Scott and Hirschkind, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors

David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, eds., Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Primarily interested in two essays in this volume: Scott’s “The Tragic Sensibility of Talal Asad”, which connects to Scott’s general ideas about interpreting colonialism as tragedy, and more urgently Jon E. Wilson’s “Subjects and Agents in the History of Imperialism and Resistance”, which assesses Asad’s arguments about agency.

Notes are on Wilson’s “Subjects and Agents”.

Jon E. Wilson, “Subjects and Agents in the History of Imperialism and Resistance”, pp. 180-205.

“One of the most powerful elements of Talal Asad’s work over the last decade or so has been his genealogical critique of the ‘modern’ use of the category of agency. Asad places the concept of agency at the center of the modern intellectual landscape he terms ‘secularism’…[secularism] is a conceptual enviroment that presupposes certain ways of defining how religion, ethics, the nation and politics relate to each other.” p. 180

“Within these discourses, agency is never a clear-cut category. Its functioning relies on the operation of rules of inclusion and exclusion, tensions and contradictions that articulate and sustain the power differential between the West and the non-European world.” p. 180

“Over the last twenty years the category of agency has become centrally important to the way in which historians and anthropologists write about the relationship between Europe and the non-European world. When it was intially invoked by historians and others…the concept was used to challenge the elitist assumption that the poor and marginalized are merely passive victims of elite oppression. Progressive historians argued that subaltern peoples were self-determining historical agents who challenged, resisted and attempted to liberate themselves from the oppressive social and political structures they inhabited. The assumption that subalterns were autonomous, self-activating agents whose history was ‘their own’ required the historian to challenge teleological narratives that saw the peasant or worker as the passive subject of a process directed from elsewhere (by, for instance, abstract socio-economic forces, the colonial region, or politically conscious elite politicians.)” p. 181

Very nice summary of subalternist use of agency!

“Yet, as a number of scholars have noted, the desire to discover agency is itself part of precisely such a Eurocentric narrative of historical change. The assertion of subaltern agency is one component of a modern style of reasoning that posits the autonomous, self-determining human subject (whether that subject is the individual person or collective group) as the beginning and end points in a process of global social transformation. It is the product of a form of secular political commitment that asserts that emancipation only occurs when human beings are freed from the social and political structures that prevent them from leading fulfilled, self-determining lives–whether liberation takes the form of a liberal democratic state or a socialist society. In order to resist ‘colonial and nationalist discursive hegemonies’ a history that attempts to free subalterns from ‘the will of a the colonial and national elite’ needs to pose the autonomy of the subaltern’s consciousness by invoking a category of agency produced by the kind of Eurocentric story about global emancipation that the subaltern critique was initially designed to overturn.” p. 182

This is a good description of where postcolonial theory found itself on this and many other issues, and why I think poco theory was and still is a kind of frustrating dead end–“futilitarian”. For the following reasons:

a) this line of critique is subject to endless recursion–it’s arguably only Eurocentrism that would produce a critique of a critique of a critique etc.

b) it assumes, as so many glosses of Orientalism/Eurocentrism do, that the Eurocentric story was created only by the agency of Western domination in the first place, e.g., it’s a kind of “auteur theory” of modernity. If instead this sort of political imagination is the product of all sorts of relational and dialogic moments, then it’s not solely the product of or instrument of Western domination.

c) The phobia here of universalism both as objective and as phenomenon is crippling, perhaps intentionally–here is where I think nationalism and nationalist visions of sovereignty enter in the picture, even when some of the poco critics are expressly anti-nationalist on paper–the invocation of particularity and specificity against the universal, the counterfactual of postcolonial theory (“what we would have been but for”) is always particularist and inevitably also like a singularity–something that one cannot look inside. What this gets the critic out of is having to say what’s wrong with universalist (even Eurocentric universalist) conceptions of politics, personhood, etc. To me the way out remains to think of fomulations like agency as sociopolitical/intersubjective technologies. Which doesn’t absolve them of history and power any more than it does penicillin, but it suggests that to deny penicillin in order to achieve sovereignty/autonomy/authenticity is the extreme move that it is (and again with the recursion: is the Eurocentric imagination of what the ‘customary’ or ‘traditional’ entail, the subtraction of modernity to some kind of remainder).

“In South Asian studis in particular, as a result of the theoretical difficulties that agency poses, forms of history-writing that depend upon its explicit use have been quietly abandoned.” p. 182

“Even if the category of agency is no longer invoked quite as often as it once was, it remains an implicit component within many aspects of historical research. In the following pages, I suggest that the work of Talal Asad provides a set of tools that historians and others can use to prise apart the rather limiting terms of an old debate about agency–a debate whose aftereffects nonetheless continue to linger in the historiography of the non-European world…Asad challenges the tendency of historians and anthorpologists to conflate subjectivity and agenacy. Asad notes that scholars tend to assume that an analysis of subjective consciousness is adequate to explain the agentive power human beings have in the world. But, as he puts it, “the structres of possible actions…are logically independent of the consciousness of actors.’ Asad asks us to separate conscious subjectivity from agentive power.” p. 183 Quotes from Genealogies of Religion.

