This essay outlines a research agenda the authors call “Third World Historical,” combining reflections from Ethiopia and Iran to query the legacies of revolutionary politics in our present. Third world activists from the 1960s and 1970s engaged revolutionary talk to pose questions about the particularities of their immediate contexts, and they posed new concepts of revolution along the way. Congealed manifestations of the term revolution can preclude our effort to think the event as experience. If revolution signals the disruption of existing categories, can we in turn disrupt congealed categories to rethink revolution? What could it mean to reposition the question of revolution in the specificity of the third world, against the tendency to map revolutions as models, patterns, and stages?
This introduction articulates a research agenda for a project titled “Third World Historical.” The project is suggestively housed as a special section in the pages of CSSAAME that consists of three parts: dialogues, articles, and a forum of responses to our initial call for papers. Additionally, the editors' community website Borderlines features experimental writings that address the project's attention to questions of form.1 The text before you draws a conceptual map to guide the reader through core themes that recur across the collection. At the same time, and most important, it charts a course of inquiry that exceeds the collection presented here and, we would hope, the introduction itself.
Rethinking Revolution from Ethiopia to Iran
“Third World Historical” began with a simple comparison between the editors' respective research on revolutionary Ethiopia and Iran. We noted that both of these countries experienced popular revolutions in the 1970s; neither were formally colonized, and yet they both experienced the force of European colonization in foundational and transformative ways. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ethiopian and Iranian student activists in North America and Europe consorted, developing tactics, strategies, and visions that shaped revolutionary change in their home countries. What could we learn about the concepts used to interpret revolutions, anti-colonialism, and method from this comparison? Further still, what could the comparison teach us about theory as political practice? Unsatisfied with abstract proclamations about theory across the global South, we sought out to make it and observe it in action.
“Third World Historical” was an academic conference that never was. We first convened in 2018, when we wrote a call for papers about the Ethiopian and Iranian revolutions in the history of political thought. The call formulated a series of questions. In truth, it articulated our intuitions at the time, some of which have endured, while others changed apace with the transformations that reconfigured the world over the past three years. Before a civil war altered the political calculus in Ethiopia, before an authoritarian turn in response to “maximum pressure” sanctions closed the door on reform in Iran, and before a global pandemic put to halt any pretense to business as usual, we intended to meet with contributors on the Columbia University campus. What we ended up with—an ongoing dialogue scattered across the globe, conducted in myriad online formats—changed our thinking. This collection is a repository of methodological innovations and conceptual insights produced by the scholars, artists, and activists who indulged our invitations, who answered our questions by pushing us to formulate better ones. It contains resonances of this thing we call Third World Historical.
Our use of the phrase world historical—deemed passé in most circles—proposed a bridge across different sites of national history. Our project was not to trace similarities or networks, a task more than adequately fulfilled by the many global histories written in recent decades, nor to find efforts to document alternative visions of the world from the global South. Our questions were of a different order in which practice and theory were inextricable. Were the Ethiopian and Iranian revolutions, we wondered, world historical?
As we noted in our initial CFP,2 these cases contrast with the canonical modern revolutions of late eighteenth-century France and the United States, events taken for granted as the groundwork for conceptions of revolution and of history. The 1979 revolution in Iran, we claimed then, is taken as a harbinger of all that is wrong with revolutionary politics today. If the 1776 American Revolution and the 1789 French Revolution mark the affirmative possibility of revolutionary change, the 1979 Iranian Revolution is said to mark its limits, where the third world failed to emulate the spirit of the Enlightenment. At the time, thinking against this historiography afforded us a point of departure for a reconceptualization of not only revolutionary movements but also the heterogeneity of anti-colonial legacies. The stakes of our intervention went like this: recent historiographical revision rooted in global history rightly challenges the exceptionalism shaping histories of revolutionary Ethiopia and Iran alike. Yet insofar as it replicates paradigmatic texts recounting European and American experiences, global histories too position third world revolutionary experiences as derivative. How might we instead take these “peripheral” archives as central to rethinking the very concepts of history?
