An extended conversation between Aryan Kaganof and Walter Mignolo
What I don’t want to do, more than anything in the world, is bore anybody and scare them off with all that stuff about his being an esteemed professor, foremost authority on decolonization, blah blah shit. Fuck that. Walter’s important because of what he says and how he says it, not because of the academic accolades. Cut the crap. To the chase. Let Walter speak for himself. Here he is.
It was in the US that the “beyond semiotics” moment arrived. From August of 1969 when I went from Paris to the US in 1974, I was still working on semiotics, discourse analysis and literary theory. By the early 1980s for a confluence of reasons I became interested in the colonization of the Americas since the sixteenth century. Since I was trained in semiotics, I started researching and thinking and teaching and writing and lecturing, all kind of doings related to the process of thinking colonization. I concentrated on the colonization of the mind through signs: colonization of languages, of memory and of space. Twelve years of research ended up in The Darker Side of the Renaissance. Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization (1995).
That process generated the shift. I was not trying to do semiotics, or to do semiotics to “analyze” the colonization of America, even less to “apply” semiotics. I shifted and instead of using colonization to justify doing semiotics, I used semiotics to decolonize Eurocentered knowledge and understanding that dominated the scene at that point. There were already other studies bringing these issues to the table. Ngũgĩwa T’hiongo published Decolonization of the Mind in 1987; Gloria Anzaldúa published Borderland/La frontera in the same year. Rolena Adorno published Guaman Poma de Ayala: Writing and Resistance in Colonial Peru, 1986. I was no longer doing semiotics. I was doing research to understand the long process (five centuries) of who classifies and who are classified and since classification is a question of knowledge the one who classify are the ones who control knowledge. Once you or someone is classified as dwelling in the border of knowing than he or she is being seen as X. That is why racism and sexism are inventions; are fictions, are classifications by whoever is in a position to classify. De-racialization and de-sexualization is a problem of knowledge, of decolonizing colonial knowledge about the standards of humanity and generating decolonial knowledge and understanding. What does it mean to be human is no longer a question that can be answered from the discipline. It only can be answered by the thinking and doing by people who have been racialized and sexualized. Epistemic, ethical and political leadership cannot be in the disciplines any more. It should and is coming from the life, thinking and doing (generating all kinds of knowledge and understanding and reducing disciplinary knowledge and scientific pretense to solve these kinds of human problems). Epistemic disobedience and border thinking are the pillars of de-racializing and de-sexualizing (that is, decolonizing) knowledge, feelings and understanding.
Saying that decoloniality is an option, means two things: it is a notion, not a mission. And second, once you present decoloniality as an option, an option of knowing, understanding, emotioning, living and being, everything else is an option. We live among options, options are systems of beliefs, ideas and disciplinary formations that make you believe that the world is as a given option says it is. That is everything being an option means that we do not see what there is but we see what we see. Period.
To understand why the decolonial is conceived as an option, it is important first to understand the difference between decolonization and decoloniality. Better yet, to understand decoloniality after decolonization. Not post-, please! During the Cold War decolonization in Africa and in Asia consisted basically in the idea of taking control of the State, that is, the structure of governance and sending the imperial guys home. In that sense, decolonization was in many places a success. But it was a failure at the same time. The failure was that the form of governance called nation-state was not questioned. And of course, it did not question the hegemonic economic structure, which since the sixteenth century has been economic coloniality. Liberals like Max Weber called it capitalism. And Marxists like Lenin called it capitalism. Both agree. The first liked it, the second didn’t.
Decoloniality came into being in the nineties. It came into being with the necessary complement, coloniality. Notice there is not a dichotomy here. It is an entangled necessity: because coloniality is in place, decoloniality is necessary. Without coloniality there is no need for decoloniality. Now, what is coloniality? Coloniality is not colonialism. Colonialism is historical manifestations of colonialist: Spanish colonialism, French colonialism, British colonialism, Russian colonialism, Soviet colonialism, etc. Coloniality is the common logic of all of them. But we do not talk about coloniality in the Roman Empire, for example. The Roman Empire functioned with a different economy, not the economy that liberal and Marxists call capitalism.
Decoloniality entered as an option in the vast sphere of knowledge that has been created in the West (Western Europe) since the European renaissance. Vast systems of beliefs and ideas, like Western Christianity, liberalism, Marxism—on the one hand—and disciplinary formations on the other, managed to make you believe that all other systems of knowledge are somehow deficient and sometimes dangerous. That system of knowledge, beliefs, ideas, disciplines that has been self-defined as “modernity.” Modernity is a narrative of salvation, and salvation is legitimized by knowledge. The set of narratives self-defined by those who benefit from such narratives, hides coloniality, the logic that justify colonizations, exploitations, justifies racism and sexism, etc. Decoloniality is an option that operates in two venues: the analytic of modernity/colonialist (how it was formed, transformed, manipulated, disputed) and, on the other hand, envisioning and engaging in the collective building of decolonial futures.
Colonitality is not over, it’s all over
Former colonialisms are practically over. Colonialism understood as one State (normally called country) takes over other regions in which the Western form of State was not in place. They had different ways of governing. Look around since 1500. Europeans transplanted a monarchic form of the State in the New World and after the US and French revolutions, they imported (this time with the help of the local collaborators), the bourgeois and secular State form. Settler colonialism took two forms: state enterprise (like the Spanish in South America or the British in India since mid-nineteenth century—before then the British were doing commerce but not investing in controlling governance).
At the same time, colonialism without colonialism emerged. In South America, for example, England and France re-organized coloniality in such a way that they managed the economy, politics and knowledge without a single colony. Another example: China was never colonized, but they did not escape coloniality. The Opium War in the mid nineteenth century derailed the inward history of China and the inward history of Europe was to extend its tentacles. Nowadays we forget that the drug cartels and the commercialization of drug were initiated by British imperialism in China.
Coloniality, as I said before, is the common logic of all colonialisms. Coloniality doesn’t need colonialism any more. It established itself as the necessary weapon of modernity: modernity promises you that life will be better if you become Christian, for example, or if you adopt Western civilizing conducts or if you develop. And you may believe it. That is how coloniality works hiding behind the promises of modernity. For that reason coloniality is not over but it is all over, as Samantha Fong (reflecting on her experience as Singaporean in London and in the US) puts it.
Decoloniality is not a discioline, It’s an undiscipline
To think, and to think well, doesn’t require disciplinary demands and presuppositions. On the contrary, the disciplines impose restrictions on your creativity. That is why art and literature are relevant in this case. Art and literature offer the possibilities of thinking beyond disciplinary restrictions. Of course, there are artist and writers who like to follow order, and that is fine.
Coloniality is a concept that did not come from any particular discipline. Anibal Quijano, who introduced the term, was trained as a sociologist. But, you know, doing sociology in the Third World is not looked at seriously by the International Association of Sociology and other equivalent associations unless you are a devotional follower and believer in science and the social science. I have a friend, a Brazilian sociologist, very creative, and he told me that he is seen as doing Cultural Studies not Sociology. Decolonization, during the Cold War, was a concept whose origins are obscure but its use was beyond the discipline. It was an undisciplinary concept. And decoloniality follows suit. It emerged together with coloniality and now these are the guiding concepts of practitioners of several disciplines. However, each of us are not trying to incorporate coloniality and decoloniality to a given discipline, to improve it or to update it, but are using the disciplines to improve and update of social, economic and epistemic un-justices covered by the rhetoric of modernity and enacted by the logic of coloniality. We are doing this from different disciplines, our thinking and doing is at best transdisciplinary, but more so undisciplinary. For it is not enough to question the disciplines if your questioning remains within disciplinary rules.
Sumak Kawsay (South American Andes) & UBUNTU (Andes)
Sumak Kawsay is a Quichua word (not Quechua). Quichua is spoken in Ecuador and Kechua in Peru and Bolivia. It is translated as “to live well.” In reality, “kawsay” could be translated as knowledge and life. Strange, no? Well, it so happens that every living organism in order to live has to know. If it doesn’t it will perish. Western knowledge separated the two and invented sciences like biology and zoology to study life and by so doing separated life from knowledge. And “sumak” means plenitude, fullness, so Sumak Kawsay could be translated “to live in plenitude, to have a full life in plenitude and harmony.” The same expression in Aymara, a language spoken in Bolivia, is Sumaq Qamaña. The meaning is the same.
The meaning of Sumak Kawsay is parallel to Ubuntu. Both terms are ambiguous and controversial, but there is something that cannot be denied: it takes us away from the imperial and totalitarian vocabulary of Western sciences, disciplines and doxa-knowledge (the common knowledge transmitted and derived from sciences and disciplines).
To live in plenitude and harmony means to live with others in love not in competition. To live in harmony doesn’t mean to strive to live better than your neighbor and to have more than him or her. To live in harmony in plenitude doesn’t mean to be a better consumer and to have more. Or to have a position in government or a bank and take advantage of the possibility of corruption and personal enrichment that both institutions allows.
True that these expressions like any other would be appropriated by government or corporations. And this is happening. So the question is not to abandon them and look for new ones for the same will happen again. It is to enter into the struggle for the control of meaning. In South America Sumak Kawsay is a point of encounter a connector for people (indigenous and non-indigenous) who show the limits of democracy and development, for democracy and development are fictions to justify oppression and exploitation. Sumak Kawsay offers another vision of life, of government and economy.
There is a similar expression in Mandarin, “He”, it means living in harmony. True, the State appropriated it to justify their own conception of government and to argue that China is unlikely to follow Western fictions called democracy and they will go on their own way on development, without the “recommendations” of the IMF and the World Bank. So we are entering other worlds. Certainly, not paradise, but at least the fact that there is not only one- way to live, even under State form and capitalism. South Africa is a BRICS country, and BRICS are something more than other dewesternizing countries. China and Russia lead the way. India is ambiguous but is there. South Africa is ambiguous but is there. Brazil took a clear stanza under Lula. Things are getting complicated now, but the party ruling the State is clearly dewesternizing. But be careful. Dewesternizing is not decoloniality. They both have something in common, but dewesternization is still maintaining the secular bourgeois state-form that came up in Europe in the nineteenth century and it is not questioning capitalism. The best they can do it is to use economic strength to gain political independence. Like China and Russia, mainly. But also Turkey and Indonesia.
Doing = Thinking = Doing
Modernity accustomed us to think that on the one hand there is theory and on the other there is praxis. Your think and then you do(or someone else does). The question is, what do you do when you think? Well, it seems to me that you are doing something: you are doing thinking. On the other hand, when you do something else than doing thinking, let’s say that you are building a table, directing a bank, joining a manifestation to protest neoliberalism or femicide, or educating your child, etc. etc., you are not thinking? Have you done the thought before you were doing what you are doing and now you are doing it, or are you thinking while you are doing which takes you to thinking differently or in more detail on what you are doing and thinking about your doing?
I think that modern separation of praxis and theory has to do with the separation of soul and body in Christianity and mind and body in secular philosophy. When you think your body takes a vacation. And when you do your mind takes vacation. Absurd. But it works well for it also justified the distribution of all kind of labor. And the exploitation of labor: the exploiter in general think, the exploited in general do. If you do when you think you will be stupid if you still accept that thinking and doing are two different things and you volunteer yourself to be a slave or a serf of those who think. Decolonially, thinking is doing and doing is thinking.
You do film, right? I do writing, right? I suppose that doing film and writing presupposes thinking. It is true that you can think without doing film or doing writing. So, in that case, you just do thinking. Unless thinking is doing nothing, which is absurd. But on such absurd assumptions the distinction theory and praxis was built. My understanding is that the distinction between theory and praxis presupposes of course that theory is not praxis and praxis is not theory. Or in our, yours and mine, theory is doing theory and praxis is thinking praxis. Another blind spot is that theory is understood as being a blue print for actions. So you think and draw a design to build a table and you then build a table. The consequences of the modern distinction between theory and praxis are enormous. Among others, it sets up the conditions for an elite of people who think and the masses of people who do.
Theory and praxis also mean that you are an intellectual and think and then you go with the people and do. The fallacy here is that “da people¨ are thinking beings who think about their situation and beyond doing thinking they think in doing what is best for them, even when that best is survival, like the horrible situation in Europe with migrants from Africa and from the Middle East. So, briefly, the distinction between praxis and theory shall be undone for it can do a lot of damage. That undoing in the terms I just expressed is decolonial un-doing. But to un- do you have also to un-think the distinction theory and praxis.
The bottom line is that the narrative of modernity and the separation of theory and praxis were successful in inventing and maintaining forms of control. Racism and sexism are right consequences of this picture. Inferior races and inferior sexes are inferior because they cannot think properly, that is, they are epistemically inferior. And since they are epistemically inferior they are also ontological inferior. But all of this is a fiction, the fiction of modern and Eurocentered epistemology (from religious beliefs to disciplinary knowledge). Decolonizing knowledge means to delink from the logic of classification for without that the content of the classification cannot be challenged. And it cannot be challenged because you keep on thinking in the logic of the master and, therefore, you remain under His spell.
Decolonising the university
This is a huge issue and I see quite a bit of confusion when the expression “decolonizing X” is used. In general I see that most of the time the expression is used without making clear what decolonizing means and what “X” (whatever is attempted to be decolonized) means. I just read an announcement of a conference “Decolonizing Switzerland.” Beyond the fact that decolonizing a nation-state (a country as people say) is a huge task, for the nation-state today is an inter-state system of about 190+ states, and you cannot decolonize one state without dismantling the system. Briefly, it is an ethical and political responsibility to propose to decolonize whatever if you do not analyze how that whatever has come into being. And the “whatever” we confront now all have been brought into being by modernity/coloniality.
So, the first task of decolonizing X or “whatever” is to analyze how they came into being and how they became into being because of modernity/coloniality. Once you know that, then the next step is to figure this out in a collective (for it is absurd to think that one person could decolonize or bring communism into being). Modernity/coloniality is a collective work by many people (not necessarily working together in a project) who did what they did because they consciously or unconsciously believed in the march of history and the destiny of the human kind without thinking that they were enacting coloniality. That is, their contribution to what they believe was the march of history was at the same time the production of death.
To make clear what I mean I would like to propose the following scenario: Decolonizing Switzerland (of France, or South Africa, or Bolivia, etc.) requires knowledge and understanding of the historical foundation and formation of the nation-state form. For Switzerland is a nation-state and you cannot decolonize the name of a country. Or you can, but it will really be a futile effort. Same with “decolonizing the university.” The university is a long lasting institution. It is a medieval European invention, then reformed during the renaissance, then again during the eighteenth century, and now is being transformed into corporate institutions of higher learning. No other place of the world had universities before the sixteenth century, when Europe transplanted the renaissance universities to the Americas. Now, the fact that no one else had universities did not mean that there were not houses of higher learning. Islam had the madrasas, the Aztec the calmemac, the Incas yachay huasi, China had institutions where Confucius and Mencius were discussed, as Aristotle and Plato were discussed in European medieval and renaissance houses of high learning that they called universities, derived from universum.
The derived meaning could be understood as the unification of learning. Hence the fiction of universal knowledge that Western disciplines arrogated to themselves. We can go on and on. The point I want to make is you cannot just talk about decolonizing the university if you do not know what you are decolonizing. And to do so you have to understand a) the formation of the European university; b) the imperial/colonial function of European universities. Like the State, universities were crucial tools of imperial expansion and colonization of knowledge. So, the question is that decolonizing the university shall be specified: to decolonize the institution and to decolonize knowledge. These are two different tasks in two different fields. There is a significant bibliography about both tasks. The question is that decolonizing knowledge is an enterprise that can be done in part within the university; and decolonizing the university means to create institutions of high learning that respond to different needs. For instance, Amawtay Wasi and Universidad de la Tierra in the South American Andes and Southern Mexico respectively.
In a nutshell, decolonizing the university shall start by decolonizing knowing and knowledge because the university is a locus of enunciation and a factory that produces knowledge. The factory is a doing that requires thinking. And to decolonize the doing that did the university you have to decolonize the thinking that thought, enacted, transformed, and adapted the university.
The difference between education and training
On this point, I would like to start with a paragraph by Ivan Illich that I often quote and read to my students. It is not about the university or higher education; it is about education in general. The small and influential book, of which this paragraph is the opening one, is titled Deschooling Society (Mexico, 1970). The title in Spanish is La sociedad desescolarizada. You see the meaning of the “des.” In Spanish it is clear that society has been deschooled. In English it is ambiguous to me. The closer interpretation I can make is to say that society is being deschooled. Who does it? What and where is the deschooling agency? Let’s read the paragraph in question:
Why We Must Disestablish School.
