This last week I was necessitated to clarify some things for myself. They concerned concepts – colonial, cultural, communal – all in contexts of conversations with colleagues in the international networks of people who struggle to truly decolonize philosophy. The first two will be the topic of this blogpost. I may return to the other another time soon.
Note: decolonizing philosophy is not just an academic matter, to make a career on, as Tuck and Yang warned us scholars of (in their article “Decolonisation is not a Metaphor“). It is also not only about landrights, as they argue it should be. As central as the issue of land is, conceptual matters are also always, even in the struggle for land rights, crucial.
Concepts can heal and concepts can betray. What is nowadays called ‘gaslighting’ is exactly that: betraying people through deceitful use of words. Make them think something is ‘normal’ or is ‘a fact’ when it is not, and you overpowered them without the need for physical violence. The cheapest way to dominate. A domination that is so unvisible it needs long and hard work to be (partly) undone.
The first conversation was brief, but went on in my mind – when a respected scholar from a formerly colonized part of the world said (without further explanation) that the very concept of ‘culture’ was suspicious. Ok. I can see it played a malignant role in colonial discourses of early ethnography – saying that non-white peoples had culture, whereas white ones had civilization. The first was then characterized by myth and folklore, the latter by science and reason. Of course. Later, much later, there were the times of multiculturalism, the 1990s, when thinkers and politicians from the oppressed and discriminated groups tried to let the very concept work for them, saying: ok, if you say we have culture, then we have a right to our culture, you have to respect its limits. It was an understandable move, but of course it didn’t solve oppression, as it left the oppresive conceptual hierarchy intact.
Then, in my reflections, an article passed by – from anthropologist-turned-sangoma-philosopher Wim van Binsbergen, on African contributions to world cultural history. He makes a claim for Afrocentrism, as an invitation to radically de-racialize scholarly understanding of humanity and its shared adventures. One of the important things he says in the article is that continents are a misleading (‘gaslighting’?) way to categorize and understand cultural groups. Cultural historical exchange is the effect of migrations, trading routes, climate changes, that run in divergent directions, on and across continents. Some things ‘African’ for instance may have developed in an exchange with ‘Asian’ societies in the times of the East-West trading routes of old, and vice versa. Some others may be answers to influences from the North, from ‘Europe’ (is Europe even a continent, a cartographer asked recently on Twitter), just as some things ‘European’ may have developed as answers to cultural developments from the South, from ‘Africa’. Van Binsbergen makes an important point there. If we want to do history truthfully, scientifically, the idea of ‘civilization’ may be the one to drop, instead of the one of culture.
To my view, culture is a world that roots in neolithical experience – it indicates working the earth to create crops that make sedentary life for humans possible. And as water always seeks the lowest possible place, humans have sought the least travel and discovery intensive life: that of the agri-cultural being. As a metaphor (the concept of culture is a metaphor) it indicates that human animals transform their world, and themselves, adorn it and sing about it and reflect on it and build ‘institutions’ in it. They all do, that is their way. European Enlightenment talk of civilization is gaslighting and should be abolished.
The second was in answer to a potential PhD candidate, who approached me some time ago with an interesting proposal. I was writing comments to the first version, and thought her goal – to repair a society damaged by colonialism by articulating its ontology – needed some finer articulation. I wrote her that next to colonial (to describe the life of those oppressed during that age) we needed another concept to repair history, ‘non-colonial’. I wrote: “this term I make up while writing, to indicate that colonized peoples will always have a level in their being where they resist their colonization and live their own ontology – although it may have gone underground because of repression”. Of course this is so. It is apparent, a no-brainer. When colonial ‘civilizers’ claimed they could take the ancient culture out of the people they were doing their work on, they were gaslighting those peoples, and themselves as accomplices of the violent system of inhumanity. They could not succeed in destroying the other’s way to live. Never. Damage yes. But on so many levels of resistance free realities live always on: in creolized languages, in ways to dress, in emotional economies, in secret signs to warn for danger from the enemy. It needs a word to articulate this reality in decolonizing work.
The non-colonial is the denial of the colony – a strong strategy of survival and of protecting truthfulness over gaslighting.
On June 14th, 1996, I saw this scene – the cortege of professors, with the university janitor in front, walking solemnly to their designed seats to interrogate me on my PhD thesis. I was lucky to be able to publish the thesis too, and the day of the promotion was the official day of its release. Following tradition of the University of Amsterdam, the city university, copies were already displayed in the reception room where we would go after the ceremony, in its solemn solid wood book cases, behind glass doors.
I was lucky in many respects. I had fulfilled my childhood desire to write and publish a book. A wide selection of old and new friends had come to support me on this day. Many family members were there. Several colleagues from my new university, the Vrije Universiteit, the ‘other Amsterdam university’, where I had acquired a postdoc position, were present. Good friends had helped to organize an afterparty at my home.
However, next to all the positives a cloud also hung over the event. A cloud reflecting the anxieties I had suffered during the eight years of struggle that was the way to the PhD. Anxieties resulting from hurdles that had almost let me quit the work several times. The competition between universities where I had sought guidance. Financial issues between them over my case, after my first supervisor had died and I had to find a successor for her. A conflict, after promising work before, with my second supervisor. My own financial issues, following bad advice and my stubbornness to not want to ask for an extension of my fellowship.
All these things maybe resulted from a lack of understanding of academic culture on my part. Nowadays people term someone like me a first generation PhD. My father had finished university studies up to the Masters level. In my mother’s family (I later learned) an architect grand uncle had acquired a professorship, but through the merit of his work and without a PhD. For me it often felt as a route through a minefield of expectations of the professors in power of those days, that I had to venture on my own. Not to mention going this road as a young woman in a country where almost no women were professors, and female students were seen as not more than accessories.
Still, somehow, through the cloud, I managed to be aware of what happened. I managed to enjoy every second of my achievement and academic survival. I even changed some rules, having asked to be able to sit during the ceremony, as I suffered problems with standing, being four months pregnant of my second child. The committee members put their questions forward, I replied to them, the cortege left again, they came back, and finally I was awarded the title of Doctor of Philosophy.
Now during the actual promotion, when my third and final supervisor spoke the official formula and thus performatively changed my academic status for the rest of my life, the final sentences impressed themselves on my mind – let me translate them from the Dutch:
“Value the acquired dignity as an honorable distinction and an important privilege, and therefore also never forget the duties that it imposes on you, over against science and society!”
Later I found that different universities have different formulas – and I have always been particularly happy that this one marked my transition to a doctor.
Why? Because it not only speaks of the rights the status entails, but also of the duties. The rights have been a blessing: I was able to stay in academia, an organisation like many others with its pros and cons, but for me the place to be. I was able to progress to postdoc and later assistant professor. It even has allowed me to supervise PhD students myself which is really a privilege!
The duties have never been out of my mind: to give back to society, by disseminating knowledge and insights acquired; but even more: to foster critical reflection – in a never ending process to check accepted ideas and outcomes of research. In an age of mistrust of science (and in my first language, Dutch, this means all systematic research: humanities, natural sciences as well as social sciences) to dedicate oneself to work in its garden – always weeding out prejudice and tending to the conditions for good research, makes for a wonderful never-ending adventure.
This is the third and last (for now) of this little series of students’ papers from my course Diversifying Philosophy, the 2nd edition. This time you can read the work of Jasmine Campbell, who took the original (and relevant) approach to read the work of Fanon from an eco-philosophical perspective. Postcolonial critique and ecological philosophy are understood more and more in connection with each other, and this paper is a way in which this is practiced. I hope you will find this a fascinating piece. Here it is:
Postcolonial Sustainable Development. An Ecocritical Reading of The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
The way in which countries are categorised or ranked is very often in terms of their level of development. Development is seen as the most important factor determining how well a country is doing, this often being with a very economic focus. We speak of developing and developed countries, or the third world and the first world, although these are often coined outdated and offensive.
Sometimes too the phrases less developed and more developed countries, or LEDCs (less economically developed countries) and MEDCs (more economically developed countries), are used. This distinction very much divides the world into what people perceive as better and worse countries. Better in this sense is almost synonymous to richer and worse to poorer. This division was once made by colonisers between the colonial powers and the colonies, and this division is still very much one that the West imposes on the rest of the world. Of course development is important, but why should all countries have to live up to this very economically focussed definition of development?
Further, what has in more recent times become of more and more importance is sustainable development. With global climate change a development that can be sustained for generations to come and that is more environmentally friendly is deemed to be of utmost importance. We can see this in the change from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to their Sustainable Development Goals1 and the introduction and many signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement in 20162. However, many ask whether all countries should have to develop as sustainably as possible. For one, it is argued that only few countries, such as China, the United States who are the biggest polluters and together generate 44% of worldwide emissions3, so arguably contributing most to global climate change. It is also argued that the West got the opportunity to develop it’s industries unsustainable without caring for how much they were polluting to get to the point at which they are now and, therefore, developing countries should have this same opportunity. So, this view suggests that only the biggest polluters should be more sustainable as they are the cause of the problems and that developing countries should have the right to emit carbon without restriction to ‘catch up’. But this again reinforces that developing countries should ‘catch up’ with the West and that they would want to use the ‘western method’ in the process.