Beyond marking this difference, however, we could not see praxis across the global South, and we knew this had to be a mistake. Conventionally, national revolutions propose to create new social and political institutions within the borders of a territorial state. World historical revolutions are supposed to introduce unheralded patterns of thought that stretch beyond a given national context and realign the categories used to interpret revolutionary events, including the concept of revolution itself. This proposition stretches the modernist ethos associated with the 1789 revolution in France to its limits.3 We wanted to ask instead: why make recourse to the grammar of Western revolutionary traditions to excavate these possibilities? In a previous Kitabkhana in CSSAAME that focused on Adom Getachew's book Worldmaking After Empire, Robbie Shilliam delivers a similar line of inquiry with respect to Ethiopianism: Are the insights drawn from critical engagement with the “conceptual frameworks of political theory” revelatory of Black worldmaking? Or, Shilliam asks, are they more accurately a “rescaling” that allows us to hold conversation with “little traditions” like Ethiopianism? By “rescaling,” Shilliam means the “conceptual universes that already render the scale and reach that black worldmaking necessitates.”4 In the early twentieth century, to name oneself as Ethiopian was to connect European colonialism to African cosmologies and legacies of slavery. “Black intellectuals,” Shilliam tells us, “are not the progenitors of Black worldmaking. Ethiopianism is already worldmaking not nation-building.” According to this proposition the material and spiritual intersect in such a way that the individual body is understood as the sedimentation of world historical conflict. Or as Panashe Chigumadzi, a contributor to this special section, reminds us, “Re-memory is the understanding that nothing is ever lost. Much of this history remains within us.”
With time and as the collection took shape, we came to learn that our aspiration to rethink revolution was also a rescaling, a re-memory. Third world activists from the 1960s and 1970s engaged revolutionary talk to pose questions about the particularities of their immediate contexts, and they posed new concepts of revolution along the way. Congealed manifestations of the term revolution can preclude our effort to think the event as experience. If revolution signals the disruption of existing categories, can we in turn disrupt congealed categories to rethink revolution? What could it mean to reposition the question of revolution in the specificity of the third world, against the tendency to map revolutions as models, patterns, and stages? What did social scientific scholarship about revolutions forget about revolutionaries?
For their part, members of the Ethiopian Student Union in North America (ESUNA) saw beyond the limits of Ethiopianism. Amsale Alemu's contribution to the special section shows how these student activists challenged and discredited mythologies that cast Haile Selassie as a global pan-Africanist icon. The ESUNA did not reject Ethiopianism; it reframed it as popular politics. Further, Ethiopian student activists did not repudiate Black American peers who spread visions of Ethiopia as “glorious.” (Shilliam recalls a lyric, “Glory, glory Haile Selassie,” sang by Joseph Hibbert, a pioneer of the Rastafari faith, to the tune of “John Brown's Body”5). Rather, Alemu argues, the ESUNA drew comparisons between Ethiopia and the conditions of Black Americans as noncolonized peoples suffering the brunt of imperial power. This iteration of Ethiopianism amended theories of decolonization from oppositional politics, pure and simple, to a need for demystification, for anti-colonial reframing, and for “a substantive political re-imagination.” When Ethiopians worked on questions of representation, especially among Black Americans, this was itself revolutionary action.
Important differences notwithstanding, Iranian student activists developed a parallel strategy. They too confronted a monarch with modernizing pretensions and worked to change global perceptions of Mohammad Reza Shah from a progressive into a fascist.6 Where Haile Selassie found support in Black popular imaginaries, the Shah bridged an increasingly tenuous gap between third world statesmen and Cold War liberals.7 The revolutionary movement that deposed the Pahlavi state further embarked on anti-colonial reframing when it posed an epistemic challenge to the Enlightenment.8
These histories collapse schematic distinctions between the “problem-spaces” of anti-colonialism (presumed to concern institutional changes in the colony) and postcoloniality (presumed to concern representational correctives by exilic communities in the metropole).9 To be sure, as Alemu writes, Ethiopian activists “risked enacting a politics of exceptionalism by overstating the novelty of their country's condition” and “reiterating a narrative of exceptionalism in the unmasking of the mythology surrounding Ethiopia as in fact a cover for foreign domination”—statements that can equally be said of Iranian activists in the 1970s. But our objective is not to recover unique characteristics shared between these cases. We are also not concerned with drawing simple comparisons to other, more contemporary manifestations of “postcolonial anti-colonialism,” a felicitous phrase coined by Olivia Harrison in her contribution to describe movements among migrants in France. The “world historical” instead promises to reach beyond exceptionalism tout court.
