December 12, 2013 John Drabinski

Decolonizing the colonizer: three aspects

What does it mean to decolonize the colonizer? In a previous post, I asked the question – which has largely been suppressed in white European thought – of what would it mean to decolonize the colonizer. First, there is the question of why this hasn’t been asked of the colonizer, but only of the colonized. My sense is that this question has only been for the colonized because at every level whiteness works as invisibility, in that it is never seen as whiteness in discourse about knowing and being, and also because the colonized are always framed (for better or worse) in terms of violence, whereas white people (the colonizers) are somehow located outside the very frame their (our) imperialism produced.

Decolonizing the colonizer therefore entails, at least in part, relocating whiteness in the frame of violence. Unlike the colonized, of course, the colonizer is not a victim of violence (except insofar as their humanity – if we work with some version of a genuinely universal humanism – is at stake), but rather the perpetrator. My own interests as a philosopher and cultural theorist lie in decolonizing the history of ideas and canons of philosophical thinking; I’ll leave it to better qualified folks to think this in terms of politics and related stuff.

What does it mean to decolonize the colonizer at the level of ideas? Because the frame of violence functions as a way of understanding the condition of the colonizer, in a certain sense decolonization will have to do with seeing a violence that was invisible before this framing of thought and its history, as well as taking more seriously forms of exclusion, both at the level of explicit utterance (the racism of individual thinkers that has gone largely unquestioned or marginalized in commentary and extensions of tradition) and at the more complex level of the formation of norms of thinking and disciplinarity (asking how, for example, what “counts” as philosophy is a question that is already imperial and fraught).

This has to be an open set of questions and modes of approach. Let me mention three here, with a few words on each.



On this model, decolonizing the colonizer consists of an insurgent strategy: not a comprehensive rewriting or reconceptualizing of a history or tradition, but instead specific, targeted strikes intended to disrupt the comfort of a particular set of ideas. This was the approach of my Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other, where I walked through an initial decolonization process (the book is just a beginning and first effort) of Levinas’ epistemological, ontological, ethical, and political articulations of alterity. Against each of those moments, I set an insurgent idea at the heart of Levinas’ thought with Spivak (epistemology), Bhabha (ontology), Glissant (ethics), and Subcommandante Marcos (politics) disrupting what has become a comfortable mode of thinking in Levinasian and other postmodern circles.

I see some of the limits to this approach (namely, around the question of tradition discussed below), but I also think it has to be part of a comprehensive process of decolonizing the colonizer. The necessity of the insurgent model lies in its specificity. Insurgency is surgical, identifying a place that (from the outside) is problematic or is particularly grounding of the European tradition, then disrupting it, not with the intention of replacing or expanding the ideas of that tradition, but rather exposing vulnerabilities, prejudices, and forms of violence embedded within those very particular ideas. With specificity comes concreteness and embeddedness in particular problems and formulations, which allows a level of detail and preciseness that is important (in my view, at least). In this way, then, the insurgent model is akin to a deconstructive approach in critique, the sorts of work Spivak in particular has made famous and with which she has troubled, disrupted, and (in certain corners) transformed the history of ideas. The limit of course is that this is still oriented toward disruption of particularities. Thus, it cannot be the entire story of decolonizing the colonizer.



One of Paul Gilroy’s great contributions in The Black Atlantic is the notion of counter-modernity. What Gilroy shows, in his creative and compelling readings of some of the African-American canon, is how alongside systems of violence, exclusion, and degradation, Black people formed an entire tradition of thinking that cannot be reduced to a footnote to or as derivative from of the white intellectual tradition. Rather, the Black intellectual tradition (if I can extrapolate widely from his very targeted readings) is a counter to the modernity that sought to exclude and degrade Black people.

If we understand the black Atlantic intellectual cluster as not a footnote to or derivation from the white tradition (I twice accidentally typed “shite tradition,” which is a moment for lol’psychoanalysis), and instead understand that cluster as a tradition full of foundational claims, counter-claims, disputes, radical paradigm shifts (Gilroy’s book marking one of them, actually), then we deepen the problem of insurgency. Insurgency marks one idea or form of discourse or concept for disruption, but the link to tradition embeds that disruptive idea in a longer history, one that counters the tradition of the colonizer with the tradition of the colonized – who, by way of tradition (in part), cannot be reduced to the category “the colonized.”

