The Colonial Encounter: Culture Production through Binaries, Historiography, and Assimilation

“The most successful pedagogy that Orientalism and the colonial encounter would bequeath to these Arab intellectuals was not, however, the production of a nationalist historiographical response, although that was indeed part of it, but an epistemological affinity that would inform all their archeological efforts. These Arab writers would approach the topic at hand by adopting and failing to question these recently invented European notions of ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ and their commensurate insertion in a social Darwinist idiom of ‘evolution,’ ‘progress,’ ‘advancement,’ ‘development,’ ‘degeneration,’ and most important, ‘decadence’ and ‘renaissance.’ Thus Arab intellectuals accepted the thesis that the eighteenth century had been decadent and used it to legitimate their own culture production.

 -Joseph Massad, Desiring Arabs (5)

As the citation from Desiring Arabs suggests, the colonial encounter produced, defined, and sustained the phenomenon of culture. By synthesizing works by Joseph Massad, Mahmood Mamdani, and Partha Chatterjee, we may uncover the productive role of descriptive binaries in the formation of cultural subjects. These thinkers illustrate that such binaries are entrenched in certain theories of history and progress, which facilitate imperial control over cultural and nationalist identities. Culture as a tool and product of colonialism generates the inherent tension in declaring cultural uniqueness by accepting hegemonic standards of civilization. As the theories of Massad, Mamdani, and Chatterjee elucidate, cultural internalization of the colonial project remains present and productive today.

Massad, Mamdani, and Chatterjee emphasize the productive power of binaries in the creation, definition, and management of cultural subjectivity. In the above quotation, Massad points to the influence of Orientalism, a system of knowledge epitomized by the production of Oriental identity in contrast to the West. Desiring Arabs demonstrates that the cultural subjectivities of colonized peoples are rooted in the dissemination and institutionalization of binaries. Massad claims, “As civilization was the operative evaluative criterion, two antinomies would determine the representation and self-representation of the history and culture of the Arabs… the binaries of decadence/ renaissance and tradition/ modernity would govern all such representations” (3). Inherent within these binaries are evaluative hierarchies. The production and recognition of colonized culture in opposition to Western culture bears civilizational judgments. The binaries of decadence/ renaissance and tradition/ modernity produce mutual reliance on the Other to define, sustain, and evaluate the self. Massad demonstrates the hierarchal effect of the creation and management of categorical differences with his citation, “Islam was not to be evaluated as a theology, but as a culture… As culture was used as a synonym for humanity, reason and freedom, the European spectators of the Orient had to define Islam as ‘un- culture’” (4). While Western civilization epitomized progress, Arab culture, as a binary opposite, was demarcated by “dead time,” as Massad writes (23). These subjectivities are relational and mutually dependent, but the evaluative judgments are unequal. Determined by European standards of modernity and progress, the “un-culture” of the colonies is defined by its inferiority to Western civilization.

In his book Define and Rule, Mamdani also highlights the role of binaries in cultural production by the colonial encounter. Like Massad, Mamdani locates the colonial formation of productive binaries in the realm of culture, as he writes, “Thus was born a bifurcated notion of culture, said to be a walled, isolated, and unchanging affair in the non-West, as opposed to a transformative one in the West” (14). This antinomy parallels Massad’s description of the Arab’s “un-culture” with “dead time” in contrast to modern Western civilization. Mamdani illustrates that the contrast between the West’s progressive society and the non-West’s stationary society breeds an inherent interdependence between the two. Investigating the binary of settler and native, Mamdani explains that these political identities are constitutive of each other in their maintained opposition. Define and Rule reads,

“If the settler was modern, the native was not; if history defined the settler, geography defined the native; if legislation and sanction defined modern political society, habitual observance defined that of the native. If continuous progress was the mark of settler civilization, culture was best thought of as part of nature, fixed and unchanged” (6).

Mamdani nuances this binary, revealing the discrimination embedded within the evaluation of cultural identities through oppositions. He proves that intellectuals asserted Western civilization’s opposition to non-Western culture with intentions to produce and secure Western superiority. Mamdani writes that this West/ non-West binary was based on conception, not observation, “so much so that the same observations were interpreted in sharply opposite ways: developments ascribed to urbanization, cosmopolitanism, and progress in the West were seen as outcomes of impurity and miscegenation in the non-West” (104). These discriminatory contradictions demonstrate the effect of binaries in developing and maintaining evaluative hierarchies and power imbalances in the colonial encounter’s cultural production.