Caricatures of the third world today reproduce the crude oppositional politics against which ESUNA activists pitched their anti-colonial reframing and “substantive political re-imagination.” Contemporary political theorists of canonical repute associate third worldist movements with the violence, and silence, of social revolution.10 The torchbearers of the third world invert these depictions and don crude oppositional politics like a proud badge.11 “Third World Historical” is not interested in the first of these parties. Enough pages have been printed in the annals of reputable journals to demonstrate the short-sightedness of Western political theory. We take aim at the latter, for whom defense of the oppositional state determines the horizon of politics. And we call to critique the intellectuals who, directly or otherwise, give these avowed third worldists conceptual support. Behind a wall of nuance and politesse, well-reputed scholarly tracts propose frameworks of analysis that substantiate normative arguments in blind defense of the nominally anti-imperialist state.
Is the state the only way to hold political community in the third world? We believe there are other questions, other compass points that can orient our thinking. One cannot assume, for instance, that the Iranian state is the defender of the Iranian people without first asking the question, “What is the Iranian political community?” The current civil war in Ethiopia is being fought over competing answers to a version of that question. Let us rescale it and ask it differently: What is political community from the period of decolonization until now? How do you form political community such that people can prosper? These questions direct our perspective away from the Westphalian system and, it is to be hoped, away from violence.
The kind of crude oppositional politics that today traffics under the banner of third worldism misapprehends contemporary iterations of the modern state and hence global politics; these figurations are “out of joint” with the times. The modern state is no longer the Westphalian construct of early modernity. An internally coherent institution, the early modern European state held unchecked legal powers to police populations within their borders in exchange for having relinquished the ability to intervene across international borders, a bargain intended to maintain global peace. A shift occurred in the eighteenth century with the rise of economism: the European state was now limited internally by liberal protections of rights but unconstrained in its ability to intervene across borders, as testified by the age of imperialism. Today, the role of the sovereign is not limited by borders and territoriality but by markets, where the market, like revolutionary movements, appears as an external critic of a state that always risks becoming overbearing.12
Events in the 1970s throw in sharp relief these characteristics of the post-Westphalian state. As homo economicus replaced the citizen, state institutions were not abolished but rather reoriented toward the reproduction of market conditions. This brand of neoliberalism, which in fact shaped global affairs, was interventionist insomuch as it became a legal order through which market society could be implemented. For someone like Michel Foucault, under these circumstances, NGOs like Médecins du Monde posed a revolutionary challenge to the state by building people-to-people movements outside the principle of Westphalian sovereignty.13 The complicity between human rights discourse and neoliberalism over the past four decades clearly undermines pretensions about the revolutionary potential of NGOs. For their part, third worldists cannot pretend to ignore changes to the state since the eighteenth century. If there is to be any hope for third worldism, our questions should change accordingly. What does it mean for the state to model itself after the market when the market was initially a critique of the state? What is revolution under these circumstances? Can we think revolution beyond the state and NGOs alike while thinking instead from the third world?
On Violence, Inside and Outside the Whale
By misapprehending the state, invocations of third worldism that equate the third world with crude oppositional politics misapprehend the contemporary significance of revolution as well. “Third World Historical” thus proposes to rethink revolution by reimagining the third world.