In this paper I would, thus, like to explore sustainable development and environmentalism in postcolonial thought. I have chosen to look at Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and take an ecocritical reading of his work. I will be looking at how this ecocritical reading of Fanon fits into the broader field of ecocritical postcolonial thought. Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique. He wrote particularly influential works in the field of postcolonial studies, such as ‘Black Skin White Masks’ (1952) and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (1963)4. Fanon’s work was more human centred than environmental and focused on the way in which history can be seen in terms of oppression of colonisers and struggle of colonies5.
Fanon on Development and the Environment
In the conclusion of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ Fanon seems to express his views on development and how decolonised countries should approach developing. The central idea of the conclusion is to avoid ‘the European way’, in all senses, to avoid their violent manner, genocide, slavery and exploitation. Fanon writes that they must “Leave this Europe”6 and “Shake off their heavy darkness”7. More importantly, he writes to abandon the ‘European method’, writing “We today can do everything so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.”8. He advocates the creation of a new method of growth and development. This development can also be said of Europe’s treatment of the land. Fanon does not explicitly write this but it does in a sense point towards this. The ‘western mentality’ or “European spirit”9, as Fanon puts it, being focussed on rapid growth no matter the consequences has led to exploitation of people but also very much of land in the process. Therefore, when Fanon says to abandon the European way, this can also be said of the treatment of land and the environment when developing, as well as of people.
Fanon, further describes how Europe, in their need for continuous growth, power and wealth, are “running headlong into the abyss”10. This can be seen by the damages and pollution the West’s economic growth has caused. In their growth they have caused for global warming, mass extinction, rising sea levels, and many more disastrous effects11. If they keep going at this rate this will quite literally lead to a fall “into the abyss”, as scientists have warned us about the negative effects and the American Association for Advanced Science also has said that climate change is “is a growing threat to society”12. Fanon then writes that it is the task of the ‘third world’ to do better, to solve the problems Europe has created by not following this same mentality and extreme focus on economic growth. He writes “to resolve the problem to which Europe has not been able to find the answers […] what matters is to stop talking about output, and intensification, and the rhythm of work.”13. This can be said of the way the West is keen on mass production, over consumption, the living of very materialistic lifestyles, and in general the capitalist system, that in only being focussed on money exploits people and land.
Fanon, in the chapter ‘On Violence’ in his The Wretched of the Earth, also describes a trait of the Europeans, or the West, that in decolonisation is discovered to not apply to the previous colonies. He describes a trend in the change of mentality from very individualistic to community oriented. He writes about how the ‘colonised intellectual’ follows the ‘coloniser bourgeois’ in their individualism, but then “witnesses the destruction of all his idols: egoism, arrogant, recrimination, and the idiotic, childish need to have the last word”14. He will see the strength of community, of village assemblies and caring for one another. Fanon describes how he will move away from the ‘every man for himself’ thinking and the economic growth oriented thinking. Fanon writes about a movement from “personal interests [becoming] the collective interest”15. This difference in mentality can also be regarded in terms of a relation with the environment. The ‘western individualism’ Fanon describes, or the ‘every man for himself’ concept, focuses on personal growth regardless of others and regardless of the land. This individualism can also be said to be a cause for capitalism. The ‘Westerner’ is much more prone to exploiting the land in his quest for wealth, which has led to the global climate change we see today. This focus on personal growth also does not consider the future generations and is not sustainable.
The importance the ‘third world’ places on community that Fanon describes shows a respect for others and for the land. It respects the homes of others and the environment. This community oriented thinking may also be much more prone to considering future communities or generations and their lives, and is this way much more sustainable. Coming back to the conclusion of Fanon’s work, this difference in mentality also would very much affect how these decolonised nations may go about their development and points at a much more sustainable development.
Postcolonial Ecocriticism and Sustainable Development
Coming back to more current thought on development and environmentalism, as was mentioned in the introduction, there seems to be a discussion going on on how non-western countries should ‘catch up’ in terms of development with the west. In 1986 the UN introduced the Right to Development to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights16. The UN describes how this right applies to people, it should be human centred but state led17. They do recognise that historically development has very much been considered a “primarily economic process measured by growth in gross national product”, and that this understanding still very much persists among many18. The UN considers the Right to Development to be closely linked to the fundamental right to self-determination and the right to sovereignty over natural wealth and resources19. The Right to Development, the UN writes, is also included in the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention [No. 169], in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indegiounous Peoples and in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights20. It can thus be seen this right, and, therefore, also the importance of development in general, is widely recognised, not only by the west. But, of course, not necessarily in its focus on economies but the human centred notion of development, which is also described by Fanon in his ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. The UN does note that development should be sustainable and highlights the importance of sustainability in their Sustainable Development Goals, in particular when it comes to development in goal 11: ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’21. However, the question still goes to what extent sustainable development is required from, or in other words a duty of, developing countries.
Some would rather say that in order to ‘catch up’ with Europe, as Fanon strongly rejects the need for, European methods would have to be adopted and so developing countries should be exempt from reducing carbon emissions as western countries are being obliged to to respond to the threats that climate change brings for our future. Professor Zewei Yang adopts this view, writes about how reducing carbon emissions may inhibited China’s ability to further develop and describes “the right to carbon emission as a new right to development”22. Another such thinker, that Professor Yang also quotes in his paper, is Professor Albert Mumma of Nairobi University in Kenya, who states “the emission entitlements, in effect, are a proxy for the right to develop and meet the needs of one’s nation and the well-being of its people.”23. Yang goes on to describe how this right to carbon emissions represents the right to use the Earth’s resources in order to develop and that this should particularly be the case for developing countries24. Further, Yang describes how in the second article of the Copenhagen Accord also states that “. bearing in mind that social and economic development are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries”25.
This view seems to require carbon emissions for the development of a country. It would seem that this is then also following the ‘European method’ of development, and opposes Fanon’s view.
This obsession ‘to catch up with Europe’26 Fanon writes of, is somewhat present in the idea that developing countries ought to have the right to carbon emissions to reach the same level of development as Europe and before they should consider environmentally friendly or sustainable development. Fanon, on the other hand, insists that it is the aim of developing countries to come up with new solutions to European problems, these problems here being pollution levels from carbon emissions, and can be said to thus recommend sustainable development in developing countries. This would also avoid the ‘running headlong into the abyss’27 that Fanon describes Europe’s method of development.
Many postcolonial thinkers would, like Fanon, disagree with Yang and Mumma’s stance. In the field of postcolonial ecocriticism the central task, as described by Helen Tiffin and Graham Huggin, is to contest and provide alternatives to western conceptions or ideologies of development28. Some thus hold that development as a whole is a European construct that is imposed on the rest of the world in order to keep Europe first. Sustainable development, in this view, is just a new version of this imposing development with a ‘pretty cover’, so to speak. It is made to look more attractive and good for the earth, but is just used to keep Europe ahead and in charge. German sociologist Wolfgang Sachs also states “what development means depends on how the rich nations feel” and that development is “at best a form of strategic altruism”, it is used as a reason for countries to give other countries aid to make these self-describe developed (and in their views thus also better) countries look good and is aimed at their concerns of their own politics and economies29. Development has also been described as adapting to the “needs of those who use it” and being used to self-congratulate and condescend, being based on Western presuppositions30. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin also describe in their ‘Postcolonial Ecocriticism’ (2006) the perhaps more extreme view held by Oswaldo De Rivero of
how “the myth of development, taking false support from ideas promiscuously linked to the Enlightenment ideology of progress and the Darwnian survival of the fittest” urging the ‘developing’ Southern countries to catch up with ‘developed’ Northern countries and so aso implementing a capitalist growth model that is damaging to the environment and unequal31. These views often extend to sustainable development. Wolfgang Sachs describes sustainable development as giving new life to development and covering up the criticism of development and its “destructive tendencies”32.
Sustainable development being said to be an effort to save the planet Sachs sees as “little more than a political alibi” to justify state intervention because the West wants to implement their methods of environmental management which very much concentrate on the survival of the industrial system33.
