Saturday 28 December 2013

How Deeply the Fish Knife Cuts: Coloniality and its Discontents

A response to ‘Decolonial Aesthesis: From Singapore, To Cambridge, To Duke University’ by Walter Mignolo

Whenever we engage in discourse on how the Western canon has inevitably moulded the modern Man, I find myself (as an Asian, or in this case, someone who is excluded from the traditional West) face-to-face with the thesis that Western cultural imperialism did not end when the British and other colonies gained their independence. If anything, it is evident that even Asians in this day and age still flock to the Ivy Leagues in America and Oxbridge in UK to pursue a prestigious education. In light of this, the idea which espoused by Walter Mignolo in his essay, ‘Deconlonial Aesthesis’, is that because this sensing, feeling and experiencing of our world still retain traces of Western superiority not only in our history but in our ways of thinking as well, we have to acknowledge this lingering effect of Western imperialism, and eventually transgress cultural boundaries. As aptly put by a Singaporean student referred to in the article:

But coloniality didn’t end in 1963, when the British let your country go. It is not just the business of unfortunate Third Worlders in distant lands, still floundering in corruption and poverty because they lacked the vision and the statecraft of a Lee Kuan Yew.

Coloniality continues, in fact, whenever bright young men and women from all over the world decide to cap off their educations by going on pilgrimage to pinnacles of Western civilization; when they dedicate themselves to the Western canon and walk in the shadows of gothic cathedrals and imperial facades, and learn that this is the good life.

It continues whenever anyone anywhere in the world walks down a street and sees a billboard on the modern cathedral that is a shopping mall, and sees in that conjunction of power, wealth, and beauty an image of desire. In other words, it happens these days not by the strength of arms or the power of states, but by the captivation of the eyes, the training of the taste, by unwritten rules of thumb – that we all learn everywhere, without even knowing it. Coloniality is far from over: it is all over. It is perhaps the most powerful set of forces in the modern world.

There is little disagreement with the fact that the Western world – mainly due to far-reaching colonisation especially by the British Empire at its peak in the early 20th century – has had a great impact on the modern world we live in. However, to what extent can we attribute the symptoms modernity to consequences of ‘coloniality’? In other words, how much the modern man’s thinking is a product of Western imperialist culture, and how much of it is due to other social forces?

For instance, that a modern man would say that Classical art evokes feelings of the Beautiful or Sublime could perhaps be associated with the propagation influence of Western culture, but ‘Western’ liberal democratic ideals such as Freedom and Equality have often been argued to be universal ideals which transcend cultural borders. We could say capitalism is Western, but there was communism as well; consumerist culture may be Western, but in so many third-world countries consumerism thrives too. So, is coloniality then just a misnomer for modernity? The list goes on. Wherein lies the line which distinguishes what of modernity is Western, and what is not?

To begin to distinguish what of modernity can be attributed to the West, it seems then that we have to first identify what exactly the West is. However, we are at once beset with definitional difficulties, because it seems the West by itself in the first place is an inherently unstable concept. Geographically speaking for instance, the West is sometimes seen as Western Europe, sometimes including Russia, or now more Anglo-American. It is never constant. As Edward Said said, the Orient was a concept that was invented by the West to alienate, by exotising, romanticising and neglecting, the Other (Middle Eastern, African, East Asian etc.); in so doing, it would conversely define and stabilise the concept of the West. This is best elucidated in terms of power: when we tear the binary apart – which together form a universal set that encompasses everything in that category ie. male/female, black/white, etc. – we realise that the legitimacy of one is usually defined in terms of its exercise of power over the other; alone they cannot stand. Simply put, if the King had no subordinates to lord over, what then is the use of his status as King? Without his subordinates to dominate, the King is useless; without the Orient to subjugate, the West is powerless. Now that we have recognised this binary that exists, it seems that the West as a concept by itself is tenuous at best.

If the West is already so difficult to define, when we turn toward the negation of the West, it seems it is fraught with even more problems. It is not even clear if postcolonialism is grounded on what the West is not, what is not the West or what not the West is. Perhaps even, it is all three. We do not know. These are subtle, nuanced differences, but they nonetheless ought to be explored with a certain rigour should one seek to pose a veritable criticism the idea of the West, if at all. Moreover, it seems terribly ironic even, that postcolonialism, as a theory against unjustified subordination to the West, should by definition forever remain a critique always referring in retrospect to the West (read: post-colonial). Both the affirmation and negation of an idea serves to secure the inception of the idea in itself; if I tell you ‘do not eat the apple’, would I not have given you the idea of eating the apple in the first place? Similarly, if one constantly form arguments against colonialism, and categorise such critical theory as ‘postcolonial’, when can we finally, if ever, move away from colonialism altogether?

