Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 21

Millennium - Journal of International Studies

Provincialising IR? Deadlocks and Prospects in Post-Western IR Theory

Rosa Vasilaki

Millennium - Journal of International Studies 2012 41: 3 originally published online 11 July


DOI: 10.1177/0305829812451720

Published by:

d at: http://mil.sagepub.com/content/41/1/3 Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com On behalf of: Millennium

On behalf of:

Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com On behalf of: Millennium Publishing House, LSE Additional services and

Additional services and information for Millennium - Journal of International Studies can be found at:

>> Version of Record - Aug 22, 2012

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013

Northedge Prize Essay MILLENNIUM Journal of International Studies
Northedge Prize Essay MILLENNIUM Journal of International Studies

Northedge Prize Essay

Northedge Prize Essay MILLENNIUM Journal of International Studies


Journal of International Studies

Provincialising IR? Deadlocks and Prospects in Post-Western IR Theory

Rosa Vasilaki

University of Bristol, UK

Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1) 3–22 © The Author(s) 2012 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co. uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0305829812451720 mil.sagepub.com

DOI: 10.1177/0305829812451720 mil.sagepub.com Abstract In recent years, IR has been increasingly


In recent years, IR has been increasingly influenced by the critics of Eurocentric assumptions of the epistemologies of social science. The awareness of the perspectival nature of knowledge and the emphasis on aspects of colonialism previously unaccounted for, such as epistemological imperialism, led to the flourishing of approaches which, despite their differences, are connected by their common interest in subaltern voices and suppressed knowledges, their anti-hegemonic inclination, and their emphasis on the emancipation of the Other. Post-Western IR theory is largely the offspring of such theoretical investigations and shares the ethical concerns of this critical tradition. The article identifies three strands of post-Western engagement: pluralism, particularism and postcolonialism. It focuses on postcolonialism because of the radical promise it represents on the one hand, and of the disconcerting implications of its epistemology on the other. Through the engagement with one of the most significant post-Western epistemological projects, Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, the article demonstrates why the ‘post-Western’ question as dealt with by postcolonialism is a compelling conundrum for critical thinking. This is because the ultimately postsecular stance and singularising ethics adopted by such approaches are paralysing for the practice of social science and for a relational consideration of alterity, which can be served more efficiently by reference to a genuine universalism.


critical IR theory, postcolonialism, postsecularism

This article is the winner of the F. S. Northedge Essay Competition 2012. The Northedge Essay Competition was established in 1986 in memory of one of the founders of Millennium, Professor F.S. Northedge. It furthers a Millennium tradition of publishing well-argued student work in a journal open to new issues and innovative approaches to International Relations. It is open to students currently pursuing or who have recently completed a degree in International Relations or a related field. The winner is chosen on the basis of the essay’s contribution to the advancement of the field, originality of the argument and scholarly presentation.


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

The Emergence of Post-Western IR

Somewhat belatedly though nonetheless steadily, IR has been taking on board the critiques of Euro- or Western-centric assumptions upon which the epistemologies of modern social sciences and humanities are constructed. The so-called ‘return of culture and identity in IR theory’ 1 was marked by an increased awareness of the perspectival nature of scientific knowledge and the ways in which power is always entangled in the creation of our ‘regimes of truth’. The interest in the Other – postcolonial, Third World, subaltern, feminine, non-secular, religious and so on – and the motivation to establish a less hierarchical, or more egalitarian, relationship between the West and the non-West have been a central preoccupation after the poststructuralist turn for thinkers across disciplines and continents. It is this interest in alterity and ways of relating and account- ing for the Other in a non-hegemonic manner that motivates theoretical discussions about the ‘post-Western’ within IR theory. Whether discussed as a plea for ‘responsible scholarship’ with a greater engagement with ethical issues, 2 as ‘reflexivity in practice’, 3 whether framed as a ‘problem of values’, 4 or as a rejection of positivist ethos, 5 an impor- tant shift towards an overt politicisation of the discipline seems to have been taking place in IR since Cox’s famous statement that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’. 6 To understand the conceptual origin of ideas associated with the variety of projects seeking to de-Westernise, or decolonise, the epistemology of social science, we need to situate them within the larger framework of the critique of Eurocentrism, which cuts across the areas of ‘post’ academic knowledge. For the purposes of our analysis, Eurocentrism here is broadly construed as a set of practices – scientific, cultural, political – which overtly (mostly in the era of colonial imperialism) or tacitly (mostly in the postcolonial era) seek to establish and maintain the primacy of post-Enlightenment European political and epistemic culture at the expense of alternative political systems and epistemologies. As such, the critique of Eurocentrism has encompassed more or less the whole field of humanities and social sciences from the late 1970s onwards:

1. Yosef Lapid and Freidrich Kratochwil, The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory (Boulder, CO and London: Lynne Rienner, 1996). For an early discussion about the recognition of culture as being at the centre of the nature of power in IR, see Ali A. Mazrui, Cultural Forces in World Politics (London:

Heinemann, 1990) as well as Peter Worsley, The Three Worlds: Culture and World Development (London:

Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984).

2. J. Ann Tickner and Andrei P. Tsygankof, ‘Responsible Scholarship in International Relations’, International Studies Review 10 (2008): 661–6.

3. Brooke Ackerly and Jacqui True, ‘Reflexivity in Practice: Power and Ethics in Feminist Research on International Relations’, International Studies Review 10 (2008): 693–707.

4. Inanna Hamati-Ataya, ‘The “Problem of Values” and International Relations Scholarship: From Applied Reflexivity to Reflexivism’, International Studies Review 13 (2011): 259–87.

5. Anna M. Agathangelou and L.H.M. Ling, ‘The House of IR: From Family Power Politics to the Poisies of Worldism’, International Studies Review 6, no. 4 (2004): 21–49. For a discussion of the first attempts to articulate a post-positivist movement within IR, see Yosef Lapid, ‘The Third Debate: On the Prospects of International Theory in a Post-Positivist Era’, International Studies Quarterly 33, no. 3 (1989): 236–54.

6. Robert W. Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert O. Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986 [1981]), 204–54, 207.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



sociology, anthropology, feminism, postcolonialism, decolonial thinking, cultural studies, multiculturalism, race and ethnicity studies, slavery studies, political science, and IR have all been influenced, reconceived and in some cases entirely articulated on the basis of the critique of Eurocentrism. The critique of Eurocentrism initially devel- oped as a variety of political economy critique with obvious Marxist leanings 7 and underlines essentially all variants of dependency theory. 8 However, it really gained momentum after its association with the intellectual movement of postmodernism/ poststructuralism from which it drew core epistemological dispositions, such as the questioning of bedrock assumptions of social science practice, like objectivity or value- free scientific enquiry, the primacy of reason over alternative systems of thought and knowledge (mainly religion), the emancipatory potential of knowledge, and the pos- sibility of reaching truth through scientific enquiry. Furthermore, anti-Eurocentrism opposed both liberal and Marxist forms of historical explanation which saw modernity and science as inevitably arising within the Western Enlightenment culture and the associated idea that the West/Europe held a unique or exceptional – read superior – position against what has been called ‘the Rest’, ‘the Other’, ‘the underdeveloped’ or ‘the premodern’. In that sense, anti-Eurocentrism opposed all forms of historical neces- sity by insisting on the contingent nature of change and the inevitable hegemonic expe- diency lurking behind all forms of teleological analysis of human history.

