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Fanon and Mariátegui contra Grosfoguel and Coulthard

Although Ramón Grosfoguel et al. certainly take pride in the fact they draw from native resources, and hence do not rely on master thinkers from the Occident, it is unlikely that anyone not steeped in that tradition could even begin to understand their “decolonial” theory. On this point, Walter D. Mignolo brings up the necessity of acts he refers to as “epistemic disobedience”: “Decolonial thinking presupposes de-linking (epistemically and politically) from the web of imperial knowledge.” The concept of de-linking is adapted from Samir Amin’s 1988 book on Eurocentrism. Loren Goldner explains that “de-linking is a fancy name for an idea first developed by Iosif Stalin called ‘socialism in one country’.” Grosfoguel indicates in an article about “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn” that his main points are

  1. that a decolonial epistemic perspective requires a much broader canon of thought than simply the Western canon (including the Left Western canon);
  2. that a truly universal decolonial perspective thus cannot be based on an abstract universal (one particular that raises itself as universal global design), but would have to be the result of the critical dialogue between diverse critical epistemic/ethical/political projects towards a pluriversal as oppose to a universal world;
  3. that decolonization of knowledge would require to take seriously the epistemic perspective/cosmologies/insights of critical thinkers from the Global South thinking from and with subalternized racial/ethnic/sexual spaces and bodies.

Postmodernism and postructuralism as epistemological projects are caught in the Western canon, reproducing within its domains of thought and practice a coloniality of power/knowledge.

He even goes so far as to call for a “decolonization of postcolonial studies,” which is still far too reliant on the authority of Western thinkers. In an article of the same title, Grosfoguel recalls that “as a Latino in the United States, I was dissatisfied with the epistemic consequences of the knowledge produced by [the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group]. They underestimated in their own work ethnic or racial perspectives coming from the region, while at the same time privileging predominantly to Western thinkers, which is related to my second point: they gave epistemic privilege to what they called the ‘four horses of the apocalypse,’ that is, Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci, and Guha… Among the four main thinkers they privilege, three are ‘Eurocentric’ thinkers… Two (i.e., Derrida and Foucault) form part of the poststructuralist/postmodern Western canon. Only one (i.e., Rinajit Guha) is a thinker thinking from the South. By privileging Western thinkers as their central theoretical apparatus, they betrayed their goal to produce subaltern studies.” Mignolo writes in a similar vein that

Coloniality and decoloniality introduces a fracture with both the Eurocentered project of postmodernity and a project of postcoloniality heavily dependent on poststructuralism (i.e., insofar as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida have been acknowledged as the grounding of the postcolonial canon): Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha… Decoloniality sets out from other sources. From the decolonial shift already implicit in Nueva corónica and buen gobierno by Waman Puma de Ayala; in the decolonial critique and the activism of Mahatma Gandhi; in the fracture of Marxism in its encounter with colonial legacies in the Andes, articulated by José Carlos Mariátegui; and in the radical political and epistemological shifts enacted by Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Rigoberta Menchú, Gloria Anzaldúa, among others. The decolonial shift, in other words, is a project of de-linking whereas postcolonial theory is a project of scholarly transformation within the academy.

Yet the palpable irony here is — even if Grosfoguel gets rid of the names Derrida, Gramsci, and Foucault while retaining only Guha, or if Mignolo jettisons Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida but holds on to Bhabha — they will still be working within this philosophical idiom, which they just disavowed. Nevertheless, this has nothing to do with the intrinsic “greatness” of European civilization or its unique “genius.” Rather, it has to do with an historic form of universality which happened to develop in Europe and expanded outward from there. Decolonial theorists tend to be dissatisfied with this version of events, though. Marx himself is not spared from the rebuke of “Eurocentrism,” as Mignolo observes: “Class consciousness means a ‘critical consciousness,’ which like the one generated by colonial difference and the colonial wound (e.g., critical border thinking), generates, in the first case, projects of emancipation and, in the second, projects of liberation. However, in Marx and in the Marxist tradition, the idea of ‘class consciousness’ hides the fact that the paradigmatic model of the proletarian is white, male, European…” (“On Subalterns and Other Agencies”).

Grosfoguel takes this a step further. Unlike many of his decolonial peers, he never had much affection for Marx. Quijano, by contrast, considers himself a Marxist to this day, and Dussel’s readings of Marx are both subtle and wide-ranging. None of this is present in Grosfoguel. “In social science we have concrete manifestations of epistemic Islamophobia in the work of Western-centric patriarchal theorists such as Karl Marx and Max Weber,” he maintains. “Marx believed that secularism was fundamental for revolution to have a chance in Muslim lands. This secularist view of Marx was a typical colonial strategy promoted by Western empires in order to destroy the ways of thinking and living of the colonial subjects and, thus, impede any trace of resistance.” Elsewhere Grosfoguel continues: “Just like the Western thinkers preceding him, Marx participates in an epistemic racism in which there is only one epistemology with access to universality: the Western tradition… Despite being from the left, Marxist thought ended up trapped in the same problems of Eurocentrism and colonialism that had imprisoned Eurocentered thinkers of the right.” Continue reading

Amy Allen, The End of Progress - Decolonizing the normative foundations of critical theory

On progress: Critical theory and the “decolonial” imperative

I repost below Bruce Robbins’ excellent review of Amy Allen’s very poor book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. My reasons for titling this post “Critical Theory and the ‘Decolonial’ Imperative” is that Allen clearly thinks decolonization is something that ought to happen (i.e., a moral guideline or maxim that determines practical action). She somehow fails to self-reflexively see the normative foundations of her own critique of critical theory, at least until the very last chapter, as Robbins points out in his review. He is a bit disingenuous, I think, when he remarks at the outset that The End of Progress is a “difficult but rewarding book” — a begrudgingly charitable judgment not borne out by what follows, which thoroughly dismantles Allen’s argument. Nevertheless, her argument deserved to be panned, so I don’t see this as a problem.