“The landholder’s way of understanding the world, his or her sense of self, was defined by idioms of authority that did not always include the vast majority of his or her subjects or tenants. The landholding self was constituted in languages about kinship and lineage, about status and substance, which involved a dialogue with peers in civic bodies such as the eka-jai (community council) and in royal courts of one sort or another, not only with tenants and subjects of a signficantly lower social status. Nonetheless, these elitist idioms of self-constitution were undermined by the practical recognition that the landholder’s authority could only be upheld in practice by maintaining a dialogic relationship with his or her subjects. The landhold would offer peasants concessions sufficient to prevent rebellion or mass migration, but would employ other means to retain that role when they were able to…an analysis that concentrates on the autonomous consciousness of either of these groups is unable to explain the events or the unequal power relations that occurred.” p. 187

“An examination of the thoughts and deeds of British officials shows that they took for granted their ability to act autonomously to a far greater degree than the other groups we have looked at…” p. 187

“In order to maintain their authority–to avoid the possibility of a rebellion and secure a continuing revenue stream–the colonial regime reinvented itself on a regular basis. In doing so, it also transformed the language it used to legitimate its own authority.” p. 188-189

“One needs to go beyond this [Asad’s distinction between agency as action and consciousness/subjectivity] and show how a historical process…cannot be explained with reference to any coherent agentive subject, whether conscious or not. This is the case for two reasons. First of all, the historical process that produces particular events (e.g., ‘the rebellion’) occurs as the consequence of a process of interaction between subjects (whether conscious nor not) who are constituted in different ways, each with their own conscious and unconscious tendencies and trajectories. The agency that produced the rebellion and its repression did not exist inherently in one of those forces (such as ‘capitalism’, the revenue-maximizing logic of the colonial regime, the consciousness of peasants, demographics, or whatever), but rather in a set of power-relations that flowed between them in their interaction. Secondly, the way the subjects that participated in these events were constituted was itself the product of the contingent historical relationship between the different forces I am speaking of.” p. 189

“Searching for agency consists simply in the identification of characteristics in the thought or conduct of the insurgent subject that differe from those perceived in other modes of practice or consciousness. These characteristics are then imputed to a transcendent subject that retains those characteristics throughout the historical process. The solution is not for historians to look for different kinds of subjects, but to question the link between subjectivity and agency in its entirety.” p. 194

I think this is very useful for my “vernacular liberalism” argument in the sovereignty chapter of Spiders and Captives–e.g., I can call action to preserve the bifurcations of indirect rule a case of “vernacular liberalism” without having to posit a liberal subjectivity–an essentialized kind of individual.

“The word ‘agency’ is a surrogate for the term ‘power’–the capacity to act, affect, or influence something else. Historians who search for agency, whether the agency of the colonial official or the subaltern peasant, believe that power is possessed by the particular individual or collective subject. Different subjects possess different levels of power…The fact of rebellion–of a conscious, premeditated mode of defiance–is evidence of peasants’ power over the world they inhabit, even though its suppression is proof that their power was opposed by a stronger force.” p.194

Again very clarifying: my argument about agency in Zimbabwe is thus fundamentally that because agency is so visible in the idiosyncratic and everyday, that is evidence of just how partial and feeble the power of colonialism really was–despite its own proclamations of totality, which postcolonial theory has largely endorsed or underscored. Totality is most visible in the actions (and subjectivity) of those most incorporated into the colonial order, but that’s not where we look to document colonial totality–we look to chiefs, peasants, etc., where it is much less evident in agency.

“Power possesses strategies and tactics, moves in particular directions, and even has certain intentions, but these are never firmly attached to particular subjects”. p. 195–Foucault is being used here as theoretical guide, but this strikes more at the kind of actor-network theory that functions in Timothy Mitchell’s work and other STS scholarship–things & systems as agents

E.g., both Wilson and Asad here are striving to describe imperialism as forces, as the movement of power, but not as the moves of masterful subject-agents on a chessboard

“Connolly’s point is that if we could live more easily with contingency and inhabit a world in which all instances of human suffering did not need to be attributed to determinate, responsible agents, we could avoid the resentful attribution of evil to the other. But being at ease with contingency involves a radical epistemological shift and a vigorous critique of the secular foundations of political action. Fundamentally, it requires us to disconnect subjectivity and identity from agency. It involves a refusal to attribute all activity–good and bad–to coherent subjects, whether ourselves or another.” p. 203

I suppose what I want to do is attribute activity to coherent subjects, but not agency–e.g., to decouple “actions that change or maintain the structural status quo” from “things that individual people do”. To remain humane in our understandings of people, we need to keep the latter full of “coherent subjects”; but we need a radical schism between how the humane landscape of individual doings relates to “actions”.

“A life as both a critic and activist is possible, but it cannot exist within a single institutional and intellectual site…If we are to take seriously the assumption that the objects of our historical and anthropological inquiry have multiple identities and perform many different roles, we should apply this insight to our own lives.” p. 205

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