Meaningless gibberish and decoloniality

“Radical universal decolonial

anticapitalist diversality,”
and other adventures in
academic mumbo-jumbo

Been reading various exponents of so-called “decolonial” theory of late — Enrique Dussel, Walter Mignolo, Anibal Quijano, and Ramón Grosfoguel, etc. So-called because its parameters are somewhat unclear. As far as I can tell, it didn’t really crystallize as a distinct discourse until the 1970s or 1980s. Even then, it wasn’t named as such. Only in the late 1990s and early 2000s did this designation emerge, promoted principally by scholars of Latin America. It was then retroactively applied to figures like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who are today treated almost as decolonial theorists avant la lettre. Personally, this seems a rather sneaky operation. Césaire and Fanon weren’t academics, to begin with, and understood their own work as part of a project to literally decolonize the remaining colonies of European empires. That is to say, in other words, the removal of all colonial administration and oversight, withdrawal of colonial armies, usually within some sort of national liberation and self-determination framework.

Here a few distinctions might help to clear up the confusion. First of all, the distinction between “decoloniality” and “decolonization.” Decoloniality doesn’t refer to colonialism per se, but to a peculiar postcolonial condition dubbed “coloniality.” Quijano has theorized this in terms of “the coloniality of power”: “Coloniality of power is thus based upon ‘racial’ social classification of the world population under Eurocentered world power. Eurocentric coloniality of power has proved longer lasting than Eurocentric colonialism. Without it, the history of capitalism in Latin America and other related places in the world can hardly be explained…” Nelson Maldonado-Torres also riffs on this theme, only he ontologizes it, invoking Heidegger even as he criticizes the Nazi philosopher’s “forgetfulness” of “the coloniality of being”:

Coloniality is different from colonialism. While colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a people rests on the power of another nation, making such nation an empire, coloniality instead refers to longstanding patterns of power which emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus does coloniality survive colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, common sense, the self-image of peoples, aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. As modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.

Coloniality is not simply the aftermath or the residual form of any given form of colonial relation. Coloniality emerges in a particular sociohistorical setting, that of the discovery and conquest of the Americas. For it was in the context of this massive colonial enterprise — the most widespread and ambitious yet in the history of humankind — that capitalism, i.e., an already existing form of economic relation, became tied to forms of domination and subordination that would be central to maintaining colonial control first in the Americas, and then elsewhere. Coloniality refers, first and foremost, to the two axes of power that became operative and defined the spatiotemporal matrix of what was called at the time America.

This rhetorical sleight of hand solves a number of tricky problems for decolonial theorists. Latin America was already decolonized, by the end of the nineteenth century at the latest. Spain underwent a series of revolutions during that time that made it far too unstable to maintain substantial overseas holdings. Mexico enjoyed several decades of autonomy, losing a bit of territory to the United States before being invaded by Louis Napeolon’s France. But that lasted only six years, between 1861 and 1867. A few Antillean islands changed hands with the Spanish-American War, and Europe along with the US have consistently meddled in the domestic affairs of Central and South American countries since then (e.g., Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, the Falklands War in 1982), but that’s more or less been the situation. Continue reading