Interview with Walter Mignolo: Activism, Trajectory, and Key Concepts

Alvina Hoffmann Interviews Walter Mignolo.1 This interview first appeared in E-International Relations.

 

Where do you see the most exciting debates happening in the field of cultural theory?

In general, the most interesting are the varieties of creative thinking and doing (publications, exhibits, artists, organizations, web networks) coming from the non-European regions of the planet and from immigrants in Western Europe and the US. I see a parallel between two apparently disconnected spheres of life: the closing of five hundred years of the forming and consolidation of Western Civilization (since the Renaissance and its darker side, coloniality) in the political, economic, diplomatic and military sphere and the closing of intellectual domination of Western thoughts (meaning Western Europe and the US, that is, the North Atlantic) and the rapid disobedient attitudes and creativity. This originates from millions of intellectuals from all walks of life that have been classified as lesser humans or not quite human due to their race, gender and sexuality, religions, languages, and not-being from the First World.

In particular, I would say that the most exiting debates are in the variety of de-westernizing and decolonial forces. I am not saying that Western Civilization is ending; no, what is ending is the pretense of Westernizing the world. I am not saying that capitalism is ending. No, I am saying that is no longer controlled by former Western Europe and Anglo-US. Decoloniality at large is taking place in the growing emerging global political society, that includes intellectuals, scholars, artists, curators and all sort of organizations of people who realize that they do not have anything more to expect from the State, the banks and the corporations.

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

I went to the university in the mid-60s, at the peak of the Cold War. First, I studied philosophy, then moved to literature, and also engaged in anthropology, to finally go to Paris at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s to study semiology (related to discourse analysis and literary theory). This was a result of my encounter with structuralism and post-structuralism which in Argentina and South America slowly gained ground, adding to Third World debates on dependency theory and liberation theology.

The world for me at that point was composed of two spheres: Third World issues and French intellectual debates. Third world issues were not of course of concern in Western Europe. Decolonization had been the hot debate in France in the 50s, and early 60s (Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth with Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface was published in 1961). By 1966, the wind had changed, the turmoil of 1968 in Paris and Prague were still there, but that was not a Third World problem. Those were problems within the First World (France) and the Second World (Czechoslovakia). So, I was trying to figure out all of this while working on my dissertation.

I moved to the US in 1974. Still a Cold War but with a different configuration. In the US I ‘discovered’ the so-called Hispanic population (now Latino/as), and without knowing it I was seen as one of them. Although I have white skin and blue eyes, my accent betrayed me!! See, racism is larger than skin color. It is a classification. Racism is epistemic; a pre-packaged classification of people where some classify and the rest are classified. Once you are classified, you have to figure out where you have been classified in the racial horizon of coloniality. So at that point, semiology and all the French debates that were so exiting a few years ago began to fade away. I shifted my focus to investigate colonialism, beginning from where Western colonialism that started in the land that they, the Europeans, baptized America and more specifically with 16th century South/Central America and the Caribbean. In North America, meaning, North of Mexico, the 16th century was practically empty of Europeans. It was in the 17th century that contingents of Pilgrims arrived to the North East of today’s US.

The encounter with the ‘Hispanic’ made me understand immigrant consciousness, which I couldn’t see in Argentina. I ‘felt’ that my family and myself did not belong to the country, but I did not have an explanation. At that point semiology became a tool to understand myself, and the history of people like me, that is, people dwelling in immigrant consciousness. From there came the concept of ‘colonial difference’ and ‘border thinking’ that I learned from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderland/La Frontera. The New Mestiza (1987). If reading Roland Barthes in Argentina motivated me to go to Paris to study under his supervision, Gloria Anzaldúa, whom I did not know at the time of course (her book was published in 1987), motivated me to change direction: from semiology through a long route to the encounter with modernity/coloniality and, consequently, decoloniality.

