Decolonizing Postcolonial Rhetoric (english)

The epistemological contributions of decolonial voices, subjugated knowledge, represented by Black, Chicana, South Asian and Third World feminist and queer theorists of the 1980s in the United States and the absence of their theory production from the curricula in Sociology departments in Western Europe.

The title of this essay appears to be a tautology. How can the “postcolonial” be decolonized, if it already indicates a posterior stage to colonialism? And we might need to ask what do we mean by “rhetoric”? I will discuss here “rhetoric” in relation to “critique”. Critique becomes rhetoric when it detaches ideas from practices, finding its ultimate goal in rewording concepts, rather than in the transformation of institutional practice

Embodied Knowledge

In the 1980s, the role of the "universal objective scholar" was challenged by feminist standpoint theory. From an African-American feminist perspective Patricia Hill Collins, for example, criticizes the presumption of disembodied knowledge rooted in the principle of scientific objectivity, based on the presumption of the socially detached and omniscient scholar. Numerous introductory books on foundational concepts and ideas in Sociology reproduce this assumption, representing an almost exclusive lineage of white male European scholars as the founders of this discipline. By accident, sometimes we might find the portrait of a female scholar, and more recently, an exclusive selection of a few Caribbean or African-American male scholars. Female or queer scholars with an Asian, African, Caribbean or Latin American background are almost absent in these foundational narratives. Still, in the twenty-first century, Social Sciences are institutionally thought within the paradigm of European modernity, omitting what Enrique Dussel has coined the "underside of modernity," its interpenetration with coloniality.

Against the perception of the production of knowledge as a geopolitically and socially unmarked moment, decolonial feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins demonstrate that knowledge productions are linked to knowledge positions, a heuristic position, a standpoint. Demonstrating the ontological dimension of epistemology, standpoint theory evokes the historical and material conditions from which knowledge emerges. Informing the fabric of knowledge, geographical, social and political conditions pervade our creative and intellectual potential, configuring a specific angle towards the world, people and things, reminiscent of their place and time. Scientific knowledge as such is always situated, as Donna Haraway argues, always partial and located. Every scholar, every intellectual is a product of the discourses and material conditions of their time. They are embedded in a historical, geographical and social context, in which their ability to speak is (in)formed by their access to economic and public resources. The access to jobs in Higher Education, research funding, professional networks and publishers is fundamental to the generation and public dissemination of ideas.

Locality Matters – Situated Knowledge

Within the Western European context, the production of institutionalized knowledge was largely defined by a white, male upper and middle class until the second half of the 20th century. The "canon" of social theory has, until very recently, ignored contributions by female and/or racialized scholars. Charles Mills goes as far as interpreting the ontological foundation of social sciences as "white supremacist". While white upper and middle class women have been gaining access to leading positions in research and teaching in European universities since the 1990s, scholars with a non-White European background are hardly represented, for example, in the UK, the Netherlands and France, and almost completely absent in countries such as Germany, Spain and Austria. Universities in Western Europe are projects of national elites. Whilst some countries' research ambitions have opened the doors to international competition as is the case in the UK and the Netherlands, in most countries universities remain in the hands of the national White elites.

Moreover, on an international scale, the geographical situatedness of institutional knowledge production and the hegemony of the English language in the academic world prioritize and favour research coming from the United States, Australia or Britain. Consequently, research from the global South and in other languages is hardly noticed by the Anglo-Saxon world, if they are not published in English and in high impact journals, mostly located in Britain and the United States. "Universal" academic knowledge production is so sustained by global and local inequalities, by what Gayatri C. Spivak, discusses as the "geopolitical" embeddednes of knowledge production. This geopolitical situatedness is marked by the "dark side" of European modernity, coloniality. In this context, coloniality (of power, knowledge, and being) does not refer to the prevalence of a colonial administration, rather it points to "a modality of being as well as to power relations that sustain a fundamental social and geopolitical divide".

Decolonizing Epistemology – Ontologizing Knowledge

Decolonial epistemology, while focusing on "embodied knowledge", is also interested in challenging the foundational myth of European modernity. Introducing the "perspective of coloniality" as an epistemological point of departure in order to understand European modernity, authors like Dussel and Mignolo reveal the negation of modernity in modernity itself. The other side is the colonial and imperial experience negated by celebratory accounts of European progress and civilization. Coloniality, however, is entangled with modernity and constitutes it in an inextricable way.

