Notes From the Margins…

Himadeep Muppidi and the Colonial Gaze

  • March 21, 2012
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I’ve just read Himadeep Muppidi’s astonishing  The Colonial Signs of International Relations, which is published by my publisher Hurst & Co.  Muppidi is a political scientist and Associate Professor of International Studies at Vassar College, New York, and his book is a compelling reflection on the intellectual impact of colonialism on his own discipline.

If this sounds a little dry and academic for some tastes, don’t be put off, because Muppidi is a subtle, evocative and suggestive writer with a keen sense of irony, an eye for the striking  detail and an ability to make startling connections between seemingly disparate ideas and historical periods.  His playful, lyrical and often angry prose defies established notions of what constitutes ‘academic’ writing, forming all kinds of tributaries in unexpected places.

There aren’t many books on international relations where you would expect to find reflections on the  colonialist assumptions in Tintin,  zoos, King Leopold’s Congo, Doctor Seuss, the shooting of Jean-Charles de Menezes,  the tsunami and Iraq war deaths, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land and Hurricane Katrina.

But such correlations are essential to Muppidi’s lucid and often anguished indictment of the absence of humanity  in the field of international relations or International Political Economy (IPR),  which recalls    Sven Lindqvist’s ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’,  in its determination to re-excavate the past and bring dark and unpalatable truths back to the surface.

Like Lindqvist,  Muppidi is  haunted by the colonial past and disturbed by the ways in which that past has been forgotten, ignored or re-imagined in ways that obscure its human cost – and its victims.  But even more than Lindqvist, his re-visiting of colonialism is steeped in a sharp awareness of the ways in which colonialist forms of violence and exclusion are  replayed in the present, through a selective focus on certain disasters, tragedies and episodes of contemporary political violence, which prioritises and humanises certain categories of people as worthy of the world’s attention and reduces others to marginalised invisibility.

In one section on ‘Nature’s Presence and Ours’ he compares the response to the 2004 tsunami to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Iraq war and laments the fact that:

Lego-like humans, dead but stackable, lent themselves creatively to multiple building blocks in international relations: “war.” “liberation,” “natural disaster,” “economic sanctions,” “super-power.”  Our concepts could contain, constrain or vaporize multitudes.  But why did only some of them prey on our conscience while others needed to be dragooned into our minds?  Why did some of them shock us while others drifted by, un-wept and un-mourned?

Muppidi subsequently finds part of the answer to these questions in the ‘uneven and asymetric relationship’ in which ‘ the colonized have been destroyed en masse more times and in greater magnitude than any colonizer’ and goes on to argue that

It is not just the asymmetry in deaths that I find troubling, or the almost uninterrupted continuation into the present of such a pattern.  What is more disturbing is that this fundamental inequality seems not only to disappear, but to also reconfigure itself and re-emerge as a problem of the Other.   The dominant idea of mass destruction, in much of conventional international relations theory and practice, is constructed and circulated predominantly as a threat from the Other to the Self.

In his call for a new humanity within the field of international relations, Muppidi also reminds us of the ‘colonial signs’ that underpin so many of the wars and ‘humanitarian interventions’ of the 21st century and which continue to ignore their victims.

In doing so he invites the reader to consider the possibility of a world where these ‘signs’ are recognized and acknowledged, in which the distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’, inferior/superior, the Self and Other are dissolved.  All of which makes this short but brilliant book an essential read in these dark times.




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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