MCC PhD general exam answer 2


Below is the complete text of my response to the second of two exam questions I and my fellow PhD students received as the culmination of our required yearlong departmental doctoral theory seminar. My essay received a score of pass, on a binary scale of pass or fail, as well as kind comments from our professors Paula Chakravartty and Lisa Gitelman. I wrote it from May 28-30 2020 according to the following instructions:

Your completed exam is due in 48 hours. Answer the following question, define your terms and support all your theses and propositions with citations from the syllabi readings. Do not use any readings from outside the two seminar syllabi. Students are expected to engage with the questions specifically. Exams that do not explicitly answer the provided question will receive a failing grade. Your answer should be roughly 10 - 15 pages in length, double-spaced in 12-point type. Include a short bibliography and number your pages.

Question: In the final week of Doc Sem 2 we encountered three new concepts in Manu Karuka’s recent book, Empire’s Tracks:

  • countersovereignty
  • modes of relation
  • continental imperialism

Pick one of these concepts to work with and use it as an inflection point, a way to see other readings and other concepts in a different light. You needn’t write at length about Karuka unless you want to, that is entirely up to you; what’s important is that you make thoughtful and persuasive connections beyond Karuka and involving reading(s) from at least 2 additional session of Doc Sem 2. You may of course also refer to readings from Doc Sem 1. Be creative; think broadly across readings.

Be careful to think beyond the appearance or non-appearance of individual words to do conceptual work connecting, comparing, and contrasting the ways that different authors define and pursue their respective goals. Demonstrate what you’ve learned from the doctoral proseminars.

essay text

I argue that Manu Karuka’s notion of “modes of relation” resonates strongly with Achille Mbembe’s exploration of academic decolonization and with Bruno Latour’s theorizations multiplying the number of agential actors manyfold beyond the human. In “Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad”, Karuka traces a history of US empire that does not directly intersect with the topics of Mbembe’s “Decolonizing the University: New Directions” or Latour’s “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans: Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth”, yet the three authors all reject received humanist precepts in the course of drawing attention to the roles played by technology and ecology within the diverse modes of relation they explore. I draw further connections with Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” particularly in discussing the divergent significance of decolonization in Karuka and Mbembe, and of violence in Karuka and Latour, towards a unified consideration of the prospects for changing extant colonial and imperial modes of relation.

Karuka builds in “Empire’s Tracks” on Karl Marx’s critique of political economy and on the theorization of modes of relationship by three Native American women, Ella Deloria, Sarah Winnemuca, and Winona LaDuke, to argue that “focusing on modes of relationship can help us to understand that collective Indigenous relationships in and with place are concrete, not mystical… the emphasis is on relationships, and it is on change” (Karuka 20). While Karuka most extensively explicates connections among human groups – including Paiute, Lakota, Pawnee, Cheyenne, and other Native American peoples, Chinese migrant laborers, Black workers, and white settlers – the focus on relationship, place and change necessitates discussion of nonhuman ecology, because “place is not an inert, lifeless mass. Intersubjective relations in and with place are the foundation for materialist critique” (21). In particular, Karuka recognizes the link between the subjugation of nature and the conquest of nations: “violence against Paiute lands and waters is an attack on Paiute collective life” (27); “the ongoing violence of colonialism centers on the mass destruction of older relatives” (30); “imperialism excels at proliferating capital into progressively fewer hands, and it does so by wrecking the ecological and social basis of life” (31). Ecology and society are inseparable in Karuka’s analysis, and accordingly “modes of relation” entail interconnections between human and nonhuman kin, whether based on sustainability or based on extraction, just as they encompass all sorts of human relationships ranging from close family ties to the most brutal varieties of warfare.

Thus, there is no intrinsic ethical valence to the term “modes of relation”. Although Karuka clearly favors indigenous modes of relationship over the “countersovereign” mode of “continental imperialism” (xii), that normative valuation is independent of the descriptive concept. However, this moral assessment is not merely sentimental, but political, as Karuka ultimately argues for “the centrality of Indigenous decolonization to anticapitalist struggle on this continent [North America]… Indigenous struggles for self-determination hold the possibility of seriously disrupting the rentier class” (186). Returning to the same theorists he introduced along with the concept of modes of relation, Karuka closes “Empire’s Tracks” with a statement highlighting the more-than-human stakes of this struggle in the current era of catastrophic climate change: “as Ella Deloria, Sarah Winnemucca, Winona LaDuke, and other anticolonial Indigenous feminists have been warning for several generations: There is no alternative. Decolonization, or mass extinction” (200).