Biodun Jeyifo offers a more sophisticated case for oppositional politics, one profitably articulated in terms of the “world historical.” His lecture “Inside and Outside the Whale: ‘Bandung,’ ‘Rwanda,’ Postcolonial Studies,” first delivered at Cornell University in 2002, confronts the “postmodernist currents of postcolonial theory,” which he accuses of balking at the prospect of addressing the world despite claims of worldliness. Jeyifo defines the world as a totality with necessarily connected parts, or at least a global order made comprehensible through meta-narratives. Postcolonial studies' inability to develop analysis of the world arises from its claim that it views the world for what it is, a condition Jeyifo finds both anti-progressive and anti-historicist. The postcolonial critic's radical skepticism equates “imperialist/Eurocentric discourses and discourses of Third World national liberation” when it argues that “all metanarratives are suspect,” “the grand narratives of the developing world . . . no less suspect than the grand narratives of hegemonic, globalizing neoliberalism.”14 The critic who chooses not to partake in this “intellectual abdication” dares to confront “the messiness and violence of postcolonial history and the world-historical process” for what it actually is, a totality, by venturing the kinds of totalizing narratives suited to the task.15
Jeyifo develops his critique through a metaphor shared by George Orwell and C. L. R. James. Both use the phrase “inside the whale” as a metaphor for being swept away by the nonhuman immensity of nature and world-historical processes. To be “outside the whale” is to be “historicist and even progressivist, standing astride of that non-human immensity in great anguish and perplexity perhaps, but with some agency and volition.”16 True to form, Jeyifo weaves his insights through the reception of two pivotal historical events, each synonymous with the names of the places where they transpired. “Bandung” represents a form of radical, anti‐colonial, and anti‐imperialist nationalism, profoundly internationalist and universal in scope. “Rwanda” signals what happens when “the colonizers depart and the ex‐colonized turn on one another in terrifying bloodbaths and catastrophes.”17 Jeyifo is concerned with the disproportionate amount of attention that “Rwanda” received vis-à-vis “Bandung” and how “postmodern currents of postcolonial theory,” stuck as they were inside the whale, reproduce these patterns. The incessant deconstruction of dichotomies driving these postmodern currents collapses “Bandung” and its spirit of liberation into “Rwanda,” the violence that ensued formal decolonization. And so, Jeyifo calls his audience outside, to a perch where the critic can see and enact “Bandung,” itself both “theory and practice,” and hence inhabit a perspective that promises to capture both the outside and the inside.
Jeyifo presented this lecture again nearly twenty years later at Columbia University as part of a workshop on the ideas and manifestos of “worldly” philosophers. The rehearsal offers insightful perspective on the two decades separating its two iterations. If he swam against the currents of fashionable trends in 2002, in 2021 Jeyifo could ride them to the shores of a prophecy fulfilled. Analyses of “Bandung” are no longer in scarce supply. Jeyifo's provocations exemplify the best of recent reclamation projects and, better yet, invitations to reenvision third worldism. For it is the case that his proposal to think “inside and outside the whale” remains unfulfilled. Despite admonitions to face “the messiness and violence of postcolonial history and the world-historical process,” Jeyifo's distinctions are too neat, they too easily elide the violence of “Rwanda”—as if to say, were we to become better historicists and better internationalists, then voilà, “Rwanda” would disappear. The attempt to pry “Bandung” and “Rwanda” apart does not help us understand what they share. Just as Jeyifo holds the “theory and practice” of “Bandung” off from the violence of “Rwanda,” third worldist champions of crude oppositional politics today hold the category of “solidarity” off from the horrors of violence exemplified by “Rwanda” across the third world.
Let us, then, consider the utility of Jeyifo's distinctions from another perspective. Jesse Shipley's contribution to this collection proposes to reconceptualize the African coup as part of the history of revolution. Shipley reframes the coup from its prevalent representation as “incomprehensible chaos, primordial violence, or the release of innate religious or ethnic hatreds”—from violence as silence to an appreciation of revolts as “incitements to discourse, legitimate forms of voicing, and modes of argumentation and consensus-making.” The intervention coheres against the backdrop of “structural and historical conditions that produce postindependence African nation-states as contradictory and, in some measure, designed to fail.” What is to be done, Shipley asks, “in the midst of impossible conditions”? Blanket accounts of violence or of coups d'etat, when applied to the Ghanaian case that preoccupies Shipley's comments, fail to appreciate the historical process “outside the whale.” But when Shipley makes distinctions, he thinks from inside as well. He recognizes the fraught terrain on which Ghanaian coups appear. The coups are a manifestation of the narrowness within which the postcolonial state operates. As such, everywhere is “Rwanda.” Our point here is not to recuperate the “postmodern currents of postcolonial theory” so as to counter a one-sided recuperation of “Bandung.” It is to ask, what form can the “Bandung” spirit take today?
