Decolonizing Epistemologies: Part 1
Race Critical and Decolonial Sociology
This blog post is republished with the permission of the author, Alana Lentin, from her blog, alanalentin.net .
What are the possibilities for social and political critique opened up by the decolonial approach? I shall examine the interconnections between postcolonial theory and the Decolonial, uncovering the trajectory that began with Indian subaltern studies and Latin American autonomous social science. I shall also examine the impact of a critical focus on race, gender and sexuality on the opening out of decolonial approaches. This work will go towards asking questions about the epistemological implications of taking a decolonial approach as well as examining the possibilities for transformative social and political action.
This discussion concentrates on post-colonialism and postcolonial thinking. The following post turns to decoloniality.
Postcolonial theory and postcolonial studies grew out of the anti-colonial movement which formally overthrew European colonial government in almost all of the states in which it had intervened. The postcolonial is, therefore, as much the theorization of an aspiration borne of struggle as it is an attempt to capture, as Couze Venn says, the legacy of European colonization.
As Venn notes, postcolonialism is both a theorization of the interconnections between the “present and the past, the local and the global, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan, the postcolonial and the postmodern” and a tool for attempting to overcome what he calls the “underlying problem of opening critical spaces for new narratives of becoming and emancipation” (Venn 2006: 1). He calls this orientation both postcolonial and post-occidental, in the sense that it properly belongs to the theoretical critique and practical project of overturning the centrality of the West.
There is some debate about when to date the birth of postcolonialism. As Ella Shohat asks, ‘When exactly… does the “post-colonial” begin?’ This question arises out of the overlap between postcolonialism as the description of a time — after colonialism — and postcolonialism as a discourse, a concept, and/or a set of theories.
As Venn notes, the ‘what and where’ of the postcolonial has shifted over time. During the cold war and at the height of decolonization, the 1955 Bandung Conference and the heyday of the non-aligned movement, the postcolonial had a particular meaning. Then, it was possible to imagine the Third World as a space within which post-independence countries could define their own destiny free from western imperialism.
However, the wars which have afflicted many of these territories in the name of the cold war and the interventions of global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, according to Venn, have dispelled the myths of autonomy.
So, the postcolonial is no longer a geographical territory which exists — or seeks to exist — outside of or in opposition to colonialism — past or present. It has been realized that this is an impossibility.
Therefore, postcolonialism becomes an assemblage of critiques of what Venn calls Occidentalism — ‘the conceptual and historical space of the becoming — West of Europe and the becoming modern of the world.’ The role of critical postcolonialism is to challenge this space and to rethink the principles that lend it legitimation.
It is, in essence, a critique of how colonialism and western domination served to silence local knowledges and to institute a teleological reading of human history that assumes that western civilization is the pinnacle of progress, while all other cultures are in a process of becoming.
Inherent to this view is the notion that western culture is universal while all other cultures are localized and particular. However, the elision of the particularity in which western culture originates is not even necessarily acknowledged. Therefore, white, western culture becomes the norm or the standard bearer against which all other world cultures are judged and (often) found lacking, so as to create a civilizational hierarchy.
Whereas, what David Theo Goldberg has called naturalist racial theories (e.g. of the crude racial scientists of the 19th century) assumed that non-Europeans could never accede to the level of progress achieved by western ‘races’, the historicist assumptions that underpinned much colonial rule — incorporated by the notion of the ‘civilizing mission’ — saw the colonized as lower down the ladder of progress. The spread of modernization through colonization — and later development — would serve to rectify the situation over time.
Against this, the role of postcolonial critique, according to Gyan Prakash, is to radically rethink and reformulate ‘the forms of knowledge and social identities authored and authorized by colonialism and western domination.’
Prakash’s argument is that the original responses to colonialism — nationalism and Marxism — both reproduced the master narratives of colonialism. Nationalism may have attributed agency to the oppressed nation, but it reproduced the claim to Reason and Progress — two key facets of nationalism and nation-states — at the heart of colonialism.
Similarly, Marxist movements in decolonized countries railed against colonialism but nevertheless fell back on a universalist mode of narrative that ignored the specificity of the non-western, pre-capitalist economic order, or indeed the specificity of capitalism outside of the West.