Three Tales of the ‘Post-Western’ in IR

In the field of IR, anti-Eurocentric critique was expressed as a rejection of the ‘Westphalian narrative’ 9 and the associated principles of sovereignty and secularism as the dominant normative framework for understanding international history and politics. Like in other cognate disciplines, the realisation of the perspectival and ultimately hegemonic nature of knowledge produced by reason and science and the radical questioning of the founda- tional premises of IR – revisionist theorists with varying theoretical allegiances have

7. Such as Amin’s foundational work on Eurocentrism: Samir Amin, Eurocentrism (London: Zed Books,


8. The seminal example here would be Immanuel Wallerstein’s volumes on the Modern World System: The Modern World System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (Burlington, CA and London: Academic Press, 1981 [1974]); The Modern World System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750 (Burlington, CA and London: Academic Press, 1980); The Modern World System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730–1840s (Burlington, CA and London: Academic Press, 1989).

9. See Turan Kayaoglu’s critique of the ‘Westphalian narrative’ as the product of German historians and con- sequently of imperial international jurists: ‘Westphalian Eurocentrism in International Relations Theory’, International Studies Review 12 (2010): 193–217. However, despite the potency and pervasiveness of Westphalian Eurocentrism, it is also recognised that ‘the West’ is a ‘putative entity’ which contains con- tradictions: Naoki Sakai, ‘The West – A Dialogic Prescription or Proscription?’, Social Identities 11, no. 3 (2005): 177–95. As a result, Western hegemony is not a unified phenomenon (i.e. the West versus the non- West) but it also develops as an antagonism between Europe and the US and even as a process of ‘othering’ Europe in the case of American exceptionalism: Meghana V. Nayak and Christopher Malone, ‘American Orientalism and Exceptionalism: A Critical Rethinking of US Hegemony’, International Studies Review 11 (2009): 253–76.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

even called the ‘Westphalian narrative’ a myth 10 – generated an identity crisis of the discipline; even its more critical strand was found to be ‘subliminally Eurocentric’ despite being critical of the West. 11 The emergence of ‘post-Western IR’ as a result of the realisation of what has been called ‘the failure of IR as an intellectual project’ 12 is located within the intellectual space which seeks to break free from the ‘Westphalian straightjacket’ 13 and to re- imagine a non-hegemonic, decentred IR theory. Three partially overlapping lines of theoretical engagement can be distinguished within the new intellectual space of post-Western IR: pluralism, particularism and postcolonialism. It goes without saying that these attempts overlap, coexist and their logical extensions lead to each other, because they are originating politically in the same source: the critique of the West in social and human sciences. However, my focus here is the postcolonial strand, and most precisely its underlying foundations and their political implications. This is because the first two strands, despite their rhetorical commitment to the decentring of the West and the anti-hegemonic stance this presupposes, cannot fulfil the radical thrust of the ‘post-Western’ which stands for something different altogether from the benign inclusion of ‘other points of view’, as I will try to demonstrate below. By plu- ralism, I refer to the trend most notably represented by Acharya and Buzan 14 and Buzan and Little. 15 The theoretical pluralism of these works seeks to democratise IR by open- ing up a space where parallel stories can be told without being thought as mutually exclusive and without making absolute normative or ethical claims, but by simply sharing the terrain of IR and looking at ‘what kind of configuration the combination of all of them produces’. 16 By particularism, I refer to a body of literature that seeks to distinguish itself from mainstream IR by prioritising local or cultural standpoints and systems of thought. Often represented as a ‘school of thought’ – for example, ‘Asian’, 17

10. Stephane Beaulac, ‘The Westphalian Model in Defining International Law: Challenging the Myth’, Australian Journal of Legal History 7, no. 2 (2004): 181–213; Andreas Osiander, ‘Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth’, International Organization 55, no. 2 (2001): 251–88; Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2003).

11. John M. Hobson, ‘Is Critical Theory Always for the White West and for Western Imperialism? Beyond Westphalian towards a Post-Racist Critical IR’, Review of International Studies 33 (2007): 91–116, 93.

12. Barry Buzan and Richard Little, ‘Why International Relations Has Failed as an Intellectual Project and What to Do about It’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 30, no. 1 (2001): 19–39.

13. Buzan and Little, ‘Why International Relations Has Failed’, 25.

14. Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, eds, Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives on and beyond Asia (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2010).

15. Barry Buzan and Richard Little, ‘Why International Relations Has Failed’. Similar concerns about the Eurocentrism of IR theory are expressed also in Barry Buzan and Richard Little, International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

16. Buzan and Little, ‘Why International Relations Has Failed’, 38.

17. Stephen Chan, Peter Mandaville and Roland Bleiker, eds, The Zen of International Relations: IR Theory from East to West (London: Palgrave, 2001).

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



‘African’, 18 ‘Chinese’, 19 ‘Japanese’, 20 ‘Indian’ 21 – this literature shares both the cri- tique of Western hegemony and an emphasis on the uniqueness of a particular region, nation or culture and its international role within the world order. Both these stances make a problematical assumption: IR – or any other field for that matter – is not getting post-Westernised or decolonised, and in that sense less hierarchical, by simply opening an intellectual space where more non-Western views can be aired (pluralism) or because various forms of particularisms (local or cultural IR) are elevated into univer- salisms. On the one hand, particularism per se is not a guarantee of non-hegemonic or democratised IR. These regional IR schools are often the mirror-image of the logic underpinning Western dominance: based on the idea of uniqueness of a ‘special’ civi- lisation, culture or nation, its ‘special’ place in the world and its ‘special’ mission, they often produce their own versions of hegemony and imperialism. 22 On the other hand, pluralism brings together, pell-mell, non-Western traditions and integrates them in its own Western, modernist logic which is not really modified as a result of its contact with, the ‘Other’. Pluralism operates more or less like the idea of ‘multiple modernities’, 23 which, as Bhambra convincingly argues, may acknowledge the multiplicity of cultural forms of modernity but does nothing to address the fundamental problems with the conceptualisation of modernity itself. 24 In that sense, theoretical pluralism – like mul- ticulturalism, which is its political expression – cannot fulfil the radical promise of ‘post-Western’ epistemology. If the ‘post-Western’ project is taken seriously, that is, theoretically rigorously, then it needs to move both beyond the elevation of local

18. Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw, eds, Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory (New York: Palgrave, 2001). For an engagement with ‘Africanist critique’ from the point of view of defence of IR theory, see William Brown, ‘Africa and International Relations: A Comment on IR Theory, Anarchy and Statehood’, Review of International Studies 32 (2006): 119–43.

19. Qin Yaqing, ‘Development of International Relations Theory in China’, International Studies 46, nos 1–2 (2009): 185–201; Tingyang Zhao, ‘Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept “All-under-Heaven” (Tian-xia)’, Social Identities 12, no. 1 (2006): 29–41.