While Mbembe’s use of the term “decolonization” is not identical to Karuka’s, this shared concern of both authors is a fruitful lens through which to explore the prospects for transformation of inequitable modes of relation among human and nonhuman groups alike. “Decolonizing the University” dates to the aftermath of the successful 2015 campaign to remove the statue of the infamous racist and imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, and Mbembe lends his clear support to changing “symbols whose force is to create or induce particular states of humiliation; pictures or images that mentally harass Black students on an everyday basis because these students know whom these images represent” (Mbembe 29). After stating “the emerging consensus is that our institutions must undergo a process of decolonization both of knowledge and of the university as an institution” (33), Mbembe builds extensively on the work of Ngugi wa Thiong’o (author of “Decolonizing the Mind”), which richly resonates with Karuka’s notion of “modes of relation” in connecting

“the process of ‘seeing ourselves clearly’… to the question of relationality (a trope so present in various other traditions of Black thought, in particular Glissant). We are called upon to see ourselves clearly in relation to ourselves and to other selves with whom we share the universe. And the term ‘other selves’ is open ended enough to include, in this Age of the Anthropocene, all sorts of living species and objects.” (34-35)

Hence we see attentiveness to the interrelations among humans and nonhumans as a theme unifying Karuka’s and Mbembe’s understandings of decolonization. Again, these relationships are not abstract or disembodied, but situated: for Karuka, in “North America as a space of imperialism, an international space of hundreds of colonized Indigenous nations” (Karuka 176); for Mbembe as for Ngugi, “Africa has to be placed in the centre” (Mbembe 35), even as “Ngugi’s Africa expands well beyond the geographical limits of the Continent… to the West Indies, to Afro-America… decolonizing an African university requires a geographical imagination that extends well beyond the confines of the nation-state” (36). This process is defined as follows: “To decolonize the university is to therefore to reform it with the aim of creating a less provincial and more open critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism”, where “by pluriversity, many understand a process of knowledge production that is open to epistemic diversity” (37).

A more general definition of “decolonization” is absent from “Decolonizing the University”. Mbembe’s restricted usage cannot perform all of the work required by Karuka’s repeated employment of the term, of which I have selected only a few instances: “decolonization entails the restoration of Indigenous modes of relationship” (Karuka 29); “decolonization, as Mohawk activist Katsi Cook frames it, is a feminist question” (36); “decolonization is imperative in order to destroy the imperialist war machine” (173). Although it is Mbembe and not Karuka who cites Fanon, it is easier for me to trace a connection between these and other mentions of “decolonization” in “Empire’s Tracks” with some of those found in “The Wretched of the Earth”: “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” (Fanon 35); “decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men” (35); “decolonization is the veritable creation of new men” (36); “colonization and decolonization are simply a question of relative strength. The exploited man sees that his liberation implies the use of all means, and that of force first and foremost” (61). While reforming the university’s research and teaching practices can plausibly be linked to the creation of new types of humans (if I may broaden Fanon’s gendered language and/or its mediation by the translator Constance Farrington), Mbembe’s program bears no obvious relationship to the armed struggle Fanon takes as basic to decolonization. Even Karuka, who occasionally highlights the violent anticolonial resistance of “Indians armed with guns” (Karuka 176), does not explicitly grapple with the role of weaponry and military organization when exhorting readers to “build toward a general strike of Indigenous peoples and the urban poor and working class, to transform the [imperialist] war into a multi-front movement towards liberation” (199). Latour, perhaps surprisingly given his apparently scant interest in colonization and decolonization, actually provides a more straightforward meditation on questions of violence, especially as they relate to the agency of humans and nonhumans. Before turning our attention to his theorization, let me conclude these remarks with a definition of “decolonization” as the disruption of colonial modes of relation and their replacement with alternative modes. At the risk of vagueness, a broad meaning is necessary to simultaneously capture otherwise incompatible usages by Karuka, Mbembe and Fanon.

