Epistemic disobedience and the decolonial option: a manifesto

mignolodecolonial.jpgWalter Mignolo is William H. Wannamaker Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University. Mignolo is one of the foremost scholars in the history and theory of globalisation, colonialism, cosmopolitanism and Latin-American studies, and his work is relevant to disciplines across the board of the humanities and social sciences. Given the relevance to our own project, here I present the kernel of Mignolo’s “Epistemic disobedience and the decolonial option: a manifesto” (Conference Proceedings Edited by Nelson-Maldonado Torres, Paradigm Press, forthcoming). I have organised around five questions: 1- Intellectual tradition and scope of political intervention; 2- Where is the option for de-colonial thinking and the logic of epistemic de-linking/disobedience to be found; 3- The de-colonial epistemic shift; 4- Symptoms and manifestations of the unresolved tension between the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality emerging in daily life; 5- From post-coloniality to de-colonial critical border thinking: more on the genealogy of de-colonial thinking. If you want to read the full article go to the waki.

How do you frame your intellectual tradition and the scope of your political intervention? How does the decolonial option relate to “critical theory.”

It begins from assessing how does Horkheimer’s “critical theory” project looks to us today when we bring into the picture the agency of the ‘damnés de la terre’ (the wretched of the earth), a category that re-locates and regionalizes categories framed by other historical experiences (e.g., on the one hand, the subalterns and the modern subalternity of Antonio Gramsci and the subalterns and the colonial subalternity of Ranajit Guha and the South Asian project and, on the other hand, the category of the multitude reintroduced on behalf of Spinoza by Paul Virno, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt). But the basic formulation was advanced by Anibal Quijano in his ground-breaking article “Coloniality and Modernity/Coloniality” (1992). The argument was that, on the one hand, an analytic of the limits of Eurocentrism (as a hegemonic structure of knowledge and beliefs) is needed. But the analytic was considered necessary although not sufficient in order to operate an epistemic disobedience and de-linking of rationality/modernity from coloniality.

Where is the option for de-colonial thinking and the logic of epistemic de-linking / disobedience? Or how did it emerge?

The basic argument (almost a syllogism) that I develop here is the following: if coloniality is constitutive of modernity since the salvationist rhetoric of modernity presupposes the oppressive and condemnatory logic of coloniality (from there come the damnés of Fanon); this oppressive logic produces an energy of discontent, of distrust, of release within those who react against imperial violence. This energy is translated into de-colonial projects that, as a last resort, are also constitutive of modernity. Modernity is a three-headed hydra, even though it only reveals one head, the rhetoric of salvation and progress. Coloniality, one of whose facets is poverty and the propagation of AIDS in Africa, does no appear in the rhetoric of modernity as its necessary counterpart, but rather as something that emanates from it. For example, the Millennium Plan of the United Nations, headed by Kofi Anan, and the Earth Institute in Columbia University, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, work in collaboration to end poverty. But never for a moment is the ideology of modernity nor the black pits that hide its rhetoric ever questioned: the consequences of the nature itself of capitalist economy-by which such ideology is supported-in its various facets since mercantilism of the 16th century, free trade of the following centuries, the Industrial revolution of the 19th century, the technological revolution of the 20th century), but rather its unfortunate consequences. On the other hand, with all the debate in the Media about the war against terrorism, on one side, and all types of uprisings, of protests and social movements, in no moment is it insinuated that the logic of coloniality that hides beneath the rhetoric of modernity, necessarily generates the irreducible energy of the humiliated, vilified, forgotten, or marginalized human beings. De-coloniality is therefore the energy that does not allow the operation of the logic of coloniality nor believes the fairy tales of the rhetoric of modernity. Therefore, de-coloniality has a varied range of manifestations-some not desirable, such as those that Washington today describes as “terrorists”-de-colonial thinking is, then, thinking that de-links and opens to the possibilities hidden (colonized and discredited such as the traditional, barbarian, primitive, mystic, etc.) by the modern rationality that is mounted and enclosed by categories of Greek, Latin and the six modern imperial European languages.

