Angloscene: A Conversation with Jay Ke-Schutte
September 26, 2023
Angloscene: A Conversation with Jay Ke-Schutte
Jay Ke-Schutte, Miriam Driessen
Why do African students who attend Chinese universities have to teach English as a means of survival, while Chinese students are frantically acquiring the English skills that enable them to pursue studies in the United States and Britain? Why does the Third-World solidarity that Africans hope to find and seek to foster when moving to China never fully materialise? These and other questions prompted Jay Ke-Schutte to explore the relationship between race, language, and mobility in encounters between African and Chinese students in Beijing. Angloscene: Compromised Personhood in Afro-Chinese Translations (University of California Press, 2023) mounts a powerful challenge to liberal discourses of race and language inspired by cultural relativism. The author reveals how Afro-Chinese interactions and the personhoods fashioned in them are mediated, and ultimately compromised, by the stratifying logics of English and whiteness.
Miriam Driessen: Could you please explain the title of the book? What does ‘Angloscene’ mean? And how does it affect the lives of African and Chinese students and the interactions between them?
Jay Ke-Schutte: Fundamentally, Angloscene is the description of a particular ideological experience within which one encounters a precarious relationship between the English language in its non-Western use and the possibilities it affords in non-Western encounters. The use of English as one of the mediators between Chinese and African subjects entails a particularly racialised subjectivity and presumed set of personae. Where English might be conceptualised as a neutral register in the Anglosphere, its limited and limiting horizons for personhood are acutely revealed in non-Western encounters. Afro-Chinese interactions have an aspirational relationship to English, while subjects frequently find themselves stratified by the racialised world it imbricates. In understanding what the impacts of this are for many non-Western subjects, it is useful to imagine the subject position of ‘unmarkedness’ in the English language, and then to ask how easy or difficult it might be for someone’s performance of that subject position to be accepted in an interaction.
In this way, the Angloscene creates possibilities for subjects recruiting it into their interaction. Yet, these possibilities are significantly constrained for subjects who are racially marginal in an interaction. This is the contradiction of the Angloscene. In reaching for its horizon of unmarkedness, the aspirational subject may find themselves stratified through the very act of aspiration. The experiences of African students in China and their Chinese counterparts contradicted the familiar trope that English is just a language and whiteness just a race.
MD: Why did you choose language as a lens through which to study the construction of personhood in Afro-Chinese encounters? And what can an analysis of Afro-Chinese encounters reveal about language and postcolonial translation?
JK: Beyond my training as a linguistic anthropologist, there is also my own South–South and South African multilingual sensibility in which language is a fundamental vector through which any question of identity and inequity should be considered. If social stratification is in fact a serious social scientific inquiry, it would follow that we know something about the construction of personhood on to which identity is being projected. One of the most germane sites through which the construction of personhood emerges is that of language and the linguistic production of social stereotypes. In laying this out, Angloscene is proposing nothing short of taking language as seriously as other vectors of intersectionality especially when we start looking at the production and stratification of identity in non-Western encounters.
The more important question here is perhaps: what are the semiotic and epistemological ideologies within the Angloscene that produce the intuition that language can be studied separately and as arbitrarily remote from social and political encounters? From this perspective, I hope Angloscene can help make the case for why matters of language and translation have always been at stake for postcolonial and decolonial thinkers, even while this investment has often been overlooked and dismissed in the Western academy.
MD: Alongside other postcolonial thinkers, Steve Biko appears in different parts of the book. How has Biko’s thought influenced your scholarship? And what are his (unrecognised) contributions to postcolonial scholarship?
JK: I am overjoyed that you picked up on this. Biko’s scholarship and life have indeed had a profound influence on both my thinking and my writing. He was a thinker who synthesised the Fanonian and Du Boisian racial-political perspectives into a project of political pragmatism that was reflexive about the use of discourse as a means of both domination and liberation. The explicit political legacy of Biko’s ideas remains apparent in the contemporary salience of Black Consciousness Movement thought in South Africa.
One of Biko’s central observations was that Anglo-colonial liberalism constituted a key hegemonic underpinning of the Apartheid state’s deployment and maintenance of racial capital. Standing against Apartheid’s historical exceptionalism, Biko showed that liberal relativism’s condition of possibility—and the unmarked subjecthood at the core of its humanistic proposition—is only tenable through racial stratifications. Liberal ideologies themselves benefit from these stratifications even if they constitute a privileged position from which to launch systemic criticisms. This situation constituted an ethically infallible and impeccable personhood—the unmarked liberal subject—who could stand apart from criticisms of whiteness even while benefiting from its economic and material infrastructure.
This aspect of his observation in no small way prompted the simultaneously dialectical and pragmatic inquiry in the book. It was through language and its intersectional relationship with racial capital and mobility that I found ways in which many of Biko’s arguments could be explicated in ethnographic interactions between non-Western subjects. They make use of the racial and linguistic capital of the Angloscene in such a way that the co-presence of white bodies is not even necessary. In this way, the Angloscene is very much invested in making apparent the more nuanced semiotic dimensions of Biko’s thinking and intellectual legacy—a significantly undervalued, often misquoted, and very much misunderstood dimension of his thought.