20. Takashi Inoguchi, ‘Are There Any Theories of International Relations in Japan?’, International Relations of the Asia Pacific 7, no. 3 (2007): 369–90; Kosuke Shimizu, ‘Nishida Kitaro and Japan’s Interwar Foreign Policy: War Involvement and Culturalist Political Discourse’, Working Paper Series 44, Afrasian Centre for Peace and Development Studies, Ryukoku University (2009): 1–20.

21. Navnita Chadha Behera, ‘Re-Imagining IR in India’, International Relations of the Asia Pacific 7, no. 3 (2007): 341–68.

22. See, for instance, William A. Callahan’s discussion of the Chinese concept of Tianxia as presenting a new hegemony that reproduces China’s hierarchical empire for the 21st century, rather than point- ing towards a post-hegemonic world: ‘Chinese Visions of World Order: Post-hegemonic or a New Hegemony?’, International Studies Review 10 (2008): 749–61. See also Josuke Ikeda’s discussion of the Japanese IR school’s development either as an ‘imperialist discourse justifying colonial rule over East Asia, as an internationalist discourse with clear postwar purpose of “occupying an honoured posi- tion in international society” (Preamble, The Constitution of Japan), or as a pacifist discourse pursuing the abolishment of nuclear weapons’: ‘The Post-Western Turn in International Theory and the English School’, The International Studies Association of Ritsumeikan University: Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies 9 (2010): 29–44, 37.

23. Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, ed., Multiple Modernities (London: Transaction Publishers, 2002).

24. Gurminder K. Bhambra, Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

particularisms to universalisms and beyond the idea of a generalised pluralism, beyond ‘the addition of more voices’. 25 This is exactly what postcolonialism promises by setting as its critical task to ques- tion and subvert those relations of domination that conventional IR takes for granted and even strands of critical IR, as explained above, fail to deconstruct in a radical man- ner. Postcolonialism is indeed the privileged domain of the post-Western: even if the questioning of the progressive and benign-only character of modernity and the stress on the pitfalls of Eurocentric thinking and politics is a recurrent intellectual phenom- enon in the 20th century, postcolonialism pioneered in linking the critique of reason and progress with the anticolonial struggles 26 – and, more broadly, with the question of the ‘non-West’ – on the one hand, and poststructuralist insights which exposed the inextricable relationship between knowledge/science and hegemony/power on the other. Despite the fact that its reception was not unanimously enthusiastic within criti- cal IR theory quarters, 27 postcolonialism has made an important breakthrough in prob- lematising the relationship between knowledge and power and in exposing the political, ideological nature of positivist Western IR. Postcolonial theorists invited IR to listen to the ‘voice of the dispossessed’, to those ‘who had been stripped of their authority, cul- ture, and history’, 28 ‘to confront its Eurocentrism, its silence about race and its erasure of colonial violence and dispossession’ 29 and ‘to create space for imagining alternative orders’. 30 More recently, and largely driven by the project of postcolonialism, a number of scholars reclaimed the ‘non-Western’ as the domain where the relations of domination sustained by the West could be more effectively challenged and subverted. Inayatullah and Blaney argued that ‘the more fundamental and challenging task is to explain why

25. Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, ‘Conclusion: On the Possibility of a Non-Western IR Theory in Asia?’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 7 (2007): 427–38, 427.

26. The distinction between anti-colonial and postcolonial thinking has been itself a point of friction in scholarly debates, a crucial difference being that anti-colonial thinking saw the relationship between coloniser and colonised in clear opposition, whereas postcolonial thinking tends to problematise this relationship. Indeed, thinkers who are recognised today as part of the postcolonial canon, such as Fanon, fall – from a strictly theoretical perspective – into the category of anti-colonial rather than postcolonial thinking. According to Chakrabarty, there is considerable overlap between the two currents by engaging with those registers of thinking of anti-colonial thinkers which revolve around questions of hybridity, difference and anti-essentialism, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Anti-colonial History of the Postcolonial Turn: Essays in Memory of Greg Dening’, Melbourne Historical Journal 37 (2009): 1–23.

27. Despite the widespread recognition of postcolonialism as a critical voice of the marginalised Other, the movement was also met with criticism for its own ‘Western-centrism’ because the critical thrust of its methodology is rooted in Western theoretical thinking: Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, ‘Why Is There No Western International Relations Theory?’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 7 (2007):


28. Phillip Darby and A.J. Paolini, ‘Bridging International Relations and Postcolonialism’, Alternatives:

Global, Local, Political 19, no. 3 (1994): 371–97, 393.

29. Phillip Darby, ‘Pursuing the Political: A Postcolonial Rethinking of Relations International’, Millennium:

Journal of International Studies 33, no. 1 (2004): 1–32, 3.

30. Sankaran Krishna, ‘The Importance of Being Ironic: A Postcolonial View on Critical International Relations Theory’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 18, no. 3 (1993): 385–417, 396.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



IR fails to confront seriously the role of colonialism, neo-colonialism and various post- colonial responses to colonialism and its legacies’ and suggested a ‘gesture towards a post-Western IR’. 31 Pasha and Murphy problematised the reigning inequality within IR by questioning the process of realist knowledge production itself ‘as constitutive of international relations’ despite ‘gestures of recognizing difference, resistance and coun- termovement’. 32 Chowdhry and Nair addressed the intersectionality of race, class and gender in the production of IR based on ‘the premise that imperialism constitutes a criti- cal historical conjuncture in which postcolonial national identities are constructed in opposition to European ones, and come to be understood as Europe’s others’. 33 Tickner and Wæver tasked themselves to ‘bring to light how IR knowledge is shaped by the privileging of the core over the periphery and the formation of the key concepts based solely on core practices’. 34 Shilliam, starting also with the premise that ‘imperialism and colonialism have from the start been co-constitutive processes of the typical under- stood routes into modernity, namely the development of the capitalist world market and the system of states’, engaged with the global context within which knowledge of modernity has been developed. 35 In the same line of thinking, Seth invited us to exam- ine the ways in which international society was shaped by the interactions between Europe and those it colonised and asserted that ‘in this regard, any satisfactory account would be a postcolonial one’. 36 There is remarkable strength in these arguments and their political legitimacy cannot be denied. However, I would like to argue that the subversion of relations of domination targeted by postcolonialism is ultimately hindered by the embedded postsecular orienta- tion of its epistemology, by the way it conceptualises the nexus of history, historicity and historicism, and, finally, by the way subaltern subjectivities are assumed and reduced to their religious beliefs. I also argue that the political aspirations of postcolonialism are better served by reference to a genuinely universalist logic, which prioritises relationality, instead of the logic of radical singularity to which the convergence of postcolonialism with postsecularism leads. What I will try to articulate below is a sympathetic critique from someone who shares the anti-hegemonic politics, critical thrust and intellectual challenge of anti-Eurocentrism as expressed by postcolonialism but who does not agree on the (epistemological) means. More precisely, I take issue with the postsecular stance which postcolonial epistemology endorses. Postsecularism, which is often used as an umbrella-term for ideas and ideologies arguing that Western secularism – as an

31. Naeem Inayatullah and David L. Blaney, International Relations and the Problem of Difference (London and New York: Taylor and Francis Books, 2004), 2, 4.

32. Mustapha Kamal Pasha and Craig N. Murphy, eds, International Relations and the New Inequality (Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 3, 6.