The rejection of the idea of catching up with Europe here by implementing its method of growth, being capitalism, can be very closely compared to what Fanon writes in his conclusion of ‘The Wretched of The Earth’ (1963). As stated before, Fanon very much rejects the need to ‘catch up’ with Europe and Europe’s methods, and would agree with this. Fanon also does not explicitly write about development, this is the term I chose for what he describes. Fanon describes “moving forward… in the company of all men” and of wanting to advance humanity34, which I would call development, not in the economic-centred sense of the term but rather a very human-centred development. However, Fanon may well have agreed with De Rivero’s notion of development as being a myth made up by the West, as it would be in line with his rejection of any inspiration from Europe. However, if we look at development as simply describing growth and increased well-being, this is very much what Fanon describes in his text. Sustainable development, in Fanon’s view may well be very important as previously described, but Sachs’ view here introduces the element of the Western notion of sustainable development versus other versions of sustainable development. It can thus be said that Fanon would rather advocate a sustainable development that does not follow or take inspiration from the western model of sustainable development.
Another postcolonial ecocriticism is also very present in criticism of neocolonialism. This can be seen all over the world where multinational companies can be said to replace colonial power by taking control of a country’s resources and industries and exploiting people for cheap labour. An example of this would be oil companies in Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995), was a Nigerian environmental activist and writer35, who stood up against these oil countries and wanted them to be held accountable for the destruction of his home36. The oil company was stealing their natural resources and prohibiting the inhabitants of the land from benefiting themselves from the resources and building their own industries and economies around them and was also exploiting the land. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s advocacy and writing on this subject makes him an important figure not just as an environmental activist but also very much in postcolonial ecocritical thinking. Although, he is often left out of the field as ecocriticism, according to Rob Nixon, often focuses much on American-based writers and postcolonial criticism has concentrated “on a handful of ‘representative’ writers”37.
Similar are development projects in India that are introduced inspired by the West and a need to catch up. An example would be the Narmada Valley Development Project, which was a project to build dams in the Narmada river in order to provide electricity and safe drinking water to people in India38. The project is described by Arundhati Roy (1961-present), an Indian author and political and environmental activist39, as being “India’s Greatest Planned Environmental Disaster”40. The project caused mass protests and was found to use more energy than it produced41. The project caused for hundreds of thousands of local people to be displaced with a complete change to their daily lives, culture and economic self-sufficiency42. It can be seen that this western idea of development is being implemented but it does not contribute positively to the well-being of people, it is not human-centred development and focuses only on economic growth. The costs of the project were for a large part funded by the World Bank, which has also caused for India into an “economic bondage” which overcoming seems impossible43. It further contributes towards the increasing privatisation of natural resources and of energy sources, all in an effort to catch up with the West.
In conclusion, many links can be found between Fanon’s work and postcolonial ecocriticism. Taking an ecocritical reading of Fanon shows many similarities with ecocritical postcolonial thinkers and brings an interesting addition to discussions on environmentalism and sustainable development and critiquing western ideologies of sustainable development and development in general. We can clearly see Fanon’s disregard of the European method and the need to catch up with Europe are very present in postcolonial ecocritical writing such as that of Sachs, De Rivero, Saro-Wiwa and Roy. The aim of developing countries that Fanon describes as being finding new and better solutions for the problems Europe has created is very much in line with the project of postcolonial ecocriticism, being to contest and provide alternatives to the western ideologies of development. These problems Fanon describes can be seen as being, at least partly, to do with the environmental consequences of western development and so alternatives to this would be the solutions Fanon calls for developing countries to find. Fanon’s thinking would, thus, still also be very applicable in response to and as critique of neocolonialism as when it comes to multinational companies taking on the role of colonial powers this is very closely tied to a western notion of development and the imposing of this development on other countries.
In my latest blog post, I announced the publication of a few selected papers from my course Diversifying Philosophy. The second piece is by Aaron Mattias Cardona. The sources from the course Aaron linked to are The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon and the documentary Lumières Noirs by Bob Swaim. He linked the questions raised there on postcolonial identity of peoples to the case of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. The paper gives philosophical food for thought on culture, history and identity. It may be remarked that the picture painted of the Zapatista movement is very rosy, that it is unlikely that it contains no flaws as any liberation movement. All the same taking this case as the outline of a utopian political model for decolonisation, the essay provides a compelling read. Here it is:
Postcolonial Identity and the Zapatista Experience
“Admitting, on one side or the other, or on one of the thousand sides, that I can change by exchanging with the ‘other’ without losing my own identity… until we can manage this, all the social solutions, or political solutions and so on, will be fragile and stop-gap. The old demon of the exclusion of the other will always come back and lead to genocide, massacre, and holocaust” (Swaim, 49:20-50:02).
Thus spoke French writer Édouard Glissant on the topic of black liberation. This is the lens through which we have chosen to observe bygone anti-colonialist struggles. Famous movements of the 20th century, such as the Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria, the Việt Minh in Vietnam, the Mouvement National Congolais in the Congo – all these subverted the colonial power-structures amidst chants of national liberation. Precisely this national-ness was left unsubverted, as a trace of the metropolis. This colonial spore was enough for the power-structures’ continued perpetuation. How have the emancipated peoples indigenous to their liberated regions followed the European path to neoliberalization? The schism of society was not abolished, it was merely transformed – and even today, in the backstage of civilization, the light of rebellion and unrest flickers, decades after the colonizers’ expulsion.
In this essay, rather than looking to respond to the above question, we would like to pose an alternative path to liberation, one we believe to be more fruitful; that of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional). For this, we will begin by sketching out the contour of the Chiapas conflict (1994-present) and its determining factors – as well as major events – in order to understand the EZLN’s political structure and ideology, and the manner in which these are pregnant with indigenous traditions. Therefore, this essay deals with the question of (national) identity in general and with the Zapatista experience in particular, hoping to etch out a way forward for future emancipation in the postcolonial era.
Chiapas from the 16th Century to the early 20th Century. Ever since Spanish conquistadors established colonial towns and encomiendas in the Lacandon jungles, the indigenous peoples of Chiapas – not unlike elsewhere – experienced tremendous hardships. Although Mexico officially ceased to be a colony after the War of Independence in 1821, indigenous communities’ hankering for freedom was crushed by the new regime’s neglect. Only during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 did this horizon re-open. The Liberation Army of the South (Ejército Libertador del Sur) led by Emiliano Zapata rallied for land reform in the name of the peasantry – largely constituted by natives –, a call heretofore unanswered. Although the insurgents eventually were forced to enter into peace-negotiations with the Mexican government after Zapata’s assassination, the seeds for the EZLN had been sown.
The Chiapas Conflict. Founded a decade after Zapata’s assassination, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) had emerged victorious from every presidential election in Mexico. Its dominant regime had been characterized as authoritarian by many a disillusioned citizen, but its continuous perpetuation caused many to lose faith in electoral reform. Amidst such concerns, the FLN (Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional) – a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist guerrilla – emerged in the late 1960s. In subsequent years, the FLN existed tumultuously as the haunting specter of communism in Mexico; which was duly responded to with military reaction by the army. A handful of the FLN’s members grew increasingly pessimistic of successful nation-wide insurgency, and founded the EZLN in 1984. This new organization, mostly consisting of non-indigenous (i.e. mestizo) members, went underground for the next decade, engaging in base-building and recruitment processes in indigenous communities in Chiapas (see “Collectivity and Spirit” below).
Meanwhile, in the presidential elections of 1988, the PRI candidate – Gonzalo Salinas de Gortari – won in highly controversial (and later demonstrably fraudulent2) manner. Thus began a period of stricter economic liberalization, culminating in 1992, when de Gortari’s government amended the constitution; reforming Article 27 to enable the privatization of not only communal land – on which campesino indigenous communities’ lives depended –, but also state-owned enterprises and institutions. Furthermore, on the 1st of January 1994, the NAFTA trade-deal was enforced. The EZLN shook off its decade-long slumber of underground recruitment, and awakened its military wing as they took advantage of New Years’ celebrations to take over key towns and buildings in Chiapas – liberating prisoners and vandalizing police headquarters. The insurgents’ demands were clear; constitutional recognition of and autonomy for the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The demands were, in practice, a declaration of war.
The consequences were to be observed immediately. The economy slumped. De Gortari’s government defaulted on IMF-loans, and the peso’s value plummeted. The crisis was, in part, due to drastic reforms to the country’s political economy – but nonetheless, the insurgents played their part; foreign investors pre-emptively evaded Mexico due to the instability of encroaching civil war. Through a ceasefire orchestrated by the liberation theologian Samuel Ruiz, the EZLN was granted control over a small region in Chiapas – a peace-treaty which ended shortly after, in 1995, due to a military offensive by the army. A prime example of this conflict’s violence is the 1997 Acteal Massacre, where a paramilitary3 took the lives of 45 members of the pacifist organization Las Abejas for their support for the Zapatistas’ cause.
Only in 2001 did the tides seemingly begin to turn. The PRI for the first time lost their presidential elections to Vicente Fox from the conservative PAN (Partido Acción Nacional). The new government proceeded with Zapatista peace-negotiations – and the long sought-after inclusion of the indigenous in the constitution was materialized. Autonomy and self- determination within the framework of a united nation has ever since been recognized. This autonomy – autonomy of the indigenous – marks the emergence of new “indigenous ideology” as the internal re-affirmation of cultural self-esteem. Henceforth a new “self” has been in the books. But this self – what is it?
