Joseph F. Duggan
In the new history section of the Postcolonial Networks website you are encouraged to read our “Timeline” to learn about the organic evolution of Postcolonial Networks. The timeline catalogs the chronological development of Postcolonial Networks from a very small Facebook group into our multiple global relationships and projects. The Founder’s blog, another new section of the Postcolonial Networks website will be the place where I as the founder will reflect on more personal intersections of postcoloniality with my life, among other things. I do so in response to colleagues who for over a year have been asking me to write about why I am so passionate about postcoloniality. Many have wondered about the process of my move from white guilt to subversive praxis. Here in this my first founder’s blog post I attempt an initial autobiographical answer that explains why I have dedicated my life to Postcolonial Networks and opened myself to the subalterns’ judgment on whether the field of postcolonial studies is credible. The credibility of postcolonial studies is always in question wherever postcolonial theories inadequately embody themselves in anti-colonial living.
I grew up in The Bronx, one of the five boroughs of New York City. My social location is white Christian, heterosexual, male with working-class Irish Catholic roots. I was formed by the classic homophobic, racist and classist view that God helps those who help themselves. At the same time my parents inspired in us deep faith in God and compassion for others. Very early on in my life I saw the way our family’s presumption that we were better than our neighbors was a contradiction with the faith and compassion as it had been taught to us. Throughout my life I would struggle with the tension between our family’s self-proclaimed identity and my lived reality. The gulf of the difference between whom I was told I was and what I felt became the site for the development of my critical analytical skills. My early intuition was more than chance, as from birth I felt deeply different. I experienced multiple levels of body differences that shaped the person I would become, my passions, the work I have ultimately come to do as the founder of Postcolonial Networks and the urgency in the way I approach this work.
As a little boy I had a stutter and could not pronounce my brother’s and sister’s full names though they were very simple names, — Mary, Bill, Jim and Kathy. Until the age of six years old I pronounced these as M, Bi, Ji, and Ka. My parents took me to a speech therapist that taught me to speak without a stutter. In college in a speech class final exam I was asked to give a two-minute, impromptu speech. I did and the teacher asked me to stay after class to speak with him. He said he had a very personal question and wondered if I might just confirm his suspicion. He said, “I believe you had a stutter as a child and that you were taught by Sr. Winifred the way to speak without it. Is this true?” I was stunned by his intimate knowledge and awareness. I felt singled out and uncertain if I should confirm his intuition. I thought about my difference and said, “Yes, I had a stutter and Sr. Winifred taught me to speak.” He said, “Yes. I know.” I asked, “How do you know I once had a stutter or even that Sr. Winifred was the one who helped me?” He said, “She left her signature on your tongue.” I asked, “What does that signature look like?” He said, “I cannot tell you for then you would become self-conscious about it and your stutter would likely return.” The stutter was one of the earliest ways I learned about being different and the way difference outside of relationship with others has the potential to cripple.
In addition to the stutter I was born with a tremor in my hands due to a genetic chromosomal difference. The chromosomal difference I have is on the borders of intersex genetic differences. The tremor is the one visible characteristic of over one hundred invisible characteristics. The bodily experience of this chromosomal difference has marked me with a degree of noticeable otherness, stigmatized by an ableist culture. From my grade school years through my early professional life and even in some priestly formation I was treated differently because of my tremor. In grade school I was repeatedly bullied. In my neighborhood I was shunned from street games. Nobody ever wanted me on his or her game team. The result of these exclusions had a negative impact on my intellectual development and I fell behind in school graduating almost last in my class in grade school. Through much of my childhood I lived in a private world marked by fear, loneliness, and inner companions. In the silence of my childhood I observed everything and began what I imagine is a lifelong critical awareness and power critique of all that I had experienced.
In my early professional life I was criticized as “unprofessional” because of the tremor. Some assumed I was on drugs. Even when I denied that I was on drugs some insisted that I was lying. In one Roman Catholic formation process for ordination I was told that the tremor in my hands would be unsightly and would function as a distraction to the People of God if I were to become a priest and hold the Eucharist with trembling hands”. Even until this day every time I preach or preside in a new church I publicly acknowledge my tremor to put curious people at ease. In job interviews, as well I acknowledge that I have a tremor so my interviewer will not think that I am overtly nervous. In these professional contexts where it is desired that I exercise my strengths and gifts, I am reminded of my otherness often perceived as weakness.
The stutter and the tremor have brought me a deep awareness of difference in others as I have learned to live with my own difference, learning to accord positive meaning to what others have stigmatized. Throughout my life I have lived on the emotional and spiritual borders of “normalcy,” at the periphery and close enough to the margins that I am empathetic with others I meet there. My best friends as a child growing up in our family’s neighborhood were other children who were shunned because of the color of their skin, their intellectual deficiencies, and physical handicaps.
I worked most of my adult life to leave behind or mask my otherness as I desperately sought to fit into the stereotypes patterned by the formation of my early years. It was not until my PhD studies that I flourished academically and in ways that enabled my entire life history to come together with discernible meaning. Pieces of self-understanding had emerged earlier. My deep experience of otherness and astute power analysis broke me open to liberation, feminist, black, queer, and postcolonial theologies. As I engaged, for example, Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender, Viviane Namaste’s Invisible Lives and Mark Lewis Taylor’s The Excluded God I realized that what I was reading about an otherness I intimately knew. I was reading about fragments of myself in others whom society perceives as different and even threatening to dominant norms. I felt an incredible bond with others, but it was a felt bond that was invisible.