“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions that claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.
In these essays, I will show that the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery. I will explain how this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or “treatments.” I do this because I believe that most of the research now going on about the future tends to advocate further increases in the institutionalization of values and that we must define conditions which would permit precisely the contrary to happen. We need research on the possible use of technology to create institutions that serve personal, creative, and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values that cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats. We need counterfoil research to current futurology.”
You got the picture. Technological training in all the disciplines is necessary, chiefly in disciplines that have a practical impact on everyday life, like medicine or engineering or, today, computers. But to make of training the foundation of an ethic and politics of education, is a derailing of conviviality. And that is what is happening now and that is what Ivan Illich already perceived in the seventies. If you read carefully the paragraph, sentence by sentence, example by example, you will realize that Illich is saying in his own words that the promises and the illusions created by the discourses of modernity are indeed the ends justifying the means. That is, confusing training with education. And here is where we are now in all orders of life. Corporative education is filling the universities and con-fusing health with the pharmaceutical industry, education with more money and more resources, security with more police, etc. etc.
The cart has been placed in front of the horse. It is of the essence, and this is the decolonial contribution, to place again the horse in front of the cart. That is the priority of education over training instead of training over education.
Bleeding and decolonial aesthesis
In our earlier conversation about borders I mentioned Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana thinker and activist whose influence is among Latino/as but also beyond, could be compared with Steve Biko in South Africa. Biko is known for his celebration of Black consciousness and Anzaldúa for the celebration of “la conciencia de la mestizo” (the mestizo consciousness). “Mestizo” it is not a question of blood but a question of culture, like Black is not a question of skin but of culture. That is, Biko and Anzaldúa are responding to the racialization of Black in South Africa and of Mexican-American (Chicanos and Chicanas, more generally Latinos/as). Racialization is not in Biko’s black skin or Anzaldua’s brown skin, but in the consciousness of the whites who invented racism (for racism is not in the people but in the white consciousness) and used skin color, among other markers, to devalue all people of non-white color. This is again what Fanon uncovered with the concept of socio-genesis.
“Bleeding” in Anzaldua is located in the border and bleeding is the manifestation of the colonial wound. Bleeding is literal and metaphorical. But let’s listen to Anzaldua, since I do not believe South African readers are familiar with her work, thinking and doing:
—“The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture. Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.” Gringos in the U.S. Southwest consider the inhabitants of the borderlands transgressors, aliens — whether they possess documents or not, whether they’re Chicanos, Indians or Blacks. Do not enter; trespassers will be raped, maimed, strangled, gassed, shot. The only “legitimate” inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with whites. Tension grips the inhabitants of the borderlands like a virus. Ambivalence and unrest reside there and death is no stranger.”—
How does “bleeding” connect with decolonial aesthesis? And what decolonial aesthesis means? Remember that for the collective identified with this expression, coloniality is constitutive of modernity; there is no modernity without coloniality. We also write “aesthesis” to distinguish it from “aesThetics”. Aesthetics or esthetics is a branch of philosophy that arose in the eighteen century and it is a monumental discourse to control “aesthesis” by means of regulation of taste and the consecration of the artist genius who create objects that should be admired. Aesthesis in Greek means sensing, feeling, emotioning. So, the colonial aesthetic wound happens when, like Kant did, the actors and institutions that control knowledge dismiss and disavowed expressions similar to the European but in other cultures or civilizations. For Kant, literally, people of non-white color were laughable in terms of their capability and competence to appreciate the beautiful and the sublime. Now what we are witnessing around the world is the intervention of people of non-white color to reject white aesthetics & privileges and bring about the explosions of repressed, dismissed and disavowed aestheSis: the aestheSis that both emerges from the colonial wounds and as the decolonization of aesthetics and the liberation of aestheSis bring about communal colonial healings.
Professor Walter Mignolo and I spoke over a period of three weeks while he was a Fellow at STIAS (Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study) where I was Artist-In Residence in July and August of this year, making a documentary film about the Open Stellenbosch student movement for social justice.