By “counter,” we can mean many things, of course. I would just say this: it is not enough to pick bits and pieces up from, say, the African-American intellectual tradition and deploy it for purposes of disruption, diversification, or some such. To be sure, if we’re decolonizing the social relation in a pedagogical context, this means thinking seriously about how, say, someone like Du Bois becomes essential for understanding twentieth-century philosophy, or Fanon for political theory after the second world war. That opens up the possibility for insurgency as part of intellectual formation, both for students and for teachers (it’s amazing what learning a text for teaching purposes can do to one’s own thinking, if one is open). But there is also a limit to this, namely, that isolation of particular texts and figures eclipses the sense in which a given text or figure is part of a longer set of ideas, disputes, and controversies – a tradition, in a word.

Decolonizing the colonizer, then, happens in relation to tradition both in the sense that the particularity (therefore not universality) of the European tradition comes into view and in the sense that ideas from the counter-modern cannot be simply transferred to the colonizer’s tradition without severing an important tie to history, memory, and the formation of deep intellectual roots (just as you can’t fully understand Hegel without understanding white European history and imagination, you can’t fully understand Glissant without understanding afro-Caribbean history and its disputes, diversity, and tradition). As well, this moment of particularizing the colonizer’s tradition racializes, in very important and troubling ways, the canon of the “Western” (put in quotes because the black Atlantic is part of the West) tradition. To wit: I teach a course called “Black Existentialism,” in which we read a variety of figures from Césaire and Fanon to Baldwin and Ellison, and I like to ask the students at the end why there are courses called “Black Existentialism” and courses called just “Existentialism,” but not “White Existentialism.” Particularizing tradition racializes it because traditions have been formed in a racialized intellectual space, and it’s worth wondering why we (in the academy) don’t use those words when we describe, say, “philosophers” or “tradition” or “history” and so on.



In The Repeating Island, Benítez-Rojo makes an off-handed remark when describing the location of European history and tradition in both ancient Greece and the Bible. The point he is trying to make is simple: in contrasting the archipelagic figure of the Caribbean (a rhizome, difference without reconciliation in identity) with the single-root of Europe’s fantasy of it’s foundations, we can learn something distinctive about the Americas (and the West Indies in particular). But when he mentions Greece and the ancient Biblical world, he notes, off-handedly, that these were of course cultural crossroads, not isolated places that self-generated ideas. They are as syncretic as they get.

That points up what should be obvious, but gets lost in the fantasies of European origin and destiny: the foundation is no foundation at all. Rather, everything is syncretic. Contact is constitutive of cultural life, and contact is always transformation: syncretic, creolizing, chaotic, dynamic. Europe from the sixteenth century on is inextricable from the development of empire, the slave trade, then colonialism. (Not to mention prior centuries of contact, conflict, and domination by North Africa.) So, what is an identity in light of all of this entanglement?

Glissant’s answer is of course that we are always already tout monde, entangled in the whole world. The Caribbean, in his telling of cultural history, is only the most intensified site of globalized and globalizing meaning. Decolonization would then dismantle the privilege and first-position of the white Western intellectual tradition by entangling it in what is its other. This is particularly important in relation to empire, slavery, and colonialism, for precisely the reason noted above: it redraws that tradition in the frame of violence, rather than letting the whiteness of a tradition pass through the defining acts of violence and sustained or repeated catastrophe.

In all three of these moments (and there are more than three, more must surely be said), decolonization qualifies, particularizes, racializes, and, in the deepest and most expansive sense, historicizes the colonizer’s tradition. What it means to proceed with thinking after even the most partial and tentative gestures of decolonization is up in the air. I think it’s just that unclear precisely because of the resistance of the white European tradition to entanglement and implication. But that resistance is ideological in the worst sense. The metaphysics of tradition tell another story, and in that sense perhaps we could say that decolonizing the colonizer is nothing more than radical honesty.

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