How do you define terms of the de-colonial epistemic shift? How does it disengage from Greek and Latin categories of thoughts in which modern/imperial epistemology is grounded?

The thesis is the following: de-colonial thinking emerged in the same foundation of modernity/coloniality, as its counterpoint. And this occurred in the Americas, in Indigenous thinking and in Afro-Caribbean thinking. It later continued in Asia and Africa, not related to the de-colonial thinking of the Americas, but rather as a counterpoint to the re-organization of colonial modernity with the British empire and French colonialism. A third moment of reformulations occurred in the intersections of the decolonization movements in Asia and Africa, concurrent with the Cold War and the ascending leadership of the United States. From the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, de-colonial thinking begins to draw its own genealogy. The purpose here is to contribute to this. In this sense, de-colonial thinking is differentiated from post-colonial theory or post-colonial studies in that the genealogy of these are located in French post-structuralism more than in the dense history of planetary de-colonial thinking. The de-colonial epistemic shift is a consequence of the formation and founding of the colonial matrix of power. Even though the meta-reflection about the de-colonial epistemic shift is a recent turnover, the epistemic de-colonial practice “naturally” arose as a consequence of the formation and implementation of structures of domination, the colonial matrix of power or the coloniality of power, which Aníbal Quijano revealed towards the end of the 80’s and continues to work on. Therefore, it is not surprising that the genealogy of de-colonial thinking (this is, the thinking that arose from the de-colonial shift) is found in the “colony” or in the “colonial period”, in the canonical jargon of the historiography of the Americas. That period of formation, in the 16th century, still does not include the English colonies neither in the North nor in the Caribbean; neither does it include those of the French. However, the de-colonial shift re-appears in Asia and Africa as a consequence of the changes, adaptations and new modalities of modernity/coloniality generated by the British and French imperial expansion starting from the end of the 18th century and continuing through to the beginning of the 19th century.

Where do the symptoms of the unresolved tension between the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality emerge in daily life? Where does the de-colonial energy emerge and how is it manifested?

The uprisings in France, in November of 2005, reveal a point of articulation between the sphere and the illusion of a world that is similarly thought of and constructed as THE world (rhetoric of modernity) and the consequences below this rhetoric (logic of coloniality). Within and from this world, what is apparent is the cruelty, irrationality, youth, immigration that must be controlled by police and military power, imprisoning and using cases such as these in order to sustain the rhetoric of modernity. The liberal tendency will propose education; the conservative tendency expulsion, and the leftist tendency inclusion. Either of these solutions leaves intact the logic of coloniality: in the industrialized countries, developing, ex-First World, G-7, in the long run the logic of coloniality returns like a boomerang, in a movement that began in the 16th century. In developing countries, not industrialized, ex-Third World, the logic of coloniality continues its climbing march (today, literally, in the zone of the Amazon and in the West of Colombia, where the presence of yellow bulldozers are set up together with the helicopters and the military bases, the inescapable evidence of the march of modernity at all costs). The boomerang returned from the outside the borders of the G7: the boomerang returned within (the Twin towers in New York, the train in Madrid, the bus and subway in London), but it also returned outside (Moscow, Nalchik, Indonesia, Lebanon). The fact that we condemn the violence of these acts, in which one never knows where the limits are between the agents of civil and political society, the states and the market, does not mean that we should close our eyes and keep on understanding these acts as they are presented to us by the rhetoric of modernity, in the mass media and in the official discourses of the state!! In general, the media hide below a pretense of information. In particular, there are corners of the media where the analysis of dissent fight to make themselves heard. But these analyses of dissent disagree in the content and not in the terms of the conversation. De-colonial thinking does not appear yet, not even in the most extreme leftist publications. And the reason is that de-colonial thinking is not leftist, but rather another thing: it is a de-linking from the modern, political episteme articulated as right, center-left; it is an opening towards another thing, on the march, searching for itself in the difference.