The third moment was the encounter with Anibal Quijano in the mid-90s who taught us that modernity was half of the story hiding its darker side, coloniality. Thus, modernity/coloniality. And he taught us that decolonization after the Cold War was no longer motivated to ‘take hold of the State’. By that time, the decolonization in Asia and Africa had shown the reason of this failure: native elites taking control of the state and doing what the colonizer did, but in the name of nationalism. Quijano proposed that decolonization (now decoloniality) is an epistemic issue: epistemic reconstitution. What this means cannot be explained here. But the formula shall be retained. Others speak of re-emergence, re-surgence, re-existence. How you do it, would depend on your location in the colonial matrix of power. So there is no single blue print for epistemic reconstitution. And epistemic reconstitution means also changing your emotioning and your sensing not just your reasoning. And that is happening today on the planet, and that is exiting, as I mention before. This third moment enabled me to re-discover Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was translated into Spanish, in Mexico, in 1963. We read it, at that time at university. It did not say much to me at that point. But now after Anzaldúa and Quijano I was ready to go.

All these experiences allow me to explore and understand how the colonial matrix of power is being reshaped today. For once the colonial matrix of power is no longer controlled by Western institutions and actors who created it, transformed it and managed it for five centuries (Spain and Portugal, Holland, France and England, and finally the US were the drivers). Today coloniality is all over, and China, Russia, Iran, and the BRICS are disputing its management. Thus the “crisis” we all are living and experiencing now. De-westernization means the dispute for control of the colonial matrix of power.

So, here you have a short description of my own trajectory in the world order during and after the Cold War.

You developed the concept of decolonial aesthetics. What place does it inhabit in decolonial thinking and practice? 

Like in the case of decoloniality, I did my share in questioning the universal fiction named ‘aesthetics’, but the energy came from fellows in the collective. You start to realize that, for instance, ‘politics and political theory’ are indeed a Western/Euro-centered manner (both as right and as aberration) of conceiving governmental organization since Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic. What did the millenarian Chinese rulers, Huángdì, for example, have to do with the manner in which Greeks conceived and theorized social relations? What would the Incas or Aztecs have to do with Plato and Aristotle?

The same with aesthetics. To make a long story short, I will mention but not outline poetics, which was the equivalent of aesthetics before Baumgarten and Kant. So, in the collective we asked ourselves a similar question to yours: What is the role of aesthetics in the colonial matrix of power? As any other aspect of the colonial matrix of power, modern Western aesthetics managed sensing of the beautiful and the sublime by controlling taste and the artist’s genius to create a work of art. ‘Ars’ was the Latin translation of Greek poiesis. What are then the relations between art and aesthetics and poiesis and poetics? Poetics and aesthetics are philosophical discourses describing and regulating poiesis (making) and art (skill to make something). But all of that is very regional, that is, limited to the history of Europe and how Europe built itself on narratives tracing their origin in Greece and Rome.=

Western expansion was also the expansion of ‘uct pictura poiesis’ before the enlightenment and since the enlightenment expansion of artistic technique and art models and, concomitantly, of philosophical aesthetics. So that people outside of Europe were considered unable to understand and sense the beautiful and the sublime and therefore the ‘civilizing mission’.

Therefore we began to analyze the Eurocentric philosophical aesthetic and how this knowledge and understanding formed, managed and controlled subjectivities. Non-Europeans were supposed to be educated to understand what Europeans did and said. So that, to respond to your question, imperial/colonial aesthetics (from Kant’s modern aesthetics, to postmodern and altermodern versions) is a fundamental part in the formation and transformation of the colonial matrix of power, which means also, a powerful tool to silence non-Western conceptions of creativity and the corresponding place that such creativity has in the overall cosmo-sense of the civilization in question. What I have been telling you about politics and aesthetics is a fundamental decolonial task ‘to get at the core of Eurocentric knowledge production.’

You have been part of the collective movement ‘decolonial aestheSis’. What is the aim of this movement?

True is that ‘decolonial aesthesis’ is not a movement but an outgrowth of conversations that started in 2009 among people working around coloniality of power, which is a short hand for colonial matrix of power. It started in the PhD program at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, created and spirited by Catherine Walsh, where coloniality is a central topic of student training. The first follow-up was an exhibit-cum-workshop that took place in Bogotá in November of 2010 under the title Estéticas Decoloniales. It was again followed by an exhibit-cum-workshop at Duke University in May of 2011. From those meetings emerged the Manifesto, ‘Decolonial Aesthetics’, as well as Be.Bop (Black Europe Body Politics) that has been running since 2012 with the last edition in 2016 (Berlin and Copenhagen). A report by its curator, Alanna Lockward, can be found in the volume of Social Text devoted to decolonial aestheSis.