To this end, we believe discussions of critique “inside and outside the whale” concern questions of form. “Third World Historical” is an attempt to develop a philosophy of method where other conceptions of third worldism have failed to theorize form. Jeyifo, it is to be noted, makes a passing reference in his lecture to Walter Benjamin's famed 1940 essay “On the Concept of History.” To address questions of form, we propose to consider the historical experience of the third world over the past century in light of another essay by Benjamin written and revised around the same time, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the epilogue of which illustrates a dialectic between fascism and communism. Benjamin notes similarities in form across opposing poles; fascism and communism, he shows, display an inverted relationship vis-à-vis art and politics.18 What are the similarities in form between “Rwanda” and “Bandung”? On these terms, Jeyifo's proposed opposition might generate something new—or, more precisely, a “return” to its original position in a manner not predefined (for Benjamin, communism; for Jeyifo, “Bandung”). To transcend the opposition between “Bandung” and “Rwanda,” in other words, we must consider the logic operative on each side of the dialectic and tarry with it.
While Benjamin is often taken as a universal theorist, the author of ideas that travel widely across historical contexts, his concerns are limited, by virtue of an intense focus on European history, to three categories: liberalism, fascism, and communism. The category that frames discussions of violence in the third world and that remains sorely undertheorized here is authoritarianism. The third world is authoritarianism, without differentiation and distinction—a pattern of thought similar to the one Benjamin unravels in his epilogue. He refuses the bargain of liberalism or fascism. This bargain is possible only once we conflate fascism with communism, as a result of which we are led to conclude that liberalism must be defended at all costs; we are never to tarry with its possible negation. Authoritarianism, too, is undesirable. As there are no distinctions to be drawn, we must not entertain criticisms of its opposite, liberal democracy. To the contrary, it is incumbent on intellectuals to defend liberal democracy at all costs.
Like Benjamin, we are not here to reverse the terms of the debate and, in our case, to favor authoritarianism over democracy. To arrive at this conclusion is to miss our point entirely. Rather, we are proposing to emulate with respect to the third world the formal work that Benjamin stages when he addresses fascism and communism. We are concerned with how racial hierarchy and global hierarchy are internalized in the postcolonial situation. We wish to stay with Frantz Fanon's insight that “the apotheosis of independence becomes the curse of independence. The sweeping powers of coercion of the colonial authorities condemn the young nation to regression.”19 For us, what matters is not just that anti-colonial revolutions might have failed but that impossible conditions were internalized by postcolonial states. These impossible conditions produce a certain kind of violence. The coups and revolutions of the third world are manifestations of the narrow terrain on which the postcolonial state must operate, the lack of options it faces. To consider the formal similarities shared across polar opposites, to be inside and outside, we must tarry with the prospect of that internalization. This process is what Jefiyo is not theorizing. We cannot approach the problems of decolonization from a position external to the whale. Our problems take the form of the thing we are struggling with. They are immanent to it. And so, we need a form of thought that helps us think that immanence rather than simply see it as “authoritarianism” or “barbarism.”