So from post-coloniality to de-colonial critical border thinking: is there anything else one should know on the genealogy of de-colonial thinking?

The genealogy of de-colonial thinking is un-known in the genealogy of European thinking. But de-colonial thinking, upon de-linking itself from the tyranny of time as the categorical frame of modernity, also escapes the traps of post-coloniality. Post-coloniality (post-colonial theory or critique) was born in the trap with (post) modernity. It is from there that Jacques Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida have been the points of support for post-colonial critique (Said, Bhabha, Spivak). De-colonial thinking, on the contrary, is scratched in other ‘palenques’, which is a term allowing one to take into consideration the Afro and Indigenous histories of maroon and independence movements and communities, respectively. This is the case of Waman Puma, for instance, from the indigenous languages, memories that had to confront an incipient modernity; or Ottobah Cugoano whose memories and experiences of slavery had to confront the settlement of modernity in the economy and in political theory. If Waman Puma is a gateway to the darker side of the Renaissance, Ottobah Cugoano is a gateway to the darker side of the Illustration. Waman Puma structured the general thesis of the manuscript that he sent to Phillip III within the same title of the work, “Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno” (The First New Chronicle and Book of Good Government). Basically, the thesis is the following: a ‘new chronicle’ is necessary because all of the Castilian chronicles have their limits. Waman Puma was “naturally” silenced for four hundred years. Ottobah Cugoano’s “Thoughts and Sentiments on the evil of Slavery” is a brutal ethical critique of the imperial predators and robbers of men (expressions that appear repeatedly in his discourse) in the name of Christian ethics; an analysis of the economy and of slavery, constantly insisting on the disposability of the lives of Blacks (“our lives are accounted of no value”).

Today, de-cololonial thinking, upon establishing itself on the experiences and discourses such as those of Waman Puma and Ottobah Cugoano, in the colonies in the Americas, also de-links (in a friendly manner) from postcolonial critique. Waman Puma and Ottobah Cugoano opened an other-space, the space of de-colonial thinking, via the diversity of experiences that were forced upon human beings by European invasions, as is in these two cases. I will think of them as the foundations (similar to the Greek foundation of Western thought) of de-colonial thinking. These historical foundations (of course, historical, not essential) create the conditions for an epistemic narrative that links with the genealogy of global de-colonial thinking (really an other in relation to the genealogy of postcolonial thought) that is found in Mahatma Gandhi, W.E.B Dubois, Juan Carlos Mariátegui, Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Fausto Reinaga, Vine Deloria Jr., Rigoberta Menchú, Gloria Anzaldúa, the Brazilian movement Sin Tierras (Landless Movement), the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the Indigenous and Afro movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, the World Social Forum and the Social Forum of the Americas. The genealogy of de-colonial thinking is planetary and is not limited to individuals, rather it incorporates social movements (which refers to Indigenous and Afro social movements-Taki Onkoy for the former, marroonage for the latter) and the creation of institutions, such as the previously mentioned forums).

The strength and energy of de-colonial thinking was always “there,” in the exterior; in that which is denied by imperial/colonial thinking. We could continue the argument stopping ourselves at Mahatma Gandhi. To mention him here is important for the following: Cugoano and Gandhi are united, at distinct points of the planet, by the British Empire. Waman Puma and Cugoano are united by the continuity of Western European imperialisms, in America. We could continue with Frantz Fanon, and connect him to Cugoano through the imperial wound of the Africans and also through the imperial complicity in between Spain, England and France (in spite of their imperial conflicts). With this I would like to highlight the following: the genealogy of de-colonial thinking is structured in the planetary space of the colonial/imperial expansion, contrary to the genealogy of European modernity that is structured in the temporal trajectory of a reduced space, from Greece to Rome, to Western Europe and to the United States. The common element between Waman Puma, Cugoano, Gandhi and Fanon is the wound inflicted by the colonial difference (e.g., the colonial wound).

