dominant, epistemology, historicisation, Israel, mission history, Palestine, Rumina Sethi, subaltern, Zionism
Note that this is Part II of a two part blog entry. Part I is available here, and should be read first.
Having discussed some examples of mission history in the Palestine context and pointed to ways of constructing knowledge of such histories, I want to explore some of the implications of using Law and Lin’s ideas:
We can see the knowing, knowing well, and knowing differently problematic very clearly when we add the term ‘transnational’ to our thinking about mission. Of course, all missions were transnational by definition, but this has become a wonderfully trendy term in modern scholarship, and that almost automatically makes me somewhat suspicious of it. It is perhaps problematic in this context because it presupposes that the people we are studying fit into a transnational context, and that this term will automatically work when analysing their history. It interests me, for example, that relatively few scholars who use the term seem to feel the need to define it, which I would argue is key to understanding what we are doing when we use it. Not defining it means we are ignoring our own personal baggage in our writing, and after all, our historicisations are about precisely this: how do we study history, given that we live and operate in a particular context that is impinged upon by certain understandings of historicisation?
In part, I wonder if this is because we live in what is widely seen as a postcolonial, almost post-national-boundary-world (I should clarify that when I use ‘we’ I am thinking predominantly of Europeans, because that is my own privileged context; I can add that I identify as a white middle-class male which further adds to my societal privileges). The European project, with all the faults it might have and the problems it is encountering at the moment, is dedicated to, in the very long term, diminishing the importance of national boundaries and moving towards a greater sense of cosmopolitanism, arising from the ashes of the devastation of Europe after World War Two. In Rumina Sethi’s terms, this ‘decline of the nation’ is accompanied by a ‘corresponding expansion of the metaphor of marginalization’ which has ‘led to the embrace of concepts like diaspora, hybridity, difference and migrancy.’ All this is well and good, except that from a third world perspective – and contra the current fashion I think there is good reason to hold onto the ‘first’ and ‘third’ world concepts – these concepts ‘are all related to the growth of the global economy and have come to be seen in terms of new configurations of dominance.’ These are oriented along neoliberal, capitalist lines, and have included the co-option of postcolonial studies, originally intended as a liberatory practice, but blunted in Western academic circles, as Sethi cogently argues. We can see this in the work of Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Gayatri Spivak, to name just three well-known scholars I have used in recent years to explore issues related to missions. Sethi argues – as I have done – that we cannot simply point to ambivalence (Bhabha) or sameness and difference (Chakrabarty) or particular understandings of reason (Spivak) to explain the world – what we need is a realistic exploration of ‘historically specific acts of resistance’ to avoid silencing the subaltern. Hybridity and similar terms suggest that the third world is impacting in a meaningful way on the first world, and that the very real boundaries that exist – of global capital, gender, race, etc. – are being traversed, eroded even. In an historically specific reading, we can see that this is not happening, and that it did not happen in such a clear cut way.
This is not to say that there was historically and is now no contact between the third world and the first world – there clearly was and is. But the defining and re-defining of this contact is often taking place by the first world, and not the third world. After all, we (see above!) are writing from the (relative) comfort of our first-world university contexts – and our first-world context has rarely spent much time asking questions like ‘how does this transnationalism look from (e.g.) Palestine?’ To make this point really drastically, we can see this in a contemporary context when we think of the shameful behaviour of Obama and other western leaders, paying obeisance to a 19th century ethnocentric imperial fantasy currently being implemented by Israel, whilst he and they seek to deride or co-opt the acts of popular resistance in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East. Equally, when we think of some of the contact the missionaries had, we see a similar pattern – for example, Sloan’s lecture to Palestinian Jews about the possible good that might emerge from the murder of their co-religionists in Europe was clearly explained in his terms, and we do not know what they thought. We might think here of Spivak’s subaltern that cannot speak – but I think her silent subaltern is, or has too often become, a convenient western neoliberal myth – the subaltern always speaks, as Robert Young has pointed out, it’s just that the dominant doesn’t listen. Stefanie van de Peer, a recently graduated PhD student from my own department, put it very eloquently in her thesis, noting that rather than the subaltern not being able to speak,
It is more likely that as outsiders, we have become so used to defining ourselves as the non-Other, non-subaltern, that we cannot include the Other subaltern in our understanding… I argue that the insiders have learnt to represent themselves, not by finding a voice – because they always had a voice – but by finding a listener, a spectator… Whether the subaltern’s message is communicated effectively depends on the receptiveness of all parties involved in the speaker/listener relationship. I insist on the presence of a willingness in the receiver of the message to hear the subject speaking, to listen, to empathise.
