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Monthly Archives: Agosto 2013

Decolonization of the Mind

by Aditya Nigam, Kafila
Our modernity is incomplete, our secularism impure, our democracy immature, our development  arrested and our capitalism retarded: ask anyone trained in the social sciences, economics in particular, about what ails India today and you can be sure of getting one or all of these answers. And you can go on adding to the list of more and more things ‘we’ lack. We did not have ‘history’, we do not have social sciences – and of course, we do not have theory/ philosophy.
Everything, in other words, is about our ‘backwardness’ and our need to catch up with the West. And seen through the lens of social science, most of the world looks like this – living ‘inauthentic’ lives, always ever in the ‘waiting room of history’, to steal historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s suggestive phrase.


In the world view of our state elites, this is actually a form of what one could call, paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, ‘Capital-Envy’. The ‘realization’ that ‘we do not have it’ can be a source of serious anxieties. That is what lies behind the current frenzied desire to ‘catch up’ with the West. And generations of feminist scholarship has challenged this unquestioned Freudian  assumption that the penis is the norm and not to have it, is Lack. Perhaps women do not want it? Freud never conceived of this as possible. Indeed in today’s world, there are many men who claim that they feel they are women trapped inside male bodies. Generations of scholarship has made us realize that the aura of that grand universal theory actually rested on the fact that it did not just describe the sexes; it produced the sexual norm itself.
The vision that propels our political elites and their parallel numbers who write in the media today, is something like that fantasy of Freud. The anxiety produced by this awareness of the ‘primordial Lack’, is what drives them today towards what has been the most violent phase of development in our entire history. Violent uprooting of populations from their land, often at gunpoint, coupled with the most ruthless plunder of our common resources by unscrupulous corporations – all this and more has been going on with the state elites looking on ‘benignly’. For they seem to know something ordinary mortals do not – that all this is but the necessary price to pay for becoming ‘modern’ like them.
Economists and policy analysts of course, invariably point towards the ‘standard experience’ of industrialization and development – which basically comes down to the experience of the ‘enclosures’ in England during the 16th to 18th centuries, in which common lands were transformed into private property in a bloody transformation. This was extended in America where native populations were simply exterminated to free up the land. That pattern was not really repeated even in most parts of Europe not to speak of other parts of the world.
As against this now common-sense notion of the standard experience, political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj has argued that the trajectories of modernity and development in countries like India cannot but be different from the so-called standard experience. For unlike the West, India had democracy and democratic politics in place long before ‘full industrialization’ could take place. From the standard social science viewpoint, this is a clear disadvantage because such democratic politics impedes our ‘normal’ course of development. From its point of view, even the modern democratic political subject had to be the product of a massive pedagogic exercise, trained in the ways of ‘reasonable’ dissent, even when their entire lives and livelihoods were at stake. And typically this subject – the citizen – could be trained in a time when there was no democracy. The invasion of the portals of representative institutions by the ‘untutored masses’ is no less than a scandal from that point of view. Seen from another angle, however, this could be our advantage: opening up the possibility that our path could be less violent and not based on the ruthless elimination of agricultural or tribal populations. It could also be seen as an acknowledgement that we need not necessarily mimic the Western model but conceive of another kind of development – less obsessive about something called growth, more concerned with justice, more ecologically sensitive.
