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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.

Artwork by the author, acrylic on canvas.

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.

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

Introduction

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.

Photo by Angela Roothaan

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.

Photo by Angela Roothaan

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.

Conclusion

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.

Endnotes

1 Background of the Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/background/

2 The Paris Agreement. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the- paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

3 Which countries are the world’s biggest carbon polluters? (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.climatetrade.com/which-countries-are-the-worlds-biggest-carbon-polluters/

4 Drabinski, J. (2020). Frantz Fanon. Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/frantz- fanon/

5 ibid

6 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 311). New York: Grove Press.

7 ibid

8 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p.312). New York: Grove Press.

9 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 313). New York: Grove Press.

10 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 312). New York: Grove Press.

11 Global Warming Effects. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/global-warming-effects/

12 AAAS Reaffirms Statements on Climate Change and Integrity. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.aaas.org/news/aaas-reaffirms-statements-climate-change-and-integrity

13 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 314). New York: Grove Press.

14 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 11). New York: Grove Press.

15 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (pp. 11,12). New York: Grove Press.

16Fact Sheet No. 37: Frequently Asked Questions on the Right to Development. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FSheet37_RtD_EN.pdf

17 ibid

18 ibid

19 ibid

20 ibid

21 Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html

22 Yang, Z. (2012). The Right to Carbon Emission: A New Right to Development. American Journal Of Climate Change, 01(02), 108-116. doi: 10.4236/ajcc.2012.12009

23 ibid

24 ibid

25 ibid

26 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth. New York: Grove Press.

27 ibid

28Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

29 ibid

30 ibid

31 ibid

32 Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

33 ibid

34 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 315). New York: Grove Press.

35 Ken Saro-Wiwa. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ken- Saro-Wiwa

36 Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

37 ibid

38 ibid

39 Arundhati Roy. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Arundhati-Roy

40 Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge. 41Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge. 42 ibid

43 ibid

Bibliography

AAAS Reaffirms Statements on Climate Change and Integrity. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.aaas.org/news/aaas-reaffirms-statements-climate-change-and- integrity

Arundhati Roy. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Arundhati-Roy

Background of the Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/background/

Drabinski, J. (2020). Frantz Fanon. Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/frantz-fanon/

Fact Sheet No. 37: Frequently Asked Questions on the Right to Development. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FSheet37_RtD_EN.pdf

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Global Warming Effects. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/global-warming-effects/

Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

Ken Saro-Wiwa. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ken-Saro-Wiwa

Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html

The Paris Agreement. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://unfccc.int/process-and- meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

Which countries are the world’s biggest carbon polluters? (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.climatetrade.com/which-countries-are-the-worlds-biggest-carbon- polluters/

Yang, Z. (2012). The Right to Carbon Emission: A New Right to Development. American Journal Of Climate Change, 01(02), 108-116. doi: 10.4236/ajcc.2012.12009

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.

045 - Escuela Primaria Rebelde Autonoma Zapatista
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/theklan/5312620093

Historical Context1

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 Sexta4 calls 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),

Ach, wir

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

Mit Nachsicht.5

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.

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes:

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.

Sources

Swaim, Bob, director. Lumières Noires. 2006.

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.

Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth, p. 6.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Hegelian Wound, 8 Oct. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRsrYi- wXro&ab_channel=DeutschesHaus.

Löwy, Michael. “Sources and resources of Zapatism.” Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 10, Mar. 1998, p. 1+. Gale Academic OneFile. Accessed Nov. 2020.

Achebe, Chinua. “English and the African Writer.” Transition, no. 75/76, 1997, pp. 342–349. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2935429. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.

Further reading

Reyes Godelmann, Iker. “The Zapatista Movement: The Fight for Indigenous Rights in Mexico.” Australian Institute of International Affairs, 30 July 2014, www.internationalaffairs.org.au/news-item/the-zapatista-movement-the-fight-for- indigenous-rights-in-mexico/.

Zapatista Timeline. 28 Oct. 2015, schoolsforchiapas.org/teach-chiapas/zapatista-timeline/. Bellinghausen, Hermann. “Zapatistas, Una Transformación De 25 Años.” Revista De La Universidad 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.

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.

Opening speech for the whole Winter School by the director of the International Office of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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.”

