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Varieties of Decolonial Thinking and Organizing

by Rafael Vizcaino and Paulina Barrios

Over February and March of 2019, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series held two events sponsored by the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and the Program in Comparative Literature. Audiences from both Rutgers and New Brunswick were exposed to a wide range of ideas concerning the decolonization of theory, activism, and institutions from the Dominican activist-scholar Yuderkys Espinosa, the French-Algerian political activist and writer Houria Bouteldja, and the decolonial organizers from the movement Decolonize This Place.

On Friday February 1st, RAICCS welcomed Yuderkys Espinosa for a talk in Spanish titled “Decolonial Feminism in Abya Yala” and a workshop on “Black Decolonial Feminist Epistemology”. During her talk, Espinosa first recognized the disconnection between communities, grassroots activism, and academia. She argued it is precisely decolonial feminism that builds these connections and systematizes knowledge produced by communities and spaces that are generally left out of academic discussions. She invited us to reflect on what a young indigenous activist said when asked if she thought of herself as a feminist: “I am not a feminist because I do not save myself on my own”. This young activist went on to explain that she had no investment in an individualist project, which was how she saw feminism. She further explained that although she felt compelled by some of the feminist scholars and activists, she could not fully align with a movement that she felt separated her from her community. Espinosa emphasized that decolonial feminism must listen to these voices and that it could avoid individualistic leaderships by amplifying its focus and emphasizing collective action and scholarship. As a specific example she spoke of co-authorship and mentioned the book by Catherine Walsh, a scholar-activist based in Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar, and Juan García Salazar, an Afro-Ecuadorian elder keeper of oral tradition, “Pensar sembrando/sembrar pensando con el Abuelo Zenón” (Thinking as we sow/Sowing as we think with Grandfather Zenon). Espinosa ended her talk by arguing that decolonial feminism must analyze when and where it is replicating power dynamics and modern projects based on authenticity and truth.

 

After her presentation, Espinosa held a workshop focused on black decolonial feminist epistemology within the production of knowledges and practices in activism and the academy. She established two main aspects as the most important:

  • A focus against the androcentrism of scientific knowledge. This androcentrism is based on male heterosexuals who come from a space of privilege and argue for objectivity and universality that aren’t ‘polluted’ by experience. She argued that this pretension of objectivity and universality doesn’t really exist. Further, a decolonial black feminist methodology implies being self-critical and coming to terms with one’s privilege and positionality. This leads to the possibility of establishing and producing one’s own knowledge and categories, moving beyond the idea of universal concepts.
  • Following feminist knowledge production methodologies. This is based on self-experience and the understanding that all knowledge comes from subjectivity, which leads us to abandon the preference of objectivity. This includes also adding value to what happens outside the academy, including different strategies, dialogues between different knowledges, intergenerational dialogues, as well as with indigenous and afrodescendent universities. She also emphasized that this process involves negotiations and clear communication among people who are generating collectives and decolonial ways of producing knowledge.

Following these two events, on March 14th and 15th, RAICCS welcomed Houria Bouteldja, a well-known French-Algerian political activist and writer focusing on anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and Islamophobia. Bouteldja began with a lecture (in French, with live English translation) titled “About White Innocence in General and French Innocence in Particular.” In this lecture, Bouteldja offered a devastating analysis of the ways in which current French left politics advance a white supremacist project. Bouteldja discussed how the progressive vision of leftist politics in France only encompasses white people, continuing the racist imaginary and state apparatus from centuries of colonial practices that were never properly decolonized. For instance, the French political status quo often deploys Islamophobia in the name of secularism. This practice targets largely Muslim migrants from France’s former colonies, who are not treated as political subjects but people to be saved at best (for the liberal) or as poison for the French nation at worst (for the fascist). Against this racist status quo, Bouteldja put forth a decolonial anti-imperialist politics of “revolutionary love” by spearheading the political organization of the Parti des indigènes de la République.

