Postcolonialism as theory often fails; it would be nice to actually know something

The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer introduced me to the phrase “theory is information for free.” It’s a succinct way of saying that if you have a theoretical framework you can deduce and extrapolate a lot about the world without having to know everything. And, you can take new information and fit it quickly into your model and generate more propositions (you may not need to know everything, but you do need to know something).

But as we all know the utility of theory varies by field. In physics, there is a large and prestigious caste of theoreticians. In contrast, this group is a much smaller fraction of biologists. Biological phenomena are much messier, stochastic, non-linear, and historically contingent. Even highly abstruse fields such as population genetics have relatively limited powers of precise prediction in comparison to Newtonian physics.

When you move to history the problem is much more extreme than in biology. I am a major proponent of Peter Turchin’s work in modeling historical processes, as outlined in his series of books, War and Peace and War, Secular Cycles, and Historical Dynamics. If you read his works you know that Peter exhibits a punctilious attention to detail when it comes to historical phenomena. Not only does this mean that he presumably has good intuition about which formal models are plausible, but it allows him to “test” his predictions more quickly.

But it’s early times yet when it comes to “a theory of history.” There’s a reason that the older systematic method such as Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West fell out of fashion; they ended up reading like speculative fiction more than scholarship.

And yet when it comes to popular understandings of history and cultural dynamics theory is implicitly extremely dominant. Exemplified by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and now bracketed under the general term postcolonialism, a broad theoretical understanding of historical dynamics is assumed by many. Even if they do not know the term postcolonialism, or have never read Said or Fanon and their modern heirs, the postcolonial paradigm is highly influential and implicitly taken for granted. It’s part of our cognitive furniture.

Here is the definition of postcolonialism from Britannica:

Postcolonialism, the historical period or state of affairs representing the aftermath of Western colonialism; the term can also be used to describe the concurrent project to reclaim and rethink the history and agency of people subordinated under various forms of imperialism. Postcolonialism signals a possible future of overcoming colonialism, yet new forms of domination or subordination can come in the wake of such changes, including new forms of global empire. Postcolonialism should not be confused with the claim that the world we live in now is actually devoid of colonialism.

The key to understanding postcolonialism is that it is not a generic analysis of power relations between rulers and the subjugated. It is almost uniformly concerned with the relationship of European/white people and those whom they subjugated over the last 500 years or so. So powerful is this model that it often pushes white European supremacy back to antiquity. Works such as The invention of racism in classical antiquity only have a wider audience because the audience is primed to explore the original sin of the West, and moderns tend to see the origins of the West with the Classical world. The recent protests around racism and Reed college saw the promotion of a counter-syllabus which presented works which explored the racial attitudes of the Greeks.

To my mind this sort of analysis of the Greeks is nonsense. The Greeks were clearly racist, but to our understanding in the West today all premodern people would seem racist. Not only that, but Greek parochialism was different in kind from modern Western racism, so a genealogical connection seems implausible if you’re being generous, and ludicrous if you are being honest. One could make a similarly crazy case for the Jewish origins of racism in Western culture (any analysis of the Hebrew Bible has to confront strong ethnocentric and exclusivist sentiments, though tempered with works such as the Book of Ruth).

The primary issue is that postcolonialism takes the real and present dynamic of white supremacy, which crested in the 19th and 20th centuries, and extrapolates it back across all of history, and presumes that it will be the determinative factor in relations between peoples going forward. It’s like a theory of social physics; invariant across time. Bizarrely, this is a tendency that postcolonial theorists share with white supremacists.  Years ago when I read Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, I was struck by the fact that many of the racialist thinkers of the early 20th century would likely easily and comfortably accede to the generalizations made by the postcolonial theorists as to the sui generis disruptive and dominationist tendencies of white Europeans. It is simply that where postcolonial theorists place a negative ethical valence on this essential orientation, men such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard would have seen the generalities in a positive light.

This is all germane in light of a post over at Brown Pundits, which reacts to a piece with the title Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian. As I said at the other blog the piece was interesting because it was the perspective of a progressive South Asian Christian, which is very different from my own stance as a conservative South Asian non-Christian (atheist). But there was an implicit historical model within the piece which struck a false note with me:

Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.