Coloniality’s discursive positioning "outside" of Europe and the North Atlantic, disregards the fact that the origins of coloniality lie within and depart from Europe. Situating colonialism outside Europe and the North Atlantic enables a division of the world into modern/developed and traditional/under-developed societies. Through the discourse of modernity in European and North Atlantic Philosophy and Social Sciences, an "ontology of continental divides" has been produced, in which a hierarchical and judgemental classification of the world is at work. This classification reflected in the division of the world into first, second, third and fourth, is rooted in Eurocentric paradigms of economic, political and cultural development. Covering the entanglement between modernity and colonialism, these categories obfuscate the origins of these divisions as a result of European colonialism and its aftermath. Social Sciences, and in particular, Sociology, engages with this perception, by situating the origins of modernity in Europe.

Decentering European Sociology

In the late twentieth century, feminist epistemology questioned the colonizing effects of academic knowledge. Decolonial queer-feminism introduced an intersectional perspective on domination, a critical analysis of the persistence of colonial power and racism in Western societies, and the geographical situatedness of knowledge and knowledge production into feminist theory. While the gender/sex debate reached Sociology departments in den 1990s, the decolonial perspective from Black, Chicana and postcolonial feminists remain largely absent from Sociology curricula. If we consider that society is the main key concept in Sociology, the resistance that an intersectional analysis of society, proposed by Black feminists such as Angela Davis or Audre Lorde or Chicana feminists such as Chela Sandoval or Gloria Anzaldúa, experienced in regard to its inclusion into the teaching canon of Sociology is remarkable. I remember how I used to have tedious debates as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hamburg regarding the seriousness of Cultural Studies or Gender Studies as specialist areas of this discipline. To teach Black feminism or Chicana feminism or postcolonial critique was deemed inadequate and placed me at the margins. Black and Chicana feminist social and cultural theorists were branded as "not serious" academics and not properly situated within disciplinary boundaries. Due to their creative and innovative writing techniques, their analyses of society were reduced to the field of literary studies or women's history. The particularization of this critical perspective on society and culture diminishes the contributions of these thinkers to key concepts in social theory such as social change, transformation, agency, social inequality and processes of differentiation, to name just a few. Occasionally, some contributions find their way into gender or postcolonial studies curricula, though not always referenced back to the source. Let me illustrate this argument further through the example of the debate in German Gender Studies on "intersectionality", a concept conceiving of the simultaneity and interlocking nature of various relations of domination and power.

"Intersectionality" in German Gender Studies

In the last few years, German Gender Studies seems to have re-discovered "intersectionality", as numerous workshops and conferences with international guest speakers were organized. From a British or US American Gender studies perspective this might seem a little bit odd, considering that the debate took place at least twenty-five years ago. Also, from an activist's perspective, the belated reception of this debate in German Gender Studies seems surprising, given that this discussion had already taken place in the 1980s led by migrant and exilic, Jewish and Black women. Referring to Critical Legal Studies and the debates on Critical “Race” Studies in the United States, the debate on “intersectionality” in Germany simulates a genuine interest in understanding the multidimensionality of gender, at the same time that it ignores the local debates which had already proposed this perspective. [1] How can we interpret this silencing within German Gender Studies?

The answer could lie in the academization of a debate that might consider the contributions of these feminists as interesting testimonies of their times, but lacking in a thorough analysis. Perhaps using theory from the United States or Britain enables the theoretical insight that is assumed to be absent from German feminism. But maybe the problem lies somewhere else. Maybe these protagonists, Jewish, Black, diasporic and migrant German feminists, are not perceived as members of the German women's movement or even as feminist theorists. Elsewhere I have discussed how through racialization these women are constructed by the official discourse as "objects", but not "agents" of knowledge. The antagonism of the moment of emergence of "intersectionality" in Germany in the 1980s is thus bypassed, avoiding its inclusion into the canon of German Gender Studies.

