed by the work of INPUTS. The role of INPUTS in providing a space for a critique of colonialism within Cultural Studies strikes us as very important. The different axes of stratification included for analysis here make us really believe in the work the institute is doing. It is really hard to create interdisciplinary spaces at universities. The conservative backlash against investment in education has affected many disciplines. Many of our colleagues face difficulties when they try to bring together different regions and disciplines. Keeping the status quo becomes a question of hiring and of who gets into PhD programs One reason why we believe in INPUTS is because people associated with it try to intervene in the world. The question is what the value of academic production of knowledge is. Are we studying in order to be able to question how the world is and to be able to transform it, or are we studying merely for the sake of studying? If you are working to understand and maybe change the status quo, you may be attacked for not being objective, or moralistic or romantic and ideological. If you produce critical work, for some this is a mark of non-scholarly activity. But anger is the beginning of thinking.

Selected Bibliography

Ella Shohat

Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices (Duke University Press, 2006)

Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (University of Texas Press, 1989)

Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age (MIT & The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998)

Robert Stam

Literature through Film: Realism, Magic and the Art of Adaptation (Blackwell, 2005)

Film Theory: An Introduction (Blackwell, 2000)

Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture (Duke University Press, 1997)

Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989)

Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard.  (UMI, 1985, Reprinted Columbia Press, 1992)

Brazilian Cinema (with Randal Johnson, Columbia University Press, 1995)

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam

Unthinking Eurocentrism (Routledge, 1994)

Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality and Transnational Media (Rutgers University Press, 2003)

Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism (Routledge, 2007)

Currently they are in the final stages of writing Culture Wars in Translation (to be published by NYU press).


  1. On context, we will speak of “postcolonialism”, “postcolonial theory”.
  2. Anglophone theorists often distinguish between “post-colonial” as chronological marker and “postcolonial”, sans hyphen, as referring to the theory: “postcolonial critique”, ”postcolonial studies” etc.
  3. See Michael Dash, “Postcolonial Thought and the Francophone Carribean”, in Charles Forsdick and David Murphy, ed.s, Francophone Postcolonial Studies: A Critical Introduction (London: Arnold, 2003), 231.
  4. See for example, Bernard Mouralis, Literature et Developement (Paris: Silex, 1999) or Jean-Marie Grassin, Litteratures Emergentes (Bern/Berlin: Peter Lang, 1996).