Though there were Irish soldiers in British armies, I think it is a bit much to blame the Irish for Indian colonialism, seeing as how Roman Catholic Irish themselves were de facto colonial subjects. I also do not know of any Italian presence in India (aside from Sonia Gandhi)…if there was one, presumably there would be a delicious Indo-Italian cuisine? Finally, as a point of fact, the Dutch were famously ineffectual and apathetic toward Christianization in South Asia. Today in Sri Lanka there are many Catholics, but few Protestants, in large part because the Dutch did not exhibit the same zeal to convert the natives that the Portuguese did (British Anglicanism also did not take hold, many elite families converted to Theravada Buddhism at independence).

But this is secondary to the fact that mentioning Kerala misleads the reader as to the nature of Christianity in that region of India. The St. Thomas Christians are an old community, with attested connections to the ancient Church of the East in Mesopotamia. Though European intrusion into South Asia had a major impact on their affiliations and identities (they are splintered into many groups), their Christianity predates European presence in South Asia by many centuries, and perhaps over one thousand years!

The author, being of South African Indian heritage, and raised in Canada, may not know these well known facts. But, they are bathed in the paradigm of postcolonial theory, and in postcolonial theory European agency is paramount. If you did not know much about the history of Kerala, that is, specific details of fact, then your natural prediction based on your theory is that like Goa and Pondicherry Kerala’s Christianity is due to European influence and coercion.

Unfortunately, the sorts of mistakes of inference made by the author of the above piece are not atypical. It seems that she is conflating white evangelical Protestant Christianity (which her family likely converted to) with Christianity writ large. Why would you do that? Books like The Next Christendom report extensive numbers which illustrate that global Christianity is now a post-white religion. The same author also wrote The Lost History of Christianity which credibly makes the case that the majority of the world’s Christians were non-European until sometime after the year 1000 AD.

Not only does postcolonial theory extend the model of white supremacy toward one that is temporally and spatially maximal (that is, white supremacy is relevant at all times and all places), but it also collapses the complex multi-textured power relations between various peoples and groups into a dyad. From a comment over at Brown Pundits:

The tribals of the NE were converted to Christianity by European (and American) missionaries during colonial rule. They obviously weren’t Hindus before they converted, but to imply that colonialism has nothing to do with their conversion would be mistaken – if, indeed, that is what you’re implying.

It is obviously true that conversion to Christianity in India among groups such as Dalits and Northeastern tribal populations has to be understood within the colonial context. Many of these converts are joining denominations of Western provenance. This seems the sort of analysis which postcolonial theory would be useful. The problem here is that since postcolonial theory tends to privilege the dyad between Western and non-Western, it masks the complex relationships between non-Western groups and individuals.

Dalit populations within South Asia were and are subject to marginalization and deprivation by the majority groups. Though one may question the usefulness of converting to Christianity, it is clear that this is an act driven not by Western oppression, but by deep structural inequities of the native non-Western culture.

Similarly, the tribal populations of the Northeast convert to Christianity in part to block assimilation and subordination into a South Asian culture from which they are distinct. Christianity in this framing is not an expression of Western domination and oppression, but an alternative identity to those preferred by the assimilative majority. It is an escape hatch from the inevitable forces of assimilation.

This is not an exclusively South Asian phenomenon. Dayaks in Borneo, Karen in Burma, Montagnards in Vietnam, and Koreans during the Japanese colonial period, all looked to Christianity to buttress and solidify their ethnic identity against dominant populations who were of a different religion. Reducing power relations to purely Western vs. non-Western collapses many degrees of affinity within and between non-Western cultures, which are obviously not a formless whole.

Much of the problem that I’m concerned about would be obviated if people actually read world history. Having a multitudinous array of facts at your fingertips automatically allows you to vet propositions you derive from some grand theory of history. But assembling facts together takes time, and it is relatively arduous. This is why I ended up studying evolutionary genetics instead of neuroscience; I prefer theories to facts. But sometimes there is no choice in the matter if you truly want to understand something, as opposed to simply striking a virtuous pose.