But that is not all. Since 2010 Rolando Vázquez and myself started a Decolonial Summer School in Middelburg, the Netherlands, under the auspices of University College Roosevelt, University of Utrecht, in Middelburg (the Netherlands). This summer school is connected to all of the above, decolonial artists are part of the team. It was here, in summer 2012, that the special volume where we launched the terms “aestheSis” originated. In that volume we gathered a number of artists, curators and thinkers that were involved in the trajectory I just traced from Quito to Bogota to Duke to Berlin to Copenhagen.

Now, why aestheSis? We started the argument based on “decolonial aesthetics”, stating that there is no universal aesthetics. What passes for such is “modern Eurocentric aesthetics” that willingly or not was part of the colonial matrix of power and, therefore, the measuring stick to rank people around the world and expect that all over the planet the ‘rule of aesthetic’ (like the rule of law) will prevail in Bolivia, China, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, West Asia (today the Middle East) etc. And in some sense it did. Local elites around the world applied the rules to their own benefits: trying to be like the European gives them an edge over the population they controlled. Decolonial aesthetics initiated a decolonial argument, philosophical and not artistic, confronting and delinking from modern/colonial aesthetics, from Kant to the modern/postmodern take by Rancière (philosopher) and Bourriaud’ s (curator and art critic) altermodern version.

With decolonial aesthetics we delinked from that debate . At that point we were working with ‘artists’ conversant with the decolonial project. The question I began to ask them was: What does a decolonial artist want? And what does decoloniality do for an ‘artist’?

When we start using ‘decolonial aestheSis’ we realized that aesthesis goes beyond art—aesthesis (sensing) is in everything with do. Aesthesis is in the sciences in everyday life, in the actors that rule banks and governments, in the military and the polices officers. Aesthesis is unavoidably a crucial dimension of human living and doing. Theories are grounded on aesthesis. Sciences and theories are ‘rational’ constructs built on aesthesis, for scientists and theorists are not (yet) robots. And if you are a human being you ‘sense’ everything you do. Science and philosophy may be rational constructs but the basic assumptions, the premises, are irrational, that is, they are aesthesic. We reached this point because when exploring and arguing decolonial aesthetics we, contrary to Rancière, whose archive never goes south of the Mediterranean, north of the Netherlands and Germany and never beyond Greece, we started from all the places, regions, times, spaces that are left out by modern/postmodern (and in between) aesthetics and in that move we are able to discover the wide dimension of aesthesis.

Regarding Bourriaud, he realized the limits of modern and postmodern/aesthetics and works by Euro-centered artists in Japan, Canada, the US and Australia. One of his principles is that artists all over the world use the same technique. Yes, maybe some, but there are others who use the same technique but sense differently, their memories and their dignified anger facing coloniality find the way out through ‘artistic’ expressions moving away from the cannon of Western art and modern/postmodern/altermodern aesthetics. Here you have an example of what I mean: my responses to Euro-centered essays on Las Meninas. Keep in mind that distinction between modern aesthetics/decolonial aesthesis that are built on arguments (argumentative skills) and art (imaginative-creative skills). Art means skill.

You may know that Rancière in his latest book uses the word ‘aiesthesis’. But the way he understands it is different to ours. While his book is from 2013, we, the collective, launched the project in November 2010 based on an article of mine published in 2009: Aiesthesis decolonial. As you see, decolonial aiesthesis is not a movement but it is part of the decolonial work that emerged and grew from Anibal Quijano’s foundational article of 1990, translated into English in 2007.

What role does art play in exposing the politics of coloniality?

Allow me to answer this question by telling you a story. Jeannette Elhers is—in her own words—a Danish-Trinidadian visual artist born and raised in Denmark. Whip it Good is her first acting (commonly referred to as performance). Previous works are based on moving images and powerful sound tracks. Whip it Good has two outlets: one is a video and the other the lived acting in various public places, where people sit around on the floor. And in some cases, like in one of her performance in the Art Center/South Florida, people walking on the street could stop and see the event through wide glass windows. Public performances end differently than the video. In the video, Jeannette takes a last look at the canvas and drops the whip. In public performances, she stops and looks at the audience, offering the whip to them. The canvas is finished by the audience in very tense and dramatic moments. Jeannette did seven performances, seven days in a row in London. After that she put up an exhibit with the seven canvases.