This means that there could be at least two ways of relating to the Western experience. One, espoused by our political elites, that treats it as the norm to be followed; and the other that is crying out to be acknowledged, that we treat it like any other experience from which we can and must learn. And learning from the experience of others involves avoiding the more grievous of their mistakes.
Social science knowledge shows us an image of ourselves that is like an image in a distorting mirror. It is perhaps a little bit like us, but not quite. What do we say of a body of knowledge that produces such images of most societies in the world? We would not hesitate in describing such a mirror as a ‘distorting mirror’ but when it comes to a body of knowledge with all the weight and aura of a ‘science’ attached to it and a galaxy of big names associated with it, we do feel a bit intimidated.
Perhaps, ‘intimidated’ is not the right word. For we are enchanted by it. Seduced by the vision of what seems like life beyond. If ‘we’ have to be like ‘them’, we must adopt their ways of thinking and being. It was when we accepted this line of thinking, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, that we acknowledged defeat. Indian nationalism from its very birth acknowledged this. A large part of the great nationalist intellectual ferment through the first half of the twentieth century was directed at proving to the colonizer that “we too had it” – “it” being anything that they had. If they had science, we too had it, as Gyan Prakash shows in his fascinating book Another Reason; if they had political theory and a Machiavelli, then following Rudrapatna Shama Shastry’s publication of the rediscovered Arthashastra in 1909, we could claim that we had our Machiavelli centuries before theirs!
Even those who were wont to glorify ‘our great Hindu past’, Hindu nationalists like Savarkar, conceded defeat on this front and not many people remember that he was a great admirer of science, technology and the European enlightenment. Gandhi was perhaps the only one who rejected the claim of superiority of modern civilization – and to him, it was clear that the problem was not ‘the West’ but modernity. But so powerful was the lure of the modern that Gandhi was to be consigned to the pages of history – to be revered as little more than an eccentric grandfather.
As the new independent nation-state got down to the business of nation-building and began setting up its universities, it dropped even the basic attempts to think through the problems of the hegemony of western knowledge that many intellectuals had been struggling against in the period of the anti-colonial struggle. The urgency of setting up social science departments, designing curricula and putting new institutions in place naturally led to the easy way out – take what was being taught in Western universities, tweak it a bit and produce our own syllabi. A whole new system that would merely regurgitate the knowledge produced in Western universities was thus established.
This colonized knowledge is increasingly coming into question today. And this questioning goes far beyond critiques of western models that retain a reverence for western theory. A lot of such contemporary scholarship realizes this distorting-mirror-effect of western theory even while recognizing that it is an important part of our common pool of thought. The difference is that it no longer treats that body of knowledge with the reverence that had once blinded the colonized; that had once led them to invest that knowledge with the value of absolute truth. Today the exploration of other traditions of thought – Indian, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese – has become a part of a serious examination of the story told to us by Western thought of its own birth, a story where all thought begins in Athens and ends in Paris. As if there is a straight line connecting them; as if life in other parts of the world for centuries was lived bereft of thought. We fail to see in this picture the intricate lines connecting different parts of the world. We also fail to see here how, what we know today as western knowledge, was assembled at the dawn of its modernity, with knowledge-formations from different parts of the world – Arab, Indian, Chinese to name some. We fail to see the impact of Ibn Rushd on the early dissenters in 13th century Europe. We fail to see Moses Maimonides reading Al Farabi and Spinoza reading Moses Maimonides and what effects these might have possibly produced.
In other words, it is not just the theoretical knowledge that the West gives us that is in question today but also the story it tells us of its own birth and development.

