It’s taken a few weeks but I’ve finally gotten around to posting some reflections on this year’s ISA convention in New Orleans. Due to a particularly interesting conference theme around ‘Global IR and Regional Worlds’ the schedule was fuller than usual with panels on postcolonial and decolonial thought. Indeed, for someone with an eye for these things it seemed like everyone was suddenly becoming decolonial. From one mention in the 2013 programme, to two mentions in the 2014 programme, the 2015 programme featured the term ‘decolonial’ a stonking 14 times! …Ok, so not exactly a storming of the North Atlantic IR barricades, but those fourteen mentions of course brought fellow travellers speaking to similar issues even if not directly referring to the term. And in any case it was striking to me that so many people amongst a certain quotient of the ISA crowd were talking in these terms (and I include myself here; I certainly wasn’t thinking about issues of decoloniality a year or two ago).
Why does any of this matter? Robbie Shilliam has eloquently written about what possible futures (based on silenced histories) might be invoked through a ‘decolonial science’, and yet it felt at ISA that there was still a great deal at stake in terms of defining how such a science, whose mission is nothing less than to heal relationships ripped asunder by imperialism and colonialism, might be carried out. This was encapsulated for me (and I must stress that this was very much a personal impression, driven by the kinds of issues I’m interested in at the moment) by some comments made towards the end of a panel where precisely these issues were being debated. One of the panellists commented thusly (and I am paraphrasing here): We can deconstruct colonial thought with European ideas, but we cannot reconstruct decolonial realities with those same European ideas.
On one level this made a good deal of sense. If the point of a decolonial science is to heal relationships ripped apart by a set of Eurocentric colonial and imperial projects, then to try to do so by routing back through a set of Eurocentric ideas seems counter-productive, re-establishing in some ways the original violence of imperialism and colonialism. Another way of putting this would be to entirely reject the notion that oppressed groups in post-colonies should be reading Marx as a vital way of understanding their predicament.
On another level though this, for me, was a slightly provocative statement (not one I was anywhere near articulate enough to raise at the time!). For it is surely important to ask, what is ‘Europe’ in this statement? Where and when is it? If an idea has been produced in the territory that has historically been known as ‘Europe’ by a member of an oppressed and excluded group, then might that idea and those experiences relate to oppressed struggles elsewhere? Indeed, is this not the point of ‘decolonial science’? To heal, and rebind those who have been violently torn asunder by imperiality and coloniality?
To put it another way, we would surely reject as a fairly concrete case of romanticisation the notion that just because an idea has been produced in a place which we think of as being colonised, that this makes it an inherently emancipatory idea. And so it seems to me that the challenge of a decolonial science is to make a normative judgement about who has been oppressed and silenced, regardless of where they were territorially located at any particular time. This would allow us to draw new lines on a map, to make connections between silenced histories of struggle and resistance the world over. I am again thankful to Robbie Shilliam for the following insight. Imperial maps like the one below, illustrating British Imperial might in 1886, is ringed by both agents of the British imperial project, and subjects of the British imperial project. Note how both the agents and the subjects have their gaze directed to the regal figure at the centre-bottom of the image. This is perfectly understandable for the agents of the imperial project, for it is this centre from which they have come. But the subjects have not come from here, and what is more, have had their gazes forcibly fixed on this figure through the violence of the British imperial project. What of their conversations with each other? What of the lessons they may have for surviving and prospering beyond and otherwise to the various imperial and colonial projects they have all been subjected to? From this image we would never know, precisely because their gaze is fixed on the centrality of British imperiality. This is the decolonial project then, to remove that imperiality and to resurrect old centres, old conversations, old ways of being and doing in a dynamic present. But to ignore those subjects of imperiality and coloniality who have experienced the violence of these processes within territorial Europe, or even a Euro-centric context, seems to me to be missing an important opportunity to reject those same territorial distinctions made so hard and fast by colonialism and the post-colonial compact.
In very many general ways this obviously has a lot to do with Africa, African spaces and African voices. But at the same time, my own way into this has been through a very different path, the writings and ideas of 19th and early 20th century German-Jewish Anarchists, a group who derived their ideas from an explicit sense of Jewish exile, but who also celebrated that exilic experience as something to be retained and perpetuated as a means by which to facilitate broader revolutionary-utopian change (in this sense that they operated beyond the more standard route of socialist-Zionism taken by better known radical figures of this period such as Martin Buber and Gershon Scholem). Their Jewishness, and their opposition to Germany’s role in World War One, saw them quickly painted as dangerous Others. The fact that they spent time with well known ‘Eastern’ Anarchists such as Kropotkin and Bakunin simply added another layer of Otherness to their presence in Germany.
Their ideas concerning the inward journey to communality, the rejection of scientific rationalism, and the transcendence and thus displacement of the secular/profane schism on which the project of modernity was supposedly founded were all, for sure, derived from a European experience, but one which was simultaneously lived as one of exclusion from what was understood to be ‘European’, and oppression. Indeed, Gustav Landauer, the figure from this period I am currently most familiar with, and a protagonist of the short-lived 1919 Bavarian Soviet Republic (Until taken over by Leninists, it was far from Soviet), in whose government he took a post as Commissioner of Enlightenment and Public Instruction, was arrested on the dissolution of the republic, taken to prison, and beaten to death.
We can and should be critical of what we find when we open up these silenced European histories. But surely the same goes for any silenced or oppressed history. Indeed, in enacting what Edouard Glissant called ‘prophetic futures’ we are called to be attentive to past, present and future. This is an inherently critical project which precisely rejects any kind of romanticism which might paper over residual paternalism or racism. But nonetheless, could recentring that map above include people like Landauer, or indeed various other resisting, dissenting, and otherwise-living subjects of Europe’s own internal imperial project? For me, it certainly should.