Postcolonialism in an age of globalization: Opening international relations theory to identities in movement.

Author:McCormack, Brian

The point of theory, it seems, is to attempt to stop time, perhaps as if it was a dependent variable, and assemble the disparate elements of understanding into statements, or even a statement--or even a single word--that theorists would hope would capture the movement of the moment. Today, at this moment of global movement, we are assembled to reflect on our currency with and for one another. Many of us have attempted to stake a claim to having achieved perhaps the ultimate act of theorizing the movement of our moment by pronouncing the one word, globalization, that accomplishes the task of theory. (l) The word is effective since it seems to strike a responsive chord in all of us. In fact, the word is more than this: globalization is a name that is both proper and common.

Each of us names globalization as a proper noun that is beyond critique (we all know what globalization is) because it enfolds within it an entire universe of possibility. We also name globalization as common nouns, subject to interpretation--to translation according to our presumably diverse languages of theory. We name globalization as if it is beyond question, and as if it is subject to question. Globalization says more than the name, just as it says, quite simply, the name. (2) The difficulty that ensues from naming globalization is that the conflict between the universality of the proper noun and the particularity of the common nouns that come of our interpretations (our translations) bears a double injunction: we are constrained by the argued-for sovereignty of the name and, presumably, liberated by the essential contestations that each of us brings to the name. (3)

Another recently named phenomenon that has begun to occupy an albeit lower place in the pantheon of theoretical names is postcolonialism. Like globalization, postcolonialism also encompasses a very wide range of theoretical considerations. It is also subject to the double imperative of naming. But the two words/names--globalization and postcolonialism--are made to occupy different places in our theoretical pantheon. One could argue that postcolonialism and globalization suggest alternate categories of identity construction and maintenance. A theorist of globalization might, for example, point to blurred boundaries in which virtual reality and free markets transcend the space of the idea of sovereignty. A theorist of postcolonialism might point to ongoing colonialist practices that blur boundaries in which past histories are in confluence with current postcolonial conditions to transcend the time of the idea of sovereignty.

If one assumes the incommensurability of the two concepts--the two names--on the basis of different categories of analysis, one should also acknowledge the need to assume their commensurability on similar themes; for example, of sovereignty. Both globalization and postcolonialism are "transcendent" of a third name: sovereignty. If we try to make sense of globalization or postcolonialism, we can apparently do so only in terms of the current limits of discourse.

Paradoxically, however, the neologisms of the present (globalization and postcolonialism, for example) are conceivable only in terms of the neologisms of the past. Sovereignty is only one of those ancient neologisms that have come to constitute our "current thinking": power, movement, authority, anarchy, agency, order, norms, and so on--these, too, are our guides. The result can be as limiting as the content that one might assign to those names through definition, or as illuminating as the potentially endless contestations that those names recommend. I shall want to recommend the illumination of contestation over the limitation of definition. Rather than proceed, as theorists all too often do, by straining to simplify or mitigate contestations, I welcome and encourage those contestations and recommend that the radical democratization of the names we give to global life should become the central task of theory. (4)

Naming and Catachresis

If the task of theory is to open itself to the movement of democratic naming, as I argue it to be, rather than to capture the movement of the moment, then before proceeding further I want to clarify what naming entails. Naming can be understood according to two biblical metaphors: the Babelian and the Adamic. Babelian naming derives from the story of the Tower of Babel. As Jacques Derrida explains the story, (5) the Shems, who wanted to make a name for themselves, began work on a tower that would reach into the heavens. God, offended by the Shems' audacity, halted the construction and renamed the tower and the city Babel and the Shem people, Babelians--names that have come to mean (through translation into many languages), "confusion." This naming is in effect a double injunction on the people of Babel to name Babel as a proper noun, which, as it happens, is the name of God the Father (Ba means father, and bel means God), (6) and to translate that name because they have been condemned by God to a multiplicity of languages. Derrida explains that this double injunction--to translate and not to translate the proper, sovereign name-"is at work in every proper name":

On the one hand, don't translate me, that is, respect me as a proper name, respect my law of the proper name which stands over and above all languages. And, on the other hand, translate me, that is, understand me, preserve me within the universal language, follow my law, and so on. This means that the division of the proper name insofar as it is the division of God--in a word, insofar as it divides God himself--in some way provides the paradigm for this work of the proper name. (7)

In other words, the proper name is both untranslatable and it must be translated, but translation can occur only within the rules of translation: anything that does not appear within the proper name, and within the capacity for translation afforded by the multiplicity of languages at the disposal of the people of Babel, is considered to be beyond translation, subject to exclusion. The rules of Babelian naming include the rule of exclusion, which enables translation to occur as it denies the paradoxical necessity of those exclusions to the act of naming. Forgetting the paradox depoliticizes the process as it depoliticizes the people who are affected by exclusion. The name (the "heading") is "split," as Derrida explains. (8) In other words, the proper name is always already unfixed and unstable. It is always already subject to contestation. The connection to post colonialism and globalization as names given by theorists to the movement of the moment should be clear. But the ongoing contestations become an obst acle that can be opposed only through another sort of naming that one finds in the Adamic metaphor--the originary source of naming. Where Babelian naming describes contestation, Adamic naming is a process of refusing the problem of Babelian naming and positing the name as not being subject to question. Both projects depoliticize the subjects of naming.

As with the "split heading" of Babelian naming, Adamic naming (again a biblical metaphor) can be argued as being open to contestation. Adamic naming, however, can also be interpreted, as Zizek prefers, as bearing closure. Butler explains this closure in her critique of Zizek's appropriation of Kripke's notion of the "rigid designator." (9) Not content with what he views as the excess of deconstruction, Zizek argues that the name, which he acknowledges is a site of contestation in what he calls "phantasmic investment," wants to avoid the problem of dissolving identity "into a network of non-substantial, differential relations." (10) To this end, he argues with Kripke, whose idea of the rigid designator enables a fixing of reference. Zizek parts company with Derrida and Butler (and me) when he grafts Kripkean rigid designation onto the Lacanian "real," which stands outside reality as a threat of unintelligibility. The effect of Kripke's rigid designator, however, is to engage in what Derrida calls citation, th e "reiteration of the divine process of naming." (11)

As with Babelian naming, Adamic naming (upon which Kripke bases his notion of the rigid designator) requires an initial nomination. The difference is that the Adamic metaphor describes a process of cross-generational learning. Following the "primal baptism" of Adamic naming, each generation imparts upon the next the fact of the initial nomination. This "chain of communication" fixes not only the name but also each member of a naming community who agrees to the reiterative process and the continuation of the chain of communication. This chain bears an unfortunate side effect that not only contradicts the name as a site of phantasmic investment but also undermines the potential of catachresis. As Butler points out, however, "By virtue of the very reiterability of the name--the necessity that the name be reiterated in order to name, to fix its referent--[the] risk of catachresis is continually...

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