In “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans”, Latour questions “what mediation means in the realm of techniques” (Latour 176) and uses the well-worn gun control debate as an extended example to begin developing four meanings of technical mediation which all tend to multiply for consideration the number of agents/actors, or as Latour prefers, “actants” (180). Latour deliberately caricatures a materialist position as “guns kill people” (176) before refining it slightly to “what the materialist claims, more exactly, is that the good citizen is transformed by carrying the gun” (177); this is in contrast to an equally exaggerated sociological position that “the gun is a tool, a medium, a neutral carrier of human will” (177), from which Latour reads “the troubling suggestion that we can master techniques, that techniques are nothing more than pliable and diligent slaves” (177-178). Latour rejects both of these positions as essentialist, stating that “the twin mistake of the materialists and the sociologists is to start with essences, those of subjects or those of objects” (180), whereas for Latour the interesting and important move is

“to shift our attention to this ‘someone else’, the hybrid actor comprising (for instance) gun and gunman. We must learn to attribute–redistribute–actions to many more agents than are acceptable in either the materialist or the sociological account. Agents can be human or (like the gun) nonhuman, and each can have goals… These examples of actor-actant symmetry force us to abandon the subject-object dichotomy, a distinction that prevents the understanding of collectives. It is neither people nor guns that kill. Responsibility for action must be shared among the various actants. And this is the first of the four meanings of mediation.” (180)

In Latour’s exploration of the modes of relation between humans and nonhumans, including relationships of violence, the synonymy of mediation with “interference” (178) implies that subject-object dichotomies are equally false whether they locate causation and responsibility purely in either the tool/weapon or in the person wielding it, rather than in the hybrid actor. The same conclusion is only strengthened by Latour’s other three meanings of mediation, namely “composition” (180), “the folding of time and space” (183), and “crossing the boundary between signs and things” (185). The connection is clear to Mbembe’s statement that “humans are objects among the various types of objects that exist or populate the world, each with their own specific powers and capacities… subjects are objects among objects” (Mbembe 43). This philosophical declaration comes in the context of Mbembe’s call for “a new understanding of ontology, epistemology, ethics and politics” as “we are forced to think the human in entirely new ways… [in] an entirely new deep, geological time, that of the Anthropocene… arguably the most important question facing humanity, since at stake is the very possibility of its extinction” (42). Although this last term (the Anthropocene) was still quite obscure in 1999 when “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans” was published, the need for human action in the face of various ecological crises including climate change was not, and Latour expresses this understanding via a brief explication of “political ecology… literally, not symbolically as before, we have to manage the planet we inhabit” (Latour 203). The scale of the called-for response is beyond individual capacity: “purposeful action and intentionality may not be properties of objects, but they are not properties of humans either. They are the properties of institutions, of apparatuses… Boeing 747s do not fly, airlines fly” (192-193).

If purposeful action and intentionality are not (solely) human properties, and if a singular gun is a not a neutral object void of agency, it follows logically that the continental institutions and apparatuses of imperialism that Karuka describes in “Empire’s Tracks” must possess comparatively immense powers of causality and responsibility. These modes of relation are not a focus for Latour, but when writing about the genealogy of capitalist industry, he does spare a few words to locate “machinery and factories… in the imperial megamachine” (207). In a striking echo of Latour’s analysis and literal translation from the French of the ubiquitous and humble speed bump as a “sleeping policeman” (186), Karuka’s extensive analysis of “railroad colonialism” describes how “imperialists across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia built railroads as infrastructures of reaction, as attempts to control the future. Infrastructure, in other words, played a police function” (Karuka 40). Of course, this latter instance of technological policing in the imperial megamachine acts on a vastly more colossal and sinister scale than the first, as by “1897, railroads had become key sites of anticolonial uprisings, which would be defeated by the renewal of the war-finance nexus” (52). Karuka repeatedly refers to this nexus, including in the epilogue “The Significance of Decolonization in North America”, the most programmatic section of “Empire’s Tracks”. Karuka notes that “contradictions in the war-finance nexus are sites for the renewal of imperialism, but they are also points of possibility for a genuine rupture with imperialist modes of relationship” (185). I conclude with a consideration of the role of violence in the prospects for such a rupture.

