3:1 — On “Decoloniality” — 1 of 3


“Decoloniality” is our topic for the week. It is immediately important to note that decoloniality is not the political process of decolonizing previously colonized nations (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced process of decolonization); decoloniality is not the academic study of living, thinking, and acting in a decolonized land or producing theoretical models of it (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to academic research in post-colonial studies); decoloniality is also not the equivalent critique of modernity that post-modernity offers either (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to post-modernism because post-modernism was/is a critique of Western modernity from the inside).*

In contrast, coloniality is what Walter Mignolo refers to as the “darker side of modernity;” the idea that modern science, modern capitalism, belief in progress, gargantuan architectural and infrastructural advancements (the brighter side of modernity, one might say) all brought with them a few genuine liabilities such as major justifications for colonialism largely based on selective understandings of Europe’s “advanced place in history” and the advent of scientifically based racial hierarchies. Obviously, this dates as far back as the Renaissance.

Coloniality is a logic. We think and act through it; the logic is undergird. It lasts longer than the colonized peoples of a colonized nation are no longer colonized. It is a logic of many things, many things good and bad, for example, a logic of selective intervention, selective classification, de-personalized knowledge, and so on (this is quite complex, so, to those interested, this list will expand as you read more). The impact is long lasting, as well. When a panel of men determine women’s access to reproductive rights, we can see the logic — not in the outcome, but in the very existence of of such a panel being legitimate in the first place; we might say this is the colonization of reproduction (which is not to say that discussing women’s access to reproductive rights is wrongheaded, it is only to say that the idea of intervening into such matters for women or on behalf of women is perhaps not so legitimate as it may at first glance appear). Likewise, when poor individuals living in cramped urban environs, and the “right answer” is to start a war on poverty and intervene into the lives of people, build a massive public housing infrastructure and then step away from such matters, we might say that this is the colonization of poverty. This sort of coloniality is perhaps the most obvious when indigenous knowledge about the environment and nonhuman inhabitants comes into contact with outside forces like the state, for example, in this herring fishery controversy featuring fish, bears, aboriginal peoples, police at fishing docks, and more (one of the more difficult parts of this case is that the fishing industry is not pressing for fishing rights in these waters off of British Columbia and scientists seem to have heard and support local indigenous knowledge on the need to leave herring alone in these fragile waters). So, this is something of the lasting logic of coloniality as might be apparent even now in our postmodern times, and the pillars of science, the state, modern medicine, and the like help to produce the long-lived “colonial matrix of power” (along with all the distinctions Latour is happy to point out regarding the split between human and nonhuman, man and beast, culture and nature, and so on).

The goal of the decoloniality project (writ large) is to “de-link” from the colonial matrix of power by as many means as are possible, and so far, this has mainly implied decolonial thinking and doing (i.e., epistemology and political praxis, respectively). The goal is to identify “options confronting and delinking from […] the colonial matrix of power” (Mignolo 2011: xxvii).

This week, I (Nicholas Rowland), Stef Fishel, and Mary Mitchell, contributed to a panel session about decoloniality at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual meeting (in good old New Amsterdam … er. New York). This week, we will be talking about the cases we shared at the conference to give readers a sense of what STS might be able to offer this line of research and research activism which largely comes from the non-Westernized world, the Global South, and academically speaking from the humanities. Also, we are deeply indebted to those who presented in the panel and specifically to Sabrina Weiss and Alexander Stingl for overseeing and organizing the panels!

*As you might note the wikipedia page for decoloniality is marked at the top by a message claiming that it is not balanced and fair by wikipedia’s standards. Given what has been discussed about the colonial matrix of power, this is both a cautionary thought and possibly evidence for the difficulties of de-linking from the colonial matrix of power (especially the critique that the piece is not neutral, with the implied message “it should be neutral,” given that neutral can be used precisely to neutralize political or radical ideas).