Zapatista Political Organization and Ideology
The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. In 2005, from the depths of the rainforest, the Zapatistas published the most important document they have released up to date; outlining their political mission and their Weltanschauung.
Reiterated multiple times is the key concept of horizontalism (as opposed to democratic centralism). The EZLN breaks from previous insurgencies in Latin America by adopting an autonomist strategy – rather than Marxist-Leninist (M-26-7, Cuba) or Marxist- Leninist-Maoist (Shining Path, Chile) approaches. The Zapatistas see themselves as a political movement not by a revolutionary vanguard, but from and of the people. By appealing to and grounding themselves explicitly in civil society, they “have been able to build that feeling that they [civil society] are participating with, and not behind [the movement]” (Monsivais and Bellinghausen 13).
In practice, this translates into the MAREZ (Municipalidades Autónomas Rebeldes Zapatistas). These municipalities are self-governed by the communities which inhabit them, and are mostly ruled according to traditional indigenous precepts. The municipalities therefore decide, by consensus, which person – from the same municipality – is to govern, and have the power to recall them at any moment. An important element of this is that the EZLN practically dissolves itself, instead of taking over previously-existing political structures.
In this manner, the EZLN successfully separates its politico-military influence from autonomous MAREZ by gradually transferring all executive powers to the municipal authorities (Juntas de Buen Gobierno). Members of the community are appointed to take over all tasks previously taken up by the rebels – including security – in rotating manner, in order to ensure the municipality’s autonomy from the EZLN, by teaching each of its members all necessary tasks. “We believe that a community which fails to keep an eye on its government is condemned to become a slave – and we fight to be free, not to change master every six years.” (“Sexta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona”).
The Zapatistas therefore clearly see themselves as the revolutionary face of civil society. Who belongs in the society they represent? Here a mixture of class solidarity and collaborationism is noticeable, as La Sexta4calls for an alliance of all individuals in all social classes whose interests are opposed to those of neoliberalism. Case-in-point, the Zapatistas consider all people to be included in this premise. Subcomandante Galeano (“III. ¿El individuo contra el colectivo?”), de facto spokesman of the EZLN, in correspondence with Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro, describes that fundamental humanity is only achievable in collectivity – a collectivity of solidarity, of collaboration; of co-existence. Citing Bertolt Brecht (vv. 69-75),
Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.
Ihr Aber, wenn es soweit sein wird
Dass der Mensch dem Menschen ein Helfer ist Gedenkt unsrer
we may ask, how does such collectivity emerge, and why has it hitherto failed to do so? As posed, the Zapatistas appeal to traditional indigenous practices – hence, a particular MAREZ’s social ontology corresponds to e.g. Tzotzil social ontology.
Collectivity and Spirit
The Heart (o’on) and its Potentialities (ch’ulel). For Tzotzil people, thoughts and feelings (synthesized in ‘thoughts-feelings’) reside in the heart (o’on). As a metaphor, this is not hard to conceptualize for us, since we also use the heart as the physical location of our emotions (e.g. love/pain in my heart, etc.). But what is novel for us is the conception of these thoughts- feelings as realizations of inherent potentialities (ch’ulel) of the heart. The closest equivalent in western philosophy is a Bergsonian/Deleuzian “virtual” reality – thus we could say that ch’ulel exists “virtually” in the heart. This ch’ulel is immanent in every interaction (which are all inherently relational) any entity has with another – living or non-living – and determines the relationship of the two. For example, a sheep’s potentiality to produce wool determines its relationship to humans who need clothing to keep themselves warm, which in turn determines the relationship of the human to the sheep. Collectivity emerges in the form of a community- traversing ch’ulel, which creates the “collective heart”, binding the members together into the “shared space of a single heart” (Fitzwater 34). This process is named ichbail ta muk’.
In a word, Tzotzil collectivity is the reciprocal interaction by which a “collective heart” is created through an encompassing potentiality. This potential is what determines the relationship of a particular heart to another – creating a larger (ergo collective) heart – and thus could be said to be the relationship itself, in its virtual form within the heart. According to EZLN educators, concepts such as dignity, autonomy, democracy, etc. can only be the result of a particular people’s creation as a collective – through ichbail ta muk’.
The Postcolonial Realm
The Colony is Dead, Long Live the Colony! 20th century anticolonial struggles were nationalist movements – seeking liberation/emancipation for people ascribing to a national identity (a shared history, culture, ethnicity, religion, etc.). Nation-building, according to Eric Hobsbawm, is the construction of a political artifact along this idea (110). Simultaneously, this construction is an inherently western pursuit, and, as Franz Fanon declares, the colonial power-structure must not only be overtaken, but destroyed altogether (6). The failure to do so is key to understanding the postcolonial nations of the 20th century, for their postcolonial-ness is merely nominal in the sense that colonial rationality itself has not been peeled off. A nation which identifies itself through colonial categories – the colonizer and the Other (e.g. the native, the negro, the indian, etc.) – finds itself entrapped within the colonial paradigm.
Slavoj Žižek describes this colonial paradigm as a rupture which creates the possibility for an entirely novel one (Žižek, “The Hegelian Wound”). The people indigenous to a region which become colonized thus become an ontologically new community, precisely bound by their colonial experience. But is the movement to extricate oneself from the fetters of colonialism a movement identifiable with an identity? Is the dovetailing of indigenous identities a colonial mindset, or a radically anticolonial one?
The Zapatistas and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Michael Löwy stated in reference to the Zapatista movement that,
“ . . . we must grant them one tremendous virtue: in these gloomy closing years of the century, in this time of triumphant neoliberalism, of rampant commercialism, of galloping cynicism, of a politics of politicians, they have succeeded in making people dream – in Chiapas, in Mexico, and in places all over the planet. They are re-enchanters of the world.” (Löwy 1)
Taking the notion of “re-enchanters” quite literally, we may approach the answer to our inquiry.
The EZLN’s anticolonialism is not a secular undertaking. We must remember that it is the realization of the collective heart’s potentiality which forms the movement per se. As such, this movement, by being pregnant with indigenous- ness, is in and of itself anticolonial, by virtue of these traditions’ pre- and non- coloniality. By a lack of adherence to colonial conjuncture the latter is contradicted and conflicted. This movement – in the form of the EZLN – is at once the antecedent and consequent of the emerging collectivity (for it sparks it, and is the materialization thereof).
It is not a radical-democratic revolution, it is an indigenous rebellion. The Zapatistas are civil society, and how the latter is organized is up to itself – not a politico-military hegemon in the form of EZLN commanders. Colonialism punctures indigenousness, leaving an unfulfilled and unfulfillable lack in the hearts of its victims6. But nonetheless, as long as there is a lack, there is a trace of the forlorn – to rebel is not to resuscitate it. Ichbail ta muk’ is the foreclosure of a no longer existing identity, a creation of a new collectivity, a new self – a negation of the negation. To obtain what never obtained, a return to a future identity. But what does this mean?
As mentioned above, the fundamental failure of the global postcolony is the appropriation of colonialism by those who overthrew it – consequentially, a perpetuation of the status quo. Returning to Glissant (see introduction above), the event-horizon of colonialism is the exchange without change. Insofar as the Algerian nationalists failed to permanently revolt against ontological colonialism, they failed, even if they achieved independence. The Zapatistas do not take the reins after the overthrow, they are passed on to the Being which allowed the moment (in the form of Zapatista rebellion) to occur; civil society, now comprised of pure collectivity, governed by itself. The difference therefore is essentially this: Unlike anticolonialists, the Zapatistas are not a movement, but a moment in the realization of civil society’s collective hearts. Rather than an army for national liberation, the Zapatistas are thus the object and subject of the liberatory process, they are from and for civil society, they are indigenous, they are the megaphone for the communities of Chiapas. They emerge to fight, and they disappear to govern; the conflict is not a flip of the power-relation, the conflict is a rupture which precedes the rule of postcolonial identity over the postcolony. Whereas the past was liberation for the Other (relative to the colonizer’s Self), the Zapatistas do not acknowledge the distinction.
As Chinua Achebe describes the process in terms of writing (343), decolonization is practically unachievable, because the concepts used therefor are intrinsically European (e.g. political boundaries, state apparatuses, modes of production/distribution, military doctrines, etc.). This is precisely what kneecapped past anticolonialism. Neozapatismo evades these problems (e.g. lack of political boundaries; municipal self-governance along indigenous consensus-building; communal land and distribution; dissolution of EZLN’s politico-military apparatus at municipal level; etc.). Essentially, a transgression from without, rather than an interior development.