Partha Chatterjee, author of Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, offers additional attention to the productivity of binaries in the formation of subjectivity during colonialism. Insisting upon the mutual dependence of opposites in maintaining cultural identity, Chatterjee argues, “For Enlightenment itself, to assert its sovereignty as the universal ideal, needs its Other” (17). We should now consider Mamdani’s description of the native, which defines the non-West as this necessary Other: “Natives were attached to local custom, not universal ideas or ideals” (13). Chatterjee explains that anti-colonial nationalism was also rooted in this West/East binary. While the nationalist Oriental sheds passivity and gains apparent subjectivity, the “thematic” remains the same; “nationalist thought accepts and adopts the same essentialist conception based on the distinction between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’” (38). Like Massad’s discussion on cultural hierarchies, nationalist thought relies upon and assimilates to the European standards of modernity to measure the development of a national culture, according to Chatterjee (1).

The phrase “social Darwinist idiom” in the opening quote is helpful in determining the place of these e binaries in cultural production. Massad, Mamdani, and Chatterjee illuminate the European historiography of evolutionary progress that frames the formation of cultural subjectivity in a temporal scheme. In order to define, develop, and defend their culture in a recognized domain, colonized peoples must embrace and perpetuate this understanding of history. Deeply implanted in this historical theory is the binary opposition between the West and non-West, as measured by the standards of European civilization. Massad claims that this binary is justified in terms of a historical theory of evolutionary culture, as he writes,

“The reasons why Europe ‘modernized’ are found in an immanent cultural realm, as are the reasons for why the Arabs ‘have not’ …[Arabs] are late in their movement toward modernity, seen as the time of ‘democracy,’ and are located behind ‘Europe’ and its American extension, seen as the site of ‘democracy’” (27).

Arab intellectuals, the architects and preservers of culture production, accepted the Orientalist historical narrative about a decadent eighteenth century and assimilated to Europe’s notion of renaissance in disseminating the idea of a “Golden Age” of Islam. By doing so, the cultural product of the colonial encounter posits “the Western historical trajectory as the only course to reach the telos of modernity,” according to Massad (19).

Illustrating Europe’s imposition of historiography on colonized groups, Mamdani’s discussion of the historical theory of progress echoes Massad’s. Mamdani relays that Henry Maine, a central figure in the design of indirect rule, said, “A large part of ancient Europe survives in India” (10). Through their legal administration, colonizers institutionalized the belief that “backward” colonized societies lagged behind the exceptional West in the trajectory of evolutionary history. Mamdani argues that this Darwinian theory of history informed the legal practices of colonizers, which were rooted in two historical and theoretical principles: “One, that every colonized group has an original and pure tradition… and two, that every colonized group must be made to return to that original condition, and that return must be enforced by law” (50). Mamdani makes clear that the Western historical narratives of legal and social evolution justified the colonizer’s impetus to determine, authorize, and enforce tradition, thereby producing the colonized people’s cultural subjectivity.

Chatterjee applies this acceptance of the “social Darwinist idiom” to the emergence of anti-colonial nationalism. He explains, “In this new nationalist reinterpretation of the colonial impact, therefore, historical time itself becomes episodic. Every civilization, it is now argued, has its periods of growth and periods of decay” (137). The nationalist project identifies its culture’s present condition as antiquated and decadent compared to the Western standards of modern progress and aims to usher in a new “spirit of the age” (138). Just as Mamdani writes that modern states seek a unique past and future (46), Chatterjee demonstrates the universalization of the European theory of history. His argument reads,

“So every nationalism has invented a past for the nation; every nationalism speaks through a discourse, ‘historical in its form but apologetic in its substance,’ which claims to demonstrate the rise, progress and efflorescence of its own particular genius. Modern European intellectual fashion not only decrees that a nation must have a past, it also demands that it have a future.” (9)

With this account, Chatterjee illuminates the acceptance of the Western narrative of modernity and progress as an integral component in the principles and practices of national culture.