11 thoughts on “3:1 — On “Decoloniality” — 1 of 3

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  4. yes thanks for this I certainly don’t mean to imply that such human actions haven’t/aren’t happening just that how they are actually happening matters if we are going to understand them and perhaps to directly intervene in them. Surely there must be some version(s) of follow the money here (follow the supply-chains or whatever might suit) that we could map out on the ground occurrences and than people can retool them as needed for their own situations/uses, something that is not only relatively easily applicable but avoids the bewitchments of grammar that so often lead folks to confuse some bookish history of ideas with the history of what happened out in the buzzingbloomingconfusion of the world. Enough of theo-logical theories that would blame the ethical/political problems of mankind on supra-natural agents (ideologies or such) beyond the doings of specific people who can and should be held accountable, and their methods that can be replaced. Looking forward to seeing more of how this new work (to me any way) on decoloniality gets put to use.


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  6. dmf, as usual, a point well taken. I guess at this point, I would turn you to Mignolo to answer for himself (Walter is a chatty guy, he might like that sort of discussion). However, I think that there are a couple answers available that are not fully satisfactory, but may be enough to keep the question open rather than closed.

    1. You are totally right: If we cannot uncover the empirical linkages between the development of a message and how it is appropriated (with all the accouterments added: bricolage, hybridization, etc.), then how is it even possible to discuss, let alone prove, any of these diffuse messages, like ethereal ghosts, passing from one place to another. I totally agree, and young Latour (a la Pasteurization) did a nice job showing that “Napoleon, the man, did not win the war” and instead that this way of speaking is a lazy short-cut from telling the whole truth and also a way that imperial thinking happens (i.e., “Columbus discovered the new world”). Thus, it might even be fair that broad stroke historical portrayals — including the decoloniality project’s re-telling of history in broad strokes, which is also a critique of telling history in broad strokes — participates in the same sort of enterprise where specificities are lost as we cross oceans and translate documents from Latin into modern English and so on. In that way, the project is subject to many useful critiques.

    2. You present Hegel and Dewey and Rabinow — all intellectual friends at my table — but I will direct us into some different waters, and possibly some very troubling ones. The critique “without the specifics, it is hard to appreciate how this happened” is a little different in tone and substance than “without the specifics, I think that this did not happen.” I am assuming, based on our many discussions and your (generally) level head, that you mean the former rather than the latter. Now, making the claim that these trends and patterns associated with coloniality did not happen because clear traces of their occurrence is not now (or possibly ever was) discernible is a tall order (and I’m not claiming that you make that claim). I am sympathetic to your concern over the lack of empirics (heck, in my research about the construction of state concepts, I am calling people on the phone to ask them about how they went about coming-up with their ideas, so I’m right there with you — read the literature, postulate some mechanism, and then go and find out directly from the source). I think, however, that Mignolo and company are more in the business of “here is a way of telling the past that orients us in a new way to the future” (with the emphasis on “de-linking from the remnants of the colonial matrix of power” being the lever). The one thing that is perhaps a step in the direction you’d prefer is that new case studies being done in this line of work are extremely dense, empirical studies about how this is actually being done on the ground in specific spaces. For example, inspired by this high-minded historical depiction of Mignolo’s, we heard a presentation on “seeds” in Columbia (Seeds, Indigenous Knowledge And (de) Colonization In Colombia: A Comparative Case
    Study Nathalia Hernández Vidal — Loyola University Chicago, Miguel Gualdrón — DePaul University). The details were fantastic about how small groups of politically-recognized indigenous peoples were allowed by government to produce “seed banks” in their communities (they call them “seed houses” though because the are open to the public and not necessarily saved and stored for economic gain). The issue is that as Columbia mono-cropped a vast variety of indigenous plants started to go missing; however, through a largely female-run organization they were starting to regain many of these lost seeds and reap the benefit of eating local foods once again. However, non-recognized rural peoples were not allowed to store their seeds, and instead were subjected to “corporate seeds” at a cost (and in a stunning display of power and ignorance the local government raided one of these rural villages, rounded-up all the seeds into the center of town and burned them — even though there was no legal precedent for such a governmental response). De-linking from corporate seeds, government intervention into seed storage, and so on is an active component to this otherwise academic project. Those scholars, along with doing good science, are also searching for practical ways for people to protect themselves from, for example, not being able to store seeds (because they are being forced to buy corporate seeds). So, as you can sort of see the details for the historical argument — and there are some, if you check out Mignolo — may be thinner than most would like; however, the projects it inspires are steeped in the details (and feel very ANT without a word about the agency of seeds or anything of the sort).