Actually-Postcolonial Identity. To finally reach the point of this asymptotic explanation, we may summarize the distinction between the Zapatistas and the rest. The identity (or perhaps post-identity?) of the Zapatistas sublates the colonial paradigm (e.g. prevalence of feminist theory). The colonial identity-categories impose themselves onto traditional forms of self-acknowledgment and engrave them forever7. The postcolonial gaze is not reverted, it is abolished through a respective abolition of the postcolonial nation. The Zapatistas are not ‘in-power’, the regions under their control are free indigenous municipalities, and their objective is an eventual liberation of the entire postcolonial realm – not by means of a universal ideology, but through each collective’s own heart.
Thus, on the one hand, the Zapatistas de-secularize the social at the level of the collective, and secularize the political at the level of governance. This suspension of the liberal and the traditional allows for a new type of identity, that of a truly rooted collective, rather than a national, individual, or political identity.
To return to the thread proposed in our introduction – in what way is the ELZN’s liberatory program preferable in lieu of other 20th century “nationalist” movements? Our argument has been one of stability, perpetuity, and emancipation. By losing the chains of colonial concepts, by immersing itself into “civil society”, by de- and re- appropriating aspects of democratic radicalism, the Zapatista movement ensures its autopoiesis whilst retaining its roots in its base. Evading authoritarianism, economic liberalization, and exclusion, the Zapatistas distinguish themselves from national- liberation programs such as Nicaragua’s, China’s, or Algeria’s.
Therefore, in a final word, we believe the ELZN has taken the first steps down a road of future liberation for the colonized, creating a collective identity not based on any creed, ethnicity, or milieu, other than the belonging to the same collectivity which emerges from itself.
1 The historical account is, understandably, abbreviated and summarized – arguably even vulgarized – for the purpose of the essay.
2 In 2005, Miguel de la Madrid (president from 1982-1988) admitted that the elections of 1988 had been rigged in favor of de Gortari.
3 In September 2020, the Mexican government confirmed its participation in and responsibility for the 1997 Acteal Massacre.
4 The Sixth Declaration is conventionally known as “La Sexta”.
5 Oh, we / Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness / Could not be friendly ourselves / But you, when the time comes / That man may befriend man / Think of us / With indulgence.
6 Prior to being colonized, a collective has no identity in the western sense. After imposing the colonial categories of identification, a “missing” identity emerges. Previously unidentified, now a self-identification with the Other (in the Colonizer-Other dichotomy) occurs. As the non-colonizer, characterized by the colonizer through a non-existent mythological prior identity (as the indigenous). This lack is an appropriation of this non- identity and a yearning for it (which tends to spark anticolonial movements) – causing a rallying behind a “self” which never existed, and is posited in the act of rallying itself. Thus, only through the colony can the colonized overthrow it, and the rope used to hang the former is a past-self emerging in the present; in the same act of overthrow.
7 The colony imposes its mode of identification (self-other, colonizer-colonized). The anticolonialists, in order to fight the dichotomy, tendentially immerse themselves into it – through a self-identification with the other (see footnote 6). But due to being of and from the same dualism, this movement fails to break out of the colonial paradigm. A negation of the negation is achieved through a third term – an outside abolition/dissolution of the dichotomy. By not identifying themselves as the other, Zapatistas do not participate in this duality.
Monsivais, Carlos, and Hermann Bellinghausen. “A New Direction – Marcos Outlines the Zapatista Change of Strategy in 2001.” La Jornada, 8 Jan. 2001.
“Sexta Declaración De La Selva Lacandona.” Enlace Zapatista, 19 Feb. 2019, enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/sdsl-es/.
Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente. “SCI Marcos: DE LA REFLEXIÓN CRÍTICA, INDIVIDU@S Y COLECTIV@S. Carta Segunda a Luis Villoro En El Intercambio Espistolar Sobre Ética y Política.” Enlace Zapatista, 5 Apr. 2015, enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2011/04/11/sci-marcos-de-la-reflexion-critica-individus-y- colectivs-carta-segunda-a-luis-villoro-en-el-intercambio-espistolar-sobre-etica-y- politica/.
An Die Nachgeborenen, by Bertolt Brecht, 1939, vv. 69–75.
Fitzwater, D. E. (2019). Autonomy is in our hearts: Zapatista autonomous government through the lens of the Tsotsil language (p. 34). PM Press.
The Age of Capital (1848-1875), by Eric Hobsbawm, Abacus, 1997, p. 110.
Zapatista Timeline. 28 Oct. 2015, schoolsforchiapas.org/teach-chiapas/zapatista-timeline/. Bellinghausen, Hermann. “Zapatistas, Una Transformación De 25 Años.” Revista De LaUniversidad De México, Apr. 2019, pp. 39–45.
“Chapter Two: The Zapatista Clandestine Organization: The Creation of a Collective Heart (O’on) and Collective Potentiality (Ch’ulel).” Autonomy Is in Our Hearts: Zapatista Autonomous Government through the Lens of the Tsotsil Language, by Dylan Eldredge Fitzwater, PM Press, 2019, pp. 30–47.
Last year, long before covid happened, for the first time I taught the bachelor course designed to ‘diversify’ Philosophy. I posted about the experience here. This year the first group (we have two language programs in Philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) had its classes in November and December. Its format, with presentations, self study assignments and paper writing, seemed to balance some of the loss of direct contact, and it was amazing how most students remained active during the long sessions with discussions. But maybe it was not my course design, but just their passion for learning, or their talent, that made this course so wonderful to teach.
The end papers generally were of a very high quality too. A few of them stood out by the fact that they were not only well-written, showed independent research in combination with a good grasp of the study material, but also an original focus. I asked these students if I could give their paper a bit more exposure on my blog, and all agreed. So the coming weeks you will find their papers here, a longer read than my usual blog post, but I think worthwhile.
The first piece is by Anastasia Khairova. The minimal requirements were for the students to refer to one or two of the texts read in the course and add their own questions and further readings and combine them to an essay of max. 3000 words. The course texts here mentioned were of Charles Mills and Frantz Fanon. Anastasia focused however mainly on the recent, French language work of Norman Ajari, thus introducing its content to an English language audience. Here is her essay:
Conceptualising a Black Ontology (by Anastasia Khairova)
But African, or more precisely, Blackness, refers to an individual who is by definition always already void of relationality. Thus modernity marks the emergence of a new ontology because it is an era in which an entire race appears, people who, a priori, that is prior to the contingency of the ‘transgressive act’ … stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world. — Frank B. Wilderson, 2010
Racism and anti-blackness shape the dominant Western culture on such profound levels that it would be impossible to discuss in just one essay. Instead, this essay will attempt to focus on the most dire consequences of white supremacy on the inner condition of black people, and discuss how white supremacy through its three prongs — the political, moral and epistemological hegemony perpetually stunts self-actualisation of non-white people and limits the understanding of oneself as a relational being, both inside black communities and in relation to white people. A black ontology would then serve as a unified body of philosophical thought aimed at decolonising the current understanding of being, analyse the impacts of white supremacy on self-development of non-white people and encourage self-actualisation in a white supremacist system, ultimately leading to its overthrow. Such an ontology is in need of constant reworking and supplementation, as it would rely on deconstruction of the false epistemology of white supremacy and therefore be heavily based on revising history as well as unlearning the effects of racism. A project by francophone philosopher Norman Ajari undertakes a similar, although not nearly as extensive task of decolonising philosophy in order to understand the problem of recognition, which he sees as central for a black ontology; he draws upon African philosophy to create a political and ethical system of black thought as a counterbalance to white supremacy.
The system responsible for the need for a black ontology in the first place is that of white supremacy. Charles Mills discusses the composition of the system of white supremacy in depth, describing how the white race came to dominate and impose a political, moral and epistemological hegemony which not only subjugated and dehumanised non-white people, but also stunted the growth of their culture and prevented self-actualisation in a way that was allowed for whites (Mills 16). Mills introduces a philosophical concept of a social contract between whites, titled the Racial Contract, which encompasses different ways of white supremacy operating in a society. The political aspect of the contract concerns itself with the origins of government and the political obligations of citizens (Mills 9). The moral contract is a foundation of the moral code established for a society, and the epistemological aspect of the contract prescribes an inverted epistemology characterised by ignorance and cognitive dysfunctions (Mills 10). Mills writes that white misunderstanding and self-deceptions on the matters of race is a pervasive mental phenomena that tries to hold together the system of white supremacy. To conceive of a black ontology, there needs to be a new outlook on the political, moral and epistemological aspects of white supremacist reality as to challenge the established view created by the Racial Contract.
Norman Ajari, in his work La dignité ou la mort: Ethique et politique de la race aims at adopting an afro-decolonial perspective in order to “make it the starting point of a new ethical approach inspired by the Africana philosophy” (Ajari 20). At the heart of Africana philosophy and the decolonial project is the reality of struggle for recognition of black people — Ajari identifies the struggle for or in dignity as the central issue to address. He chooses to discuss three notions of dignity that marked their times — Giovanni Pico della Mirandola of the Renaissance, Immanuel Kant who shaped the German Enlightenment and contemporary Jürgen Habermas. Ajari sees dignity as the image that Europe wanted to give itself, and therefore finds it essential to study how the concept of dignity developed.