CFP: “Coimbra C: Dialogar com os Tempos e os Lugares do(s) Mundo(s)”


Divulgamos a chamada de resumos de comunicações para o IV Colóquio de Doutorandos/as do Centro de Estudos Sociais (CES) da Universidade de Coimbra.

A data limite de envio é 1 de Setembro.

O evento realiza-se na Faculdade de Economia da Universidade de Coimbra de 6 a 7 de Dezembro de 2013.

Mais informações e formulário de submissão de propostas (ver as versões em PT, EN e ES):

Decolonizing the Teaching of Human Rights?

By César Augusto Baldi

Five talk­ing points to help us ques­tion, decol­on­ize, plur­al­ize and under­line the neces­sity of interculturalism.

Accord­ing to the new Bolivian con­sti­tu­tion, edu­ca­tion is “one of the most import­ant func­tions and primary fin­an­cial respons­ib­il­it­ies of the State”; it is “unit­ary, pub­lic, uni­ver­sal, demo­cratic, par­ti­cip­at­ory, com­munit­arian, decol­on­iz­ing and of qual­ity” (art. 78, I); and, through­out the entire edu­ca­tional sys­tem, it is “intra-​cultural, inter-​cultural and multi-​lingual” (art. 78,II), where its “inter-​cultural char­ac­ter is the means for cohe­sion and for har­monic and bal­anced exist­ence among all the peoples and nations” (art. 98). The Brazilian con­sti­tu­tion asserts the “plur­al­ism of ped­ago­gic ideas and con­cep­tions” in the field of edu­ca­tion (art. 206, III), and the pro­tec­tion of cul­tural rights, access to sources of national cul­ture, and the pro­tec­tion of “expres­sion by groups par­ti­cip­at­ing in the national civil­isa­tion pro­cess” in the cul­tural domain (art. 215, header and §1).

But to what extent can we really say that other cul­tural wis­doms — those of indi­gen­ous peoples, of Afro-​Amerindians, etc. — are no longer silenced, sup­pressed, hid­den, or treated as non-​existent? Is it true to say that the pro­claimed plur­al­ism of ideas actu­ally has a cor­res­pond­ing cog­nit­ive justice?

It would be inter­est­ing to under­take such an exer­cise to ana­lyse how human rights are cat­egor­ised and taught in nor­mal cur­ricula. Accord­ing to the hege­monic line of thought, the sys­tem is gen­er­a­tional: first, civil and polit­ical rights; second, social, eco­nomic and cul­tural rights; then a third gen­er­a­tion of human rights; and per­haps even a fourth (demo­cracy) or a fifth. But is this tra­ject­ory uni­ver­sal — can it be uni­ver­sal­ised — or does it simply hide the tra­ject­or­ies of human rights struggles behind the pro­ject of mod­ern­isa­tion itself?

Think back to just two paradig­matic moments: (1) the French Revolu­tion, seen as a moment in which we con­sol­id­ated liberty, equal­ity and fra­tern­ity, did not recog­nise women’s rights and nor did it ques­tion the enslave­ment of black people; (2) the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was being debated while large parts of Africa and Asia were colon­ies of the European coun­tries who adop­ted it. They fought against the bar­bar­ity of the Holo­caust, but the mas­sacre of col­on­ised peoples was swept under the car­pet. We can put for­ward, there­fore, sev­eral other top­ics and talk­ing points to help us ques­tion, decol­on­ize, plur­al­ize and under­line the neces­sity of interculturalism.

1. Dis­tinct European modernities

The epi­stem­o­lo­gical priv­ilege awar­ded to the Enlight­en­ment has con­cen­trated atten­tion on the second mod­ern­ity (Eng­land, France and the Neth­er­lands) at the expense of the Renais­sance period and the first mod­ern­ity (Italy, Por­tugal and Spain) in its entirety. This is why dis­cus­sion has focused on the “rights of man”, for­get­ting the con­tro­ver­sial mat­ter of “who counts as human”: the argu­ment between Sepúlveda and Bar­to­lomé de las Casas (who became Bishop of Chiapas, Mex­ico, in 1544) con­cern­ing the rights of indi­gen­ous peoples is a good example.

How­ever, Latin America’s own con­tri­bu­tions have been ignored, as demon­strated by the writ­ings of Gua­man Poma de Ayala (1535 – 1616). The Inca des­cend­ant wrote a treat­ise on good gov­ern­ment, in which he cri­ti­cises the mon­archy; he puts for­ward a new sys­tem of gov­ern­ment (based on a mix­ture of his know­ledge of Span­ish and Inca soci­ety), anti­cip­at­ing a “divi­sion of power”, and pro­duces a rich icon­o­graphy that asks pro­found ques­tions of the colo­nial order. It is there­fore also a mat­ter of recog­nising the exist­ence of an “imper­ial dif­fer­ence” (see Mignolo), which was made evid­ent recently with France and Germany’s use of the expres­sion PIGS to refer to the eco­nomic crises of Por­tugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — that is, South­ern Europe.