This academic approach to epistemology detaches knowledge production from its ontological dimension. The adaptation of debates happening in other parts of the world creates the perception of "intersectionality" as a foreign problem, which needs first to be translated into and through its own academic context. What this perspective disregards is that this translation already happened, long before an academic debate started in 2005. Prevalent forms of racism, orientalism and xenophobia in Germany led to Black, migrant and exilic women's movements from the late 1970s on. In the course of their struggle these movements have looked for explanatory models adopting them to their specific societal circumstances. In the debate on "intersectionality", this detail is overlooked, reducing a critical concept emerging from and engaging with political struggle, to a mere object of scientific contemplation. Critical analysis is thus robbed of its transformative potential for society.

A similar situation can be observed in regard to the increasing interest in Postcolonial Studies in German Sociology. Here the debate is detached from social actors, who have translated and critically questioned the adaptation of his theoretical framework into the German context. The uncomfortable debate about Germany's colonial past and colonial patterns of governing and knowledge production as well as the existence of racism are foreclosed by immunizing local voices. Instead, an apparently "purely" academic, depoliticized approach is followed and adapted. This brief insight into the German context illustrates how the reception and critical adaptation of decolonial epistemology and postcolonial critique in the 1990s is tied to specific societal conditions and political struggle, in which knowledge production takes place. It also reveals the material conditions in which critical theory is produced.

The Materiality of Knowledge

Decolonial feminism, postcolonial critique and the "perspective of coloniality" are not just motivated by the discontent with insufficient paradigms and models of analysis to understand complex social realities based on a heteronormative social order, configured within the tension between modernity and coloniality. Their claims emerged in regard to a modern-colonial world-system, in which access to wealth distribution and to knowledge production is unevenly organized along the lines of "race", gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness and class. Knowledge is produced under these conditions and is fuelled by the experience of exclusion, appropriation and marginalization. While elements of feminist-queer decolonial thought, postcolonial critique and the decolonial Latin American epistemology project in the United States could enter some niches of the English publishing market, within academia these voices come from Area Studies, Languages departments, Gender and Women's Studies. Thus, these debates are taking place in what some see as the fringes of academia, leaving Sociology departments almost untouched. What happens when these theoretical approaches, textured by specific conditions of knowledge production and power struggle between dominant and marginalized groups, become part of the curricula?

This question has been repeatedly raised in Women's and Gender Studies regarding the professionalization of knowledge. [2] What happens when knowledge produced in social protest movements and understood as political intervention sustains disciplinary curricula, neutralizing the claims for social change and institutional transformation? Inclusion into the mainstream agenda very often ensures a silencing of the question of who has access to Higher Education and also who is part of the faculty. [3]

The privatization of Higher Education, the increase in student fees, the decrease in grants for disadvantaged students and students from the Southern peripheries, reinforces the inequalities structuring academic institutions. A paradoxical situation emerges in which advanced critical thinking is promoted in the classroom without questioning for whom this teaching is made available. Thus, in research institutions, postgraduate programmes and academic staff, encounter a situation in which the internal, local, cosmopolitan configuration from below is almost absent in the class room, while debates on cosmopolitanism might stand at the heart of curricula.

Sociology departments may develop their research agendas and strategies solely in terms of their own personal networks. These discriminatory procedures may leave candidates who are external to the local professional networks out of the selection process. While research on the recruitment of Black scholars and scholars with a migration and diasporic background is underdeveloped, some preliminary observations suggest that racial discrimination might be an issue. Remarkably, scholars with a diasporic or migrant background are amongst the first in leaving the country in search of academic job opportunities, for example, to Britain or the United States. Significantly, it was this generation, who in the 1980s and 1990s started to adopt a postcolonial framework of analysis to the German context. While their contributions have been widely read, this is rarely cited in publications on "postcolonial Sociology".

It is this paradoxical situation of inclusion of knowledge production on the one side and exclusion of the local translators and originators of these debates on the other, which a perspective on coloniality unravels.
The decolonial project aims to foreground subjugated knowledge, creative and intellectual foundations in the global South and within the margins of the "global North" as I suggest here. Decolonizing European Sociology could contribute, at least on an academic level, to unmasking the limitations of this discipline and its link to coloniality. This could also trigger a debate on the global but locally experienced inequalities intrinsic to this field which organize access to “authorized” knowledge, prevalent in an androcentric Eurocentric angle.