I have presented the foremost difficulties that postcolonialism faces as a critical theory. However, at this juncture it is necessary to state this: all that has been said, the nebulousness of West in no way detracts from the existence of the West itself and the imperialist power it has exerted –and continues to exert – on all other cultures. Just because a sailor cannot see the end of the mist which enshrouds him all around, does not mean that the mist does not exist altogether. And if the sailor’s torchlight shall lead the way to different shores unbeknownst to man, so be it. The power of colonialism, though neither absolute nor clear-cut, is nonetheless blindingly prevalent and if I may, rife even, in liberal capitalist democracies all over the world today. Here is where decolonial aesthesis can elucidate the vagaries of postcolonialism, as an ongoing project to unravel the dogmatic mysteries that surround both the colonisers and the colonised.

But decoloniality is not the same as postcolonialism, in that it is not an offshoot of the postmodern project advocated by some general category of ‘people of colour’; it is more specifically grounded in history, predominantly in 16th century Latin America, which forms the foundation of the subsequent 19th century colonisations of the East and consequently the concept of the Orient. Now then, decolonial aesthesis in particular focuses on one’s sensory perception of the world and the social structures that one exists within; while the other branches of epistemology and hermeneutics deal with discourse of knowing and understanding, aesthesis deals with experiencing. This concept of experiences is very important when we come face-to-face with the focus of rationality espoused by the modern West. Having recognised that the primacy of science and reason from the Western Age of Enlightenment, culminating in modernity and its dire consequences (read: Holocaust and systemic violence), decolonial aesthesis seeks then to ‘delink’ one’s sensibilities from such European notions of rationality, not by simply espousing irrationality instead, but to offer a third-way option beyond dichotomies, beyond the apparent totality of Reason.

But the question is not how to retreat or how to prune yourself back to some pristine, native state. In fact, it is the opposite: how to recognize the narrowness of this so-called broadened mind – to realize that Europe is not the universe – and to take your sensing and knowing beyond those dominant ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To move towards a pluri-verse that gives dignity to both the girl in the pajamas and the one in the little black dress – and yet to do so in a way that, unlike Western liberalism, is not naïve about either the ‘equality’ of the two, or about how we got from the one to the other.

Even in the Western canon we can see evidence of strong binaries dominant: mind/body, good/evil, capitalism/marxism, bourgeois/proletariat, existence/essence, colonisers/colonised, the list goes on. In the globalised era today we need to recognise that the world is not, and cannot be, polarised in such simplistic dichotomies; that could only be the wishful thinking of a foolish child. The world in all its byzantine wonder far surpasses any possible naive generalisations – we must ultimately recognise that meaning only means anything insofar as it exists within its context.

If I say ‘the sun is as big as the moon’, it only holds from the reference frame of an observer on earth, because in physical terms it is known that the Sun is far greater than a hundred moons. Similarly, in politics for instance, accepting the paradigm of left or right-wing societies is to neglect possibilities (and continued existence) of indigenous communities as well. Once we manage to extricate ourselves from the idea that Western thought is the ‘way to go’, we are immediately presented with endless possibilities to experience for ourselves. History, as a narrative of struggles between opposing powers, is passé; now, a new narrative consisting of infinite subjective, personal experiences which transgress culture has only just begun.

The answer, then, is not to fight a polarised war, but to accept that there is no such war to be waged in such a pluralised world. Is it then really possible that all cultures are equally represented? Of course not. Surely there will exist dominant ideologies such as the Western canon right now; the point is not to self-righteously ‘Orientalise’ other cultures, nor is it then to bitterly demonise the dominant West and all its beauty and blame all that has gone wrong in modern history on it; the point is to recognise the West is only one of the many cultures that exist in the world, and that revolutions do not stem from society, but first within the person.

Granted, coloniality presently itself subversively through norms in our everyday lives – and that is precisely we have such disciplines of decolonial aesthetics to question and elucidate such invisible nuances that affect us, so that we can analyse such subjective experiences to seek answers that is true and meaningful for a particular context. We are not merely products of the sum of the societal forces which mould us; we have the ability to make out for ourselves the circumstances that surround us. We are will, and that is why we are more than them all.

So, how deeply does the fish knife cut? Very deeply indeed. The world is currently still deeply rooted in colonial power, be it in politics, aesthetics, literature or philosophy. Plato’s Republic is a seminal scholarly text for politics. Nietzsche declares that the Judeo-Christian God is dead. The Nazi Holocaust is the sin of the century.  America, the police of the world, justifies its invasion of Afghanistan as a ‘War on Terror’. But history has already unfolded; that much is inevitable. It is precisely this epiphany which is necessary for the next step: how else, apart from a Western-centric worldview, can we interpret and experience the world? How can we move forward? Looking at the recent times, as China and India rise to (economic, socio-political as well as cultural) power, and America and Europe struggle to keep up, perhaps – just perhaps – it may spell an era of change; to quote Sylvia Plath, it truly seems ‘as if the usual order of the world had shifted slightly, and entered a new phase’. As the future draws near, we too must prepare ourselves for a dawn of new beginnings.

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