A North/South postcolonial geography?
I argue that postcolonial theory offers us ways in which to read the North/ South relationship in a different manner than what the preceding discussion reveals. I draw on insights from Bhabha, Grosfoguel, Said, Spivak, and others who have used their thinking in geography and cognate disciplines to make my argument about the abiding relevance of a North/South framing for postcolonial climate politics (Joshi 2015). Notions of strategic essentialism, hybridity, and reflexivity are enabling; and tendencies towards Orientalism, Eurocentrism, and complicity ought to give us pause.
Critique and complicity
Almost three decades ago, Jane Jacobs posed what is considered “one of the most significant questions for contemporary human geography” (Nash 2004, 105): “Can the spatial discipline of geography move from its positioning of colonial complicity towards producing postcolonial spatial narratives?” (Jacobs 1996, 163). The risk of academic complicity with reinforcing global inequalities is a serious one, and anyone committed to using their scholarship to enhance social justice rather than maintaining the status quo would be wary of it. Postcolonial scholars (Kapoor 2008; Spivak 2010a) have warned of such complicity and suggested that attention to reflexivity is crucial in countering such complicity. I take this to mean that a scholarly examination using a postcolonial perspective takes seriously into consideration the authors own positionality, based on both social and epistemic location (Grosfoguel 2011). This must happen if decolonial work on postcolonialism is to be more than an intellectual exercise.
The emphasis on postcolonial critique in the form of the contestation of ‘colonial’ binary identities is understandable given the role they have played in accentuating colonial power Qacobs 1996). However, there is an aspect to this power and identity that often goes underexamined - an identity politics based on the appropriation of binary construction as anti-colonial strategy. Postcolonial scholars have drawn attention to decolonial strategies that utilize the “disruptive power of hybridity” employing the colonizer’s tools of oppression (Jacobs 1996, 14; Kapoor 2008) in a way that achieves ‘subversive complicity’ (Grosfoguel 2011, 24). Jacobs (1996, 14) thus spoke of the ability of colonized groups to subvert colonial power “through disruptive inhabitations of
Postcolonialism and the atmospheric commons 57 colonialist constructs . . . [enabled by the] . . . vulnerability of imperialist and colonialist power . . . against anticolonial formations”. The colonizers negative constructions of the colonized other are often appropriated in countercolonial efforts:
The processes by which notions of the Self and Other are defined, articulated and negotiated are a crucial part of what might be thought of as the cultural dimension of |both] colonialism and postcolonialisms. [This| making and remaking of identity occurs through representational and discursive spheres.
(Jacobs 1996, 2)
Hybridity refers to the embodiment of a bicameral identity that serves to destabilize hegemonic authority (Kapoor 2008). “A contingent, borderline experience opens up in-between colonizer and colonized. This is a space of cultural and interpretive undecidability' produced in the ‘present’ of the colonial moment” (Bhabha 1994, 295—96). Drawing on Bhabha’s (1994, 296) “margin of hybridity” where cultural oppositions are momentarily suspended, Kapoor (2008, 139) deduces that a ‘hybridizing strategy’can exploit the indeterminacies of power to co-opt the dominant modality' to beat the colonizers at their own game. Such attempts are not necessarily guaranteed success because of the “ever-changing forms of neocolonial hegemony” (Kapoor 2008, 147) — the game keeps evolving. These resistance strategies are adopted in dialectical relation to the “tenacious and adaptive power” of colonial discourses that seek to continually reinvent and reinscribe the status quo (Jacobs 1996, 14). Awareness of these two-way power dynamics obligates postcolonial scholars “not to accept the politics of identity as given, but to show how all representations are constructed, for what purpose, by whom, and with what components” (Said 1994, 314). As Laclau (1990, 31) has said, “the constitution of a social identity is an act of power and that identity as such is power”. Such an understanding of North/South identities as “social constructs, and strategic ones at that, destabilizes a whole range of claims" (Jacobs 1996, 162).
Postcolonialisms critique of North/South binaries has been predicated mostly' on discourses from the colonizers’ vantage point and as such have seemingly focused solely on the “continued legacies of colonialism [rather] than challenges to them” (Nash 2002, 221). But binary ‘othering’ is not an act that can be performed only' by dominant groups. It is also a strategy' of resistance to dominance/hegemony by the marginalized. Binaries help us make sense of differences in the world. To understand who is behind particular representational practices and for what purpose is therefore important. A neglected but important task is therefore to engage with the multiple forms of agency of formerly colonized people without dismissing them a priori as ‘elitist’ due to perceived closeness with the colonizer’s image. The elite-poor binary oftenused to characterize politics within India as well as in its portrayal without has been found misleading:
the dominant imagery of India’s new middle class, exemplified by glitzy shopping malls and international travel, in fact conflates India’s new (and tiny) globalized elite with the large and heterogeneous middle class, comprising a wide range of incomes and practices, within which elites are a small component.
(Lemanski and Lama-Kewal 2013, 91)
There is a disturbing parallel in the way that Third World ‘elites’ and ‘emerging economies’ in the Global South are problematized by scholars — both are conjured up as the ‘straw man’ whose very existence invalidates their claims on behalf of their broader constituency (Joshi 2015).
The question of representation — can the ‘elite’ of a nation truly represent the interests of ordinary citizens in international relations; and can emerging economies truly represent the interests of the Global South — is reminiscent of Spivaks (2010a) charge of White saviorism of academics, because if the Third World ‘elite’ cannot be trusted to represent the Third World, by implication, then the one making the charge (presumably from a First World location or place of privilege) is presenting themselves as more trustworthy in representing the voice or concerns of the Third World. Such critiques, when performed unreflexively by Northern academics, render them complicit — coincidentally alongside imperialist strategists in hegemonic power centers — in the maintenance of the unequal status quo between the North and South and hence of coloniality (Grosfoguel 2011). While the contestations may occur in the discursive realm, the implications are for material resources through economic relations and environmental responsibilities. Anand’s (2004) portrayal of the Global South as united by a shared experience of vulnerability in the world political economic system due to their victimization by a colonial and imperial past can be disavowed as a Third Worldist identity politics or as a legitimate appeal to a strategic essentialism (Spivak 1993) where claiming victimhood increases bargaining power.
The NIEO proposal was made on similar grounds (Bhagwati 1977), where a coalition of formerly colonized countries sought to challenge the unfair terms of trade between themselves and industrialized countries, by demanding changes that would enable the South to achieve self-sustaining economic growth and industrialization, although the Bretton Woods institutions rejected these calls by pointing to the fallacy of the North/South divide. The increasing salience of global environmental concerns opened up new possibilities for North/South diplomacy by enhancing the bargaining power of the South in global environmental politics (Anand 2004). But when Western scholars negate these claims to justice as ‘ideological posturing by elites’ (Berger 2004) or an ‘uncritical’ geopolitics (Barnett 2007; Toal 1994), they become unwittingly complicit in the preservation of the unequal North/South status quo,
Postcolonialism and the atmospheric commons 59 demonstrating “how the production of western knowledge is inseparable from the exercise of Western power” (Blunt and McEwan 2002, 6). For in denying the North/South dichotomy, these scholars (of the Global North) lend strength to the assertion — akin to that of the Bretton Woods institutions in the context of NIEO proposals - that more and less powerful countries do not exist, and that the material well-being of the poor in the Global South can be addressed without challenging the fundamental structures of the global political economy that are skewed towards the Global North.