    That’s my best response for now …


  7. the problem is one of how these supposed logics get disseminated, as you say instilled, and than uniformly enacted, been having a similar argument with folks who think we have concepts/minds (like we have say organs) and trying to show them that no all we have are our bodily-infrastructures/physiology and the affordances/resistances of our physical environs, one of the appeals of STS/ANT is that it focuses on the actual participants in their setting/interactions. I take even Mol’s “local” ontologies as being part of her usual cheeky style/approach, as being more proto-typical than arche-typal.
    I appreciate the need/desire for battle/rallying-cries but would prefer that they be framed in ways which are actually useful (gear-into) in the local settings/circumstances (outside of the seminar and all) that we find/insert ourselves, what are the players/powers/infrastructures/resources/etc at hand.
    If we are going to retool Hegel let’s follow something like the JohnDeweyish tinkering/bricolaging along the lines of Rabinow and co. that builds off of the best of what STS/ANT have to offer, instead of getting lost in the Spirit-world as poor Latour has done.


  8. Grumble, grumble, student of Hegel … but worth a try to respond. Mignolo puts emphasis on a shift in thinking about time and space (both relative to Europe) during the Renaissance. Warning: This analysis rings true in some cases, but could be construed as self-serving by critics. The story goes: at the dawn of the Renaissance time in Europe was seen to be away from the Dark Ages (those medieval times when Europe was in a primitive form) into an age of Enlightenment (a pre-modern time when Europe was becoming the world’s most advanced place). Thus, though Europe once was populated by primitive peoples, it was advancing beyond that “stage of humanity.” At the same time, there is an elision of space along similar lines. Other countries too would one day reach the advancements being attained in Europe, but, at the time, all non-European nations were seen (and this is sweeping) as primitive too. This paved the way for both modernity as well as the flipside of the coin, coloniality. It became not just acceptable, but just to colonize and modernize such lesser countries (which is a play out of the Christian conversion handbook, of course). To colonize them was not seen as problematic and soon colonies like those “found” by Columbus would in turn, many years later, colonize others. So deeply embedded into the fabric of modernity is this “interventionist” approach to problems, people, the environment, etc. that most of us, the conventional decoloniality story goes, we do not really notice anymore when we search to control people, places, plants, etc.

    In all fairness, and this is the sharp edge of the comment, this narrative proposed in the decoloniality literature does require something of a leap of faith (even though it is based on relevant works, many of them original to the period of time being identified). In so far as that is true, this approach is (as I admitted, by the way) as intellectual as it is political, which implies that while the argument might not be water-tight analytically (or watered-down for dmf in that it is either so glossy or glosses over some important specificities) it was also meant to be something of a battle cry for action and battle cries like that need to take-on a certain form (a form like the one I document above).


  9. um, by what super-human means does this titanic Logic come to possess/enact such godlike powers across time, space, and individuals?


  10. Sabrina and I are indebted to Nicholas, for co-organizing the panels with us, and to all the wonderful and amazing presenters, who have created together an incredible and forward-looking conversation, and also treated one another with kindness and a spirit collaboration, even when we had reasonable disagreement in one or the other detail, which allowed us to use these reasons and ideas to collaborate productively on our ideas. Thank you so much!


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