Foreword: Whose Rest is Best? (Un)Learning Binaries from Subalternity

In: The Rest Write Back: Discourse and Decolonization
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I am happy and privileged to be associated with this timely and innovative collection of essays that seeks to explore difficult yet crucial questions relating to the production and dissemination of norms and paradigms of knowledge as well as the entrenching of modalities of rationality and explanation which span the globe today.

That said, my own approach to these key issues, though inflected by similar concerns, has begun to take a slightly different direction. It is this tentative footpath that I offer here as both tribute to and expression of solidarity with this project.

In 1969 a Palestinian poet writes devastatingly about the limits of writing back as imposed from within as well as without. The challenge is not of inventing or returning to a different vocabulary, grammar and syntax, but that even these perceived alternatives are not radically different. The articulate opponents of the colonial project at the time of decolonization are also its subjects.

My country that was home

Has become an argument

Don’t blame the rifle

When it died without leaving a will

On a cloud I wrote:

Own with censorship –

And they confiscated the sky.1

There is no rest, and whatever rest there is cannot be restful (NRIP), nor should it be. The “de” in decolonization is also always-already too final, and may also be seen as annoyingly definitively multiple and hopelessly fraught. For Beseisso, in translation (as always resistance hangs out in the trajectories of translation) there was a home – incredibly hard to translate into my language this deceptively simple word – replaced by an argument in this vestigial realm of settler colonialism.

Decolonization as used to mark a moment and more in the historiography of colonialism is well-argued here, but its replacement with other forms of globalized capital coupled with more or less localized exploitative systems – only seemingly antagonistic to each other, but deep structurally congruent, of course – needs to be stubbornly, persistently spelt out in more mainstream locations as well. In this sense too, there is no rest for the weary, no resting on the laurels of this exciting publication. If not, we run the danger, oft-repeated, of replacing one term in a binary with another. In this context, “decolonized” is rejected as incomplete and even false in comparison with “indigenous” (which has thankfully replaced “native” in progressivist discourse), as the newish touchstone of authenticity and inherent value.

The Keywords for Today entry for “indigenous” is instructive as a cautionary tale, which has clear implications for the critical decolonization debate, especially as it is provoked into positing an overarching and cumulated other who were/are relatively at least outside the episteme(s) of colonialism.

The link between the more specialized and selective current meaning with the more general past use of indigenous is its meticulous relationship as the European Other, though ‘indigenous peoples’ is also a political construct that, in theory at least, can also refer to a small number of distinct marginalized groups living in the European continent, and it is deliberately less pejorative than its now discredited near-synonym, native.…

The range of contemporary uses of this term mirrors the current geopolitics of selective inclusivity. Peoples of the world are now divided into two categories: the indigenous and everyone else. What appears on the surface to be a scrupulous acknowledgement of radical difference has also become a debilitating homogenization that lumps together (South Asian) Adivasis [literally original/beginning dweller/inhabitant] with Australian Aborigines and Kalaallit of Greenland, for instance. While this may lead to mobilization and sharing in common causes at the political level, it effaces and distorts differences that are as stark as those that obtain between ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ peoples.”2

Thus, the indigenous (less ubiquitous than “the rest” certainly) tend to be homogenized, where the formula is of “(a) radical-difference-from-us who are fundamentally individualist even when collective, combined with (b) they-are-all-the-same because they are undifferentiated both within their group and among all such groups reflects the great difficulty of engaging productively and equally with a fundamentally different worldview, while recognizing that this worldview is itself internally differentiated, without descending into unexamined racism appearing as benevolence.”

I would argue that the point is to recognize the multiple and multiply diverse ways in which an alternative meta-narrative is at work which is far more insidious and ubiquitous than the vestiges of an almost defunct settler colonialism, or a self-evident neo-colonial state apparatus, or even the façade of a globalized free market, and the ever-waning ever-defiant remnants of the (socialist?) welfare state, in which knowledge production does not allow for a simplistic good-bad/us-them/colonized-decolonized/west-rest binary. This binary would be neat and would allow us to tidy up our home, in Beseisso’s sense, but, I would argue, it has no real explanatory power today.

One way to see this is to be meticulous about who and how this articulation of the other (as rest and/or as excluded) is made, which in turn excludes, devalues and rests non-elites within its contours and shores. And so on, even in the second and third iterations of this entirely salutary if self-congratulatory accounting of colonialism’s continuing cost on post-neo-colonial peoples.

Hence, this accounting is as much about complicity as it is about exploitation and betrayal. We have seen many brilliant analyses of the creation of colonial mindsets in the former colonies through education, culturation, governance, even nationalist freedom struggles, and so on, but the heavy emphasis has been on imposition, force-feeding, lack of real choices, and both ideological and physical power. However, local elites’ active complicity and even counter-manipulation of the colonial project for their own ends has received far less attention, for obvious reasons, if one is attentive to who is saying what to whom here.

Thus, I believe, the question should not be so much “Why have ‘western’ (Are they really? We may be giving up too much here in an attempt to claim that our hands are clean as upwardly mobile non-western or wannabe intellectuals) modes and grammars of thought and norms of rationality etc., persisted in decolonized post-colonial space, but, rather, “How can it not be so, since so little has changed, especially in who is writing back and forth to whom and in which languages?”

Another approach to this predicament would be to explore it from the perspectives of those who remain inside-outside even the post-colonial discursivities, and in this sense are even more the other of the knowledge-wallah elites than their European counterparts with whom they have regularly stimulating academic discussions over cappuccinos at international conferences and published debates. Gayatri Spivak has scrupulously re-described the changing yet distinctive positionality of “the subaltern”3 as not having (structured) access to lines of upward social mobility, where their identity is qualitatively different, and meta-narratives (especially such as nationalism) do not clinch easily.

It is in this last point that I find the most powerfully potential for a far-reaching critique of the western versus non-western polarization. One feature of subalternization (which process for me is more provisional and fragile, but of course less theoretical than subaltern as being, and hence more useful to understand and explain such radically different worlds within this world) is that the larger national narrative does not cohere, is not natural as it is for (the rest of) us. This is an irrefutable critique of the self-evidence of our love of our country (that is home – but is it a country that is home, or is it our home writ small that should qualify?), that can even render the bigger nationalist and decolonialist debates suspect, however politically and academically interesting and important they may seem.


Mouin Beseisso (trans. Ibrahim Abu-Nab and Martin Walker)


MacCabe Colin and Holly Yanacek (eds.). Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 198ff.


See, for instance, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular” in her An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. (Harvard University Press, 2012), 429–442, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Nationalism and the Imagination. Seagull Books, 2010.