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Area Studies, Multiculturalism, and the Problems of Expert Knowledge

We believe that the multicultural project has a long way to go before it ever enjoys the sort of institutionalized cultural power its opposite enjoys today.
Clarisa Bencomo and Elliott Colla

Issue #5, May 1993

Over the last fifteen years, critiques of 'area studies' programs have become commonplace among 'enlightened' circles, thanks in part to exposes of the uses and abuses of the kinds of specialized knowledge these programs produce. These critiques have typically focused on the ways in which colonial discourse constructs colonized subjects as Others suitable for domination while at the same time collating 'data' useful for the management of those Others. In reaction to this production of knowledge in the service of colonialist management, many of us have seized on 'multiculturalism' as a means of winning control of that knowledge in order to fight racism and promote post-colonial interests. We see multiculturalism as the logical local extension and application of the projects of political and cultural 'decolonization' taking place since the 1950s in the so-called Third World.

Given such divergent histories and goals, one would expect multiculturalism to stand in stark contrast to area studies programs, which were after all the products of and reactions to the end of the colonial era. But how different are area studies and multiculturalism, and how well has the latter been able to overcome and correct the abuses of colonial knowledge? Has multiculturalism's focus on issues of textual representation been at the expense of exploring the contexts in which representation takes place? By focusing on the similarities that link colonial-era ideas and institutions with their post-colonial reactions and readjustments, we hope to flesh out what we see as dangerous blindnesses in the multicultural project.

Area Studies: You are what I say.

By 'area studies programs' we mean those programs which came into maturity during the main period of historical decolonization (the 1950s and 1960s) and provided the framework for U.S. studies of non-European cultures. Although neither real independence nor actual decolonization took place during this period, imperialism did become a more complicated matter: these former colonies were given some semblance of autonomy and independence while their colonizers were compelled to carry on their work in less obvious ways. Neo-colonialism necessitated a more efficient, more informed management. Enter area studies programs, intended to provide interdisciplinary approaches to studying the cultures of the newly independent 'nation' states. 'Culture' promised to be a useful tool that would better implement and sell development projects: 'You see, their society is based on kinship relations and therefore we must... ' Later, when these same projects failed, similar moves were made to explain why they were doomed from the start: 'You see, their society is based on kinship relations and so they can't...'

But how interdisciplinary did these programs become? While some area studies programs did emerge 'spontaneously' to fit the new needs, many others were formed as extensions of previously existing language studies departments. In the social sciences, we find disciplines based in understandings of culture (anthropology), micro-political relations (sociology), or macro-political relations (political science); and in the humanities, disciplines are divided by language group or artistic medium. Contrastingly, in area studies the only explanation for the 'areas' under study is the First World's geopolitical ordering of the globe: it's only when we hold the programs (Middle Eastern Studies, African Studies, East Asian Studies, etc.) up to the light of geopolitics and foreign policy that we become able to see the logic that brings together the likes of Iran, Turkey and Egypt in a monolithic 'Middle East', despite their many linguistic, religious, ethnic and cultural differences.

Such a conception of the world would seem to demand an interdisciplinary approach. Instead what we see is a proliferation of a-disciplinary area studies programs which are deficient in the theoretical underpinnings that characterize other departments, and yet qualify as disciplines in the worst possible sense of the term: by narrowly defining the range of legitimate discourse and acceptable speakers.

The practical reasons for this apparent contradiction are simple enough: despite their best efforts to order and homogenize phenomena that fall within the borders circumscribed by colonial mapping, these programs' territorially-specific nature limits their ability to produce any theory because they describe phenomena in local terms, while the processes that produce those phenomena are actually global in character. In order to justify its existence as a distinct discipline, each 'area' has to be an exception to the rules that might apply to any other 'areas'. More paradoxically, there is a tension inherent to area studies programs: on the one hand each area is judged according to universal models ('development theory', 'the literary', 'kinship', etc.), while on the other hand each area, as an epistmologically distinct territory, is always an exception to universal theories. Disciplines based in broader theoretical concerns can talk to each other; area studies programs, with their concentration on local knowledge, cannot. If traditional disciplines are characterized by their existence inside a field of theory, the only 'fields' area studies produce are geographic.