I am telling this story to engage you with Jeannette’s own words on her “art” and particularly with Whip it Good. I will address through Jeannette’s words (and of course together with her video and acting—which means, no distinction between theory and practice here: thinking is doing and doing is thinking), your question on ‘art exposing the politics of coloniality’.

In an interview, Jeannette was guided by the word “catharsis”, which was the goal of the Greek Tragedy according to Aristotle. Decolonial artists and thinkers translate catharsis to “colonial wound” for the simple reason that at the time of Aristotle, Western imperial/colonialism did not exist. And modern/colonial humiliations were not a human experience. The colonial wound refers to racism and sexism and the social classifications that ensue from them. Racism and sexism is a classification by people and institutions that control knowledge and have the power to classify and people who have no other choice than being classified. When you sense you have been classified as less, as lacking something, as not quite there, it hurts. And you may believe it. But one day you realize that the colonial wound has been inflicted by racist people and institutions in the name of humanity and democracy. So you get angry, and you begin to do something to confront that anger, with dignity. “Art” is one way of doing it. That is what Jeannette Elhers’ creativity does, a process of healing the colonial wound, for herself and for the people who engage and endorse her work.

And for readers-viewers familiar with Spanish languages, I offer this interview with Maya artist Benvenuto Chavajay, from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. At the end he explains the colonial wound and “art” creative enacting for decolonial healings. Art is political to the core but it is also sprinting from the borders: one memory, rationality and aesthesis imposing itself over other memories, rationalities and aestheses. Decolonial art cannot be but decolonially political. I said that because there are other forms of arts that are political but not necessarily decolonial. And of course, they do not have to be. Decolonial is not a totalitarian totality. It is just an option. The decolonial option.

How can the logic of coloniality be escaped?

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was a Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur and proponent of Pan Africanism and he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League movement. His dictums are legend and are collected in books. One of them was: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, non but ourselves can free our minds.” The sentence became better known through Bob Marley’s magnificent ‘Redemption Song’. I read and listen to him as a decolonial thinker, artist, philosopher and activist. We can no longer think that Luciano Pavarotti is a great singer and Bob Marley is a popular singer. They are both great, one in the greatness of modern culture, the other building decolonial culture.

So that is the answer: escaping from mental slavery (delinking) is the way to escape coloniality. However, escaping coloniality doesn’t mean that from one week to the next you would be totally free from coloniality. No, it is a long process and for that border thinking, doing and leaving is of the essence. So escaping means that you began to embody what modernity taught you to despise. And what you embodied that was despised depends on where you are living the experience of coloniality, in South Africa or in China, in France or in Argentina, Croatia or Canada, etc. But also, how you are experiencing coloniality, racially and sexually. Briefly escaping means to delink and become a person who values the communal rather than the individual, values conviviality rather than individual success, values slow motion rather than speed (be first, be the first, not let them pass you, all these modern-postmodern-stories that trap your subjectivity).

You developed the idea of decoloniality. Can you elaborate on it and briefly contrast it from postcolonialism?

My contribution is part of a larger conversation among fellows of the collectivemodernity/coloniality/decoloniality. We have been working in tandem since 1998, approximately. But allow me first to tell you a little bit more about the distinction we (in the collective) are making between decolonization and decoloniality. Decolonialization was the current expression during the Cold War to refer to the struggle of decolonization in Africa and Asia. The goal of decolonization was to take hold of the state. In many cases it was half-successful: the native elites of the colonized country were able to send the imperial officer, institutions and people home and to control the government. It was half-failure for two reasons: the native elites did exactly what the colonizers were doing but in the name of national sovereignty. The second reason is that decolonization left intact the political theory and political economy (e.g. Capitalism and the modern-bourgeois Western state-form of governance). In the long run, the consequences of the failure were the turmoil in the MENA countries, a mixture of national failure and imperial interventions.

With the end of the Soviet Union and therefore of the Cold War and the evidence already by the 90s that decolonization failed, it was necessary to think through what decolonization may mean. That was the moment when Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, who has been involved in the debate on dependency theory in South America in the late 60s and early 70s, came up with two groundbreaking ideas/concepts.

Coloniality was not a concept, it did not exist at the time. Quijano made a distinction between colonialism and coloniality. By colonialism he referred to Western imperial/colonial expansion that started with Christianity, Castile and Portugal mainly with the conquest and colonization of the Americas, but also the expansion to Asia (Macao was the first Portuguese colony in Asia; Spaniards were in the Philippines and Formosa [today Taiwan]). Thus, the West (meaning Western Christian to the West of Jerusalem with center in Rome) extended its arms and laid the foundation for modern/colonial globalization. After Castile and Portugal came the Dutch, the French and the British mainly (Germany and Italy were “minor” imperial powers). And then the US which maintained colonialism, but without colonies. That would be the history of Western modern/colonial expansion. We are not talking for example about Roman colonies and the Roman Empire. That is another story. Rome was imperial but not capitalist. Modern/colonial empires (Western Europeans) were the founders and managers of a type of economy we today name capitalism.

Quijano proposed coloniality to undrape the underlying logic of all Western (From Spain to England to the US) modern/colonial imperialisms. By so doing, Quijano made a second radical move: there is no modernity without coloniality, thus, modernity/coloniality are two sides of the same coin. Up until that moment everybody thought of modernity as a totality and colonialism as an unhappy situation that advancing modernity vision and ideals would end. Quijano’s proposal was that coloniality is a necessary component of modernity and therefore it cannot be ended if global imperial designs in the name of modernity continue. Coloniality, in other words, is the darker side of Western modernity.

First, and given this distinctive theoretical frame grounded on the colonial history of the Americas and subsequently of the world, Quijano proposed that the decolonial task (he was still using the term decolonization at that time but the meaning was what today we understand by decoloniality) consists in epistemic reconstitution. He meant that on the one hand there is a civilizational rhetoric (in the sense of persuasive discourses) of salvation being the West (West of Jerusalem, former Western Europe and the US), the savior and the rest in need of salvation. Salvation has several designs, all co-existing today, but that unfolded over 500 years, since 1500: salvation by conversion to Christianity, salvation by progress and civilization, salvation by development and modernization, salvation by global market democracy (e.g. neoliberalism). Thus, the rhetoric of modernity is the constant updating of the rhetoric of salvation hiding the logic of coloniality – war, destruction, racism, sexism, inequalities, injustice, etc. All the “bad” things people notice today in the world cannot be changed to improve while modernity/coloniality remain in place.

Second, at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, when Quijano launched his proposal, the US was still leading the world order. The end of the Soviet Union was seemingly the final triumph of the West. I understand Quijano’s claim that decoloniality requires epistemic reconstitution as the following:

a) Modernity/coloniality are the two pillars of Western Civilizations. The two pillars are supported by a complex and diverse structure of knowledge, basically, Christian Theology and Secular Sciences and Philosophy. That edifice is at its turn supported by specific institutions created in tandem with the structure of knowledge: knowledge requires actors and institutions, and actors and institutions conserve, expand, change the structure of knowledge but within the same matrix: the colonial matrix of power.

b) Decoloniality means first to delink (to detach) from that overall structure of knowledge in order to engage in an epistemic reconstitution. Reconstitution of what? Of ways of thinking, languages, ways of life and being in the world that the rhetoric of modernity disavowed and the logic of coloniality implement. The failure of decolonization during the Cold War was due, mainly, to the fact that the decolonization did not question the terms of the conversation, that is, did not question the structures of knowledge and subject formation (desires, beliefs, expectations) that were implanted in the colonies by the former colonizers.

Today, epistemic reconstitution is taking place in many places and in many forms. But this is not a task you can find in the state and inter-state relations. This is a task of what I would call the emerging global political society: people taking their/our destinies in their/our own hands because the states as well as international institutions (IMF, World Bank) etc. are not to serve the people but to mediate between states, corporations and banks.

