Rowman and Littlefield International

Decolonization Matters

Published on Saturday 04 Nov 2017 by Lewis R. Gordon

Today, all across the globe, the term ‘decolonization’ has achieved much currency. Initially referring to a process of achieving independence, it has long since expanded from the institutional form of one country’s control over another, to the mechanisms of what could be called, ‘informal control’. This idea, which in other contexts is also called ‘hegemony’, is far more effective than the use of military weapons, and threats of death. To get a people to believe they’re better off under the control of another group of people is efficient, and economical.

In what is at times called ‘theory from the global south’, this phenomenon of control, is also referred to as ‘epistemic colonization’. It involves not being able to think outside of the norms of a colonial system. A group of decolonial theorists—Anibal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and Catherine Walsh—call the condition of this ongoing form of colonialism ‘coloniality’. It is a way of describing what continues when the military forces of the former colonial country have receded, but the structures remain.

There are, nonetheless, critics of this view. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, for instance, argues there is no difference between coloniality and colonialism. The same is so for neocolonialism. All three are manifestations of colonialism, yet language offers subtleties that may take theoretical reflection in unexpected directions.

Before such expressions as ‘coloniality’ and ‘decoloniality’ emerged, there were analyses of the impact of colonization on all facets of social life. Frantz Fanon, the famed Martinican revolutionary philosopher, and psychiatrist, pointed out that colonialism was so thorough that it affected not only what, but also how colonial subjects thought. The great Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o similarly raised such questions with regards to the grip of colonial language. He argued for the decolonization of the mind. There is also the long history of thought. Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel calls this ‘the underside of modernity’. He contends what Europeans call ‘modernity’ was not built on knowledge, but instead on the sword, with the former being the afterthought, which facilitated the invisibility of death and violence. Additionally, there are resources from Africana philosophy, which asks questions, at least as I have interpreted in my book An Introduction to Africana Philosophy, from the perspective of the underside. Questions of that modernity, about being human, free, and justifiably critical.

Unpacking these ideas require taking a critical stand on one’s assumption of what stands as legitimate and real every step of the way. ‘Modern’, for instance, though formulated from the Latin word modo (‘just now’), refers to a form of belonging. It is also understood as belonging to the future. This boomerangs legitimacy to the present, and retroactively adds it to the past. The unfortunate consequence is the belief that people who do not belong to the future, also do not legitimately belong to the present, and thus, at best, belong to the past. This has happened many times throughout the history of conquest and colonization over the ages. What has become known in our times as ‘modern’, has collapsed into the term ‘European’. If only Europeans could be modern, then the rest belong to the past. Unless they become European.

This misguided sense of what it means to be modern has devastating consequences. It renders whole groups of people into, in effect, ghosts. They haunt the present. Others become contaminated in it. If, however, they learn to reject this model, such people face new formulations. For one thing, instead of ‘modern’ to mean ‘European’, we should say ‘Euromodern’, which raises the question of other moderns. As long as a group belongs to the future, the legitimacy of its present will be affirmed. This would involve taking on the task of responsibility for the future, and retroactively, the past.

Although Euromodern colonialism gripped the planet, it also created a form of disoriented thinking. In the past, the logical movement of following the sun from east to west offered a different way of thinking than today’s notion of north to south. From lateral to vertical, there is movement from equality to hierarchy. Moreover, returning to the reflection on knowledge, ‘thinking’ becomes an activity from top to bottom, where there is no thought. In practices of how knowledge is produced, the result is an unfortunate conclusion of theory being northern, and that upon which one thinks, as being everything. For those in the south, however, this meant a passive relationship to thought. Despite the assertion of experience, the need of bringing thought to it makes even that dependent on the north. Thinking, then, needs to be a global phenomenon. Achieving such would be no less than what my colleagues and I at the Caribbean Philosophical Association call ‘shifting the geography of reason’.

Fernanda Frizzo Bragato and I thought about such shifts, and we realized another important element was needed. On one hand, it is important to embrace theory in the global south, on the other, it is important not to be reactionary through exclusion of whatever is useful from the north. If nothing from the north would be useful, then the world would be split into contraries of universal opposition. A problem would then emerge if the north adopts a southern idea. Should the south, then, abandon it? A different way of thinking globally is thus needed.

Ideas do not, however, exist in a vacuum. We also think through them as ways of valuing. We therefore need to consider what it means not only to value what we think, but also value being valued by each other, when engaged in such thought. Shifting the geography of reason, then, also demands a shift in the orientation and possibilities of value. Valuing each other requires engaging each other, dialoguing across the global south. This ‘south’ is not, however, purely locational. The remains of empires have distributed, pushing peoples outside of worlds of human relations all across the planet. This means, then, that the dialogue, too, is global.

Think of it as a special kind of double consciousness. Colonialism imposed the view that only colonizers think, and how they see the world is what, and how it is. Those dominated are thus condemned, as Fanon would say, to the negative reality forced upon them. If, however, the condemned or, properly, the damned, realize the contradictions of their condemnation, they soon learn the injustice of any system of knowledge that makes them into problems instead of addressing the challenges they face. Let us call that potentiated double consciousness. This means realizing that an enforced universality is really a particularity. Reality is simply larger than what any human group can impose. This dialectical shift is another element in shifting the geography of reason.  

Relating to each other, valuing each other, which requires also being properly critical of each other’s thought, is what Bragato and I hoped to facilitate in the anthology we recently edited for the Global Critical Caribbean Thought series with Rowman & Littlefield International. Assembling a global group of scholars, we placed the conversation into provocative chapters under the title Geopolitics and Decolonization: Perspectives from the Global South.

My contribution explores the question of value posed in our discussion. I noticed that while many colonization critics are willing to talk about decolonizing knowledge, they are reluctant to take such a leap when it comes to normative life, especially with regard to a subject such as justice. What should we do if it is not only our conception of justice, but also the very notion of it, as the fundamental expectation with which to organize society, is also colonized? What if we are living in a world of ‘unjust justice’ or ‘just injustice’? It seems to me that such possibilities demand the decolonization of normative life. It also means humanity faces an important challenge in this stage of the story of our life on our tiny planet. If our norms were designed for an almost infinitely large world suited just for us, what kind of norms do we need to develop and live by for a world becoming increasingly unsuitable for those norms? In a world of several billion people and technologies of rapid movement, this process is accelerating.

Though decolonization matters, that we may even face decolonizing decolonization means we must simultaneously go beyond it. We need new ways of thinking, then, that recurring query: What is to be done?  

Our imagination, guided by the sober constraints of evidence, is a start. The book that Bragato and I have edited, along with others in the Creolizing the Canon series, and the Global Critical Caribbean Thought series, offer recent instalments of our efforts.

Lewis Gordon is a Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs in the United States; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; and Honorary Professor in the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University, South Africa. He is the author and editor of many books, including, most recently, with Fernanda Frizzo Bragato, Geopolitics and Decolonization: Perspectives from the Global South.