December 9, 2013 John Drabinski

On decolonizing the colonizer

One of the central questions of my Levinas and the Postcolonial is why we haven’t asked what should be a very basic, wholly necessary question: if the colonized have been tasked with decolonizing themselves – at every level – why haven’t the colonizers been tasked with the same? I tried to sketch what that looks like, that decolonization, by examining a single thinker (Levinas). The big question comes from a very basic insight and claim, and yet it’s proven to be controversial.

Or even just not moving or motivating. I’m not entirely surprised. White people are a part of an anti-black racist culture, and it would really be something to think that this sort of thing would magically disappear when one turns to books and scholarship. And, of course, there is the wider question of how whiteness remains invisible to historical roots in violence, even while the global South is framed, almost without exception (for better or worse), as inseparable from suffering violence.

We could theorize this sort of thing in all sorts of ways, from the habits of undergraduate and graduate study (theory from the former colonies so rarely shows up, if at all) to deeper questions of presumptions of white innocence on the part of white people. And yet this question has precedent. We in philosophical circles all know that a figure like Heidegger needs to be read with real caution, thinking about his participation, such as it was, in the Nazi reconfiguration of the university system, German anti-Semitism more broadly, racialized nationalism, and so on. Politically and culturally, Germany was of course tasked with denazification after the second world war, and a long reckoning (again, for better or worse) with history and memory has followed. Yet, the colonizers – which encompasses not only the nations, but also the imagination(s) of Europe – were never tasked with the same after formal colonial relations were dissolved. In this way, the image of British colonial officials burning documents to cover their tracks and ensure forgetting – Caroline Elkins’ work on Kenya comes to mind – stands in as a metaphor for the politics and cultural life of Europe after colonialism. Denazification sets a precedent, no? A sense that, yes, “we” (Europeans, white Westerners) understand how mass violence, mass death, and the like structure a whole world, and to move on after that world means working-through – in legal, educational, institutional, and cultural sites – the violence of that whole world, purging, insofar as we can, the elements that sustained such catastrophe. On questions of the slave trade and colonialism, however, very few words or actions. That’s not news. But still.


We see nothing like this sort of critical work in philosophical writing. We don’t ask the question, generally: how are the terms of philosophical thinking implicated in the colonial worldview, mindset, value-system, and so on? Or at least those questions don’t get asked in European philosophy circles (they do elsewhere, which makes my point here about burning documents as metaphor). Around questions of anti-Semitism and the Shoah, sure, there are a cluster of thinkers and a potent tradition of offering critique in this vein (Dialectic of Enlightenment is sadly still fresh), but where is the European tradition of the same concerning colonialism? Again, decolonization has been separated out and given over to the colonized, insulating the colonizer from all the difficult questions.

I came back to this question while listening to Felix Germain’s presentation at the recent Caribbean Philosophical Association meeting in San Juan, PR. Germain raised a whole series of questions, one of which was particularly striking, not just for it’s profundity and implications, but also for its disturbing simplicity: why is there no presence of black Atlantic francophone thinkers in the work of post-WWII French (white France) philosophy? Think about it. Figures like Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, Aimé Césaire, Leon Damas, Frantz Fanon, and many others were remaking the central categories of culture and intellectual life at the very same time that white philosophers and cultural theorists were remaking the same in France. And it’s not like all of these folks were working on different issues. What is the relationship between language and thought? Thought and history? Subjectivity, embodiment, and the conditions of speaking and acting? And so on. These are common questions. With very different answers. Therein lies the problem.

The first critical remark is of course that black Atlantic thinkers disturb the paradigms of European philosophy, so there is a lot to be gained – if one has an imperial presupposition – by limiting one’s literacy. True.

A colonial policeman and an auxiliary guard Mau Mau suspects in 1954

But I’m not sure it is that willful and simple. Maybe it is. I’m not sure. Germain’s response is to talk about decolonizing the social relation, where the Paris suburbs stand in for the relationship between intellectuals and the bookshelf. Decolonizing the social means that the black Atlantic tradition (in my example, though more expansive than just that) becomes a part of the everyday, perhaps in terms of shelf browsing, but more importantly in terms of literacy, course design, curriculum, and the habits of thinking.

I like Germain’s approach and sketch of implications. I’d also add this: we ought to read differently. I don’t mean just taking the various (and there are plenty) racist remarks of major thinkers seriously (though that would be refreshing as hell), but reading against their theoretical formulations and approaches with the decolonizing question: what would it mean to read this in relation to its colonial moment (every thinker is embedded in history and its pressures, habits, and the like) and in relation to the speaking against colonialism, empire, and racialized domination already happening at that very moment (you can move the bookshelf to the figurative suburbs, but the ideas don’t die…they just disappear from your thinking). These readings lead to uncomfortable places. In fact, they probably completely overturn what it means to theorize and philosophize.

Perhaps that is the reason for resistance. For, in that overturning, we are implicated as students, commentators, teachers – reproducers of, let’s be plain, the ideological habits of colonial racism. The stakes are that high. Which explains resistance, but also explains urgency.

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