Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Come to Africa: A Hermeneutics of Race in International Theory

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Come to Africa: A Hermeneutics of Race in International Theory

Article excerpt

Siba N. Grovogui (*)

[The Republican congressional class of 1994 should] come to Africa. . . . In Rwanda and Burundi, no one is asked to pay for Head Start, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, national service or student loan programs. Instead, they just have a brutal competition for scarce land, energy and water, in which Tutsi and Hutu take turns downsizing the other tribe in order to grab more resources for their own.

Thomas Friedman, New York Times, January 28, 1996

The end of the Cold War and the advent of the information age have upset the old adages that guided the study of international relations for the past fifty years. To many, these events have all but given an aura of inevitability to US (and Western) hegemony and vindicated liberal democracy and late-modern capitalism. (1) As a result, vast numbers of comparative analysts have rid themselves of the theories of imperialism, dependency, uneven development, and others that once sought to explore the political and institutional context of late-modern inequities between states, nations, classes, and genders. Under the guise of restoring agency and cultural perspectives to past and present historical processes, these theorists have rediscovered comparative analyses of cultures and civilizations as means to explaining the unevenness of modernity. But their speculations on the origins and trajectories of the different regional entities of the international order remain grounded in subtle notions of "race" and their rel ations to progress and modernization. (2) Thus, where once analysts sought to advance social justice by examining social relations, power, and the nature of material transactions among entities, the new theories now assume the inevitability of the present order on the basis of the supposed civilizational attainments, cultural dispositions, and work ethics of the inhabitants of the different regions of the globe.

Typically, these explanations depend upon a reverse orientalism that extols the economic achievements of the "Asian Tigers"; a cultural determinism that faults African cultural practices alone for the underdevelopment of that region; (3) and a refashioned Weberian notion of work ethics to explain away class and regional differentiations within the international system. Such approaches frequently oppose culture and agency to structures and institutions in order to favor the former. Moreover, they place "culture" and "agency" outside of their structural and institutional contexts and, as a result, substitute the presumed "habits" and "dispositions" of "regional" groupings for the culture and agency of their constituent members; hence, the habits and supposed cultural dispositions of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, especially as these are expressed through institutions, which are said to spur or hinder their sociopolitical advancement and economic modernization.

Despite numerous disclaimers by its adepts, the new scholarship shows a near disinterest in the historical role of the various agents of the moral order for the purpose of elucidating their performance and the ethical bases of their actions. Nor have they shown any sustained interest in the historicity of modernity, the function of the language of progress, and structuring effects of different civilizational (or modernizing) agencies. The result, intended or not, is the racialization of history and historical processes such as international relations. By the racialization of international knowledge, I do not mean to impute racist motives to international theorists: I simply mean to stress the use of analytical methods that uphold ethnographic allusions associated with a hermeneutics of race and culture. Often, such hermeneutics depend upon incomplete historiographic data that serve as central axes for understanding power (sovereignty) and subjectivity (self-determination) within the moral order. To date, no i nternational-relations theorists have based their distinctions between civilized and uncivilized upon a comprehensive comparative investigation of Europe and other regions in regard to "historical traditions," "political morality," and "cultural dispositions. …

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