It's only when knowledge is, or is made to appear, so specialized and insulated that 'experts' can exist. In the extreme version, 'peripheral' states and their cultures are dissected and explained by mostly Western scholars for the benefit of American audiences (undergraduate classrooms, congressional commissions, CNN viewers, etc.). This 'knowledge' is also projected back to the 'area' of study in the form, for example, of U.S. foreign policy and military intervention, or contained in development programs and business practices. The area studies specialist — the expert — mediates this process. (We can differentiate between two types of experts who dominate this field: the media/political experts, like Fuad Ajami or Henry Kissinger, who may well be 'academics' of sorts, and who claim to actually represent the people of 'areas'; and the scholarly experts, like Princeton's Bernard Lewis or Berkeley's Muhammad Siddiq, who, while they may or may not make claims to represent living people, do so indirectly by presenting texts and ideas as their stand-ins.)

As area studies students, we have had the rare opportunity to study with an assortment of scholars whose expertise has had to be both wider and more focused than one would expect to find in other fields: we have studied with 'Arab Politics' experts (could there be experts in 'European Politics'?), 'Third World Revolution' experts (are there 'First World Imperial Stability' experts?) and 'Arabic Literature' experts (imagine an expert in 'European Literature' whose field of expertise would have to encompass Cicero, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Voltaire as well as Eco and Adrienne Rich). Critics like Edward Said have already gone through the theoretical and political implications of such 'expert knowledge.' What we would like to add is that from our perspective as students and underlings of 'the profession,' these expert conditions lead to two things: superficiality and a lack of real debate. Classroom discussions tend to devolve into an exchange of 'cases' ('In the village I studied...') while the papers presented in journals and conferences are either so specialized ('The Use of the Particle 'qad' in 9th Century Courtly Poetry') or so generalized ('Politics and Islam: Past, Present and Future') that real engagement — either with audiences or with the material — is rare. It is ironic that area studies programs, which focus on the most 'underdeveloped areas' of the world, tend to be themselves the most underdeveloped areas of the academy.

Multiculturalism: When 'Others' speak

In both material and philosophical terms, multiculturalism appears to have very little in common with the problems and processes we've discussed above. The area studies programs we are talking about are not only discourse factories but actual institutions with histories, generous funding, and close if sometimes obscure ties to state policy. In contrast, the projects of multiculturalism not only don't enjoy the same institutional power or political clout, but because they challenge existing power hierarchies, they have been contested from the beginning.

Where the two projects intersect is in their concern about the colonized or marginalized subject. The philosophy behind area studies tends to wipe out difference by clumsily and violently unifying large social spaces and heterogenous cultures, passing off 'peripheral' cultures as homogenous and manageable areas; at the same time, there is a corresponding and contradictory notion about these same areas: i.e., that what is really homogenous about the social groups in these areas is how atomized, different and contentious they are towards one another (they are all sects, tribes, clans, etc.). It is in this intersection that decolonial discourses — and multicultural discourse — have responded by positing their own identities. Where colonial discourse was epistemologically oppressive either because it forced divergent subjects into large, social-linguistic categories (Middle Eastern, Islamic, Arab) or because it dismissed indigenous assertions of community (Lord Cromer's denial that he ruled over an 'Egyptian people'), multicultural discourses have shown a sensitivity that allows and even privileges difference. How the two discourses construct peripheral and marginalized subjectivity has much to tell us: for area studies, the peripheral identity is reducible to hard, objective categories (the Arab Mind); for multiculturalism, it is the product of subjective experience (as in the writings of Franz Fanon, Eldridge Cleaver, or even Maxine Hong Kingston). Area studies work has focused on large groups of peoples in order to create identities, while multiculturalism has instead situated identity within individual, subjective experience.

Before returning to this point, we would like to critique two other characteristics of multiculturalism in the U.S. First, while multicultural projects have been accompanied by political programs (like putting pressure on universities to hire underepresented groups), their main thrust has been on texts in the narrowest sense. While we acknowledge that representational politics has a role to play in these struggles, our point is that often we have focused more on literary representation than on political representation, and on canons rather than actual political engagement. We've been led to equate voice with action, looking at 'giving voice' as the main form of empowerment. But the spoken and the written word are only a small portion of the range of political action available to us. More on this when we come to issues of mediation.