33. Geeta Chowdhry and Sheila Nair, eds, Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations: Reading Race, Gender and Class (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 2.

34. Arlene B. Tickner and Ole Wæver, eds, International Relations Scholarship around the World (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2009), 1.

35. Robbie Shilliam, ed., International Relations and Non-Western Thought: Imperialism, Colonialism and Investigations of Global Modernity (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2011), 4.

36. Sanjay Seth, ‘Postcolonial Theory and the Critique of Postcolonial Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40, no. 1 (2011): 167–83, 174.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

organising principle of modern Western states, as a value which regulates the domain of politics and public space, and, more importantly for our focus here, as an epistemo- logical ethos which separates reason from faith and prioritises logically the social over the supernatural – may have or should come to an end. Within IR, this theoretical strand is distinctive in the sense of shifting the emphasis in the critique of the ‘Westphalian narrative’ from questions of sovereignty to ques- tions of secularism, in line with the recent growing interest in postsecular debates across the social sciences. 37 Scholars like Barbato have argued that global justice can be better served through a narrative which is inspired by the concept of postsecular as articulated by Jürgen Habermas and which draws its semantics from religion, 38 whereas Thomas argued that ‘prayer, meditation and contemplation are of the utmost importance for the promotion of social change and political transformation in IR’ because for ‘people from the global South’, ‘living faithfully’ and ‘living critically’ cannot be separated. 39 Even if these postsecular interventions are not explicitly articu- lated in the name of postcolonialism, they nonetheless originate in its political rhetoric and imaginary, that is, the one which is inspired by emancipation, justice and resistance. Shani’s effort to build a post-Western IR via an engagement with Islamism and Shikhism as critical political discourses from within the non-Western traditions is a typical example of the convergence between the two lines of critique, that is, postco- lonialism and postsecularism. 40 What distinguishes this postsecular turn in IR from the

37. Rosi Braidotti, ‘In Spite of Times: The Postsecular Turn in Feminism’, Theory, Culture and Society 26, no. 6 (2008): 1–24; Gregor McLennan, ‘Toward Postsecular Sociology?’, Sociology 41, no. 5 (2007):

857–70; Gregor McLennan, ‘The Postsecular Turn’, Theory, Culture and Society 27, no. 3 (2010): 3–20.

38. Mariano Pasquale Barbato, ‘Conceptions of the Self for Post-secular Emancipation: Towards a Pilgrim’s Guide to Global Justice’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39, no. 2 (2010): 547–64.

39. Scott M. Thomas, ‘Living Critically and “Living Faithfully” in a Global Age: Justice, Emancipation and the Political Theology of International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Relations 39, no. 2 (2010): 505–24, 506.

40. Giorgio Shani, “A Revolt against the West”: Politicized Religion and the International Order: A Comparison of the Islamic Umma and the Sikh Qaum’, Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies, The International Studies Association of Ritsumeikan University, 1 (2002): 15–31; Giorgio Shani, ‘“Provincializing” Critical Theory: Islam, Sikhism and International Relations Theory’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 20, no. 3 (2007): 417–33; Giorgio Shani, ‘Toward a Post-Western IR:

The Umma, Khalsa Panth, and Critical International Relations Theory’, International Studies Review 10 (2008): 722–34. Incidentally it should be noted here that Shani, in this series of articles, makes the case for post-Western IR focusing on an assumed ‘cosmopolitanism’ of Islamism and Sikhism. At least in the case of Islamism, Shani seems to take for granted Sayyid’s (Salman Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear:

Islamism and the Emergence of Eurocentrism [London: Zed Books, 2003 (1997)]) conceptualisation of Muslim political subjectivity and the nature of the Islamist political project. As I argue elsewhere (Rosa Vasilaki, ‘Between Postcolonialism and Radical Historicism: The Contested Muslim Political Subject’, in Postcolonialism and Islam, eds Geoffrey Nash et al. [Routledge: London and New York, forthcom- ing]), the deployment of radical rhetoric and the political attitude of resistance to/rejection of the West in Islamist discourses does not guarantee that Islamism offers a conceptual shift in the ways of narrating the social, similar or parallel to the ‘posts’ that have marked the intellectual history of modernity. What allows for this conflation is not the post-Western character of the Islamist discourse per se (which is consistently expressed in modern, Western terms of opposition between ‘Islam and the West’) but the fact that analytical discourses about Islam get increasingly postWesternised/postmodernised.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



literature which focuses on the ‘return of religion’ 41 is not its recognition as an over- looked element in IR, 42 as the voice of the identitarian struggle of non-Western peoples 43 or as an integral element of a nascent ‘truly multicultural international society’; 44 but it is the shift from the consideration of religion as an analytical category in IR to the deconstruction (‘de-secularisation’) 45 of secular epistemology itself as an appropriate explanatory framework for the understanding of the non-secular Other. In its effort ‘to go beyond the mimicry of the “derivative discourses” of the modern West’, 46 postsecular IR marks a further step in the vein of cultural relativism by proposing that non-Western, non-secular political discourses should be understood by their own set of criteria, ‘from within their own traditions’. 47 This postsecular disposition, latent or manifest, is a foundational premise in post- colonial epistemology. To demonstrate this, I engage with Chakrabarty’s work, which is a landmark and a powerful source of inspiration in the field of postcolonialism. By pursuing arguments on this terrain, I am aiming to demonstrate that the promise of postcolonialism leads to a deadlock: firstly, epistemologically, because it undermines a core principle of all social and human sciences, that is, explanation; and, secondly, ethi- cally cum politically, because its singularising logic utterly excludes any serious con- sideration of the Other.

Provincializing Europe: From Promise to Paralysis?

The project of Provincializing Europe, 48 initially a historical one, is a significant step in the direction of decentring the West and further deconstructing the dominance of Western epistemologies and values initiated by the poststructuralist/postmodern move- ment. Few books in recent intellectual history had the impact of Chakrabarty’s volume.

41. Fabio Petito and Pavlos Hatzopoulos, eds, Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile (New York: Palgrave, 2003).

42. Jonathan Fox, ‘Religion as an Overlooked Element of International Relations’, International Studies Review 3, no. 3 (2001): 53–73.

43. Hedley Bull, ‘The Revolt against the West’, in The Expansion of International Society, eds Hedley Bull and Adam Watson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 217–28.

44. Scott M. Thomas, ‘Taking Religious and Cultural Pluralism Seriously: The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Society’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29, no. 3 (2000): 815–41, 819.