In contrast, postcolonial criticism, according to Prakash, ‘seeks to undo the Eurocentrism produced by the institution of the west’s trajectory, its appropriation of the Other as history.’ However, crucially, it cannot do this as if postcoloniality were unrelated to coloniality. On the contrary, ‘the postcolonial exists as an aftermath, as an after – after being worked over by colonialism.’ So postcolonial criticism is neither inside nor outside of colonialism, rather it is in a tangential relation to it, occupying an in-between position, as Homi Bhabha puts it.
The postcolonial is therefore relational and the postcolonial subject a hybrid. The role of the postcolonial, according to Gayatri Spivak, is to ‘reverse and displace’. I could add that it is also to unsettle by forcing us to reassess received wisdom as well as the privilege of not having to particularize western universalism.
Critiques of postcolonialsm: Arif Dirlik
According to Arif Dirlik, the major contribution of postcolonial critique is the repudiation of all master narratives, the most powerful of which are those constituted in and by post-Enlightenment Europe and which were fundamental to the establishing of colonial domination.
- The most important narrative to be rejected is that of modernization. While Marxism rejects bourgeois modernization theories, it too must be critiqued because it works with the same teleological assumptions as those that motivate bourgeois theories. The narrative of modes of production sees colonialism as a transition to capitalism (rather than integral to it). This leads to the colony being seen merely as Europe’s other, as outside of history — a major factor in Orientalist thought.
- Secondly, nationalism should also be debunked because it reproduces the essentialisms inherent to Orientalism and Eurocentrism by constructing an authentic and reified national subject. National identity does not take into account Bhabha’s hybridity or the notion that Stuart Hall introduces of the postcolonial subject as inherently split — the colonial exists within the colonized and, thus in the postcolonial, and vice versa.
- Lastly, the idea of foundationalism has to be repudiated. Foundationalism assumes that it is possible to look at history as represented by an identity — a class, for example — that cannot be broken down further — that cannot be seen as heterogeneous; hence the universalization of the ‘proletariat’, for example. However, taking this view means being unable to see past the particular ideal type being mobilized.
According to postcolonial critics, the most important consequence of the rejection of foundationalism is the rejection of capitalism as a foundational category. Critics like Prakash argue that it is impossible to read the history of any Third World country in terms of the development of capitalism alone or to argue against the role played by capitalism in homogenizing the contemporary world. Doing so would reject out of hand the role played by other factors and actors that exist outside of these western logics.
Similarly, it is impossible to see the Third World itself or Third World subjects as categories. Postcolonial critique unsettles the neat categorization into East and West, First World and Third World, etc. Rather the point is to see all accounts — orientalist, nationalist, marxist, etc. — as ‘discursive attempts to constitute their objects of knowledge.’
Third World identities have to resist this attempt by foundationalism to be fixed. They must be constituted as relational and heterogeneous. Rejecting essentialization, they suggest engagement not insularity. The Third World refuses to stay in its place. Rather, it has ‘penetrated the inner sanctum of the first world’ and has affiliated with other subordinated subjects in the first world. So, according to the postcolonial critics, there is a strong role to be played by postcolonial actors in alliance with other marginalized groups and activists such as socialists, radicals, feminists, and other minorities.
The Third World postcolonial subject is deterritorialized. Postcolonial politics are a politics of positionality — where I position myself and am positioned by others in an imbalanced power relation undergirded by a colonial logic — rather than a politics of location, grounded in a particular localized space.
It is with this notion that Arif Dirlik opens his critique of contemporary postcolonialism. Postcolonial critique, by becoming disconnected from a particular space, has made the postcolonial subject more important than the world which exists around her.
For Dirlik, in his scathing critique, a lot of the problems with postcolonial theory are in the fact that it only becomes significant once certain academics from Third World countries make it in the western academy. He says that ‘postcolonial, rather than a description of anything, is a discourse that seeks to constitute the world in the self-image of intellectuals who view themselves… as postcolonial intellectuals… postcolonial discourse is an expression not so much of agony over identity… but of newfound power.’
Dirlik, basing much of his critique on the subaltern historians — originating mainly from India — who are considered to be the instigators of postcolonial studies, is irritated by what he sees as the projection of certain local problems as global concerns. He says that the problems raised for Indian historiography by the subaltern historians has led to them being generalized because of the centrality of Indian subaltern history to postcolonialism in general.