Second, we are disturbed by the tendency of the proponents of multiculturalism to draw on a selective reading of history to privilege the victimization of certain groups at certain times while ignoring or eliding the histories of other oppressed groups. In fact, much of American multicultural discourse reflects the power relations that characterize our particular historical moment, not only with regard to the struggles of minority communities vis-a-vis mainstream American politics, but also among the contending minority communities themselves. For instance, while Zionist politics in America have been successful in voicing concerns about anti-Jewish racism (anti-Semitism), no similar discourse yet exists for addressing anti-Arab racism (although in France it does exist), and so Jesse Jackson's comments about Jews have seemed unforgivable, yet the mainstream media routinely characterizes Arabs as terrorists and fanatics without provoking comment. These sorts of inconsistencies are played out between other groups as well — notably between Chicano (Mexican-American) groups and more recent Mexican immigrants in the Southwest or between African-Americans and more recent African or Carribean immigrant groups in the U.S. While until now we have for the most part conflated the terms 'decolonization' and 'multiculturalism', here we see where the two actually come into direct conflict: marginalized groups with invested positions in the First World seem to move quickly to protect those positions against Third World groups or any minority groups seeking to restructure the existing balance.

But as much as these struggles are about group politics, our main critique of the U.S. multicultural project is the way it fetishizes individual identity. Identity politics has been central to multiculturalism and decolonization. What then have been the sorts of identities made possible by multiculturalism? Two ways of legitimating multicultural identity seem to come up regularly enough to warrant our comment. The first is a reaction to the oppressive nature of racist hierarchies, while the second is a reaction to the homogenizing nature of mainstream, 'melting pot' discourse. The first type of reaction becomes a problem when identity is created by simply reversing the poles of racist discourse, where the claims of victimized subjectivity are valorized over those of the oppressor. This seems to be the tack followed by groups like the Nation of Islam whose efforts for self-empowered identity are (at least in theory) predicated upon a vilification of whites. A more complicated version of this process is displayed in the identities claimed by the first wave of 'pedigreed' Cuban immigrants to this country, who, seeing themselves as the descendents of Spanish colonialists, need to situate themselves above both other Latin Americans (indios and negros) and mongrel 'Unitedstatesian' gringos. While this approach to identity may benefit some groups by redistributing the awards of a hierarchical system, it cannot claim to be more liberatory than its predecessor because it leaves the structure of that system untouched.

In contrast, the second method of legitimating identity is a response to the homogenizing tendency of colonial discourse: rather than 'purity' we find that hybridity, difference, specialness, individuality and enigma become highly-valued traits. While one might suppose that hybrid identity would be the strongest basis for forming shared interests and common understandings between the groups which can intersect in individuals, what often seems to occur is that it becomes the basis for fragmentation and monadization. On the one hand, it's easy to see how certain groups which have invested a great deal in creating 'authentic' identities would feel threatened by individuals with multiple affiliations; on the other hand, it's no harder to see why individuals with multiple identities might feel alienated from any one particular group. Indeed, the symptoms of this fragmentation and fetishization of individual identity have set the tone for much of multicultural politics.

In the academy, for example, multiculturalism has come to largely be about individual identities, made by and for individuals, with individual, oftentimes cosmopolitan, scholars speaking about and defending the special legitimacy of their own identities against others. One is often led to wonder what sorts of group politics could be formed by so many fiercely unique individuals. Where one expects to see individuals representing groups in politics, it often seems that the primary value of group identities stems from the fact that they provide platforms for the individual to speak from. It's exactly this focus on individualism that we need to overcome: yet if we could break that fetishization and adopt a more fluid conception of hybridity we might find that hybridity seems to be the most promising and radical idea in the current discourse about multiculturalism — not only because it disrupts the concept of authenticity but because it also offers a basis for building coalitions and bringing together groups with similar interests and desires.

This isn't to say that this would be easy. In fact, there is the opposite point to be made, that while we've been trying to make commonalities among forms of oppression we often fail to address the fact that these oppressions and identities have histories that are perhaps not so equivalent. Yet this has been getting worked out unconsciously within the tensions of multiculturalism itself: certain identities or combinations of identities seem to carry more weight than others, and certain histories of exploitation get left out altogether. These are questions that must be addressed: How does one weigh issues of race oppression against those of gender or sexual preference? Why is class identity notably absent from multiculturalism? Furthermore, if we valorize hybridity over homogeneity, i.e., emphasize the 'multi' part of multiculturalism, does that need to entail a devaluing of the unicultural? There is no reason to assume that hybridity allows for full access to the multiple cultures represented in a single hybrid individual, nor that 'mainstream' cultures are transparent and self-identical, although this latter assumption is exactly the kind of foil that many multicultural arguments depend on.