The above citation from Desiring Arabs claims that Arab intellectuals adopted an Orientalist epistemology to justify their own distinct culture production. Massad demonstrates the contradiction within the declaration of unique cultural identity, which assimilates to European notions of civilization in order to be produced and recognized. Massad describes how Arab internalization of the Western theory of history drove intellectuals to accept and fulfill the Orientalist diagnosis of civilizational stasis and decay. He writes, “The concern over what might have led to the Arab ‘decline’ increased the intensity of the ongoing intellectual battle between Arab writers engaged in producing the account of the Arab ‘cultural’ past…and Orientalists engaged in a similar task” (14). By evaluating and inventing their culture with Western ideals, Arab intellectuals complied with Orientalism’s hierarchal binaries. In defense against colonialist definitions of Arab “un-culture,” the emergence of the “’complete historical independence of the Arab self,’ which is freed from turathist and European authority and therefore inaugurate a temporal movement toward modernity,” paradoxically perpetuates the Western superiority that it seeks to refute (25). Massad highlights this inherent contradiction as he quotes Abdul R. JanMohamed: “On the one hand, there is a desire to define one’s ethnic and cultural uniqueness against the pressures of the majority culture and on the other hand an equally strong, if not stronger, urge to abandon that uniqueness in order to conform to the hegemonic pressures of the [white] liberal humanistic culture” (15). Massad informs us that culture produced by the colonial encounter is characterized by this contradiction between distinct culture and assimilation to hegemonic evaluations of cultural ideals.

Mamdani locates this contradiction within the subjectivity of the native. The native identity was a product of the hegemonic imposition of evaluative binaries and systems of law rooted in Western theories of historical progress. Illuminating the intrinsic hegemony in the management of cultural difference by arranging, enabling, and overseeing native “traditional” leadership, Mamdani writes, “Enforcing tradition became a way of entrenching colonial power” (50). While natives were apparently empowered to govern and define their own identities, their cultural production could only function within the realm of colonial permission and control. Mamdani presents this reality, explaining, “Colonial preoccupation with ‘restoration and rehabilitation of cultural heritage’ tends to reify culture, robbing it of historical dynamism. It ‘actually perpetuates the ethos of dependence which it is ostensibly intended to eliminate’” (101). Here we find a connection between the Orientalist diagnosis of the non-West’s stasis in progressive history and the acceptance of European authority in facilitating the native’s cultural subjectivity. “Though imposed from above, through colonial law and associated administrative measures, tribal identity became the basis of voluntary organization over time,” Mamdani writes, “Enforced from above, native identity begot a native agency” (72). The uniqueness of native, self-produced culture is distinguished by its adherence to Western hegemony and ideals.

This contradiction is essential to the production of anti-colonial nationalism that Chatterjee investigates. Chatterjee highlights the central tension between cultural uniqueness and assimilation in the nationalist project, as he proposes, “The search therefore was for a regeneration of the national culture, adapted to the requirements of progress, but retaining at the same time its distinctiveness” (2). Nationalist groups refuted their ascribed identity of backwardness by proving their ability to self-rule and preserve unique cultural identity. But nationalism could only articulate this argument by assimilating to ideals of progress—the same ideals upon which colonial domination was built. Chatterjee summarizes this penetration of colonial hegemonic epistomology into anti-colonialist nationalism, writing, “There is, consequently, an inherent contradictoriness in nationalist thinking, because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power nationalist thought seeks to repudiate” (38). These three thinkers stress that the cultural production of the colonial encounter is characterized by its internal contradiction between uniqueness and assimilation.

Massad, Mamdani, and Chatterjee illustrate the persisting influence and productivity of culture shaped by colonialism. Each author proposes the need for a radical reorganization of cultural, historical, nationalist, and capitalist discourse in order to finally disassemble the Western hegemony that is nourished by prevailing binaries, historiography, and assimilation. Massad claims that we must dismantle these binaries by transcending them culturally, as he states, “What is needed—not only for Arab intellectuals but especially for their European counterparts—is a view of turath and modernity that is located outside this dualism, one that is not subject to their temporal peregrinations” (29). Mamdani parallels this argument, asserting, “The only emancipation possible for settler and native is for both to cease to exist as political identities” (4). The necessary destruction of binaries is echoed by Chatterjee, who ends his book with a call to “replace… the old problematic and thematic with new ones” (170). Chatterjee recognizes that the thematic, which asserts and accepts the West/East binary opposition, must be destroyed to terminate the lasting effects of culture production in the colonial encounter.

A close analysis of Massad, Mamdani, and Chatterjee’s works illuminates the lasting influence of culture as a tool and product of the colonial encounter to form hierarchical subjectivities and maintain imbalances of power. With the institutionalization of defining binaries and the universalization of historical theories of progress, the internalization of Western ideals and superiority shapes and sustains the phenomenon of culture.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Theories of Culture with Professor Gil Anidjar at Columbia University.

Works Cited

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1986. Print.

Mamdani, Mahmood. Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

Massad, Joseph. Desiring Arabs. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2007. Print


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: