Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The 15 Hierarchies: An Introduction to Decoloniality

We live in a free world. Free being a relative word, of course. There are situations when governments and the powers of one country are controlled by other, more powerful countries and conglomerates, and there are situations wherein some countries are blatantly occupied by others. In this post I am not talking about these situations. I want to talk about the situations we take for granted, wherein power equations and inequalities are so deeply embedded as to have become naturalised. This post is about the insidious presence of colonialism in situations wherein we assume its absence. The decolonial movement is relevant to us today precisely because of how deeply colonised we still are. My entry point into this discussion is an article by Ramon Grosfoguel called "Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality".
The article was one of my earliest introductions to decoloniality. As a movement decoloniality stems from the writings of certain Latin American thinkers including Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano and Nelson Maldonado-Torres, among others. The term has been picked up by other thinkers and movements, and there is much debate about the difference between decoloniality and postcolonialism. To my mind, one point of difference between the two is that decoloniality is extremely critical of modernity and sees it as hand-in-glove with coloniality and colonial oppression, whereas postcolonialism is critical of colonial oppression without that hostile valence for modernity. Decolonial scholars argue that the beginning of modernity and colonialism were forged in the same crucible in the fifteenth century, when Europeans set out for different worlds to conquer and rule. It is not that there had not been invasions, hostility and violence prior to that, but that these colonial/modern invasions brought into being certain hierarchies that captured human selves and imaginations in very specific ways that we have not been able to leave behind even today.
Image courtesy Brandon Archambault, "Why I Can't Stand Junot Diaz: Decolonial Love is About Hate, Not Love", Snakes on McCain, http://snakesonmccain.blogspot.com.au, first published Sunday, Feb 23, 2014.
In his article, Ramon inverts our narrative of colonialism in one significant way, offering a vantage point similar to the one delineated in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Instead of setting out with the colonisers and following their exploits and exploitations, he considers colonialism from the point of view of a native in a soon-to-be-colonised space, and how their world and world views turned upside down. Ramon outlines 15 hierarchies that came to the colonised world through the coloniser, and outlining them 'as if they were separate' vividly hits home the realisation that these intertwined hierarchies form the systems that we live in and that shape us. I quote directly from the article below:
"European/capitalist/military/Christian/patriarchal/white/heterosexual/male arrived in the Americas and established simultaneously in time and space several entangled global hierarchies that for purposes of clarity in this exposition I will list below as if they were separate from each other:
1) a particular global class formation where a diversity of forms of labor (slavery, semi-serfdom, wage labor, petty-commodity production, etc.) are going to co-exist and be organized by capital as a source of production of surplus value through the selling of commodities for a profit in the world market;
2) an international division of labor of core and periphery where capital organized labor in the periphery around coerced and authoritarian forms (Wallerstein 1974);
3) an inter-state system of politico-military organizations controlled by European males and institutionalized in colonial administrations (Wallerstein 1979);
4) a global racial/ethnic hierarchy that privileges European people over non-European people (Quijano 1993; 2000);
5) a global gender hierarchy that privileges males over females and European Judeo-Christian patriarchy over other forms of gender relations (Spivak 1988; Enloe 1990);
6) a sexual hierarchy that privileges heterosexuals over homosexuals and lesbians (it is important to remember that most indigenous peoples in the Americas did not consider sexuality among males a pathological behavior and had no homophobic ideology);
7) a spiritual hierarchy that privileges Christians over non-Christian/non-Western spiritualities institutionalized in the globalization of the Christian (Catholic and later, Protestant) church;
8) an epistemic hierarchy that privileges Western knowledge and cosmology over non-Western knowledge and cosmologies, and institutionalized in the global university system (Mignolo 1995, 2000; Quijano 1991);
9) a linguistic hierarchy between European languages and non-European languages that privileges communication and knowledge/theoretical production in the former and subalternize the latter as sole producers of folklore or culture but not of knowledge/theory (Mignolo 2000);
10) an aesthetic hierarchy of high art vs. naïve or primitive art where the West is considered superior high art and the non-West is considered as producers of inferior expressions of art institutionalized in Museums, Art Galleries and global art markets;
11) a pedagogical hierarchy where the Cartesian western forms of pedagogy are considered superior over non-Westerm concepts and practices of pedagogy;
12) a media/informational hierarchy where the West has the control over the means of global media production and information technology while the non-West do not have the means to make their points of view enter the global media networks;
13) an age hierarchy where the Western conception of productive life (ages between 15 and 65 years old) making disposable people above 65 years old are considered superior over non-Western forms of age classification, where the older the person, the more authority and respect he/she receives from the community;
14) an ecological hierarchy where the Western conceptions of “nature” (as an object that is a means towards an end) with its destruction of life (human and non-human) is privileged and considered superior over non-Western conceptions of the “ecology” such as Pachamama, Tawhid, or Tao (ecology or cosmos as subject that is an end in itself), which considers in its rationality the reproduction of life;
15) a spatial hierarchy that privileges the urban over the rural with the consequent destruction of rural communities, peasants and agrarian production at the world-scale."
I find this list incredibly useful, especially when I am trying to argue for an awareness of systemic inequalities. I think the list is pretty self-explanatory, but as illustration, let me caricature aspects of my life. Growing up in a liberalised world-view which set up the consuming individual at the apex of human being and took modernity for granted, I participated in most of these hierarchies. I read more English literature than Hindi, Gujarati or Indian literature in English translation; I knew more about Western art than Indian art. As far as Indian art was concerned, I could recognise only those that were very well-known (the Hussains and the Raja Ravi Vermas) or know folk forms of art without knowing individual artists (Madhubani and Mughal miniatures, for example). I saw the joint family system as a space of oppression (which it can be, but that need not be its only reality), the theories I used came largely from the West (from Plato to Derrida, I guess), except when reading postcolonial theory, wherein Said and Spivak would get honourable mention. I am still not outside of this system: I work on Gujarati literature, but I write out my conjectures and conclusions in English. I am part of a university system that is based in the West and studies 'India', just as I was once in an Indian university studying English.
As I said earlier, this is a caricature of aspects of my life. I have spoken up against oppression based on gender, sexuality or religion. I think those fights need to be fought, and decoloniality is not about a return to tradition only because it predates the colonial encounter. Decoloniality is about recognising that there are many different narratives around the world, and the Western models of liberalism and individualism are not universal and cannot be the sole arbiters of individual human lives around the world. Decoloniality is being aware of the limitations of modernity as a project, and deliberately being aware of other, perhaps more traditional, perhaps more alternative, ways of being. It is about being aware of the politics, not just of the world but of the institutions that we ourselves are complicit in. It is about being mindful of who you read and who you cite. A decolonial moment need not be complicated. The next time you consciously read a Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali or Marathi book, you are making a decolonial choice. The language of your childhood may no longer be a language you think in, but the good thing about languages is that they are never far from the surface.
NB: There is a decoloniality summer school in Barcelona for those interested. And for Ramon's article, email me if you want to read it.