At the same time I instinctively knew that there was a huge chasm between the theorization of difference and the embodied life of difference. I was able to see the limits of the theories and the ways they stopped short of articulating otherness, difference, and exclusion with analytical precision. In the limits of theologies and their associated philosophical and critical theoretical tools I saw a perpetuation of violence. I saw these theologies and theories as often the replication of the violence they were intended to heal with justice. One difference theorized and included became another’s exclusion or judgment in an unbroken chain of violence. I began to see the complexity of systems of oppression that is stabilized by the colonial denial of churches, universities, community organizations, and other partisan communities. In this sense, I learned to work with and against prevailing theological and theoretical hegemonies even within postcolonial studies.
The stutter had been corrected but was covered with a thin veil that masked my difference, which was the thin veil of real change that I saw in postcolonial theologies and theories. Like my college teacher who could not reveal the fragile signature on my tongue for fear my stutter would return, so too, postcolonial studies in many of its historical forms is too fragile to address relational colonialism or imbalanced power relations. I knew that I would never be able to address the enormity of these oppressions as a traditional scholar working on a single research question. I knew that I would need to invite many others into relationship to address the gaps that otherwise celebrate the thin veil between violence and peace, the colonial and the postcolonial, the continually excluded other, and self-determined societies in relation.
The work I do is deeply personal. There is a life-and-death urgency that motivates me in all I do. I have a sharp intuitive sense for the difference between masked justice and real engagement. I detest forms of “justice,” whether, individual, or communal, that are mere veils that cannot withstand, encounter or engage the systemic violence of a society in which identities need the stabilization of exclusive privilege. There are too few dialogical efforts where we seek to understand persons across our radical differences. There is a tendency to prioritize inclusion of one by judgment and exclusion of another. In my work I am committed to working with both colonized and colonizers. I will work with any group of persons who is willing to reflect with me on oppression and imagine the interpersonal and systemic heavy lifting required to non-violently live in postcolonial societies.
I do this postcolonial work with a variety of groups and do my best to do so as closely yet critically aligned with their diverse terms of engagement in ways that reject unproductive baseline canonical postcolonial strategies. I do this so as to engage more people in the lived memories of colonialism than the secular, liberal categories of postcolonial theories and theologies have judged acceptable. As a result there are projects within and across Postcolonial Networks that are unlikely to ever intersect with each because of the radical differences between these groups, even the demonization of one or another by the other. I don’t do this work to achieve false common ground, or facile and unsustainable reconciliation, or to privilege one political status but rather to challenge both internalized and externalized forms of oppression with which we all have a share and stake.
I am mindful in my postcolonial work of James Cone once saying that he learned the most from his harshest critics. When we work with the groups we typically avoided historically then we have the potential to deconstruct our colonial fantasies of the other. With our fantasies out of the way we then are better able to undertake the postcolonial work that excavates interpersonal and systemic violence at our deepest roots. The deepest oppressions and forms of colonialism are often out of our own reach, in our blindspots, where the other is the means to our truth and societal peace. In this way I undertake postcolonial work as a practice and praxis I hope to contribute to the transformation of postcolonial studies from merely theories to lived postcolonial realities.
As Paul Ricoeur wrote in Oneself as Another, “the autonomy of the self” is “tightly bound up with solicitude for one’s neighbor and with justice for each individual.” The postcolonial work I yearn for myself and others is captured in Ricoeur’s thesis: “We have to acquire simultaneously the idea of reflexivity and the idea of otherness, in order to pass from a weak correlation between someone and anyone else, which is too easily assumable, to a strong correlation between belonging to the self, in the sense of mine, and belonging to another, in the sense of yours” (Ricoeur 1992, 18 and 39).
My story is very specific to my own journey, but Ricoeur calls all of us to the passionate self-discovery of self in relation to the other. The distinctive postcolonial work that Postcolonial Networks is about accepts this invitation. We invite you to recognize and recall your own passionate journey to see yourself in another and the way our collective recognition(s) will deepen the fragile roots of postcolonial theologies and theories moving all of us into a deeper interconnectedness, through an autonomy that frees our colonized selves that otherwise privilege the postponement of postcolonial societies.
In his new book, The Arab Spring, Hamid Dabashi states that postcolonialism is dead, finished and of no more value. I thoroughly understand Dabashi’s argument and sentiment. Dabashi is in part right. Postcolonialism is dead if we continue to naively ask, “Can the subaltern speak?” The question reflects postcolonial scholars’ embarrassment over the subalterns’ speech and the field’s naivete. The question, “Can the subaltern speak?” says more about the current state of the disconnected field of postcolonial studies and its preoccupation with the academy’s dominant speech forms. The time has come to listen to subalterns’ memories of the violence of colonialism and respond in anti-colonial ways that make it possible to live among radical differences. The declaration of the death of the postcolonial studies discipline is premature. Join Postcolonial Networks in shaping a renewed postcolonial commitment through practices, praxis, and relationships.
Joseph F. Duggan, PhD, is founder of Postcolonial Networks.