Derrida, Eurocentrism, decolonization

While I am not the biggest advocate of Aimé Césaire’s work, I’ve always been taken in – in ways that would take more words than I write below to explain – by his comment at the beginning of Discourse on Colonialism that European culture is sick. That bit from Césaire came to mind when I came across this short piece by Simon Glendinning the other day, which discusses Jacques Derrida’s work on Europe, Eurocentrism, and deconstructive critique. Glendinning’s piece is short, so I don’t want to subject it to too rigorous a reading, but it does make clear and explicit declarations, and it underscores an important difference, for me, between the rhetoric of “Eurocentrism” and of “decolonization.”

In a certain sense, the two terms share an important family resemblance in antagonism. Glendinning here characterizes Eurocentrism as the view that Europe is the model, the avant garde, and therefore “the best example.” That’s true, and I’d summarize such a view, borrowing from Fanon’s early work, as “taking itself as its own measure.” In that sense, Eurocentrism is a key component of colonialism not just as a political and economic relation, but as a cultural project: taking itself as its own measure, Europe could do its violent work across the globe without ever being put in question by the victims. Further, and doubling the violence, taking itself as its own measure underpinned the missionary relation as civilizing force that figured as central to global domination after conquest and enslavement. Conversion to European languages and values (in the broadest sense) becomes equivalent to installing civilization where none previously existed.

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Derrida’s work (Glendinning’s focus), as the thinker himself came to articulate clearly late in his career, ought to be read as a contestation of this centrism. By reading the tradition against itself, the European tradition is destabilized and, I gather (I’ve never quite understood this last moment), shifted away from the self-assigned privilege of being the measure of the world. Because that’s what, on Glendinning’s interpretation, Eurocentrism is all about: the measure of the world. You can’t separate Eurocentrism from colonialism and imperial domination. Perhaps, then, there is (or wants to be) an implicit connection between critiquing Eurocentrism and contesting colonialism in all of its forms.

Glendinning co-signs to this project. He does make a juxtaposition, however, that I want to question. Against the critique of Eurocentrism, Glendinning opposes anti-Eurocentrism, which he characterizes in a general way, with Derrida’s words, as a “critical fury” that “condemns” and “rejects” Eurocentrism and replaces it with (self-) loathing. I find that turn in Glendinning’s and Derrida’s analysis interesting and troubling, initially because it pathologizes critique at the affective level. Critics suffer from rage and loathing. And what could be healthy about that?

I would say that rage and loathing are completely reasonable responses to multiple centuries of conquest, domination, enslavement, and waging war. So, it’s not clear to me why fury, condemnation, and rejection are problematic. But that’s not my point.

What I think Glendinning’s and Derrida’s critical orientation reveals is an important difference between criticizing Eurocentrism and engaging in the work of decolonizing thought. The former wants to de-emphasize and relativize the European tradition by acknowledging excess and, perhaps, pathologizing the erotic relation Western intellectuals often have to European history and thought. I like that. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The latter, decolonizing thought, asks more destabilizing questions. What is the relationship between foundational insights and claims in a tradition (or a given thinker) and practices of colonial domination? How is the subconscious of the European tradition (or a given thinker) structured by the desire to take one’s self as measure, and so desire a kind of domination of the interior life of Europe’s others?

And of course what I noted in a previous post: where are all the non-European thinkers in the texts of the European tradition, especially the allegedly radical tradition in Europe? This is key. Decolonizing thought means not simply letting Europeans question Europe – a gesture that seems as casually colonial as any other – but rather unleashing the often destructive force of a thought from the other inside the European text. What would it mean, for example, to read The Wretched of the Earth inside of Totality and Infinity, both of which were released in 1961? Totality and Infinity is not the same. That is for sure. And this is a very different kind of deconstruction than one that wants to protect Europe from being consumed by its own crimes.

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Look, I love Derrida’s work. The truth is, for all of my writing on Levinas early in my writerly career through the present, my thinking (and my imagination of Levinas) has always been very close to Derridean deconstruction. It is an important approach, and Glendinning shows in this brief piece how Derrida’s critical engagement is never polemical. I wouldn’t go so far as to imagine that deconstruction means, as Glendinning puts it, “[t]his European legacy of responsible and relentless self-critique is what Derrida wanted to save, to preserve, and to radicalise.” Except that Derrida’s practice, and Glendinning provides the key quotation here, wants to protect Europe from being “defined only by its crimes.” So maybe in the hands of Europeans directing discourse back to Europe, it is just this fantasy of self-critique.

Where does that desire come from? Why, from the outset, ought we presume that crimes are somehow at critical distance from the methods and content of the tradition? Why not begin with the presumption that the tradition is intimately involved with the crimes, both as effective agents and as modes of justification? After all, plenty of work has been done over the past two decades exploring how the formerly characterized as “occasional pieces or comments” by folks like Locke or Kant or Hegel are absolutely central to the broader projects of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. If we entangle the very marrow of tradition, as it were, with the crimes of Europe, then we aren’t so well-positioned to declare at the outset that the European tradition is fundamentally good and just in its striving. In fact, we might discover the opposite. Or even just something different.

All of this is to say, if a critique of Eurocentrism is undertaken without attention to the entanglement of foundational questions with the multi-centuries crimes of the region called Europe, then something fundamental about colonialism is never questioned – namely, the privilege, always self-assigned, of being the measure of yourself. One cannot decide the relation to crimes from the outset – who has shown us better than Derrida how such decisions are repetitions and doublings of violence? As well, Derrida’s own conception of the supplement is helpful here: an other (here, perhaps, the colonized) identified at the heart of a text (here, perhaps, the European tradition) that renders the text so unstable that it can no longer justify rights to its former name. After that instability? We cannot know before the work of critique is done. To assign the name and meaning to Europe and its tradition ahead of time – clinging to this myth of “relentless self-critique” that has never actually implicated itself in conquest and colonial domination – is to undertake no critique at all.