While in the classical era, dignitas referred to the social standing of an individual, the Renaissance presented a new humanist outlook on dignity as self actualisation in autonomy and ontological solitude. The Romans viewed dignitas as a societal function — although the word does not have a direct English translation, it referred to the amount of influence and reputation a Roman citizen acquired throughout his life. Humanism radically transformed the concept of dignity, encouraging individuals to pursue the goal of enlightenment, and the Church reappropriated the Latin dignitas to be associated with Christian celestial hierarchy found in Heaven. Mirandola in his book Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) draws a distinction between the concept of dignity and the Latin notion of dignitas — Ajari believes that through discussing dignity, Mirandola radicalised the hierarchy entailed in dignitas, thus enforcing the opposition between the human and the inhuman. Through this division, Mirandola unknowingly introduced anthropological foundations of colonisation through making a distinction between divine humans and animal beings. Ajari gives an example of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the face of humanism, the mage Prospero, is contrasted with his slave Caliban, a savage monster. The distinction between human and non-human resulting from Mirandola’s analysis will give power to the white man over others in a colonial context.
Deification of European humans allowed thinkers like Kant to introduce philosophical systems which discussed dignity without including Africans in his idea of personhood. Although Kant did not have a Manichean view of opposition between the demonic and the divine, he instead thought of a minority, characterised by laziness and cowardice opposed to a majority characterised by reason. This is a harsh juxtaposition with Kantian ethics, which aim to protect the inherent worth of every human and are against using anyone as a means instead of an end in itself. And yet, it is in the name of the dignity that Europe judged the black existence abject, desired the disappearance of their lifestyles and insisted on a civilizing mission (Ajari 54).
Habermas takes a less abstract position on dignity and advocates for regaining an ethical dimension of dignity in addition of a legal one in the framework of a state. He argues that contemporary liberal democracies should guarantee dignity through norms and institutions of European nations, and ensure dignity for all members of said state through constitutionally enshrined rights. Ajari identifies a tension here between those who see European liberalism as the right arena to express that dignity and those who are threatened by that framework — state monopolisation of dignity cannot protect those on the margins or stifle human suffering.
Ajari rounds off by discussing the dark side of modernity that has been glazed over by Western philosophers — although philosophers such as Horkheimer and Adorno wrote extensively on the negative consequences of the Enlightenment, they did not reflect on the consequences of colonisation or slavery. Ajari also uses the example of Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero who studied the subject of contemporary violence and, inspired by Arendt, developed the concept of ‘horrorism’ as a negation of human dignity. In her work, the example of Auschwitz is used as the epitome of the crimes of Europe and as the main paradigm of horrorism. The use of Auschwitz as the culmination of radical political violence is common, and Ajari highlights how the massacres of Native Americans or the transatlantic slave trade are hidden from the public eye and hardly discussed.
After addressing the ethical and historical aspects of white supremacy through the notion of dignity, Ajari addresses the political side of the system. As asserted by several black thinkers, most notably Fanon, life without dignity leads to a necessary politicisation of being. In his work Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon analyses the life of black people in a system of white supremacy, a colonised world — a life confined to a system that has through generations shaped the mode of thinking in black people. For the most ardent racists, the mere existence of a black person is a provocation: it follows then that in such a world, all of black existence is politicised. Ajari echoed Fanon’s statements: “Unworthy is black life, in the form of death, imposed by a world founded on white supremacy; the Negro philosopher himself can only appear as a learned monkey” (Ajari 100). Ajari highlights with this quote how his work as a contemporary philosopher is undervalued and ignored. He understands that only the decolonial approach can showcase the variety of experiences and political constructions of the marginalised, which is why he engages with many primary sources of slaves and black revolutionaries in European colonies of the 19th century. Drawing inspiration from many forgotten texts of historical figures, Ajari showcases his commitment to the complex process of decolonisation.
Ajari elaborates on the space between life and death which he sees as characterising the black experience — he uses the term ‘forme-de-mort’ which could best be translated as a form-in-death, an existence on the borderline. This parallels the thinking of American philosopher Jared Sexton, who asserts that ‘black life is lived in social death’ (Sexton 24). Walcott sees black social death as a necessary criterion for European project of modernity — humanness has been consistently defined against black people, excluding them from the category of ‘a life’ and creating an existence marked by social death (Walcott 93). Only through what Walcott calls a pure decolonial project can black existence leave the liminal space between life and death and bring an end to European rule (Walcott 104). Ajari asserts that through politicisation of suffering that the struggle for dignity was first established: the next step is the implementation of an ethics of dignity.
Ajari discusses black theology and music as an external politicisation of the struggle for dignity — black Christianity and black churches have provided gathering spaces, information, and a space to express desire for emancipation. Fanon chastises the missionaries who went on pilgrimages in Africa and affirms them as (cultural) colonisers, but in many places in Africa or later, in the United States, Christian churches have been a privileged place for the affirmation of black dignity (Fanon 7). Christianity was the religion of the masters, legitimising the ‘civilizing mission’ of Europe, but it also became the religion of the oppressed, that which called for revolt and independence. Ajari shows how a black theology was built in order to “awaken the dignity of Afro-descendants, to restore their confidence in their individual being in their collective struggle against oppression”. Another instance of external politicisation is seen in black musical practices of jazz, blues and more recently, genres such as hip-hop. Musical expression helped testify to the racial oppression and struggle while the blues and soul music became inseparable from the Church, as it combined self expression with prayer.
After analysing the historical and political aspects of white supremacy, Ajari finally turns to introduce a new moral outlook and an ethical philosophy crucial for the establishment of a black ontology. He aims to revive African philosophical theories to introduce a new concept of dignity, separate from Western thought, which would allow for the liberation of the black race. Ajari draws from Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, a Cameroonian philosopher who worked on the hermeneutics of Muntu, and from Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian who popularised Ubuntu philosophy. The concept of Muntu, meaning ‘human being’ in Bantu languages, highlights the relationality of the individual. This relationality of humanness is seen in the term Ubuntu, also a Bantu concept meaning ‘humanity’, which could alternatively be translated as ‘I am because we are’. For Ajari, this undermines Kant’s conception of dignity — dignity is not found in an individual, it is not a sovereign subject without external relations. Dignity of Ubuntu is not abstract, and instead is found in relationships between individuals and their histories. The ethics that Ajari is proposing is based on community and respect, as well as understanding the deeper connectedness of all individuals. Ajari writes: “to restore the dignity of a human being, to reestablish it in Ubuntu, to allow him to regain his quality of Muntu, is to allow him to deploy and weave again all the reports that terrible violence suffered or committed made impossible.” (Ajari 227).
After carefully considering three prongs of the system of white supremacy, Ajari can turn to the creation of a black political ontology, which he sees as the exit of the black being from the non-being zone in which he is confined. Fanon spoke how every ontology is made unattainable in a colonised society — the colonised are seen as a flaw that does not have an ontological explanation. Ontology does not permit the understanding of a black man; he can only be black in relation to the white (Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 110). This creates the life suspended in death that Ajari has referenced throughout his work, and now turns to reform. He returns to the question of recognition and applies it to the current treatment of migrants in Europe, which he sees to be enduring comparable treatment to the postcolonial migrants from the former Caribbean colonies. The migrant is stripped of all dignity, their life is seen as ‘disposable’ — Ajari believes that European treatment of migrants stems from a racialised conception of nationality. Negrophobia has become the universal language of racism, and thus black struggle can become a universal refuge for all victims of xenophobia (Ajari 281).
A black political ontology needs to show the opposition between being and non-being, between life and death, between White and Black. To think of a black political ontology is to conceive of a subject originally constituted by violence, born in dehumanisation and inscribed in a history of exclusion. In colonialism, the black being was perceived as a slave, devoid of freedom and dignity — it was an experience of negation. The phrase ‘black dignity’ marks an exit to defy this negation. “Black dignity is not the rejection of death, but the power of survival which springs from the very bottom of death, and the power of the dead which affects life” (Ajari 304). The importance of Ajari’s philosophical work lies in the fact that the sees the black condition, as a form of unworthiness, not only through purely theoretical elements, but incorporates lived experiences as well. Dignity cannot be purely theoretical. Through the relational understanding of Ubuntu, the newly created black ontology can surpass the dichotomy of Black and White and move towards a world of shared dignity.
In trying to find a way to the creation of a new ontology that is egalitarian and anti-racist, this essay has retraced the necessary steps of decolonisation of the most important aspects of white supremacy, namely its historical, ethical, epistemological and political hegemony which has perpetually stunted the growth and development of black cultures and communities. Through the lens of dignity, philosopher Norman Ajari analysed the false epistemology and history of white supremacy, the impacts of its political dominion and the generational changes to the inner lifeworld of black people. By creating a basic framework of what a black ontology should contain, Ajari opens up the path to self-actualisation and breaking away from the chains of white supremacy, as well as a fresh vision of what a post-racist world should strive towards.