The problem that Dirlik sees as central to postcolonial critique is that while, on the one hand, its proponents are calling for attention to heterogeneity, difference and historicity, they are, on the other hand, generalizing from the local context to the global while denying that there are any global forces which have an impact on the forming of the local in the first place.
Anne McClintock, for example, notes that a central problem in this is that while postcolonial theory promises to decenter history by privileging hybridity, it nonetheless ends up re-centering global history around singular European time by privileging the colonial moment over all others.
Furthermore, the focus on hybridity and subjectivity leads to what O’Hanlon and Washbrook call a ‘depoliticizing insulation of social from material domains’. According to them, this makes postcolonialism a conservative, rather than a radical, project, because it doesn’t seek to subvert any of the macro-structures, especially capitalism. There is no way of looking at the impact of these structures on different localities because the direction postcolonialism is interested in is that from the local to the global, but in so doing it generalizes local experiences so that they lose meaningfulness.
Dirlik also finds the language of postcolonial discourse problematic which is the language of Western post-structuralism. Prakash admits that the language used by third world scholars is often familiar to the West, but he doesn’t characterize this as a problem. For Dirlik, this is a problem because the choice of language means that postcolonial critique remains a conversation between the postcolonial and the First World rather than between postcolonial intellectuals.
The focus on subjectivities, also prominent in poststructuralist approaches, means too that postcolonial studies risks causing a dislocation between these subjective standpoints and the ideology and institutions that produce them. Indeed, the drive in much postcolonial studies and cultural studies towards a focus on identity and affect — especially within literature and psychoanalysis — may have contributed to a dilution of the political aim of postcolonialism. As the late David Macey noted in his biography of Fanon,
‘The Third Worldist Fanon was an apocalyptic creature; the post-colonial Fanon worries about identity politics, and often about his own sexual identity, but he is no longer angry… The wretched of the earth are still there, but not in the seminar rooms where the talk is of post-colonial theory. They came out on the streets of Algiers in 1988, and the Algerian army shot them dead. […] Had he lived, Fanon would still be angry. His readers should be angry too.’ (Macey 2000: 29).
Part of what we may want to think about is how to reclaim the angry Fanon for an evaluation of the contribution postcolonial theory can make today. In the rest of this lecture, I want to look at how a simultaneous reading of postcolonialism alongside other, allied, traditions in subaltern studies, race critical theory, and Chicana feminism for example can help in the construction of a decolonial reading that would radically decenter Occidentalist thinking and power.
Doing this helps us consider the impact of what Boaventura De Sousa Santos calls western ‘abyssal thinking’ on thought in general and how the colonial project and the allied colonization of knowledge brought about an erasure of precolonial philosophy, science and art. Part of what we do when we heed the call to decolonize knowledge is both to uncover the processes by which these erasures occurred and return to these traditions in the effort to embed a more global understanding of the social world.
Dirlik’s criticisms notwithstanding, the contributions of South Asian subaltern history have been vital to questioning the relationship between coloniality and history.
In Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Provincializing Europe ’, the author problematizes history as a narrative of transition and examines the effects upon the understanding of formerly colonized countries such as India.
In particular, Chakrabarty states, it is necessary to question the notions of progress, development and modernization within historicist accounts. The subaltern historians are as critical of Indian nationalists as they are of colonialists. Nationalist historicist readings examine Indian progress since 1947 in terms of a lack, an absence or a failure. In this sense, these nationalist readings are often continuous with British colonialist interpretations of India as inadequate or incomplete in contrast to the achievements of the colonizers whose efforts notwithstanding failed to change the course of Indian destiny.
Indian nationalism was complicit in the interpretation of India as lacking, a fact that Gandhi realized when he noted that nationalists’ demands for more railways, modern medicine, etc. were efforts to ‘make India English’. However, from a nationalist perspective, the ambition was not to be English or European but for Indians to become individuals by embracing the nation and citizenship — understood as universal principles.
Paradoxically, Indian nationalists had internalized the universal presumptions underlying western ideas, such as the individual, equal subject. The problem was that, because of the unadmitted particularity of these principles, the West was not ready to accept Indians as individual subjects or the independent Indian state on equal terms.
To see the colonized world as lacking or as a stage of history in transition towards something approximating that seen as already achieved by the West, is to privilege a process of modernization. In that the West is considered modern, everywhere else is seen as in the process of becoming modern.