By claiming the subaltern cannot speak, we are excused even pretending to show we are interested in what she is saying. The subaltern may be criticising in words, in silence or in action what the dominant is doing, and she may be doing that very cogently in her own terms, but the dominant chooses to ignore her. The danger with the language of transnationalism is that we ignore the voice of the subaltern altogether, in a self-congratulatory assessment of our – and our historical subjects’ – cosmopolitanism. After all, we assume that crossing boundaries is always good, but what if transnationalism, through the furtherance of knowledge amongst the dominant or those close to the dominant, increases the ability of the dominant first world to subjugate the third world more effectively? Is transnationalism still good under such circumstances?
Questions that then arise include: ‘how do we listen?’ and ‘how do we make the transnational element of our historicising work in a way that doesn’t silence the subaltern?’ This, I think, connects closely to the need to differentiate between the kinds of knowledge we are talking about: knowing, knowing well, and knowing differently. We can point to the ways in which the missionaries did this kind of thing, but in terms of how we study what they did, it is about recognising how we do it in our specific historicisations, oriented as they are by time, space, gender, race, class etc. The metaphysics of knowledge that implies objectivity needs to be recognised for the ideological position that it is, and we need to subvert it, or rather, allow others from the past or the present to subvert it: the institutional nature of power and its ‘hegemonic truth practices’ need to be, at the very least, revisited. And we need to move beyond particular subjectivities that supposedly create alterities that want to do away with the real life messiness of participants, not least because these subjectivities are often gendered or racialised (even if we don’t think we see this).
And this messiness is important. For example, it is not always clear what is meant in mission history by ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ in other contexts, or by the adoption of western-style medicine over against traditional practices, or the export of nursing practice from western Florence Nightingale-style hospital contexts to settings in the Middle East or Africa or anywhere else. There is a need to see the messiness for what it is – we don’t always understand the religion/secular issue, Western and traditional medicine have co-existed, Nightingale practice was not adapted to specific contexts even when it was claimed it was, and so on. In terms of ‘my’ Scots in Palestine: they were not formally part of the dominant, but they came very close – but at times they also interceded on the part of the subaltern. The subalterns communicated with the missionaries, even if the missionaries didn’t want to hear the message (finding a bomb in your garden, whatever else it might be, is definitely a message!). We might ‘know’ all this, but knowing it well also means knowing it differently and encompassing a broader reality that requires all three forms of knowing simultaneously: sometimes there will be an interpretation, sometimes multiple interpretations, and sometimes – though as Western scholars we have great difficulty admitting this – no interpretations. Though we might struggle with it, recognising the messiness of historicisation is of critical importance.
Challenging how we think about historicisation is key to the way in which we interpret and understand the complicity of those who were part of the dominant rather than the subaltern, or at the very least, were closer to the dominant than to the subaltern. Historicising under these circumstances automatically becomes transnational when we begin to try and approach situations we encounter from our archives with a view to thinking about how the subaltern engaged in resistance to the dominant – because in part this was about the subaltern doing precisely what the dominant was seeking to do, but often they were not doing it on the dominant’s terms. For many subaltern actors, they learnt about the dominant through their encounter, and resisted accordingly by using and remoulding what the dominant was offering: becoming nurses themselves, for example, and taking on responsibilities in the missionaries’ hospitals – knowing, knowing well, and knowing differently, is about understanding and interpreting this kind of subaltern agency, about listening to the subaltern speak. That this is disconcerting to the dominant should not be a surprise – but is also necessary.