2. Bour­geois revolu­tions and anti-​systemic uprisings

Although at that time in his­tory indi­gen­ous people were con­sidered car­ri­ers of the soul (a “priv­ilege” that black slaves did not have recog­nised by the Cath­olic Church, nor by bour­geois revolu­tion­ary move­ments), the fact is that the human rights nar­rat­ive emphas­ised only bour­geois revolu­tions (espe­cially the French Revolu­tion and the Amer­ican Revolu­tion). Con­com­it­ant with the so-​called “Revolu­tion­ary Era” (1789 – 1848), two “silenced” insur­rec­tions took place in the lands we now call Latin America.

First was the revolu­tion in Haiti (1804), which was to become the first black nation — of illit­er­ate slaves — to become inde­pend­ent, abol­ish slavery and estab­lish, amongst other achieve­ments, equal rights for chil­dren born out of wed­lock, and the pos­sib­il­ity of divorce.

Second was Túpac Katari and Bar­to­lina Sisa’s move­ment (1780 – 1781) in Bolivia, against Span­ish rule, which would lead to a pro­found reor­gan­isa­tion of the com­munity and the cre­ation of new forms of polit­ical and com­mer­cial nego­ti­ation. It was a battle ideo­logy that sug­gests, draw­ing on the Aymara word pachak­uti (rad­ical change), that the present can incub­ate another time, which is both a future and a re-​imagining of the past. A “tra­di­tion of the defeated” would see all its eman­cip­at­ory ener­gies rein­vig­or­ated with the 1952 revolu­tion, the gas and water wars (2003), the debate on the rights of nature, indi­gen­ous lead­er­ship, and dis­cus­sion of the “Indian Revolu­tion” led by the Aymara intel­lec­tual Fausto Rein­aga (1906 – 1994). In Katari’s words as he died, “Today I die, but thou­sand upon thou­sands of us will come back”.

These struggles for inde­pend­ence are not cel­eb­rated with count­less bicen­ten­ar­ies and their prin­cipal act­ors are not “cri­ol­los”. They are the move­ments of oppressed black and indi­gen­ous peoples against the bed­rock of the colo­nial sys­tem and their vic­tory over it.

3. African dia­spora and slavery

In the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, vari­ous nar­rat­ives by freed slaves — deal­ing with slavery, a “life without mean­ing”, the need to recog­nise the dig­nity of all regard­less of race and geo­graph­ical ori­gin — were avail­able for study. Why have they been for­got­ten, as though slavery were a mere pothole on the road to mod­ern­ity and not the wicked face of the “colo­ni­al­ism of power”? How can books talk about France’s his­tory without con­sid­er­ing its inter­ac­tion with its colon­ies, when the colon­ies’ stor­ies are always remembered in the con­text of depend­ence on the met­ro­pole? It is unima­gin­able that a sys­tem that las­ted more than 400 years in Brazil (the coun­try has been inde­pend­ent for less than 200 years) should be con­sidered an event of little import­ance rather than a “crime against human­ity” (Durban Declar­a­tion), and, moreover, be deemed a con­stitutive part of the mod­ern system.

Colo­ni­al­ism is the other face of mod­ern­ity, but this is hid­den from recog­ni­tion. Otto­bah Cugoano (1757 – 1791), who was born in Ghana and edu­cated in Eng­land, not only pro­posed meth­ods for end­ing slavery, but also for com­pens­at­ing African nations for the dam­age caused and for leg­al­ising work. For Cugoano, human beings are equal and free “not in rela­tion­ship to gov­ern­ment but in rela­tion­ship to other human beings”. Olaudah Equiano’s (1745 – 1797) account was sim­ilar. And then there’s Sojourner Truth’s (1797 – 1883), which cri­ti­cised not only racial inequal­ity, but also dis­crim­in­a­tion against women, at a time when US cul­ture placed white women on a ped­es­tal but ignored black women. This was not just an abol­i­tion­ist dis­course, but also a defence of women’s rights.

