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Simon During discusses his recent essay published in Postcolonial Studies (2020, 23:4) titled ‘The Global South and Internationalism: The Geographies of Post-Subjectivity.’ He considers the Global South paradigm and wants postcolonial studies to include a wider range of thinkers.

John Ishak: What concerns or events led you to write this essay? What were you trying to show?

Simon During: At one level, I wrote the essay because about five years ago I had been involved with a project on the Global South set up (with German government funding) by Russ Pavlov-West at the University of Tübingen. It involved scholars from the Global South (and especially sub-Saharan Africa and South America) getting together in North European summers to think about the Global South as a region and concept. At another level, I had been very involved in postcolonialism in its early days (in the 1980s), but for various reasons had drifted away from it as it became an established academic field. None the less, I was and still am interested in what paradigms might succeed the postcolonial in thinking at the level of the global (and, today, the planetary).

JI: Carl Schmitt, Quinn Slobodian, Pankaj Mishra are a strikingly disparate set of thinkers to bring together, how have you found their work useful as you developed the argument in the piece?

SD: Yes: that was part of the fun of the piece, to bring together thinkers and frames of thought that are usually kept apart, partly for disciplinary reasons but also, of course, for political ones. That said, I recently read Dipesh Chakrabarty’s most recent (and excellent!) book, The Climate of History, and there Dipesh uses Schmitt, and the same aspect of Schmitt’s work that I do in this article. He does so to find a base for his own post-post-colonial argument.  In general we might put it like this: once the imperialist paradigm is eroded by a globalist and internationalist one, then different, unexpected, not necessarily left intellectual lineages become useful. That is something postcolonialism is going to have to take on board. 

JI: In the piece you write that ‘international capitalism […] may at last, be redistributing capital and income from North to South, but in the process it is also extending both new cultural forms of inequity/precarity along with secular and ‘liberal’ norms and subjectivities’. What are these new cultural forms of inequity/precarity?

SD: I think these forms of precarity and inequity are widely recognized.  Capitalism in its current guise (i.e., “neo-liberal”) with its commitment to “flexibility” and its recourse to new digital technologies, allows firms and other institutions to change their relations to labour and radically to pull back on full-time work and lifetime positions. That is one form of precarity of course, and it is everywhere, not least in the Global North. One thing that is new about it is that it exists among the bourgeoisie too, not least among the educated bourgeoisie including those who work in the academy. Another of its features is that it hollows out the older socialist understanding of what it means to be working class, and in that way helps fuel reactionary and nationalist populisms. But what relationship do these forms of neo-liberal precarity and the politics they give rise to have to other forms of exploitation and inequity: those, for instance, implicit in race and, in South Asia, caste? The answer to that question isn’t obvious I think, and needs more study. It may be, for instance, that the increasing power of race as a mode of identification may itself be a reactive response to neoliberal precarity.

In the piece you cite the Punjab insurgency and the Rwanda  genocide as events characterisable as ‘rebellions against the precarity and inequity that attach to capitalist modernity’ and whose ‘causes were local’. However, could it not be argued that both stemmed in large part from the colonial distributions of the earth that you discussed in the essay? 

SD: This is a question that came up whenever I gave this paper as a talk. I am not sure I say that the Punjab insurgency and Rwanda genocide were rebellions against precarity and inequity, but I do say that their causes were partly (I guess I meant ‘largely’) local and cannot be sheeted home to the longer history of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, violent distributions of earth have happened everywhere across human history, and in the case of Rwanda, the Tutsi and Hutu had begun either to displace or to subjugate the Twa people long before the whites arrived in what might well have been a form of indigenous or pre-European settler colonialism, something that was common enough across Africa and Asia (e.g. also in Thailand, India and Taiwan).  Of course to say this is to go against orthodoxy in postcolonialist thought which tends to sheet home all violence and exploitation in the Global South to the European imperialist era. I agree with much that, for instance Mahmood Mamdani has written about this issue in relation to Africa, but still I think that paradigm has its limits and as the era of formal imperialism recedes we will be able to appeal to it less and less. I know that there are debates about the two specific events I mention here, but I remain confident that my framing of them is sound enough. 

JI: If the Global South should no longer be analysed by dividing the world geographically or politically, but instead by taking account of generalised capitalist precarity, what is the usefulness of the Global South paradigm today?

SD: As I say the ‘Global South’ concept emerges when the old colonies, protectorates, etc., become independent nation-states and begin to use (or try to begin to use) the international framework to forward their interests against the hegemonic Western powers. That paradigm doesn’t strike me as very useful for most work in the humanities which is, after all, focussed on culture and the Global South has no or very little cultural identity as such. But the term does allow us to acknowledge the end of formal colonialism. In terms of international relations I am not sure how useful it is either, especially as we seem to be heading towards a new Cold War, with the PRC set up against the US on terms that further depart from the old West dominated distribution of earth and the Global South paradigm.  So I am tempted to say that it is useful as a signifier but doesn’t have a great deal of substantive use any more.

JI: What are you working on now?

SD: I have mainly been interested in the history of the humanities and in particular literary criticism for some time now and that is because of the way that they too have become precarious and delegitimated. Not an interest intimately closely related to postcolonialism, I guess! But as it turns out, right now I am working on Edward Said who is related to postcolonialism of course. He fascinates me because in fact he pretty much inaugurated Western academic postcolonialism but he was also, and increasingly as he grew older, a staunch defender of the old high humanities and their canons. That is pretty much my own position as first sketched out in a couple of books I wrote in the early part of this century: I’m a progressivist radical politically and economically, but a conservative (as it now looks) culturally.  I am interested in how and why Said himself got to that same position early on and how persuasively he pursued it.  But like just everyone I am also interested in the shift from global to planetary thinking in the face of global warming and how that touches everything we do. I am thinking, in particular, about what strikes me as a giant coincidence: that global warming should be widely politicized and acknowledged to be an urgent governmental issue at pretty much the same time as the internet and IA are changing social relations to their very core. I don’t quite yet know what to do with that insight, but I’m trying to work on it from a broadly humanist point of view.

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Simon During and John Ishak

Simon During is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and a literary historian, critic and theorist whose work borders cultural studies, intellectual history and political theory. His books include Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations; and Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Enchantments. He is currently working on a book on the humanities.

John Ishak is a postgraduate legal scholar at RMIT. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with an Honours degree in History. His research focussed on imperialism, race and US intervention in the Congo in 1960. He is currently an intern at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies.


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