Waiting as Movement
Both Jeyifo in his lecture and Taushif Kara in his contribution to this special section begin with reference to Samuel Beckett. It seems both authors wish to capture the feeling of futility that has emerged when thinking the third world. Colonialism had confined the third world to the waiting room of history and while anti-colonial thought insisted that the colonized could reenter the movement of history, this too proved a fantasy. For Jeyifo, Beckett's account of futility captures the condition of postcolonial studies—its failure to distinguish between “Bandung” and “Rwanda” and to register the ongoing world historical possibilities of third worldism. Kara cites Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati, who proposes a different reading of Beckett on futility. Both the colonial and anti-colonial claim, Kara shows, rely on a historicist assumption that time is linear, serial, and homogenous. These claims could only wreak senseless violence: “Any politics that placed emancipatory freedom in an unknown and indescribable future yet to be realized, such as the one drawn out from the logic of historicism, would require violence in the present in order to manifest what it sought to create. The fundamental unknowability of its ends, however, risked making that violence not only potentially futile but criminal.” Reversing the line of inquiry produced by serial time, Kara asks, what would happen if we theorized the waiting room of history as an ontological and epistemological gift? Following Shariati and Muhammad Iqbal, Kara is suggesting that we can act in the present by virtue of relinquishing any pretension to sovereignty in the future. Serial time (which Iqbal opposes to pure time) gives the appearance of the new, but that appearance is a false hope, merely a continuum of the same inasmuch as serial time forecloses the “absolutely new.” By evacuating the future from the present, it is possible to become open to the “absolutely new,” that which renders “an erstwhile invisible present visible.” Kara thus describes “positive” waiting as a state of suspension that affords opportunities for movement and change. Phrased differently, where Shipley provokes us to consider action “in the midst of impossible conditions,” Kara imagines the impossibility of sovereignty as the very horizon that allows for movement.
A similar dialectical inversion happens with respect to futility. Shariati's appraisal of Beckett rejects the inclination to revel in the absurdity of a futile condition or aestheticize politics. When it comes to futility, we cannot and should not delight in the artistic mastery of depiction. The impossibility of the postcolonial condition is more productive than such endeavors let on. Imraan Coovadia makes a parallel point regarding J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace in his remarks for this collection. An appreciation of literary form, Coovadia claims, should not excuse Coetzee's “second-order provocations” about race in post-apartheid South Africa. When Coetzee demands readers suspend their judgment (as distinct from the suspension of “positive” waiting), he cultivates the habits associated with serial time—a willingness to move forward without regard for consequences, an instrumental relationship to the future, and ultimately a capacity to turn a blind eye to violence. By contrast, the earnest and “slow reading” practices of Nelson Mandela (for Coovadia) and M. K. Gandhi (for both Coovadia and Kara) offer an orientation to nonviolence, the basic presupposition of which is a closure to the future. This nonviolent disposition can be a source of popular power when the dust of revolution settles. To this point, Arzoo Osanloo's contribution distinguishes between mercy from below, a “horizontal and self-empowering . . . act of grace from a (legitimate) authority to curb a punishment for a wrong,” and the enduring injustice of pardons decreed by sovereign authorities.
How is it that our proposed vision of third worldism can suspend expectations about the future and not relinquish aspirations for the “absolutely new”? We believe the answer to this question calls for a different kind of practice with respect to the past, as illustrated across the various pieces collected in the special section. One of the dialogues, “Revolution and Rehearsal in the Global South: Unlearning the Archive,” centers compelling provocations by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay about affinities between the imperialism of archival practices and, concerned as she is with the violence of serial time, any attempt to posit the new. While sympathetic, Azoulay's interlocutors part ways from her conclusions to describe archival practices rooted in collective struggle across time. Bouchra Khalili, Sohail Daulatzai, and Mamadou Diallo, speaking on behalf of the Chimurenga Collective, each recount creative practices that collapse divisions between the past and present. Taken together, the pieces collected here suggest a dissolution of distinctions between past and present while abjuring the future. Or, as Massimiliano Tomba has it in his contribution, revolution is a “tiger's leap into the past” because it is “capable of saving the possibilities that have remained blocked and capable of modifying the past.” For us, this is how the parameters and conceptual categories of the third world could change. It is how we rethink the “world historical.”
The Praxis of Theory and History
What is the critic's task, according to the “Third World Historical”? It is certainly not to stand outside the whale while intoning the virtues of theory and practice. It is also not just to point to collective struggle from a distance. Shozab Raza and Noaman Ali use a concept of praxis to show how theory is immanent to collective struggle and practice. In their contribution, Raza and Ali reconstruct the vernacularized “worldly Marxism” of Pakistan's historically largest communist party, illustrating its emergence in conversation with Islam and its contradictions in response to questions of gender. Their approach, like Harrison's, situates theoretical insight in the concreteness of the past-present.
