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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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,
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
Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism (Routledge,
Currently they are in the final stages of writing Culture Wars in Translation
(to be published by NYU press).
- On context, we will speak of “postcolonialism”, “postcolonial theory”.
- Anglophone theorists often distinguish between “post-colonial” as chronological
marker and “postcolonial”, sans hyphen, as referring to the theory: “postcolonial
critique”, ”postcolonial studies” etc.
- 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.
- See for example, Bernard Mouralis, Literature et Developement (Paris: Silex,
1999) or Jean-Marie Grassin, Litteratures Emergentes (Bern/Berlin: Peter Lang, 1996).