Questioning the fetish for newness in the marketplace of theory.
The recent years have seen the rise of a distinct and powerful critique assembled under the name “decolonial”. One might find it difficult to pin down. Do we call it the suggestive “decolonial critique”, the substantive “decolonial thought”, the mild “decolonial perspective” or the more neutral and therefore taming “decolonial studies”? While all the possibilities of pinning down the “decolonial” are often pluralized, for example, “decolonial thoughts”, a “decolonial turn” (singular) has been announced here and there. Ramón Grosfoguel and Santiago Castro-Gómez published an edited volume titled precisely that: El giro descolonial (The Decolonial Turn). Articles, journals etc. start to turn to this new terrain of inquiry. Walter Mignolo proposes an alternative, “decolonial option” and spends some considerable ink on theorizing the “option” bit.
Rapidly, those who work outside of the Anglophone hegemony and especially outside of the marketing departments of academic publishing powerhouses, that incessantly create new “schools of thought” and new “turns” as selling points, try to figure out if one should add an “s” to the Spanish “decolonial” – should it be descolonial or decolonial. While Edward Said, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, the “holy trinity” of postcolonial theory, all produced in the English language in highly privileged places of higher learning, have been widely translated and received in the Americas, Asia and elsewhere, a new “school of thought” that turns us towards the “decolonial”, bearing another set of names, say, Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano and María Lugones, among others, emerge as a novelty yet to be translated and digested as decolonial theorists by the colonized “periphery”.
On the other side of the pacific, Chinese translators painstakingly transliterate “Mignolo” and got it wrongly as “米格罗罗”, reproducing not a Spanish but an English pronunciation of that unusual family name “Mignolo”, separating the “g” and the “n”. His Italo-Argentinian background does not have much bearing on the translator’s decision on which phonetic rule to follow. They chose to follow the English one. After all, they cannot be said to wrongly see him as a US American and therefore an English-speaking scholar. Marked as of different methodological and epistemological concerns than those of postcolonial critique, “decolonial X” seems to have attained much attention in recent years in academia, contemporary art, and the publishing world. The fashion industry is yet to catch up. Postcolonial theory has been gradually taken as a passé together with poststructuralism or perhaps even feminism. My own work has if not contributed to but certainly benefited from this trend.
Another very well-known supersessionism of theory is that of feminist “waves”. Now not only has feminism entered into its so-called post- or even post- post- era, but it is also said to have been superseded by queer theory, queer theory by “queer of color critique” and further by transgender theory. For example, Judith Butler in a recent interview with Sara Ahmed suggests “updating ‘queer’ to be trans-inclusive’. The pedagogic necessity and historic specificity of periodization notwithstanding, this supersessionism of theory inadvertently reproduces a teleological narrative of advancement and a unique genealogy that in turn is susceptible to critique and in need of “updates” to “include” those who have always already been in the origin, heart, and frontier of queer movement, activist, theoretical or otherwise, not unlike the decolonial Xs.
The disruptive energy of these critical reflections, epistemic disobedience, and political engagement has soon been appropriated in the marketplace of theory, one after another, as new and newer schools of thought. Perhaps the most useful tools of taming the unruly lies not in its dismissal but precisely in its fetischization and tokenization. Hasn’t David Halperin, in his caution against the normalization of queer theory, asked ironically “who even remember The New Historicism?” (1) He argues, “[t]hose working in English, history, classics, anthropology, sociology, or religion would now have the option of using queer theory, as they had previously used Deconstruction, to advance the practice of their disciplines – by “queering” them”. (2) “Queering something” might, after 15 years of the publication of Halperin’s article, seem to already be out of fashion, already replaceable by “decolonizing something”. One is tempted to ask: what’s next?
"Supersessionism of theory inadvertently reproduces a teleological narrative of advancement and a unique genealogy that in turn is susceptible to critique and in need of “updates” to “include” those who have always already been at the heart of queer movement, activist, theoretical or otherwise, not unlike the decolonial Xs."
Similar to the fact that “queer theory posed no threat to the monopoly of the established disciplines; on the contrary, [it] could be incorporated into each of them” (3), the fashionable “decolonizing-X” is having the same risk of being turned into yet another harmless and eventually disposable cosmetic “school of thought”, once the season is over.
The research on decolonization across the “non-West” and the call for further decolonization (within and beyond the academia) by a handful of contemporary thinkers have been gradually received and turned into another “school of thought”, alternatingly named “decolonial option” or “decolonial theory”. It seems sufficient to just quote Mignolo (or Quijano for that matter) in order to “decolonize something”. The local variants of political resistance, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles and non-heterosexualist cultural practices that decolonial theorists urge us to learn from, remain either the same object of study or again completely overlooked. This is a rather worrisome phenomenon for decolonization. Simply because decolonial struggles have always existed, since day one of colonization in different localities, languages and ways. If, as the now widely cited decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo rightly points out: “[t]he colonial experience in South America and the Caribbean did not have to wait until the word postcolonialism entered the U.S. academy in the early 1980s, after the word postmodernism was introduced in France” (4), decolonial endeavors have preceded and will surpass the conveniently named “decolonial theory”.
The danger of supersessionism manifests, for example, at this previous quotation in which Mignolo reproduces the myth of postmodernism’s French origin. The strong advocate of studying decoloniality from Latin America has, in his repudiation of postcolonialism, ignored that both modernism and postmodernism “were born in a distant periphery rather than at the center of the cultural system of the time: they come not from Europe or the United States, but from Hispanic America”. (5)
Similar examples abound. Such as: the systematic exclusion of Latin America from several anthologies of postcolonial studies including classics such as The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (6); or Spivak’s assertion that “Latin America did not participate in decolonization”. (7)
The “decolonial turn”, as it has been more and more frequently used, should not be taken as an overarching proper name for a supposedly newly emergent school of thought. It is, however, an invitation, to learn to learn from decolonial struggles, theories, and practices that abound in the colonized world.
This contribution is part of Issue 15: DECOLOMANIA, on art history, the history of politics, and the history of theory: all of them colonized and colonizing, much like our very selves.