We have solicited and included contributions that disagree with how we imagine political theory but that still help us understand historical practice. Naghmeh Sohrabi's rich reconstruction of everyday life among Iranian guerrillas notes the porousness of these categories, and yet Sohrabi insists on adhering to the perspective of her historical subjects—the women who viewed their work as practice and not theory. From a distinct but related perspective, Nathaniel George offers a valuable and extensive reconstruction of the Lebanese National Movement as an answer to interrelated ills in contemporary Lebanon, from political sectarianism to “Zionist colonization in Palestine, dictatorship in Syria, and US imperial power.” Here, too, select actors from past movements appear as exemplars for the present.20
Our claim to dissolve distinctions between past and present goes both ways. It does not stop at dissolving present theoretical reflections in the empirical truth of archivally documented past practices. It is equally a refraction from said archives onto present theoretical imaginaries in a bid to express the equally factual truth of intuition.21 The people on the ground, so to speak, are not just doing. They are also thinking. We cannot appreciate the facts of their existence unless we think in conversation with them. Our thinking must be in movement with their movement, a ceaseless reconsideration of conceptual categories from “1789” onward.
This is a question of writing, one that entails transformations at the level of form. Critics may claim a need for new stories and yet retain a universal voice such that writing about the third world never actually changes. They continue to produce an ahistorical version of reason when, in fact, reason is the sum total of the relationships that constitute an epoch. It has different iterations depending on one's historical period and place. We offer an alternative, anchoring the special issue with two dialogues that exhibit thought as movement and capture in their form something about what it means to think and share with people across difference. An unconventional format for an academic journal, the dialogues are an attempt at self-consciousness, at mapping out a telos for the third world. The telos can only appear through movement and dialogue.
Fadi Bardawil's contribution brings this observation into focus, insisting on the need to take stock when writing about revolutions. “Is [this writing] an antidote against general amnesia? Is it a rescue operation of kernels that can be repurposed in, and for, our present struggles? Is it an invitation to an intergenerational dialogue?” Bardawil describes the task as translation—a “multidirectional and generative” practice that refuses to deem past global South revolutions derivative or present uprisings insufficiently revolutionary when they fail to comply with previous models. We have described the same process here as praxis to center the possibilities for thought in action. In either case, the consequences of rethinking theory and history reach beyond academic interventions. An overemphasis on the precisions of empiricism can serve to confine global South experiences in silos and preclude what Bardawil aptly calls “solidarity across difference.”
And so, in conclusion, we can say that what we mean by “Third World Historical” is not revealed by the recuperation of the career of the third world. Attempts to orient present politics around a recuperation of what happened before can too easily fall into the intellectual equivalent of rebuilding and defending third world states at all costs. We propose a different approach: bringing together fragments of history—in this case, the special section—to demonstrate thought as movement and, what is more, to make an argument for the political and epistemic virtues of movement. Insofar as the “Third World Historical” is movement, there are no heroes in the story we tell. Similarly, we are not here to offer step-by-step solutions. Our method is to point and to gesture. It is to collect the various, heterogeneous elements of history between which movement could occur.
If it is presumed to exist, the third world spirit lives and it lives on—in each of the revolutions mentioned here, in all of these projects, and in the questions we are able to pose today. This special section is a set of resonances gathered together through a process of call-and-response. Our contributors responded in unexpected ways, in the midst of an unexpected pandemic, calling on us to refine ideas we had only initially intimated. They also called upon each other, interviewing one another to complete revisions for their final drafts. With this introductory text, we are responding in turn.
See Borderlines, www.borderlines-cssaame.org/.
“Third World Historical: Rethinking Revolution,” call for papers, www.ethiopiaintheory.org/rethinking-revolution.
Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran.
See, e.g., Scott, Refashioning Futures, 10–15.
See, e.g., Prashad, Darker Nations.
This recalls the theoretical question of narrative completion raised by Christopher Lee's contribution to the special section, the question of how to continue struggle in the face of failure and “unsustained dialectics.”