Tomorrow morning my sons and I fly to Podgorica, Montenegro, for the International Conference of the Institute of Foreign Languages, a linguistics conference run out of the University of Montenegro, where I am honored to be the keynote speaker. Montenegro is a much more prosperous successor nation than Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the recent Balkan wars, it was allied with Serbia. And when in 2006 its public voted for independence, it was by a narrow margin, just over the 55% threshold, that members of this community (then numbering just over half a million) voted for nationhood. Soon it will join Slovenia and Croatia as members of the EU. What can I possibly say to my colleagues gathering in Podgorica that might make a difference?
I could speak about the way in which the EU has rewarded homogeneity and punished diversity. All of the nations in the former Yugoslavia that expelled their ethnic minorities and established majority nation-states the EU has rewarded. Homogeneity and ethnic cleansing has its rewards, among them institutional and legal coherence. Thus, when Dayton imposed heterogeneity on Bosnia and Herzegovina, it also de facto excluded BiH from the exclusive club. Now it wants the three-headed entity it created to supersede the conflict that it reinscribed in the Dayton Accords. I could speak about this. But I won’t. Instead I have elected to recover a meme lost or suppressed over the past three decades concerning the outspoken Derridean who dared to positively invoke the memory of Karl Marx, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
My reasons for recovering this lost meme is multi-layered. Unlike most Marxists who comment on Spivak’s essay, I am attracted to the story Professor Spivak tells at the conclusion of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where she explores the Sati-suicide of the daughter of a family friend. I am attracted to this story because it explores how bodies are sites of resistance. And I am attracted to stories that focus on the body because I suspect that Montenegrans, like most post-Yugoslavians, tend to flee from discussions that focus on the body.
But I am also attracted to Professor Spivak’s essay because, as a scholar, I desperately need the insights of activists who can point out where my own practices obscure, conceal, obliterate the body of knowledge I am professionally obligated to illuminate. It is not that I am ashamed or surprised by the spanking that Professor Spivak administers to comrades Foucault and Deleuze. So far had they wandered from the body of knowledge, from the international exchanges and circuitry that held the subaltern body hostage, that it had genuinely become unclear whether (as David Harvey and Frederic Jameson suspect) they had actually switched sides and become cheerleaders for the sublime value form of the commodity. (I personally do not receive a regular salary. I am a contingent, seasonal, laborer who regularly endures the loss of health insurance and other institutional benefits.) So I appreciate Spivak’s interrogation of those of us within our profession who straddle the fence, so to speak, playing both sides, and so inviting the subaltern to speak without acknowledging the mechanisms that account for her silence. (Because I am a white, educated male, I will always enjoy more institutional power than my non-white, non-male colleagues.) In post-Yugoslavia, post-structuralism offers the luxury of speaking while not speaking. So that my principle attraction to Professor Spivak is how she offers me an opportunity to invoke a criticism of disembodied critical theory that emerges from the camp of post-structuralism itself, a Derridean. (I am not a Derridean. I am a Marxian with shades of Freud and Lacan, but also enjoying fairly comprehensive knowledge of and appreciation for the Tanach, the broad Christian canon, and the Holy Quran.) Yet, perhaps, I am also attracted to Professor Spivak’s analysis because her implicitly anthropological methodology allows her to appreciate Marx’s non-foundational, historically and socially specific, ontology. This allows her to offer a non-teleological critique of empire and capital that points not in the direction of totality, but benign difference.
This benign difference is critical since it describes a way through the impasse inscribed upon the body of the post-Yugoslavian social actor. It was already invoked by Adorno in his well-known and often repeated Finale:
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects — this alone is the task of thought.
I do not know whether this is truly emancipatory. I do not know where it will lead those who are convened in Podgorica.
Next week I speak at an economics conference attended by the oligarchs and pimps of the former Yugoslavia. I will deliver a similar message there. There is a chance that I will escape with my life.