MD: You explore the possibility of translation that circumvents, or at least attempts to circumvent, mediation of the Angloscene. One example you give is that of Ubuntu and guanxi. How does the translation of these cultural concepts illustrate the possibilities and limitations of non-Western translation?
JK: Your question here very much emerges out of the more hopeful chapter in the book, on the pragmatics of translation. In this exploration of the analytics of translation—which emerges in a few different ways throughout the book—I target the translational nihilism that has haunted contemporary anthropology since the edited collection Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and its disciplinary aftermath. The collection problematised anthropology’s often Eurocentric monopoly on the description of human and cultural difference but unfortunately placed the blame at the foot of all interpretative, comparative, and descriptive practices in the discipline as well as its humanistic co-texts. This prompted an ironically Anglocentric and monocultural suspicion of ‘structure’ and ‘representation’ that enabled a bracketing of both language and its discursive metaphor, translation, as the means through which ethnographic interactions and epistemologies of difference are accessed. In Angloscene, I try to suggest that translationally nihilistic and post-mediational arguments about cultural and epistemic untranslatability are not helpful for interacting subjects that manage the calibration of alterity and linguistic differences as a matter of survival and daily praxis. Such subjects have a great deal to say about the process, despite anthropologists’ analytical misgivings about the possibility of posthuman ‘emergence’ of translation.
The chapter at issue demonstrates a situation in which two interactants—one Zimbabwean and one Chinese—negotiate, disagree about, and in various ways recruit cultural concepts of Ubuntu and guanxi as pragmatic discourse objects at stake in the translational labour that their interactions enable. Thus, the chapter tries to move us from a semantic obsession with defining what translation is, to a pragmatic attentiveness to what translation does or can do for those to whom it is an indispensable communicative reality.
MD: Your reflections on your positionality as a South African student pursuing a doctoral degree at an American university insightfully lead your analysis of engagements with different interlocutors—African, Chinese, and white Western. In the acknowledgements section you thank your partner and mediator, Xiao Schutte-Ke. How did your partner mediate your positionality and influence your research?
JK: Our partners, particularly when they are anthropologists themselves, must inform our positionalities. As I am answering the questions for this interview, I am in Xiao’s field site on the Tibetan Plateau—a good 3,000 metres above sea level. Xiao and I reached an agreement early in our relationship after looking at several Sino-Western ethnographic research relationships that were highly extractive. Xiao was not going to act as informant in our or my research. That said, Xiao is a Chinese queer subject and her own work on marginally situated subjects in ‘Other Chinas’ has profoundly influenced my understanding of the diversity of identity and intersectionality. These are frequently elided in mainstream Sinology—a field within which, as a non–Euro-American as well as a non-Asian subject, I am still trying to find an intelligible scholarly positionality.
In turn, my work and geopolitical situatedness foreground Africa and the Global South as an alternative extra-national ground beyond the liberal West when thinking about Sino-Tibetan encounters as the interactional context for Xiao’s work. Together, our experiences as foreign students navigating US graduate school—thinking about and discussing the stakes of our regionally ‘remote’ work in the context of American culture wars that frequently ignore non-American framings of difference—were intellectually revealing. Having been in China, South Africa, and the United States together, we have frequently been surprised, and often disappointed, by the ways in which our difference—as a mixed-race, Chinese–South African anthropological couple—was assimilated, stratified, or negated.
Professionally, we are frequently struck by the ways in which our different bodies have drastically contrasting uptakes depending on whether we encounter colleagues independently or as a couple. Crossing foreign borders, the precarity of our mobilities as subjects travelling together on the passports of our home countries has produced several administrative conundrums. Crossing into our own countries, we frequently note the peculiar distribution of privileges and liabilities between foreign and local subjects. Our togetherness in situations in which we are often seen as an irreconcilable exception has fundamentally affected how we think about difference, subjectivity, identity, and equity in transnational intersectional terms.
MD: The power of this book lies in the fact that it speaks to diverse audiences. Who do you hope will read your book and what do you hope they will take away from it?
JK: The diversity of the intended audience is the starting point for the answer. Obviously, I hope everyone will read the book. However, I think differently situated subjects will take divergent messages from it. Given the broad disciplinary ground Angloscene covers, this is to be encouraged. One of the things I resisted when writing the book was speaking narrowly to a curated Western anthropological audience. The text, I hope, reflects that I am trying to imagine a context of reception that transcends the unmarked subjectivity of the ChatGPT-replicable expectations of mainstream Anglo-American academic writing.
Angloscene was written with students and academics from the African and Asian South in mind. Even so, it attempts to speak to the Euro-American academic Anglosphere as a discursive engine that maintains the problematic stratifications depicted throughout the book, while engendering possibilities for the sharing of ideas. This is one reason I was very grateful when University of California Press was willing to make the book open access with a relatively modest subvention fee enabling my students in China and academic readers in intellectual spaces with limited financial resources to access the book as long as they can get onto the press’s webpage.
Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus (eds). 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.