Gayatri Spivak, Talal Asad & Other Prominent Scholars on the Obama Election

Soon after the presidential election, four of the interviewees from The Present as History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power were on a panel with the book’s author, Nermeen Shaikh to discuss the book and to consider the historical and future implications of Obama’s election. The panelists were Gayatri Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Talal Asad, and Sanjay Reddy.

The event provided a fascinating opportunity to hear how four scholars, all of whom have been critical of the United States, viewed the possible meanings of the Obama election. Given that Obama’s victory is still so recent, the panelists were admittedly still struggling to come to terms with Obama’s election and what historical precedents, if any, could provide guidance. They suggested that finding a language to describe its meanings is not readily available.

There was also a sense of caution running through much of the discussion. While acknowledging the obvious excitement about Obama’s election and recognizing the fact that, in the words of Partha Chatterjee, a “dark era has passed,” the panelists were skeptical about the extent to which real change might result. There still exists, the panelists suggested, real entrenched economic and military interests that make real change very difficult. Nor is it entirely clear the extent to which Obama is actually committed to providing real structural change.

Here is a video of the entire event and we have also provided clips for some of the individual speakers (Please note: the embedded videos are not showing up on all browsers. We have provided links to the videos.) :

As mentioned above Partha Chatterjee expressed concern that too much hope is being invested in Obama and that these hopes are still ill-defined. He likened the reaction to Obama’s election to the end of the emergency in India in 1977. Noting that the sense of hope that greeted that event was quickly dashed, he expressed concern that perhaps we expect too much from an Obama administration. Chatterjee also suggested that while the current financial crisis might offer an opportunity to redefine global structures of power, real constraints on change still exist that will offer difficult obstacles to overcome.

Talal Asad voiced an uneasiness about the proliferation of American flags at the Obama victory rally, finding that the symbolism of the event and the rapturous expressions of the participants were reminiscent of Nazi rallies of the 1930s. Asad, however, sees Obama has the potential to be a Mandela-like figure in bringing people together but worried that the exuberance in the wake of the Obama victory is allowing us to forget the crimes of Bush, Cheney, Rove, and others.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak noted that America’s election of an African American man represents more than anything that the United States has become “reasonable” about the question of race. She cited Toni Morrison’s appearance on Good Morning America and the novelist’s warning that the election of Obama was very much about him and not necessarily about a real change in race relations. She also expressed skepticism about the degree to which, we can expect real change in U.S. foreign policy. It is necessary, she explained to not only concern ourselves with empire but also to focus on empowering the disenfranchised throughout the world.

Sanjay Reddy, an economist and the lone member from the social sciences on the panel, argued that Obama’s economic team will probably not offer any real significant changes in economic policy. He posited that the era of U.S. international economic dominance has probably come to an end. However, while the United States has used the International Monetary Fund to maintain an unofficial global empire, now faced with the possibility of not being able to wield power in the same, the United States, Reddy explains, is unwilling to let other countries control international aid, even when it is not able to do so by itself.

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