The difference between the ‘post-‘ and the ‘de-‘colonial are both historical and conceptual (that is, theoretical and political). Historically, decolonization/decoloniality has its founding formulation in the Bandung Conference, of 1955 lead by Sukarno. Several paths unfolded since—there was the struggle for decolonization, I already mentioned, but also the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, in 1961, that gathered the Third World states during the Cold War between the First and the Second Word. The post-colonial as I understand it was derived from post-modernity. The foundations of the ‘post-‘ were the history of colonialism in India (Spivak, Bhabha) and Palestine (Said).

Briefly stated: post-colonialism and decoloniality have the history of Western colonialism in common. But while post-colonialism is based on the Indian and Palestinian experiences, they both are consequences of the enlightenment in 18th century Europe. While for us, the historical experiences are the colonization of America and the European Renaissance. That in what concerns the historical differences between the ‘post-’ and the ‘de-’. Conceptually, the ‘post’ keeps you trapped in unipolar time conceptions. As far as for Western (since the Renaissance) cosmology “time” is one, singular and universal, you have no way out: you are trapped in a universal time that is owned by a particular civilization. Therefore, what comes after X has to be conceptualized as post-X. Decoloniality instead opens up to the multiple times of cultures and civilizations upon which Western Civilizations impose its conceptualization of time. The ‘de-’indicates above all the need and the goal of the re-: epistemic reconstitutions, re-emergence, resurgence, re-existence. That is, neither new nor post.

You view modernity and coloniality as inseparable. How can Eurocentric modernity be critiqued in light of this colonial condition?

How can Eurocentric modernity be critiqued, in the way as we, in the collectivemodernity/coloniality/decoloniality have been doing it, as many others as well. The critique of Eurocentric modernity is neither a privilege nor a property right of decolonial thinking in the way I embrace and practice it. But I think the core of your question is that Eurocentrism first of all is not the only regional centrism in the history of humanity since the Axial Age.

The problem with Eurocentrism is not the right Europeans had/have (and then passed on to the US) to be Euro-centric. The problem is the aberration. Eurocentrism for me is tantamount with Western Civilization, and the aberration is common to both configurations. The aberration is to pretend that the rest of the world has to follow their lead (and the US) because their centrism is the ‘best’. Clearly an aberration, and we are all on the planet paying the consequences.

So the answer to your question is two sided: First, everyone critiquing Eurocentrism, doesn’t matter in which conceptual frame, is critiquing not the right of Europe to be Eurocentric (neither denying the contribution of Western modernity to the long history of the human species, one contribution among many), but the aberration: the pretense that Europe has achieved the perfect and happy stage of humanity and everybody else has to bend to it. Hence, the uni-linear concept of time, and the universal fictions invented to sustain that aberration; second, the specific way that decolonial thinking and analytic contributes to the growing dismantling of the Eurocentric/US aberration, is by

  • conceiving and analyzing the formation, transformation and management of the colonial matrix of power. The colonial matrix of power has been the tool, the instrument to enact the aberration;
  • by analyzing the consequences, yesterday and today, of the aberration devaluing, destroying, expropriating, killing, marginalizing everyone who doesn’t comply with the aberration, and
  • more important, being attentive to decolonial-oriented responses all over the world, including inside Europe and the US.

This response moves toward epistemic and emotional re-constitutions, reemergence, resurgences and re-existences. In a nutshell: people realizing the lies of modernity, Western Civilization, democracy etc., when they are at the service of advancing the aberration in the name of peace, progress, development and happiness. The era of Eurocentric aberration is ending, but its devastating consequences are far reaching.

Decoloniality blurs the boundaries between theory and practice, scholarship and activism. Why is decolonial analytics not enough to get to the core of the politics of knowledge production?

As I read your question, which follows the statement asserting that ‘decoloniality’ blurs the boundaries between theory and practices, scholarship and activism, I understand it to be asking for the relations between knowing, doing, sensing and believing; that is, the composite of body, nervous system, heart, brain, all the senses, hands, that make all of us the human species that has a particular way of living and knowing. For all organisms need to know in order to live (otherwise they will die), and at the same time they (and us) have to live in order to know. For without living there is no knowing and without knowing there is no living. Now, your question about the ‘core of the politics of knowledge production’ makes me think that you are assuming that decolonial analytics (and perhaps any analytics) is not enough to get to the core of the politics of knowledge production. So let me try to answer you question arguing for decolonial politics.