45. Shani, ‘“Provincializing” Critical Theory’, 422.

46. Shani, ‘Toward a Post-Western IR’, 722.

47. Shani, ‘“Provincializing” Critical Theory’, 431.

48. The main source I rely on for the analysis of Chakrabarty’s work is Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Colonial Difference (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). However, Chakrabarty developed the main argument of Provincializing Europe in two earlier articles to which I also refer here: Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks of the Indian Pasts?’, Representations 37 (1992): 1–26; Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Radical Histories and the Question of Enlightenment Rationalism: Some Recent Critiques of “Subaltern Studies”’, Economic and Political Weekly 30, no. 14 (1995): 751–9.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

Like Edward Said’s famous Orientalism, 49 it engages with the question of alterity and its representation in Western – dominant – theoretical thinking. But it also marks a step further from Orientalism’s critique of the modus operandi of Western intellectual colo- nialism by offering a new research programme about the way suppressed knowledges and subjectivities – such as the ones post-Western IR seeks to take into account – can be recovered. Provincializing Europe as a concrete paradigm in social sciences and humanities is a challenge to Eurocentric thought in the following sense: it puts into question the stadial idea embodied by historicist Eurocentric methodologies, liberal and Marxist alike, that the non-West must develop and catch up with the West. The assumption underpinning the use of this kind of thinking and the categories/values it produced (e.g. development, modernisation, progress) is that societies have evolved from precapitalist to capitalist, or from traditional to modern. They eventually con- verge on to the global stage but until then non-Western societies must follow the Western example set by those ahead of them in the developmental course of history. Chakrabarty’s argument develops in three stages: firstly, it establishes the problematic by exposing why historicism – or, in different terms, progress – is a hindrance for any consideration of the Other as a real counterpart to the West and not merely as an instance of curi- osity, exoticism or charity. Secondly, it develops an alternative or corrective to his- toricism, the concept of ‘subaltern pasts’. And, thirdly, it suggests how superseding historicist thought is not only a way of recovering the past in non-hegemonic terms, but also a way of re-imagining the future in an egalitarian perspective. Let us look at the development of the argument in some more detail. Chakrabarty – who follows a quasi-Foucauldian line of thinking in the sense of link- ing power to the production of knowledge – claims that historicism enabled the European domination of the world in the 19th century by positing historical time as a measure of alleged cultural distance between the West and the non-West. 50 This ideological device worked on two levels of domination according to Chakrabarty: ‘In the colonies’, on the one hand, ‘it legitimated the idea of civilization. In Europe itself’, on the other, ‘it made possible completely internalist stories of Europe in which Europe was described as the site of the first occurrence of capitalism, modernity, or Enlightenment’. 51 For Chakrabarty, therefore, a critique of historicism unavoidably leads to the questioning of

49. Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin Books, 2003 [1978]); Said’s work is considered foundational for the very articulation of postcolonialism both as a theoretical approach across fields and as a distinct discipline. As an example of Said’s impact on the development of critical IR, see Millennium’s Forum on Edward Said: Sheila Nair, ‘Forum: Edward W. Said and International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 36, no. 1 (2007): 77–82; Raymond Duval and Latha Varadarajan, ‘Travelling in Paradox: Edward Said and Critical International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 36, no. 1 (2007): 83–99; Geeta Chowdhry, ‘Edward Said and Contrapuntal Reading: Implications for Critical Interventions in International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 36, no. 1 (2007): 101–16; Shampa Biswas, ‘Empire and Global Public Intellectuals: Reading Edward Said as an International Relations Theorist’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 36, no. 1 (2007):

117–33; L.H.M. Ling, ‘Said’s Exile: Strategic Impacts for Postcolonial Feminists’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 36, no. 1 (2007): 135–45.

50. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 7.

51. Ibid.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



political modernity in the non-West, as it is through the recourse to the stagist idea of history that European political and social thought made room for the political modernity of the subaltern, that is, the non-European, classes. 52 By engaging in the critique of historicism, Chakrabarty takes issue with the idea of history, itself as being European, and therefore Eurocentric. As he explains in a move that also recalls Said’s famous attack on academic Orientalism, in the academic disci- pline of history, ‘Europe’ is the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories in two ways:

firstly, in the sense that all national or civilisational histories are essentially variations of a master narrative which could be called ‘the history of Europe’. 53 Secondly, in the sense that the dominance of ‘Europe’ is the ‘theoretical condition under which historical knowledge is produced in the third world’. 54 Historicism, the methodology of academic history, makes history theoretically knowable for the first time, but with the price of turn- ing all other histories into copies of itself. Or, to put it in Prakash’s words, another lead- ing figure of the field of postcolonial history, by appropriating ‘the Other as History’. 55 The problem of historicism according to Chakrabarty can be summarised as being a mode of thinking which sees the world as a historical developing entity, as an individual and unique whole that develops over time, hence the narrative and concept of develop- ment as well as ‘the secular, empty and homogenous time of history’. 56 Accordingly, the critical thrust of his endeavour is supported by questioning two core assumptions of historicist thinking: firstly, he questions the assumption that ‘the human exists in a frame of a single and secular historical time that envelops other kinds of time’. And, secondly, that ‘the human is ontologically singular, that gods and spirits are in the end “social facts”, that the social somehow exists prior to them’. 57 Chakrabarty suggests that one should work without the assumption of the logical priority of the social and builds his alternative to historicism on the position that gods and spirits are existentially coeval with the human because ‘the question of being human involves the question of being with gods and spirits’. 58 For Chakrabarty, the concern underlying the project of Provincializing Europe is to document how a kind of cognitive violence – in different terms, a kind of ‘epistemi- cide’, 59 which is itself an effect of Western ‘epistemic racism’ 60 – is committed against other ways of knowing the world, how reason ‘has been made to look “obvious” far beyond the ground where it originated’. 61 In Chakrabarty’s view, it is the convergence of

52. Ibid., 9.

53. Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History’, 1.

54. Ibid., 2.

55. Gyan Prakash, ‘Postcolonial Criticism and Indian Historiography’, Social Text, no. 31–32 (1992): 8–19.

56. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 23.

57. Ibid., 16.

58. Ibid.

59. According to De Sousa Santos, the ‘epistemicide’ against non-Western epistemologies was a direct consequence of European colonial expansion: Boaventura de Sousa Santos, ‘Toward a Multicultural Perception of Human Rights’, in Moral Imperialism. A Critical Anthology, ed. Berta Hernandez-Truyol (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 39–60.

60. Walter Mignolo develops the concept of ‘epistemic racism’ to describe the process of inferiorisation of non-Western epistemologies and cosmologies in order to legitimise the prioritisation of Western epis- temologies (‘Reason’) as a superior form of knowledge: Local Histories/Global Design: Collegiality, Border Thinking and Subaltern Knowledge (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