4 thoughts on “Epistemic disobedience and the decolonial option: a manifesto

  1. Hi Imanol. Excellent contribution. Have to read it many times to soak it all in. Have to locate its application to the Indian situation. You should maybe attempt a version of this article that is accessible to a non-academic reader as well. Arguments for example, “De-coloniality is therefore the energy that does not allow the operation of the logic of coloniality nor believes the fairy tales of the rhetoric of modernity” may not be understood by our general readers.

  2. Kishore: Thank you. I am just a messenger here! So I’ll pick up some more sentences from Walter Mignolo’s contribution to clarify this.
    “De-coloniality is therefore the energy…”= … the irreducible energy of the humiliated, vilified, forgotten, or marginalized human beings, [the energy] of discontent, of distrust, of release within those who react against imperial
    violence. This energy is translated into de-colonial projects that, as a last resort, are also constitutive of
    modernity (as) counterpoint.
    ” ….that does not allow the operation of the logic of coloniality” = this oppressive logic [based on] the illusion of a world
    that is similarly thought of and constructed as THE world

    “nor believes the fairy tales of the rhetoric of modernity “= the rhetoric of salvation and progress is revealed toric of salvation and progress. Coloniality, one of whose facets is poverty and the propagation of AIDS in Africa, does no appear in the rhetoric of modernity as its necessary counterpart, but rather as something that emanates

  3. Sorry Kishore: don’t take any notice of the response 2 above. I still don’t know how but it’s gone through as I was doing some cutting and pasting. So after the school run etc etc here I come again. Ok, thank you for the comment. I was telling you I am just a messenger here and that I’d pick up some more sentences from Walter Mignolo’s contribution to clarify the particular one you have pinpointed as somehow obscure:
    1. “De-coloniality is therefore the energy…”= … the irreducible energy of the humiliated, vilified, forgotten, or marginalized human beings, [the energy] of discontent, of distrust, of release within those who react against imperial
    violence. This energy is translated into de-colonial projects that, as a last resort, are also constitutive of
    modernity (as) counterpoint. (But this counterpoint is not only based in activist energy. Knowledge production enters into the equation too). Hence all the section about “the genealogy of de-colonial thinking […] the common element [of which] is is the wound inflicted by the colonial difference (e.g., the colonial wound)”. Somewhere else Mignolo tells us also that he draws the notion of the ‘colonial wound’ from late Gloria Anzaldua’s seminal “La Frontera/Borderlands.”

    2. “…that does not allow the operation of the logic of coloniality” = “this oppressive logic [based on] the illusion of a world that is similarly thought of and constructed as THE world”. Here come also Mignolo’s critique of Eurocentrism and the regimes of knowledge“of European modernity that is structured in the temporal trajectory of a reduced space, from Greece to Rome, to Western Europe and to the United States.

    3. “…“nor believes the fairy tales of the rhetoric of modernity” = the point here is that while “the rhetoric of salvation and progress is revealed”what remains hidden is how modernity/coloniality “arose as a consequence of the formation and implementation of structures of domination, the colonial matrix of power or the coloniality of power” and also that other, say contemporary “facets [such as] is poverty and the propagation of AIDS in Africa, does no appear in the rhetoric of modernity as its necessary counterpart, but rather as something that emanates from it[ as if they were] unfortunate consequences.

    Albeit in a nutshell, this further summarises my previous summary. However, in the extended version Mignolo gives all kind of details, textual analysis and historical accounts which, for the interested reader, will put the ‘empiric/descriptive’ meat on the ‘theoretical’ bones I present in this piece. Unfortunately I cannot give you a link because it is in doc. format. So whoever is up for it can always google “EPISTEMIC DISOBEDIENCE AND THE DE-COLONIAL OPTION: A MANIFESTO” and will access the full document. It is pretty good.

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