Border Thinking – Nepantla

Gloria Anzaldúa's notion of borderlands underlines the epistemic condition which she defines as "la facultad", "the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deeper structure below the surface". This "faculty" arises out of existential experiences of abjection and subjugation at the juncture of different systems of domination, when as Anzaldúa argues "when you're against the wall – when you have all these oppression coming at you – you develop this extra faculty".

"La facultad" discerns a special faculty emerging out of the epistemic and ontological conditions of living at the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, epitomizing the intersection between the fluidity and invasive force of capital, on the one side, and the violence of military border control stopping the flow of people, on the other; in short, between imperialism and coloniality. Under these conditions a specific knowledge is produced, acquired through the struggle for liberation, a knowledge conditioned by the historical and material circumstances circumventing this context.

"La facultad" as Anzaldúa describes in her later work is shaped in the "in-between space", where boundaries break down, where identity categories dissolve and new ways of understanding ourselves, the world and the cosmos emerge, The Nahuatl word Nepantla is the "liminal state between worlds, between realities, between systems of knowledge". This is the space inhabited by the subject at the borderlands, a subject that Anzaldúa metaphorically conceives as the "borderwoman" – the "mestiza". The "mestiza" figure is a kind of a trickster, somebody that unites the moon and the sun, the night and the day. She has mestiza consciousness, created at the crossroads of simultaneous systems of domination, in which ambivalent lines of belonging and the ambiguous position of inside-outsider are created. She describes herself as a "mestiza", someone who "is in all cultures at the same time, alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro, me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio. Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan simultáneamente". It is this state of consciousness that Anzaldúa describes as the epistemic condition of the borderlands. This consciousness is caught in the paradox of the border as the site of rigid boundaries and the trespassing of them, at the same time.

Whilst "la facultad" is imbued with the experience of dispossession, persecution and violence, living at the borderlands also unleashes new strategies of coping and transgressing boundaries. Transgression represents the driving force of border consciousness, an aspect that Walter Mignolo develops further in regard to "border thinking". Border thinking accentuates the "de-linking from the colonial matrix of power".

It traces the threshold between modernity and coloniality in that it acknowledges the centrality of Western traditions of thought for the development of modern sciences and the dominant conceptualization of the world, at the same time that it makes clear the limitations and epistemic violence of this perspective.

Anzaldúa suggests that we "disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new territory”. This transgressive and transversal movement in which contradictions are dissolved into myriad infinite series of differences resonates with Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's rhizomatic movement. But, in contrast to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of deterritorialization as nomadic thinking, Anzaldúa's notion of Nepantla-borderlands comprises the experience of forced and violent displacement, enforced by border and migration regimes, in which the ontology of "mestiza" knowledge is based. The heuristic standpoint for knowledge is not the rhizomatic movement of ideas and practices, but the constant tension between agentic transgression and violent sublimation. At this threshold, the "new common logic of knowing: border thinking”, composed of the "pluriversality" of local colonial histories entangled with imperial modernity arises. Thus, "critical border thinking is the method that connects pluriversality (…) into a universal project of delinking from modern rationality and building other possible worlds. Critical border thinking involves and implies both the imperial and colonial difference".

Following Anzaldúa's Nepantla-borderlands and Mignolo's critical border thinking, European Sociology needs to be read against its grain. To read it against the grain means to destabilize disciplinary boundaries and its European paradigm by confronting it with colonial difference.

Edited version. The full text version of this essay was published in: Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez/Manuela Boatca/Sérgio Costa (eds.): Decolonizing European Sociology, Surrey/London: Ashgate 2010.


[1] See Oguntoye et al. (1986); Kalpaka, Räthzel (1985); Hügel et al. (1999); FeMigra (1994); Popoola/Sezen (1999); Gelbin, Konuk, Piesche (2000), for example.

[2] See, for example, Smith (1990), Yamato (1990) and Baca Zinn et al. (1990).

[3] As Eva Hartmann critically notes in her study on the transnationalization of Higher Education (2003), the tertiary education system has become a commodity in the age of information. In the context of the knowledge, information and communication society "education" has a commodity value, which is negotiated on an international scale. In 1994, the World Bank published a strategy paper in which it noted the relevance of the education sector for the global economy. It recommended the introduction of tuition fees and a loan system for students to regulate public spending on education.


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