Western idealism and violence which generated the ‘obviousness’ of reason, and the nar- ratives of modernity and progress. 62 The remedy he suggests in order to demonstrate the historicity and provinciality of Reason as the most advanced and in the end superior ‘way of being in the world’, to use one of Chakrabarty’s signature expressions, is to reinstate the political agency of the subaltern – that is, in different terms, the non-Western subject – and, even more, to do so in the subaltern’s own terms. But what exactly does the reinstitution of the subaltern’s – or non-Western’s – politi- cal agency involve? To understand the full length of Chakrabarty’s argument and its criti- cal epistemological implications, one needs to look a little earlier in the genealogy of thinking to which the project of Provincializing Europe belongs. In short, Chakrabarty takes issue with some of the assumptions framing the work of the Subaltern Studies Group of which he has himself been an important constituent. The famous collective embarked on the 1980s on the most important attempt of revising Indian history with a clear objective to restore the political agency of those subaltern classes, essentially the peasants in rural India, which were systematically ignored both by the traditional colo- nial narrative and the so-called orthodox Marxist analysis in which the revolutionary role of changing history belongs to the working class only. Subaltern Studies, especially dur- ing their first phase from which Chakrabarty diverges, were inspired by Gramsci’s insights who took a more positive view of the subaltern classes in order to allow the possibility of a collective class consciousness among workers and peasants. 63 Accordingly, the Group sought: firstly, to reinstate the subaltern subject as a political agent; secondly, to see the subaltern mobilisation in colonial India (i.e. peasant revolts) as political whereas in classical Marxist historiography it has been persistently categorised as ‘pre- political’ (e.g. Hobsbawm); 64 and, thirdly, to represent the subaltern action in its own terms. This last point is crucial to reach the kernel of Chakrabarty’s post-Western enterprise. It is in relation to this last objective of the Subaltern Studies Group’s task, that is, the representation of the subaltern in his/her own terms, that Chakrabarty initiates his cri- tique and builds on his alternative. He thinks that the main move in fully restoring the agency of the subaltern – or else the real political subjectivity of the Other – is not simply to acknowledge the political nature of his/her actions but actually to eliminate the ‘necessary secularism’ 65 and its tendency to see religion as ‘a means’ in politics but not ‘as an end in itself’. 66 Chakrabarty’s vehicle to explore the ways secularism erases the real subjectivity of the subaltern is a landmark essay by Guha, one of the founda- tional figures of the Subaltern Studies Group. Guha’s ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’ deals with the rebellion of Santal, a tribal group in Bengal and Bihar who rebelled

61. Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History’, 20.

62. Ibid., 22.

63. Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Volume I, II, III (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011


64. Eric Hobsbawm, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

65. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 14.

66. Chakrabarty, ‘Radical Histories’, 754.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



against both the British and non-local Indians in 1955. 67 In a typical exercise of the Subaltern Studies approach, Guha brings the peasants’ political consciousness to the fore and makes it the real engine of the rebellion. The problem for Chakrabarty lies, however, in the way Guha treats the Santal’s statement that God was the main instigator of the rebellion: although Guha acknowledges the importance of religiosity to the rebel- lion and to the peasants’ life, he is actually treating it as a belief. Chakrabarty is uncom- fortable with what he sees as ‘anthropologising’ the Santal statement, that is, with the act of converting someone’s belief into an object of analysis, as a necessary condition for the ‘belief’ to find a place in the historian’s narrative. 68 By Chakrabarty’s own admission, the historian’s or any social scientist’s narrative cannot allow ‘the divine or the supernatural a direct hand in the affairs of the world’. By the same token, the religious must therefore be reinterpreted as someone’s belief, since attributing to it any real agency would be going against the rules of evidence. 69 The historian therefore, unlike the Santal, cannot involve the supernatural in explain- ing the event since ‘we cannot write history from within what we regard as beliefs’. 70 Hence, we produce ‘good’, but not subversive, histories which conform to the norms of the discipline. 71 The detection of this lacuna in the narrativisable and historicisable past, as illustrated by the case of the Santal rebellion, is what Chakrabarty calls ‘subal- tern pasts’, that is, ‘pasts that cannot ever enter academic history as belonging to the historian’s own positions’. 72 But how exactly do subaltern pasts operate and what is their relationship to the histori- cist social science? For Chakrabarty, these subordinated relationships to the past, the ‘subaltern pasts’, are the necessary condition for the possibility of historicisation itself:

‘what underlies our capacity to historicize is our capacity not to’. 73 The ‘subaltern pasts’ give an entry point into the times of gods and spirits – ‘times that are seemingly very dif- ferent from the empty, secular, and homogenous time of history – is that they are never completely alien; we inhabit them to begin with’. 74 These pasts that resist historicisation – which are not exclusive to subaltern groups or minority identities alone, but rather refer to the exclusion of these pasts from the ‘major’ narratives of the dominant institutions – demonstrate for Chakrabarty that ‘the capacity (of the modern person) to historicise actu- ally depends on his or her ability to participate in nonmodern relationships to the past that are made subordinate in the moment of historicisation’. 75 Accordingly, this is what gives a possibility to history or any other social science to understand the subaltern without historicising or anthropologising his/her agency, 76 to conceive humans from any other

67. Ranajit Guha, ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’, in Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, eds Nicholas B. Dirks et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 336–71.

68. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 105.

69. Ibid., 104.

70. Ibid., 16.

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid., 105.

73. Ibid., 113.

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid., 101.

76. Ibid., 108.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

period and region as always our contemporaries in some sense and, ultimately, to make visible the plurality of times existing together, the disjuncture of the present itself. 77 Finally, for Chakrabarty, the relation between subaltern pasts and the practice of histori- cising is far from one of mutual exclusion but rather one of interdependency: ‘subaltern pasts’ act as a supplement to the historian’s past in the Derridean sense, that is, they ena- ble history, the discipline, to be what it is while showing its own limits. 78 Seen this way, Chakrabarty’s ‘subaltern pasts’ introduce a new kind of history-writing – opposed to the history-making of historicism which tends to prescribe the Eurocentric scenario of progress and associated stagist account of history to non-modern civilisations and subjects – an attitude towards history that we could call posthistoricist. But what is required for this posthistoricist practice to take root and which assumptions of modern social and human science does it aim to disrupt? Chakrabarty seems to think that the problem of the erasure of the subaltern’s real experience lies in the language of social science itself: the closer one gets to it, the higher the risk of obliterating ‘the plural ways of being human that are contained in the very different orientations to the world’. 79 Indeed, few would disagree with the importance of seeing the past as constitutive of the present. The modus operandi of the social and human sciences and especially of the historicist kind – the one that Chakrabarty seeks to ‘provincialize’ by questioning its com- mitment to causality – has always revolved around contextualising its object of research into the web of origins, relationships and manifestations of the past in the present. In that sense, it is far from clear why the distance between the metalanguage of social science and the language of subjective experience of the subaltern, or the distinction between the subject and object of research, must be collapsed in order to acknowledge the constitutive role of the past in the present. As Dirlik 80 observes, the historian’s alienation from the historical subject is of a social nature, that is, it is a consequence of participation in a profession, the social price paid for expertise. When the distinction between the social science and its objects collapses, what is a profoundly regressive move can appear as a liberating act. Take for instance Prakash’s enthusiastic response to Nandy’s conceptual device of ‘mythography of history’. 81 In Prakash’s eyes, the ‘strategy of privileging the “mythic” over the “real” … is not only a plea for a recognition of the plurality of critical traditions but a claim for the liberating nature of the victim’s discourse, particularly for that of the colonized’. 82 In that sense, posthistoricism seems to have moved from the

77. Ibid., 108–9.

78. Ibid., 112.

79. Ibid., 241. Shani makes a similar statement with regards to the limits of the secular language of IR:

‘the secular language and implicit Eurocentric historicism of the Enlightenment tradition, which critical theorists purport to defend, places limits on the degree to which transnational religious actors can fully participate in “critical” international politics’ (‘“Provincializing” Critical Theory’, 418).

80. Arif Dirlik, ‘Is There History after Eurocentrism? Globalism, Postcolonialism, and the Disavowal of History’, Cultural Critique 42 (1999): 1–34, 31.

81. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

82. Gyan Prakash, ‘Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from the Indian Historiography’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 32 (1990): 383–408, 405.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



critical deconstruction of ‘myths’ 83 all the way back to their uncritical acceptance. What is also revealed in this retreat to ‘myth’ from the disenchanted world of social science is the peculiar romanticism embedded in the posthistoricist fantasy that truth is some- where ‘out there’, always elusive to secular epistemology and better accessible by intui- tion or spirituality. But there is more that is discarded through the ‘critique of historicism in all its varie- ties’. 84 If ‘subaltern pasts’ emerge as a compelling objection to the idea ‘that everything can be historicised or that one should always historicise’, 85 it is precisely because of the blurring of functions between types of knowledge, because of the rejection of inclusions and exclusions that necessarily operate in any meaningful or even broadly efficient sci- entific pursuit. Naturally, not everything is historicisable, but, by the same token, what cannot be historicisable does not belong to the narrative of social and human science:

‘gods and spirits’ are only historicisable as a belief and this is their only conceivable place in an epistemology committed to explanation. The urgency therefore to bring ‘gods and spirits’ into the practice of modern human and social science in the way we account for the Other within the realms of social research is symptomatic of a deeper theme that lies at the heart of Chakrabarty’s posthistoricist project: the modern, historicist under- standing of time, that is, secular time and the critique of the way it ‘colonises’ spaces, cultures and even historical periods. In that sense, McLennan’s 86 observation that the question of postcolonialism is nowadays tied up with the question of postsecularism not only reveals the intrinsic connection between the two fields of critical enquiry, but it also raises the question to what extent the numerous variations of posthistoricist projects, despite their best anti-essentialist intentions, do not reduce the complexity of the Western Other in his/her supernatural beliefs. What is discarded through the metaphor of historicism is also the political ethics of progress, not only in the secondary sense of ‘necessity’ but also in the primary sense of ‘regulative idea or aspirational model’. 87 The rejection of modern historical con- sciousness is inextricable with a certain modern and political way of appropriating the past that cannot be dissociated from the desire of the modern subject to master the present as well as the future. Chakrabarty takes issue with the modern desire ‘both to create the past as amenable to objectification and to be at the same time free of this object called “history”’ 88 and with historicism’s promise to the human subject of a ‘certain degree of autonomy with respect to history’. 89 It is exactly the process of restoring ‘the human subject to history’, 90 of seeking ‘emancipation not through

83. In the sense meant by Barthes: Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001 [1957]).

84. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 84.

85. Ibid., 112.

86. Gregor McLennan, ‘Eurocentrism, Sociology, Secularity’, in Decolonizing European Sociology, eds Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez et al. (Furnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 119–33.

87. Massimo L. Salvadori, Progress: Can We Do Without It? (London and New York: Zed Books, 2008), 8–9.

88. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 244.

89. Ibid., 247.

90. Arif Dirlik, ‘Culturalism as Hegemonic Ideology and Liberating Practice’, Cultural Critique 6 (1987):

13–50, 47.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

Reason but from Reason, not through History but from History’, 91 that Chakrabarty takes issue with as according to his reasoning the anthropocentrism of historicism seem to preclude ‘a radical openness’ and ‘the capacity to hear that which does not already understand’. 92 The challenge for Chakrabarty is to reconceptualise the pre- sent, ‘to unlearn to think of history as a developmental process in which that which is possible becomes actual by tending to a future that is singular’. 93 The seductive Heiddegerian rhetoric of radical openness and of the futures that already ‘are’, 94 how- ever, should not make us miss the simultaneous closure of our possibilities to explain the social world. If the modern political subject and social scientist are rejected for their commitment to the future that ‘will be’, in Chakrabarty’s posthistoricist account the subaltern as well as the postsecular practitioner seem to be qualified with a differ- ent capacity of ‘futurology’, one that may not be based on the modern obsession with prediction, but one that takes the explanation of the social world back to the mystical realm of spirituality and myth. Even so, Chakrabarty is certain that in order to reach the state of ‘radical openness’ to heterotemporalities, one does not need to reject reason, but to recognise it as simply one of the ways of being in the world, 95 in one word, to provincialize it. Chakrabarty repeats on several occasions that his project is not one of wholesale rejection of rational argumentation or the legacies of European thought, 96 for the European categories of thought are both indispensable and inadequate to account for non-European modes of being in the world. 97 In a non-negligible manner, even if only in terms of rhetoric or wishful thinking, Provincializing Europe is thought as a corrective to historicism, since by Chakrabarty’s own admission the explanatory power of the universal narrative of Capital is impossible to dismiss if one wishes to produce critical readings of social injustices. 98 Hence the invitation ‘to hold together both secularist-historicist and non- secularist and non-historicist tasks on the world by engaging seriously the question of diverse ways of “being-in-the world”’. 99 However, what sounds as unlimited pluralism here, may also be the effect of Chakrabarty’s intellectual ambivalence. As McLennan critically observes about Chakrabarty’s endeavour: ‘Ambivalence reigns because, in effect, strict pluralism – thinking about and intellectually accepting “irreducible plurality” – is impossible to sustain. Once inside the historicist frame, for example, there can be no “multiple temporalities”’. 100

91. Ajaz Ahmad, ‘Postcolonial Theory and the “Post” Condition’, The Socialist Register 1997 (1997):

353–81, 360.

92. Chakrabarty, ‘Radical Histories’, 757.

93. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 249.

94. Ibid., 251.

95. Ibid., 249.

96. Chakrabarty, ‘Radical Histories’, 752; Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 255.

97. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 16, 19.

98. Ibid., 254.

99. Ibid., 21–22.

100. McLennan, ‘Eurocentrism, Sociology, Secularity’, 128.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



Provincialising as Universalising: From Deadlocks to Prospects

Provincializing Europe’s ambivalence may seem more appealing to some than the unambiguous commitment to one epistemological stance. However, two things can be established now in relation to where this ambivalence points to. On the one hand, epistemologically speaking, the effort to bridge the gap ‘between gods and spirits’ and modern politics and science is paralysing as far as the practice of social sciences or humanities are concerned. If religious experience is the locus of the irreducibly sub- jective that cannot be accounted for in terms of secular epistemology, then social or human sciences indeed have nothing to say. This observation can be seen in two ways:

either it makes social sciences redundant and consequently we are at a deadlock, or it makes the need for a sheer separation between faith and reason within social sciences clearer. In this sense, IR, and for that matter any other social science discipline, needs secularism no less than it has always been the case. On the other hand, via the examination of the project of Provincializing Europe, it has become clear that ceding to postsecularism qua cultural relativism as a way of consider- ing the non-Western Other on an equal basis has disconcerting implications. To start with, the way cultural relativism operates philosophically – on the basis of absolute insularity, and, as a consequence, of exclusion rather than inclusion of the Other – cannot but leave outside its scope questions of ethics, responsibility, reflexivity and ultimately critique, terms which inform the debates that this article addressed. Deep-seated in the view that considers the Other as understood only in his/her own terms, only from ‘within his/her own tradition’, there is a logic of radical singularity. As Hallward notes, what often passes for specific or particular in these approaches is, under scrutiny, singular or singularising: the specific ‘implies a situation, a past, an intelligibility constrained by inherited conditions. The specific is the space of interests in relation of other interests, the space of the historical as such, forever ongoing, forever incomplete’. 101 On the con- trary, the singular proceeds in a manner ‘that operates without external criteria to its own operation’, 102 it is not ‘constrained by any logic outside its own immanent criteria’. 103 Indeed, the cultural relativist approaches which seek to account for the Other in his/her own terms, operate in singularising terms and therefore they define the non-secular Other in terms of absolute alterity. In epistemological terms, this profound postsecular scepti- cism undermines the ability of social science to produce any substantive explanation without committing an act of violence against the object of research 104 and it reduces every attempt to narrate the Other in terms of a shared language – the language of social science, for instance – into an act of cultural or epistemic imperialism.

101. Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing between the Singular and the Specific (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 5.

102. Ibid., xii.

103. Ibid., 3.

104. This suspicion towards explanation is constitutive of poststructuralist thinking since its formative moments. Spivak’s observation that, in ‘explaining, we exclude the possibility of the radically het- erogeneous’ summarises perfectly the postsecular suspicion against any attempt to explain the social world in terms of causality, that is, in the last instance, in terms of relations, as well as the tendency of

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)

What are the political effects of the modus operandi of this singularising logic as far as the analytics of the Other are concerned? Firstly, as it must have been obvious by now, the discourse of cultural singularity cannot have any intrinsically progressive or emancipatory connotations: in an important sense, the cultural relativist stance under- mines any possibility to critically deconstruct power relations and disrupt the hegemo- nies they sustain since to do so, one needs to explain how the social world works in the first place. The important degree of autonomy in respect to tradition or religion and the relations of domination and subordination they enable brought about by the anthropo- centrism of modern, humanist, secular epistemology is rejected by the postsecular epis- temologies examined here. But what can also be established now is that the discourse of cultural singularity cannot have any genuinely disruptive or subversive political impli- cations either. The radical cultural relativism that such views promote as the cornerstone of pluralism and openness is perhaps the strongest version of essentialism – the one that reaffirms stereotypes like the West as change and the Rest as stasis, Europe as modernity and the ‘global South’ as tradition, the Westerner as secular and the ‘Other’ as religious and so on – and ultimately shares the fundamentalist view that when cultures mix, a violent act against their essence is taking place. The real political question, then, that the ‘post-Western’ leaves outside its scope is not whether social, political or IR theory have been shaped by Eurocentrism. Of course they have. The fact that all alternative theoretical approaches come in the format of ‘post-’, ‘anti-’ or ‘de-’ (like postcolonial, post-Western, anti-Western or the most recent decolonial or de-westernisation) says a great deal about the way the West still defines the terms of the debate. The challenge for critical theory of our times is where to go after the provin- cialisation of Europe, after the realisation that power and knowledge are mutually con- stitutive and after ‘objectivity’ has been proven both false and undesirable. I would like to suggest that, in these circumstances, the real question, and, if we follow Badiou, ‘an extraordinarily difficult one’, is not one of benign recognition of difference but ‘that of recognising the Same’. 105 That is, in other words, how to work towards a new kind of genuine universalism which can address the existing unequal power relations beyond the framework of liberal capitalism favoured by the Western elites but also beyond the return to the hierarchies of religion or tradition, as suggested by the post-Western epistemolo- gies examined here. By genuine universalism, I do not mean the abuse of the ‘universal’ in the hands of new imperialists, as expressed, for instance, in the recent ‘wars on terror’. Such attempts, widely discussed and denounced across disciplines, are nothing more

poststructuralist hermeneutics to view history as the outcome of a discursive antagonism for hegemony:

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York and London:

Routledge, 1988), 105. Having said this, however, Spivak’s interventions work both ways: along with the more prominent and explicit aspect which prioritises the singularity of the ‘radically heterogene- ous’, there is a less pronounced but equally important dimension of relationality which allows room for a mutual transformation of both the ‘Western’ and the ‘non-Western’, for example, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value’, in Literary Theory Today, eds Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan (New York: Cornell University Press, 1990), 198–222.

105. Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London and New York: Verso, 2001), 25.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013



than another strategy of Western neo-imperialist domination. By universalism, I do not mean the false ‘neutrality’ of liberalism either, since, if we follow Zizek, ‘accepting the radically antagonistic – that is, political – character of social life, accepting the necessity of “taking sides”, is the only way to be effectively universal’. 106 In this perspective, we must both accept the antagonistic character of society, because there is no neutral posi- tion since struggle is constitutive, and remain universalists, that is, speak on behalf of universal emancipation. 107 But above all, I mean that the ‘universal’ is not fixed or time- less, but an open-ended project to be built according to the given historical circumstances by all those who share a commitment to the subversion of relations of domination within and beyond IR. Recent contributions in IR have taken this step towards a reconceptualisation and re- valorisation of the universal. Matin argues that a strategic shift of emphasis is required if Eurocentrism is to be defeated and he shows how a genuinely anti-hegemonic idea of the universal can be derived from Trotsky’s idea of uneven and combined develop- ment. 108 He maintains that ‘rather than being intrinsic to the category of the universal, the conceptual homogenisation of difference is the result of a specifically internalist con- struction of that category’. 109 In Matin’s conclusion that ‘in redeeming the universal as the contested product of a polycentric, interactive and multilinear history, uneven and combined development rehabilitates, theoretically, analytically, and normatively, the varied experiences of “peoples without history,” and sustains a politics of solidarity in difference’ 110 lies the real thrust of a re-imagined category of the universal. In many ways, Bhambra’s recent call for connected histories, connected sociologies and the recognition of ‘international interconnectedness’, which would allow ‘for the decon- struction of dominant narratives at the same time as being open to different perspectives’ and would seek ‘to reconcile them systematically both in terms of the reconstruction of theoretical categories and in the incorporation of new data and evidence’, 111 is a step in a parallel direction. Despite the fact that the timeless, universal categories of historical sociology are criticised for latent Eurocentrism by Bhambra (especially ideal-types and comparative analysis), there is common ground to be recovered between the concepts of connectedness and the universal, if the universal is understood as struggle against hegemony and homogenisation. The critical question and real hope for our times is the pursuit of such theoretical moves: openly political, uncompromisingly egalitarian and therefore universal.

106. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Multiculturalism, Or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism’, New Left Review I/225 (September–October 1997): 28–51, 50.

107. Ibid.

108. Kamran Matin, ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner Life of Eurocentrism’, European Journal of International Relations (24 January 2012; published online before print): 1–25.

109. Ibid., 4.

110. Ibid., 19.

111. Gurminder K. Bhambra, ‘Historical Sociology, International Relations and Connected Histories’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23 no. 1 (2010): 127–43, 140.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013


Millennium: Journal of International Studies 41(1)


I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions and constructive critique and Gregor McLennan for his comments on an earlier draft.

Author Biography

Rosa Vasilaki is reading for a PhD in critical social theory in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies in the University of Bristol, UK. She holds a PhD in History from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales in Paris, France.

Downloaded from mil.sagepub.com at European Univ Inst - Library on May 26, 2013