Ajari, Norman. La Dignité Ou La Mort: Éthique Et Politique De La Race. La Découverte, 2019.
Cavarero, Adriana, and William McCuaig. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. Columbia University Press, 2011.
Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, 2008, pp. 109–40.
—. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth, Reprint, Grove Press, 2005, pp. 1–17.
Kant, Immanuel. “On the Different Races of Men.” Race and the Enlightenment, edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Blackwell, 1997, pp. 39–64.
Vermeren, Pauline. “Penser Une Ontologie Politique Noire : Race, Racisme Et Violence d’État. À Propos De La Dignité Ou La Mort. Éthique Et Politique De La Race De Norman Ajari.” Philosophiques, vol. 46, no. 2, 2019, pp. 431–443., doi:https://doi.org/10.7202/1066769ar.
Walcott, Rinaldo. “The Problem of the Human: Black Ontologies and ‘the Coloniality of Our Being’.” Postcoloniality – Decoloniality – Black Critique: Joints and Fissures, edited by Sabine Broeck and Carsten Junker, Campus Verlag, 2015, pp. 93–105.
Zoungrana, Jean. “Norman Ajari, La Dignité Ou La Mort. Éthique Et Politique De La Race.” Questions De Communication, Presses Universitaires De Nancy, 15 Nov. 2020, journals.openedition.org/questionsdecommunication/22683.
Months before the course started, I was often concerned whether it all would work out – the zoom environment, potential time differences of our students, internet connections of my co-lecturers. The concern was good in the sense that when we started all was well-prepared and apart from some rare freezing sound or vision, our graduate course African Philosophy in Global Times. Knowledge and Culture felt like an easily flowing river. I had underestimated the warm atmosphere that comes into being when individuals automatically form a community of learners from the start, because learning is what they all love so much – and because they commit to the topic at hand. The guest lecturers were present as much as possible, which made this intense week feel more like an expert seminar than a teaching event, and this is, of course, ideally what a graduate course should be. My hopes that this week would have potential for a future network also was not in vain, as materials and news are now still exchanged, as they are – by the way – by some members of last year’s course Intercultural Philosophy and Postcolonial Theory.
What I was particularly happy about was that we had opened the course again to professionals with enough academic background to do a philosophy course at this level, as we could welcome several participants who worked in African contexts from their different disciplines, and who brought insights and questions into the classroom that benefited those coming from a Philosophy background – and vice versa.
Although gradually I start to yearn for real life work meetings again, us all logging in from such different places as the US, Senegal Belgium and Cameroon, to mention just a few, every day at the same moment from 4 different time zones, gave another type of intimate classroom feel I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. You can see for yourself from the ‘group photo’ we made the final afternoon.
Some group members were not present at that photo moment, especially our valued co-lecturers Hady Ba and Oumar Dia from Dakar finally had to return to business at their own institution. The upside is that we hope this initiative of the VU Winterschool will have a follow up at their end, at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop, in the following years.
Now let me just give the word to some of those present, to hear from different perspectives what we did and learned. Louise Müller, one of the lecturers wrote:
“In this African Philosophy course, we have discussed texts from a variety of fields such as analytical philosophy, the philosophy of history, epistemology and global ethics all with a focus on Africa. Not only were the texts philosophical and geographically very distinct, but the teachers and the students also came from various cultural and disciplinary backgrounds. This diversity resulted in an interesting group dynamic and highly in-depth discussions on the significance of African indigenous knowledge, notions of truth, black Athena, cosmopolitic consciousness, Othering and philosophical sagacity in a contemporary global context. As a Lecturer I contributed by sharing my expertise in African philosophy and history. I was pleasantly surprised that I also learned a lot from the inspiring presentations of my African and Dutch colleagues and those of our students. I, therefore, like to sincerely thank everyone for their participation in this course. Last but not least, I like to thank the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in particular professor Roothaan, for organising this wonderful winter course.”
“This Winter School was a great succes for me! It was a prefect opportunity to learn about African Philosophy. What is unique about this winter school is that we learned not only about African Philosophy, but from African philosophers (although it’s a shame that such a characteristic of a course is unique and not more common in western academia). Another thing I very much liked about this course is that it was profoundly philosophical, but with students from all kinds of disciplines, such as Law and Medicine. This made for very fine discussions and refreshing new insights. This winter school surely paved the way for my PhD in the form of it being an affirmation of my desires to pursue a career in African Philosophy. Thank you to Angela Roothaan, the others and the philosophers from Senegal and Cameroon for instigating this wonderful week!”
From my heart I can only say ‘thank you’ to ALL who made it a wonderful learning experience – to the students for their active participation and the teachers for making time in their busy schedules and gracefully sharing their expertise. Now if you consider following a similar course when we organize it, in Amsterdam or Dakar, online or live, you may get more information by checking out the announcement once it will be published here.
Facebook showed me what I was doing this time of year, three years ago… I was in Vienna – for the first time (if I do not count changing trains from the Netherlands to Hungary some 30 years ago and having coffee at the railway restaurant). And despite the feelings of alienation walking along the wide imperial streets lined with high-horsed men and women who once ruled the center of Europe, I fell in love with the city. Where power is concentrated, where its evils are planned and perpetrated, subversion and rebellion live too – and that ambiguous mix provides a space to think – always.
The city where Karl Popper as a student joined a communist organized protest, and became the philosopher of piecemeal engineering, after experiencing what the death at the hands of the police of some of the young protestors did to him. In an interview made for Dutch television, Popper tells of this experience (from 4:04-6:20):
A bit earlier in the same video, at 2:22, he discloses his feelings as a teenager about the fall of the Habsburg Empire after WW I – making him a philosopher who lived through, and reflected on, one of the major crises of the 20th century.
In that same city remembering power and disgrace, now philosophers from many continents were gathering to spend time to push African Philosophy forward.
All the same, Austria in 2017 denied like six potential attendants of the conference from Kenya and Nigeria their visas, for no clear reason. It has to mentioned. Always. We should not mention only those who are present, who gained powerful passports or positions to get them a better chance at a visa, but also those who are absent, whose experiences for sure would challenge the field even more.
And this year, 2020, as my previous post showed, I came back to Vienna, to spend time with thinkers from even more continents to discuss ways to decolonize our work and efforts to understand the world. After I returned I fell ill – had I picked up the virus in the city that saw one of the first major outbreaks of covid19 in Europe? I couldn’t get tested, my case was not serious enough according to the hastily drawn up regulations, so I had to isolate and see how to manage. It felt serious, although it started with only some throat pains, it slowly deteriorated to being at an energy level that barely was enough to take care of my daily needs. And to isolate. Enough time to fret, to worry, and to think.
And when I was improving a bit, work pushed and pulled immediately – students had to be taught, given assignments and graded, and more energy to write a blog post lacked. Not that I didn’t think of anything to post – on the contrary, every day new topics would come up in my head. But it somehow seems harder to speak publicly in times of covid. Not only because of one’s own situation – but because of the situation of the world. Everything seems to be shifting, and it is hard to say anything. People are angry, throwing ancient statues from their sockets. People are confused – seeking fast alliances – and as an involved philosopher, you look on – where we are going, before you can speak again.
Something is ending, that is for sure. The challenge is to think how to avoid unnecessary suffering and death in this ending – yes, I feel what Popper felt when the Austrian empire was trembing in its vestiges and falling. Popper also saw the rise of European racism in the 1930s and made sure to get a job in a faraway country where he – a Jew according to nazi ideas – would be safe. That country would be New Zealand, where he wrote his Open Society. While discussing views of history in philosophy – being especially critical of Marx and Hegel, this work implicitly tells us of the end of Europe, and aims to devise strategies for people to survive in a new world, a world where the statues no longer rule:
“If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. … Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. … And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control.”
(Karl Popper, 2002 , 556-557)
I don’t know how to end this post. I just thought it was worthwhile to remember some of the experiences and reflections of this exiled thinker, who did not want to be driven by ressentment, nor by mistaken utopianism, but who tried to make the best of it.
Just returned from one of the two international trips I expect to make for philosophy this year. From Vienna, a city I only visited for the second time, and shorter than the first time… The first time I saw her grandiose avenues, with all the towering sculptures of emperors and empresses. I also saw her silent, closed, street views – when I went river-wards to see the famous, crazy Hundertwasser house.
This time I walked the other way, right through the older city center, with medieval looking porches and little streets interspersed between – more grandiose palaces and her magnificent Dom.