Apart from this specific instance of “decolonial” thought, I should perhaps explain my more general objections to the discourse. One of my reasons for being so skeptical is purely aesthetic, a result of my distaste for clunky academic language. “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity,” a 2015 collection of articles edited by Mohammad Tamdgidi, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Ramón Grosfoguel, provides ample evidence of the jargon employed by theorists of decolonization. The title alone should be enough to discredit it. Beyond this aesthetic disgust, however, a more intellectual objection I’ve always had to decolonial theory is its anachronism and its consequent reliance on metaphor. Great colonial empires are today mostly a thing of the past, the colonizers having been driven out by anti-colonial movements for national liberation or self-determination. In fact, the only real colonies that remain today are arguably Palestine (occupied by Israel) and Tibet (occupied by China). Even then, they’re odd sorts of colonies. Palestine is not directly administered, and Tibet is ruled by a government which claims to be communist.

Whenever decolonial activists go beyond the metaphoric injunction to decolonize — “kill the pilgrim in yr head!” — and insist on its literal meaning, they veer into absurdity. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” proposes to forcibly expel everyone who is not of Amerindian or African descent from the Americas, i.e. Occupied Turtle Island. By that logic, all East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians would have to repatriate, to say nothing of individuals who are of mixed descent. Sadly, claims of “indigeneity” can be used to justify the most ridiculous ends. Ryan Bellerose, an indigenous rights activist from Alberta, Canada, advocates on behalf of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland, upholding their native rights. It’s hard to counter this line of reasoning once you accept indigenist premises. Unless one wants to concoct some statute of limitations for Blut und Boden ethnic claims to historic lands, it’s impossible to resolve the issue within the framework of indigenous politics. Fortunately Marxism does not aim to permanently restore territories to any particular group. Individuals should be able to live peaceably wherever they damn well please, irrespective of any “organic connection” to the land.

Paul-KleeProving the impossibility of progress

Bruce Robbins
LA Review of Books
May 13, 2016

REVIEW: Amy Allen, The End of Progress:
the Normative Foundations
of Critical Theory
(January 12, 2016)

Walter Benjamin famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn’t compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention. Continue reading


“…the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject” — Stuart Hall, 1932-2014

Stuart Hall, the British Marxist and cultural theorist, died today. He was the author of numerous articles on Marxism, cultural identity, Thatcherism, and the politics of difference. Below is posted an extract of his brief 1989 article on “New Ethnicities,” in which he discusses “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject.” This was, as my friend Dakota Brown pointed out, a provocation that has largely gone unanswered since it was first announced (indeed, largely unanswered by Hall himself). While I don’t share Hall’s predilection for Gramscian notions of “hegemony” and the “war of maneuver,” having long since been assimilated into the mainstream of cultural politics, he at least recognized the potential danger of such concepts leading to “a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism.” Moreover, Hall discusses the often problematic encounter between “black politics” and postmodernism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. All these have been discussed recently on this blog, and so I’m here republishing this excerpt.

[The politics of representation] is a complex issue. First, it is the effect of a theoretical encounter between black cultural politics and the discourses of a Eurocentric, largely white, critical cultural theory which in recent years, has focused so much analysis of the politics of representation. This is always an extremely difficult, if not dangerous encounter. (I think particularly of black people encountering the discourses of poststructuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and feminism). Secondly, it marks what I can only call “the end of innocence,” or the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject. Here again, the end of the essential black subject is something which people are increasingly debating, but they may not have fully reckoned with its political consequences. What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category “black”; that is, the recognition that “black” is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects. This inevitably entails a weakening or fading of the notion that “race” or some composite notion of race around the term black will either guarantee the effectivity of any cultural practice or determine in any final sense its aesthetic value.

We should put this as plainly as possible. Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily “right-on” by virtue of the fact that they deal with black experience. Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world. Alternatively, it may be greeted with extraordinary relief at the passing away of what at one time seemed to be a necessary fiction. Namely, either that all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same. After all, it is one of the predicates of racism that “you can’t tell the difference because they all look the same.” This does not make it any easier to conceive of how a politics can be constructed which works with and through difference, which is able to build those forms of solidarity and identification which make common struggle and resistance possible but without suppressing the real heterogeneity of interests and identities, and which can effectively draw the political boundary lines without which political contestation is impossible, without fixing those boundaries for eternity. It entails the movement in black politics, from what Gramsci called the “war of maneuver” to the “war of position” — the struggle around positionalities. But the difficulty of conceptualizing such a politics (and the temptation to slip into a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism) does not absolve us of the task of developing such a politics.