4. Second pro­cess of decolonization

Hav­ing recently reached the fiftieth anniversary of the UN Declar­a­tion on the Grant­ing of Inde­pend­ence to Colo­nial Coun­tries and Peoples (1960), the import­ance of the struggles of Asian and African peoples in the pro­cess of estab­lish­ing human rights in the wake of the Second World War deserves re-​evaluation. It is worth con­sid­er­ing not just the lead­ers of the pro­cess (Nyer­ere, Sam­ora Machel and oth­ers), but also con­tri­bu­tions by Fanon, Glis­sant and Césaire, from the point of view of black rights, and all the con­tri­bu­tions that have been made in Asian coun­tries (of which the “sub­al­tern stud­ies” of India are just one small part) and — let’s not for­get — those that don’t fit a markedly sec­u­lar mould, such as “Islamic fem­in­ism” or even the “indi­gen­ous fem­in­ism” movement.

We also shouldn’t for­get that sec­u­lar­ism in the colon­ies served the colo­nial pur­poses of keep­ing women sub­ser­vi­ent. This post-​colonialism, how­ever, is of a dif­fer­ent hue from the res­ult of the first decol­on­iz­ing pro­cess (the inde­pend­ence of the Amer­icas) and their dif­fer­ences should be recognised.

5. Use of other tech­niques and vocabulary

The use of lit­er­at­ure, cinema and the visual arts in dis­cus­sions of human rights has become com­mon. This is bene­fi­cial since aesthetic-​expressive ration­al­ity was col­on­ised for a long time by sci­entific and legal reason. It is import­ant, non­ethe­less, that it is not just the medium that is altered: what we need is to change the lan­guage of the debate itself. This should not just be with regard to the con­tent, but also the enunciation. Antigone, for example, has been used in the teach­ing of law to estab­lish the oppos­i­tion between nat­ural law and pos­it­iv­ism, a European debate that was laid out by Hegel, in the eight­eenth cen­tury, on the basis of Greek tragedy. What about using the three Theban plays, as Judith But­ler did, to dis­cuss “aber­rant par­ent­age” (after all, Anti­gone is the daugh­ter of Oed­ipus and Jocasta, her grand­mother), het­ero­norm­ativ­ity, sex­ism and pat­ri­archy? How would these ques­tions trans­form if, instead of the “Oed­ipus com­plex”, the debate was recon­figured from the point of view of an “Anti­gone com­plex” (George Steiner)?

At the National Uni­ver­sity of Singa­pore, Syed Farid Alatas and his col­league Vin­eeta Sinha have spent many years devel­op­ing a dif­fer­ent study of soci­ology. Instead of just ana­lys­ing the “classics” — Durkheim, Weber and Marx (white European men) — their stu­dents are encour­aged to work with con­tri­bu­tions by Ibn Khal­dun (Tunisia), José Rizal (Phil­ip­pines), Benoy Kumar Sarkar (India) and Har­riet Mar­tineau (Eng­land), amongst oth­ers. In their opin­ion, this is the way to show that “there were also white women and non-​European men and women in the nine­teenth cen­tury who the­or­ised the nature of emer­ging mod­ern societies”. How about start­ing a sim­ilar move­ment in the study of human rights? Per­haps this way we could defeat the “epi­stemic racism” and “change the geo­graphy of reason” (Lewis Gor­don). Or, as Wal­ter Ben­jamin would say, we might “wrest tra­di­tion away from a con­form­ism that is about to over­power it” and write a “his­tory against the grain”.

César Augusto Baldi, PhD can­did­ate at Pablo Olavide Uni­ver­sity (Spain), is Advisor to the Brazilian Regional Fed­eral Court 4th Region and the editor of Direitos humanos na sociedade cos­mopol­ita [Human Rights in Cos­mo­pol­itan Soci­ety] (Renovar, 2004).

Trans­lated by Alex Higson.

Original text