Julietta Singh is my closest friend. Our adjacency allowed me occasion to read almost every draft of Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Duke University Press, 2018). In its sustained attention to how a very specific power relationship—mastery—works across a stunning range of contexts (from classrooms to hospitals, humanitarian aid to anticolonial revolt, from the most intimate confines of a home to the sprawling networks of neoliberal geopolitics), the book’s concepts, arguments, and readings give form and language to so many things I’ve felt—inchoately—at every turn in my own academic labors. For this reason, I cannot imagine what my own thinking or writing or teaching would be today without Unthinking Mastery. It’s on my desk every time I sit down to write.
Although the book draws extensively on contemporary feminist, queer, new materialist, posthumanist, and animal studies scholarship, it is also a book clearly and self-consciously situated within postcolonial studies broadly, and its more literary currents specifically (the work of Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak always hovers nearby, even when they aren’t directly cited). It is to that field that the book’s central argument is most obviously pitched: that while anticolonial thinkers and activists diagnosed coloniality as a “bad” form of mastery that must be undone, those same thinkers often ended up articulating their ostensibly anti-mastery politics in terms that reproduce mastery in displaced ways. Across chapters 1 and 2, Singh painstakingly traces how this works in the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Frantz Fanon, as well as other hugely influential anti-colonial writers like Albert Memmi, Chinua Achebe, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Chapters 3 through 5 and the Coda turn to postcolonial literary texts by Aimé Césaire, J. M. Coetzee, Mahasweta Devi, Jamaica Kincaid, and Indra Sinha, and Singh offers readings that owe as much to Spivak’s formalist deconstruction as to Donna Haraway’s passion for more-than-human worldmaking. At stake is ultimately a provocation to the field of postcolonial studies to examine its abiding investment in forms of power it claims to reject, a provocation that puts Unthinking Mastery in conversation with other recent books1 that query the fraught ways fields are sutured to objects, aims, and concepts that undo their conscious commitments. Moreover, focusing on mastery leads Singh to find crucial continuities across the anti- and post-colonial moments, undoing any neat periodization (whether empirical or conceptual), and sliding the field toward more entanglement with the related (but crucially distinct) field of decolonial studies.
Throughout the book, Singh proposes a handful of concepts that, taken together, conjure not just interventions into interpretive methods and political organizing, but that set the entire affective tone of academic labor trembling. “Vulnerable reading” and “vulnerable writing” are ways of moving from Judith Butler’s early-2000s writings on the politics of vulnerability, mourning, and embodiment toward new, more generous possibilities for intellectual and political relationality. In Singh’s reimagining of vulnerability as a motor for listening, reading, writing, and feeling, the borders shored up by mastery begin to erode. Instead of a knowing subject or actor engaging “objects” (of scholarly attention or humanitarian aid, for example), Singh imagines the self as a porous, complicit, constitutively entangled, interdependent thing. Like Elizabeth Grosz’s provocation for a feminist politics of “becoming undone,” Unthinking Mastery urges its readers not just toward letting reading surprise the self by leading its attentions in unexpected directions (even if it urges that too). Instead, Singh links vulnerability to a politics she calls “dehumanism”: “a practice of recuperation, of stripping away the violent foundations of colonial and neocolonial mastery that continue to render some beings more human than others” (4). This is not an “easy repudiation and renunciation of dehumanization” that would find repair in inclusion (re-humanization), but, instead, “a much more radical process of opening us to the possibility of becoming ourselves promisingly dehumanized” (6). For Singh, the position of dehumanization is constituted only through (mastery-fueled) coloniality, but it is also a space outside of imperialist humanism from which the question of human can me asked in a different key. Among other things, this gives Singh’s book a polemical edge: in asking “What is the human?” she avoids answers that come from those people—mostly white, mostly male—who understand that question as a question about themselves. Instead, Singh finds that the dehumanized—the subaltern, the queer, the colonized, those who are supposed to genuflect before international aid—think “the human” differently. And their answers make us uncomfortable to the precise degree that we are sutured to mastery. These voices are really heard only by risking the kind of vulnerability that, as Unthinking Mastery makes very clear in some of its more autobiographical sections, doesn’t find much hospitality in the university today. Or anywhere else.
One of the forms of mastery that comes under closest scrutiny in the book is the disciplinary, and it is in the ways that we are disciplined as thinkers and then discipline the texts we read and the students we teach, that coloniality shapes most of what we do as academics. Most but not all, since there are those of us who have little patience with or love for disciplinary strictures. This anti-disciplinary thrust is, I think, a fairly important reason why Unthinking Mastery should find an increasingly far-flung readership. This symposium captures some of this: our contributors are from postcolonial literary studies, political theory, performance studies, black feminist studies, and anthropology. We could easily have invited more voices from affect theory, animal studies, religion, art, psychoanalysis, education, and sociology. That a book so obviously situated in a specific field—postcolonial studies—should resonate so widely tells me something about the kinds of feelings some (many?) of us have about the promises and pitfalls of committing to queer, decolonial worldmaking as academics. We’ve been made to feel like we have to calibrate our desires to mastery, to disavow our vulnerabilities, to abide within disciplinary borders no matter how much they choke us. Singh’s book begins with an epigraph from Hélène Cixous: “Everywhere I see the battle for mastery that rages between classes, people, etc., reproducing itself on an individual scale. Is the system flawless? Impossible to bypass? On the basis of my desire, I imagine that other desires like mine exist. If my desire is possible, it means the system is already letting something else through” (1). What this book enables—and I hope this symposium can amplify—is nothing less than the formation of a collectivity articulated through a shared desire for something other than mastery to guide our worldmaking.
There are moments in Unthinking Mastery where Singh’s attention shifts from analysis of political and literary texts to autobiographical writing (this is part of what she calls “vulnerable writing”). As two symposium contributors note, she has significantly expanded on this approach in No Archive Will Restore You (Punctum, 2018), a book that Singh wrote while Unthinking Mastery was in production. Given this turn toward thinking philosophically about living—as a messy, collective endeavor—it’s not surprising that many of the symposium essays move from specific claims in Unthinking Mastery toward concerns “outside” it: how we teach, how we mentor, how we find histories and traditions that sustain or challenge us as we seek to survive colonialist mastery. In many ways, Singh’s books refuse to stay on the page, and reading her spills out into all kinds of attention that aren’t focused on printed words. The essays gathered here take up this spillage in a range of different ways, and Singh’s responses take the epistolary form: a kind of intimate, individuating genre that refuses to separate thoughts from people, from social relations. This symposium, we hope, isn’t just a discussion of arguments and texts, but a kind of blossoming collective. So consider this an invitation to join us. What we share are our vulnerabilities, which might not sound like much. But it might just be everything.
Among others, I’m thinking of Kadji Amin’s Disturbing Attachments, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, and Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons.↩