As Gurminder Bhambra explains, modernization theory rests upon a separation between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. In the West, tradition is located in the past whereas, the Third World is seen as traditional co-temporally with western modernity. However, modernization theory also sees tradition as gradually being superseded by modernity in all societies. Bhambra describes modernization theory as a theory of convergence in which all difference is erased by the diffusion of western institutions.
If anything, this has been exacerbated and accelerated since the proliferation of globalization — which, in one sense can be understood as a speeding up of the drive to Euro-American modernization.
As Arturo Escobar points out, key theorists of modernization, like Anthony Giddens, explicitly state that globalization entails the universalization of modernity.
The assumption that modernity is synonymous with the West has been refuted by theorists of multiple modernities, or ‘varieties of modernity’ who point out that non-western societies are not stagnant, but that they develop their own institutional and cultural contexts prior to western modernity. The exposure to western modernity led to the emergence of multiple modernities within societies where western institutions converged with local cultural practices.
However, Bhambra critiques the multiple modernities approach for being rooted nonetheless in a Eurocentric vision: modernities of various kinds emerged first in Europe and only later with the expansion of modernity in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The multiple modernities approach sets itself up as non-Orientalist, but by saying that multiple modernities emerge only through the encounter with European modernities (which themselves are construed as multiple), scholars such as Eisenstadt or Wittrock are actually saying that the West is ‘both the origin of modernity and…of multiple modernities.’
In contrast to this approach, which assumes that there are civilizational ideal types that can be compared with each other, Bhambra argues that the West is not already modern before its encounter with the rest of the world. Rather, it is through the colonial relationship that modernity is formed: ‘colonisation was not simply an outcome of modernity, but, rather, modernity itself, the modern world, developed out of colonial encounters.’
For Escobar, the power of what he calls ‘Eurocentred modernity’ — which he says is a ‘particular local history’ — lies in the fact that it has subalternized other local histories. Modernization appears teleological and universal, but it is only one of a number of possible stories still waiting to be played out.
Contra the idea of modernization as a linear universalizing process, Bhambra contends that “there are no entities that are not hybrid, that are not always and already hybrid.”
Everything has already in some way been influenced by something else. For example, while we talk about the importance of the Industrial Revolution in facilitating the growth of capitalism and locate the milling industry in places like Manchester, we do not always remember that cotton milling were only made possible because cotton was brought from India where it was grown. In other words, the industrial revolution and the growth of capitalism was only made possible through the connection between India and Europe.
Instead of seeing the global as an extension of western modernity, we should focus, according to Bhambra, on the interconnectedness of the world, or the ‘common world’.
European social theory has explained the evolution of the modern world in terms of a series of separate processes taking place independently in different parts of the world. Therefore, capitalism for example is seen as a western process that is then extended to the rest of the world through colonialism firstly, and globalization more recently.
However, to see things from this perspective would be to ignore the example of the cotton mills. Modernity, and today globalization, should be seen as a series of ‘conjunctions and connected and entangled histories’. Doing so deprivileges the West as the origin, the vanguard, the norm and sheds light both on the other, untold and silenced histories that need to be told for a full picture of the contemporary world to be revealed and on the ways in which the interdependence between the First and the Third World is central rather than incidental.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2007) ‘Multiple Modernities or Global Interconnections: Understanding the global post the colonial’, in N. Karagiannis and P. Wagner (eds.), Varieties of World-Making: Beyond Globalization. Liverpool UP.
Bhambra , Gurminder K and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. 2017. ‘Introduction: Global Challenges for Sociology’, Sociology. Online First 3 Jan 2017.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000) Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference Princeton University Press Introduction and Chapter One (pp. 3-47).
Grosfoguel, Ramon. 2013. ‘The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century’, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, XI, Issue 1, Fall 2013, 73-90.
Mignolo, Walter D (2006) ‘Citizenship, Knowledge, and the Limits of Humanity’. American Literary History (Cary, NC; Oxford) (18:2): 312-321.
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Fanon, Frantz (1963) ‘Concerning Violence’, Chapter 1 of The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakrabarty (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture University of Illinois Press, Chicago
Bhabha, Homi K. (1994) The Location of Culture Routledge, London.
Dirlik, Arif (1994) ‘The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism’ Critical Inquiry Vol. 20, Winter pp. 328-35
Said, Edward W. (1993) Culture and Imperialism Chatto and Windus, London.