What shall be understood by decolonial politics? Well, first of all, that there is no “politics” by itself, politics without adjective. Politics without adjectives is one of the powerful universal fictions of Western modernity, philosophy of knowledge and of knowing. Western philosophy of knowledge and knowing (assumptions, principles, theories guiding the knowing an actual world-making knowledge) is ‘imperial/colonial politics’.

Consequently, to get to the core of the imperial/colonial politics of knowledge production, decolonial analytics may not be enough, but it could contribute to it. The imperial/colonial politics of knowledge production is to transform and at the same time maintain the colonial matrix of power. To do so, institutions like the University were transformed and adapted continuously. The University, as we know, is a medieval institution, but it was transformed in the Renaissance and was transplanted to the Americas. After the 18th century, the Renaissance University was transformed in Europe into the Kantian-Humboldtian university, which was also transplanted and became the model to transform the universities in the Americas from Renaissance type into Enlightenment type universities. A new curriculum (Kant) oriented to the formation of citizens in the emerging nation-states in Europe.

Now decolonial politics is enough and necessary to understand the Eurocentric (imperial/colonial) politics of knowledge. As far as I know, there is no other “theory” that has exposed the strategies of epistemic Eurocentrism as we are doing. The subsequent question is to move from decolonial politics of knowledge analytic to decolonial politics world-making. And that is precisely when delinking and epistemic reconstitution comes to the fore; and that is the moment in which re-constitution, resurgence, reemergence, re-existence lead the way to ‘emancipate ourselves from mental slavery’. Briefly, decolonial analytics and decolonial enactment are two sides of the same movement. Decolonial analysis is not a scholarly enterprise, although it may follow scholarly procedures. Our goals are not to update or improve a discipline. To the contrary, we are using the disciplines (whatever the disciplines are of the disciplinary training of fellows in the collective), to advance political goals in all the domains of the colonial matrix of power (knowledge, politics, economy, subjectivity, gender/sexuality, race/racism, nature/living). This reversal is a fundamental move to blur the lines separating theory/praxis and scholarship/activism.

In sum, if the decolonial politics analysis unveils the core of imperial/colonial knowledge production, enacting decolonial politics in work-knowing making (emotioning and reasoning) is necessary to delink from the core of the imperial/politics of knowledge production. I think I have addressed your question, or at least part of it, in my essay ‘Epistemic disobedience: independent thought and decolonial freedom’.

In “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference” you mention a planetary dimension of human history which remains silenced. Can you describe this image of human history and expose the dominant forces enabling this silencing?

First, we (in the collective modernity/coloniality/decoloniality) trace the origination of the institutional and conceptual (theoretical, empirical and political) uni-verse of meaning around 1500, when Christian theology and the transplant of the Renaissance uni-versity to the New World, implies silencing, disavowing, shattering down, demonizing co-existing ways of knowing, sensing, believing and living/being in the world. Incas or Aztecs, to take two of the better-known civilizations, were not perfect, but neither were Christians. However, Christians managed to install, by military force, institutional settlements, actors in those institutions and languages (Spanish and Portuguese grounded in Greek and Latin), their world-sense and world-view (cosmo-sense and cosmo-vision) over the co-existing ones. That was the beginning of a long history that lasts until today, although in a growing dispute of Western self-asserting privileges and superiority.

Second, conceptually, these arguments have been advanced by us in the collective. My version is in the article you quote from 2002, as well as a shorter and updated version in a more recent one, published in 2013: “Geopolitics of sensing and knowing: On (de) coloniality, border thinking and epistemic disobedience.” The genesis of Europe and Eurocentrism is often analyzed by European scholars as a phenomenon which was an isolated outcome of an isolated history, that of Europe. Whether you take, for example among many, Vassilis Lambropoulos’s The Rise of Eurocentrism (1993) or Gonzalo Bravo Castañeda, editor, La Caíd del Imperio Romano y la Génesis de Europa (2001), all are analyses from Greece on or from Rome on. For us, the collective who are not Europeans, that history, memories, sensibility, concerns and interests are alien. We are concerned with Europe since 1500 when it invaded the lands that they named America with all the consequences for Pueblos Originarios, Africans and people of European descent, whether thankful to Europe for bringing civilization to the Americas or ungrateful to Europe for bringing death, genocide, exploitation, and silencing and disavowing non-European knowledge and way of living. Thus, for us, the ‘beginning’ is neither Greece nor Rome but the formation of the Atlantic Commercial Circuit that for the first time in the history of humanity connected the planet by European navigators. This is historical. What we are interested in is at that moment the colonial matrix of power was formed and it was a European invention in the name of salvation to justify their crimes.