I walked to the Center for Science and Culture, where I was invited to take part in an experimental style netwerk meeting on Intercultural Philosophy and Post-/De-colonial Theory. Experimental, as it didn’t want to use the hierarchical conference style, with the established professors holding keynotes for a large audience, and the younger scholars having to compete for attention in parallel sessions. How you do academic work matters. The Vienna group, which has organized such events for several years now, wanted to create a space where younger and older, students, researchers and professors, could meet as in… a meeting!
The meeting did start with lectures, like the one by Babacar Mbaye Diop from Senegal (on museums and looted art), and by Renate Schepen (on time and afrofuturism), but even then the time planned for discussion with all those present was way more than at a regular conference, where consuming information is often more important than reflection. In the afternoon session now there was text-discussion, close reading, as it might have been a seminar group – but now with people from across the globe who were partly new to each other. The text at the center was Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia, of which we weren’t sure how to classify it – as an essay, a manifesto…?
The second day brought another exciting turn, with three presentations rooted in Latin-American experience, among others by Rolando Vazquez. Vazquez made sure to delineate the concepts of postcoloniality and decoloniality from each other, as sharp as possible. Postcoloniality would be the critique of the colonial enterprise by its victims wanting to occupy modernity themselves, whilst decoloniality would be a similar critique which, however, rejected modernity as a way of being in the world. Insight was thus gained, but historically, I wondered, whether thus overlappings among experiences and motives of those oppressed by coloniality were not obfuscated. Here arose just one of the many interesting points of discussion and dialogue of the meeting, which asks to be pursued in a next one.
An even deeper question is how action and reflection hang together. And how their relation mirrors the one between intercultural philosophy and de-/postcolonial theory. Is our aim to construct instruments for change rooted in conceptual representations of suffering? To deconstruct hegemonic structures of thought? Or to ask open reflective questions and build spaces for dialogue? To me the most inspiring aspect of this meeting was the confidence that nobody present would want to decide on one of those approaches. We all seemed to realize that none of them can be fruitful without the others.
And what better place could provide that space for thought than the town where Hundertwasser is so present – whose houses integrated in living nature (after only decades) now are present in so many city planning projects. Green roofs, living areas without cars, a ‘human’ scale of living – he foresaw our need of them and pushed to create them. Maybe, hopefully our theorizing and discussing may also produce some ideas of use for a way of life not based on abuse by humans of humans, and of all other persons.
It is already two weeks ago that I met the ten international students who had enrolled in the Winter Course Intercultural Philosophy and Postcolonial Theory. A tiny room in the Mathematics and Sciences building (for rooms are always scarce since our university population outgrew its premises) barely held them and the teachers’ team: Dr. Louise Müller, Dr. Pius Mosima, and myself. For all it was an experiment, initiated by an invitation of the organizers of the Vrije Universiteit Winter School to submit an idea for a course.
Our idea was to get this interdisciplinary and intercontinental team together to teach this interdisciplinary and intercontinental class. The organizers liked the idea. We spent much time in advertizing the course, and the result was worth it – there were in fact 11 paying students, but – it has to mentioned, sadly enough: one of our African students didn’t obtain her visa. Later we heard that from the other proposals several had to retract because of failing numbers of enrollments. We are happy that so many were attracted by our topic, and if a second edition will take place, or maybe a summer school version, I am confident even more students will partake.
As an extra Dr. Müller had organized a boat tour through Amsterdam’s canals, provided by the Black Heritage Tours on the Sunday before we started – a welcome contextualizing and bonding event. Here you don’t get the success story of the enterprizing Dutch, but how this story was built on slave labor and legalized abuse of human beings. The tour focuses on slavery and the role the Netherlands played in it, but also tells about the free blacks neighborhood that existed in the 17th century and shows other traces of how Africans were present in Amsterdam’s history.
The course itself was an intensive five days, with lectures in the morning by the teaching team taking turns, and seminars with student presentations and text discussions in the afternoons. The planning of the course seemed to work well. But what you cannot predict is how the people who enroll will connect, and whether a true group will be formed. It was very encouraging to see this happened immediately and spontaneously: soon the discussion page of our internet space on canvas filled up with extra materials the students were sharing with each other, and their willingness to learn from each other’s learning and research challenges was enormous. Also the atmosphere was – as hoped – intercultural, open and inclusive.
What more can I say then a big THANK YOU to all the participants who made this first ever graduate course (class) in Intercultural Philosophy and Postcolonial Theory possible. Hope to hear again from your research and endeavors in the future. And let us wish we can take this course also to other places!
Two of the participants were so kind to also write their own impression for this blog, and I will give these here below.
Victor Nweke wrote: “The VU Amsterdam Winter Course – ‘Intercultural’ Philosophy and Postcolonial ‘Theory’: ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Discourse – is unique in many ways. What interest me most is the fact that it was a transcultural, transnational and transdisciplinary meeting of established and budding scholars struggling to understand and express themselves through interpersonal conversations. As a seeker of meaning in life, I would love to attend it as many times as possible from any location of the earth. The Amsterdam Slave Heritage Tour was great. Nonetheless, I think the Tour would have been much more lively if it was done in the middle of the course when all participants have become aware of their interconnections as members of the same species. The Boat Tour brought healing memories of the Cape of Agony in different parts of my Motherland.”
Surekha Raven wrote: “I am a Master’s Student in organizational anthropology and attended the course in preparation of my master’s thesis. The teachers are extremely knowledgeable and helpful and the course absolutely exceeded my expectations. The choice of literature fitted the objectives and I gained a lot of new insights for my master’s thesis. The variety in professional, educational and cultural backgrounds of both the teachers and the students made the lectures and our discussions even more engaged and productive. I especially liked the interdisciplinary, intercultural approach, truly inspiring and promising for a philosophy of the future.”
When I tell about my engaged research into shamanism and shamanistic cultures, I have often encountered the same idea: that I am into a romantic idea called ‘back to nature’, that I idealize non-modern cultures, in short – that I am, somehow, loosening the high standards of philosophical reason that modern Western culture has reached.
This idea encountered me when I had written my first book on nature ‘Terugkeer van de natuur’ (The Return of Nature’). The title, as it happens, was more the idea of the publisher. My own title was considered too difficult, but of course, philosophically, it was much more clear, and would have prevented some of the romantic misunderstandings. It was ‘Nature as metaphor’. I wanted to show that through the concept of nature we express our deepest existential experiences, experiences which already presuppose ourselves as agents. Nature can never be observed as something ‘outside’.
And this – making it into something ‘outside’ is what is happening in our times – where indigenous peoples are persistantly being ‘finished off’ by large scale agriculture and extraction of crude resources by companies entering and overtaking their lands. All means seem allowed, from inventing new laws that make their traditional way of life illegal, to expulsion, to ‘helping’ them to settle down, to letting murders of shamans and protectors unpunished. The indigenous peoples who have up till now resisted modern ways of life have often done so by retracting into less inhabitable, less penetrable areas.
This morning I happened upon this well-done, non-romantic documentary (in German) on shamanism in present-day Mongolia. What is important if one doesn’t want to remain stuck in the standard ideas on shamanistic cultures, is to postpone one’s judgments and to listen to what the shamans themselves have to say. They are not voiceless, they are not ignorant about what they reject. They are clear about their views and goals. Still they are seldomly listened to.
One of these shamans, Ganbat Sandag, to be seen near the end of the film, says it clearly: ‘without us, without our way of life (that of the reindeer herds and hunters) this nature would not be that wild anymore as it is up till now’ (my paraphrase). In these words the key to the shamanistic understanding of our (human) relation to the world is given:
‘Wild’ does not mean ‘untouched by humans’ (that would be romantic), wild is what has been kept in a certain state by humans – in cooperation of course with the other creatures in that ‘world’. Nothing is untouched, is uncreated, is un-kept, un-domesticated.
The question is how we touch, how we domesticate, what kind of home we make and keep, and for whom. Modern capital in its more ugly forms (visible in the docu in the extraction of valuables from the mountains in the area, an activity that releases toxic substances, that in turn cause illnesses in the human and non-human population) destroys ‘wild’ homes, to create cheap, large scale, short-lived homeliness for the poor masses it first created and then transformed into customers.
Capital needs ‘wild’ nature outside of civilization – to create an image of conservation and space for its poor consumers – but in that wild nature the conservators, the hunters, are not allowed to live their lives anymore. All over the world traditional hunters are ‘hunted’ down by new laws and conservationist organisations (google some of the issues in which WWF is involved in Central Africa, for example).
What is at stake is a deeply philosophical issue: how we understand the human relations to nature – nature in us, us in nature or nature outside, and us outside of nature (then where will we be…?).
Ganbat Sandag says it clearly: ‘if we cannot hunt anymore, this way of life will disappear, and the reindeer will disappear as well.’
The difference of insight, and the bone of contention is thus: what is wild nature? The shamanistic peoples say – it is the nature that we have been preserving like this for ages. The modern peoples say – you get out of there, become sedentary like us, and leave ‘nature’ to itself. That, I agree with this shaman, is a romantic mistake.