The irony here in all this focus on individual, subjective experience is that it often mires us in, instead of freeing us from, the privileging of expert knowledge. At least in the academy and progressive politics, the sort of knowledge being offered by anti-racist and postcolonial discourse has come to have quite a high exchange-value and authority. And some people get to speak more than others by virtue of the 'authenticity' of their oppressed subjectivity or through their hybrid complexity: either way, some subject positions, by virtue of having been more colonized/oppressed, seem to have more legitimacy than others. In other words, some get to become more expert than others, and some aren't allowed to participate at all. But if one could critique how expert knowledge was formed in colonial discourse by attacking it on the theoretical level, critiques of multicultural knowledge — because of its dependency on subjective experience — often take the form of, or are perceived as, 'ad hominem' attacks. And that's why we are too afraid to give real life examples of abuses of this kind.

Mediation: Can we talk?

We've argued that the problem common to both area studies and many multicultural projects is their tendency to to create experts with specialized knowledge. For those of us interested in building a progressive politics, here's the bind we find ourselves in: while recognizing our need for specialized knowledge, and therefore our dependency on mediation and mediators, how do we find alternatives to expert knowledge? Again, much of what is at stake in area studies and multicultural discourses is related to the representation of the post-colonial subject.

Specialized knowledge doesn't have to be expert knowledge, and multinational corporations are not the only ones who need specialized knowledge; its usefulness for a globalized understanding of progressive politics should be equally obvious. Area studies programs, despite their strategic place in producing neocolonial knowledge, have had some useful, perhaps unintended, effects: for many of us our first exposure to radical politics came through studying the movements of oppressed peoples outside the United States; for others of us, these experiences clarified the real issues at stake in our own political struggles within the U.S. Area studies can and should play a strategic role in a multicultural and anti-racist politics, but it is up to us to make it happen.

Returning to the problem of representation and mediation, we need to point out that much of post-colonial and multicultural discourse on the issue has placed more responsibility on the ontological side of the problem than on the political or the historical dimensions. In what is without a doubt the most referenced work about these issues, Edward Said's _Orientalism_, there exists a certain tension between the ontological problems of representation and the historical conditions of a specific representation. More often than not, the two in fact are conflated: thus the cultural, military and economic interests of a specific colonial formation vis-a-vis the Middle East is transformed into an essentialized problem of human knowledge. While we don't deny that the ontological dimension to the problem exists and should be explored, we do think that there is plenty of progress to be made in the other aspect of representation, i.e., in the actual historical conditions under which representation takes place. More clearly, we don't believe that the representation of 'Others' is an oppressive project on primarily ontological grounds (one can never really 'know' the Other...), but rather because a nexus of historical and political conditions of mediation — i.e., the relations of interests, audience and accountability — makes it so. And these are exactly the conditions that we are in a position to change for the better.

The problems in representation stem from the fact that there seem to be few mechanisms for holding those with specialized knowledge accountable for the way they represent the subjects of that knowledge. One possible way of building in greater accountability would be to begin from a different understanding of representation: attempting to construct mediations that are two-way instead of unidirectional. In other words, if we have found ourselves trapped in certain problems concerning the textual aspects of representation, there still remains much we can do to improve the *contexts* of representation.

We believe that the multicultural project has a long way to go before it ever enjoys the sort of institutionalized cultural power its opposite enjoys today. We look forward to the day when the utopian impulses contained in multiculturalism become dominant. Therefore it is our responsibility in the academy to shape and criticize that project, for even with the best intentions, the most utopian of projects can end up reproducing what they set out to transcend.

Clarisa Bencomo is a PhD candidate in the Politics Department at Princeton University. She is currently studying Arabic in Cairo.

Elliott Colla is a PhD student in the Comparative Literature Department at Berkeley. He is currently a visiting scholar at Cairo University.

Both are pursuing specialized knowledge with the support of U.S. government-funded area studies commission grants. Comments and critiques are welcome. The authors can be reached through email at the following Bitnet addresses: clarisab@egaucacs.bitnet and ehc12345@egaucacs.bitnet.

Copyright © Clarisa Bencomo and Elliott Colla. All rights reserved.