I defined decolonization above as the disruption of colonial modes of relationship and their replacement with other modes. Mbembe’s focus on academic decolonization centers on “a critique of the dominant Eurocentric academic model… [and] an attempt at imagining what the alternative to this model could look like” (Mbembe 36), notably including the proposition that “a decolonized university in Africa should put African languages at the center of its teaching and learning project” (36), and continuing with the idea that “we will foster a process of decolonization of our universities if we manage to build new diasporic intellectual networks” (41), among other proposals situated by his position as a professor at a South African university. In Karuka’s arguably broader continental and internationalist view, decolonization entails “renewing basic principles of anticolonial solidarity, a united front of the dispossessed of the North with the working classes, peasants, and Indigenous peoples of the poorer nations, [and] a renewal of organizational principles driven by clear perspectives of distinct classes in coordinated struggle over the means of social reproduction, including peace, bread, and land” (Karuka 199). And for Fanon, “decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder” (Fanon 36). By the standards of “The Wretched of the Earth”, Mbembe’s reformist program hardly deserves the title “decolonizing”. Even Karuka’s methodical outline of a broad political path forward, while both more compelling to me personally than Mbembe’s unobjectionable (and perfectly compatible) suggestions and arguably more in keeping with Fanon’s spirit, does not deeply engage with the question of physical force that Fanon consistently foregrounds the absolute necessity of: “violence alone, violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them” (147); “colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (61).

The issues Latour raises around the agency of the gun – multiplied more than a millionfold by the required scale of action – problematize Fanon’s endorsement of anticolonial violence, but do not obviate the need for it. The simplistic example of the liberal-conservative debate on gun control (recast as materialist-sociological), while effective for Latour’s rhetorical and philosophical purposes, is grossly insufficient to account for the practical political challenges posed by decolonization, or even by ordinary life for oppressed peoples living in occupied territory where “colonial claims to legitimacy and authority are seen as properly peripheral, coercive, and reliant, ultimately, on violence” (Karuka 3). It is all well and good to recognize the powerful or even determining influence of nonhumans over the humans who use them / are used by them / are composed and bound up with them, but this offers limited guidance for issues I can easily foresee arising in the course of decolonial struggle. For example, when assigning responsibility for animalized police violence, does blame accrue solely to the trainers and masters of dogs weaponized against protestors, or does any fault reside with the canine itself, say if it bites unbidden by a cop? It is not obvious to me that the answer to this question has any relevance to a person acting in defense of self or community. Self-preservation by any means necessary is an inalienable right, whether exercised against racist humans, racist dogs, or novel creations like racist robots. Decolonization in Fanon’s sense is only an instance of self-defense on a national and international scale.

What I do see the relevance of more clearly than the thought experiment I just posed, when considering the prospects for rupturing imperialist modes of relation, is the sobering quantity of historical examples of armed struggle against one set of oppressors leading to yet another cycle of violent oppression. Yet, to change actually existing modes of relationship among humans and nonhumans alike leaves no choice but to risk having our best intentions interfered with and mediated by tools and techniques which ultimately belong to the world we hope to leave behind, because that is the world we live in now. It is imaginable that such compromises may extend even to engineering responses to mitigate the racist climate crisis, despite every caution against such a course of action implied by the realities of who currently controls the bulk of scientific and technical resources. The need to alter that balance of power means that academic knowledge production does have its place in decolonization, but that process cannot be reduced to a series of university reforms. Decolonization is a matter to be decided by the relations and actions of entire colonized peoples in struggle.

Works Cited:

  • Fanon, Frantz. (1961). “The Wretched Of The Earth.” Translated by Constance Farrington, First Evergreen Edition, Grove Press, 1991.
  • Karuka, Manu. (2019). “Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad.” University of California Press.
  • Latour, Bruno. (1999). “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans: Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth.” Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, ch. 6, pp. 174-215. Harvard University Press.
  • Mbembe, Achille. (2016). “Decolonizing the University: New Directions.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 29–45.