From then on, the colonial matrix of power operates in two simultaneous movements: building itself as a civilizational project and destroying other civilizations. That means, silencing, disavowing, racializing in a vast vocabulary from barbarians, to primitives, from communists to terrorists. It happened in the 16th century with the dismantling of ancient civilizations of the Americas, and happened in similar fashion in Iraq at the beginning of the 21st century. In the sixteenth century silencing needed missionaries to rebuild knowledge they destroyed, officers of the monarchic State to establish governance following their European models, and merchants who built a capitalist economy over the destroyed and silenced economy of communal reciprocity. You can bridge the gap between the 16th and the 21st centuries by recalling the Opium War, the colonization of India, of Africa, to the Kosovo War and today West Asia (Middle East in European and US vocabulary).

What is the most important advice you could give to young scholars and activists grappling with decoloniality?

One that I have been giving to graduate students in my seminars: First, know your place in the colonial matrix of power, where you have been located and classified. Second, remember that the colonial matrix of power cannot be “observed” from outside because there is no outside: we are all in it, like in the movie “The Matrix.” Third, once you find yourself in the colonial matrix of power (e.g., your nationality, your religion, your language, your sexuality, your gender, your racialized ethnicity—whether your are white or of color, and whether you are white in Germany or in Namibia, in the Netherlands or in South Africa, in Paris or in Argentina; in the US or in Russia, etc.—Putin is as white as Trump and Clinton, but it is not the same whiteness), you realize that you will have a number of options: disciplinary options, religious options, ideological options (e.g. secular system of ideas), political options, ethical options. Fourth, if you decide to embrace the decolonial option, you shall know that it is an option, that everything is an option, and then you begin to act, be, think decolonially, for decoloniality is both analytic-doing and prospective-doing: building and rebuilding the ways of life that modernity disavowed and destroyed. And fifth, do not assume that the decolonial option is the universal best: it would be the universal best for you, as the other options are best for the person who assumes it. The problem is that we have to confront still the believe that “my options” (whichever it is) is the only, it is the best, is superior to all others. That is a modern legacy. Decolonial thinking moves in a different direction. And it is happening at various levels, many spheres of the social/communal and in different parts of the world. And remember, decoloniality is not de-westernization. Of course, not re-westernization either, which are at this point the three larger optional trajectories in the twenty-first and for the twenty-first century.

Thanks, Alvina, for your questions and for allowing me to tell stories that I do not often tell jointly like I did here.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Walter D. Mignolo is William H. Wannamaker Professor and Director of the Center for Global Studies and the Humanities at Duke University. He is associated researcher at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, since 2002 and an Honorary Research Associate for CISA (Center for Indian Studies in South Africa), Wits University at Johannesburg. Among his books related to the topic are: The Darker Side of the Renaissance. Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization (1995, Chinese and Spanish translation 2015); Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of Decoloniality (2007, translated into German, Swedish, French, Rumanian and Spanish), Local Histories/Global Designs:Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking (2000, translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Korean); The Idea of Latin America (2006, translated into Spanish, Korean and Italian) and The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (2011). Currently, Walter is working on two books, one co-edited with Catherine Walsh: On Decoloniality: Analysis, Concepts, Praxis, the other is entitled Decolonial Politics.
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Walter Mignolo

Walter D. Mignolo is William H. Wannamaker Professor and Director of the Center for Global Studies and the Humanities at Duke University. He is associated researcher at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, and an Honorary Research Associate for CISA (Center for Indian Studies in South Africa), Wits University at Johannesburg. His books include Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking (2000) and Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of Decoloniality (2007). 

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