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

History and the bomb

PHOTO: Left to right — U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William H.P. Blandy, his wife, and Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry cut a cake made in the shape of a mushroom cloud at a reception for Operation Crossroads (November 6, 1946). More information about the “atom cake” scandal can be found here. An extract from the Washington Post a week later details reactions to the photo in the Soviet press can be accessed by clicking here.

It should probably be said that I am personally in favor of nuclear energy, though I’m fully aware of the risks or dangers involved. Nuclear waste is a major problem, one for which no adequate solution has yet been found. Obviously, if any safer and more efficient energy source were to be discovered that might replace nuclear power, I would be in favor of that instead.

The following passages are excerpted from two texts by the German sociologist and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and pertain to the problematic fact of atomic warfare in a philosophy of history envisioned as the progress of human freedom.

Bikini atoll copy


No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.

— Theodor Adorno, Negative
(1966), pg. 320

It is not my task…to enter into the detail of the way in which history is constructed. Even so, I believe that, if we are to treat certain fundamental questions of the philosophy of history, we cannot ignore such matters entirely; and I believe further that the knowledge of historical matters is in the first instance a question of distance. If we approach details too closely and fail to open them up to critical inspection, we will indeed find ourselves in the proverbial situation of not seeing the wood for the trees. On the other hand, if we distance ourselves too much, we shall be unable to grasp history because the categories we use themselves become excessively magnified to the point where they become problematic and fail to do justice to their material. I have in mind concepts such as the progress of freedom, about which I [have] offered some critical comments…

So I would say that we need to keep a certain distance. This will enable us both to dissociate ourselves from a total theory of history and equally to resist the cult of the facts which, as I have explained, have their own conceptual difficulties. We can illustrate this by saying, for example, that we cannot really speak of something like progress in general, as indeed I have already argued. Incidentally we shall take a closer look at this concept towards the end of the section in which we discuss the philosophy of history.
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