Our interdisciplinary and intercontinental class at the final day.

 

A few years ago my department was shaken by a little revolution: a group of students were protesting that our curriculum was too un-diverse. They were persistent, and connected to similar movements in our university as a whole as well as in other universities, and in the end they claimed a small victory: a new course would be added to the curriculum of the Philosophy Bachelor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which would give room to more diverse ways to learn about and to practice philosophy.

At the same time their victory could also be seen as a defeat – their idea was, namely, to diversify all courses. To introduce feminist perspectives especially and put more works of female philosophers on the reading lists. That goal now has been left to the informal effects of their efforts. What was gained was this one course. It now carries the responsibility to balance our program by introducing ‘diverse’ philosophy works.

The honor to teach this new course has been bestowed on me, for which I am thankful, as it posed a challenge to me as well. I had to reflect first, when designing the outline in more detail, on the meaning of that expression: a diverse philosophy. What is it? And how can one diversify philosophy? By what means?

In that public debate in our department, early 2016, one of our professors claimed that the specialization he taught, Ethics, already had many female authors on the reading list. That would be no surprise, as indeed, there are many important philosophers active in that field, and among the younger generations (45 down) there are ever more. The professors responsible for the History of Philosophy had a harder time, as they held on to the idea that we should dedicate enough time to the ‘Great Thinkers’, which would leave not so much room for the female species among thinkers.

Not much was said in that meeting about other important aspects (like hiring procedures) in which we needed to ‘diversify’ – as black, muslim, or otherwise non-white persons rarely occupy academic teaching positions in Dutch Philosophy Departments. Things will change rapidly in that respect, however, let me prophecy here – as international hiring procedures will increasingly put candidates in the spotlight that before were never considered.

So how to do it? Diversify? Let’s begin by saying it asks for a mindset that opens up for difference. All kinds of difference. Not just difference of racial group, gender, religion, culture – but differences also in temperament, in personal histories, in ways in which each one of us is vulnerable in some or other aspect of life. Amanda may have a slight hearing problem, Xavier an undiagnosed form of Asperger’s syndrome. Marianne may suffer from intergenerational trauma because her parents were refugees, or victims of the last war. Jim may have a problem to express himself verbally, and Sandra to slow down her pace in group discussions – and both may have issues with sharing their thoughts in seminars. On top of such issues which often are invisible, we have vulnerabilities that are related to class, race and gender. Or to not fitting in heteronormative cultural patterns society lays out for us. Diversifying means being open to all of these things. It means understanding that thinking is something real people with real desires and problems do. Not disembodied geniuses, nor ‘minds’.

Diverse philosophy is – as an effect of the above, also critical. It gets suspicious if philosophy claims to have a ‘bird’s eye view’, sees things from the standpoint of ‘pure reason’ or ‘sub specie aeternitate’. Such claims can indicate the kind of decontextualized, disembodied approach that may stand for some form of supression of difference. This does not mean a philosopher like Kant should get less attention in a diverse program. Of course not, he influenced the modern world in unimaginable ways. He could be read paired with critical readings of his work, such as done by Emmanuel Eze, for instance in his work on a post-racial future for humanity.

My task is not, however, to diversify the entire program, but only to add – as spice to a lavish dish – one course to a curriculum which aims to provide a classical training in philosophy. As an added extra. That is an interesting position. Marginal and central as well – depending on the way one looks at it. I will take up the challenge.

After serious deliberation I decided to design the course as an introduction into different ways in which the traditional canon of ‘great thinkers’ of Euro-American origin can be perceived and read critically. Not adding just ‘diverse’ thinkers, but moreover discovering perspectives that students can try out and see how they work for their own thinking. We will delve into postcolonial, feminist, queer and race-critical perspectives, which unhinge the standard ways in which Philosophy as a discipline has been handed down since the late 18th century.

This reflects how I like to teach philosophy: as a series of ways to stimulate and improve the reflective potential that is already here – in actual students who enter class – with all their different backgrounds, vulnerabilities and talents. My hope is they can learn not only from the materials offered, but also from each other, and from themselves, as they go through the step by step transformations that life asks from us, and that philosophical studies speed up.

Looking forward to the start, and to learn from the process myself. As of next week, September 2nd, 2019.