 

The next day, Nelson Maldonado-Torres moderated a discussion titled “The Spirit of Bandung Continues: Roundtable on Decolonial Organizing with Houria Bouteldja, and with Nitasha Dhillon, Amin Husain, and Marz Saffore from MTL+ and Decolonize this Place, as well as Teresa Vivar from Lazos America Unida.” The gathering brought together organizers from different conjunctures to share reflections on failures, successes, tactics, and goals. Vivar, a community organizer from New Brunswick, expressed her concerns on developing natural leadership skills of Indigenous migrant women in New Brunswick, a task that is made difficult by the everyday oppressions coming either from police repression in the community (ICE) or from the community’s own internalized racism and misogyny. Dhillon, Husain, and Saffore spoke about the many efforts that have led to the work they are now doing in New York City under the auspices of Decolonize This Place, “an action-oriented movement centering around Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification.” In their model of organizing, direct actions generate what they call “movement-generated theory” that targets institutional power. Bouteldja likewise shared the pre-history that led to the founding of the Parti des indigènes de la République. For Bouteldja, liberalism’s complicities to white supremacy are seen in the greater volume of criticism that decolonial thinking is currently receiving in the French academy than that of the criticism of the resurgent far-right racist/fascist politics.

 

These events, as part of the ongoing “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, addressed the varieties of decolonial positions, tactics, and approaches that exemplify the breadth and possibility that decolonial thought and praxis offer across social positions and in different institutional settings. The speakers exemplified how decoloniality can be a strong analytic lens to be implemented in our research and teaching. Perhaps most importantly, however, their activist orientations let us know that decoloniality is also a practice that targets patterns of oppression in ourselves and the institutions that we inhabit.

“Dante, Franciscan Poverty, and the Donation of Constantine” Professor Alessandro Vettori – Brown Bag Lunch, April 18, 19

by Milan Reynolds

Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre, non la tua conversion, ma quella dote che da te prese il primo ricco patre! (Inf. 19.115-17)

 Ah, Constantine, what wickedness was born— and not from your conversion—from the dower that you bestowed upon the first rich father!

Several students and faculty had the pleasure of hearing Professor Alessandro Vettori’s presentation on Dante’s Divina Commediaand its relation to Franciscan poverty and the Donation of Constantine. Beginning with a brief encounter in Canto 19 of Inferno, Vettori recounted how Dante locates Constantine with the simonists, members of the clergy who are corrupted by money. In order to understand Dante’s critique, we had to travel to the 3rdcentury. Constantine was the first “Christian” ruler of the Roman Empire though he was only baptized on the eve of his death. Along with unifying the Eastern and Western halves of the empire and moving the capital to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), he played an influential role in the Edict of Milan and the Council of Nicaea, which made Christianity legal and established a set of principles for the faith.

After sketching this history of Christianity’s first steps, Alessandro turned to a document known as the Donation of Constantine. This text recounts how the Emperor, after being infected with leprosy, was miraculously cured by Pope Sylvester I and, in thanks, donated the city of Rome and the western half of the Roman empire to the Church. For those of us unfamiliar with medieval studies, it came as a surprise when Alessandro promptly informed us that the document was a fake written more than 400 years after Constantine’s death. It was not until the 15thcentury that it was argued to be false however, and in the meantime had been used by the Papacy to consolidate and acquire power and wealth.

Dante, who was influenced by the newly formed mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, was critical of the Church’s wealth. He articulated this in many ways but also by calling into question the Donation of Constantine itself, arguing it was illegitimate because the Church was not entitled to receive property. Alessandro then drew some intriguing connections between Dante’s experience of exile from Florence and his affinity for Franciscan values of poverty. In particular, a coterminous text narrating the marriage of St. Francis with Lady Poverty as a spiritual allegory, shares similarities with Dante’s Divina Commedia. This literary journey was supplemented by several works of art Alessandro had chosen, representing the Donation of Constantine at different moments in time. The project, as Alessandro put it, is still in the early stages, but everyone attendant looked forward to hearing more about the topic.

 

 

 

Brown Bag Lunch on “Comparative Worldings: The Case of Indian Literatures”

by Thato Magano

On April 8th, the Program in Comparative Literature’s Brown Bag series hosted Professor Preetha Mani (Comp Lit, AMESALL), who presented a paper from her upcoming book, where she takes up questions concerning Indian literatures as forms of comparative literatures. In her talk, excerpted from the first chapter of the book, Prof. Mani reflected on the conceptions of Indian literature that came to the fore in the 1930s and how these conceptions sought to unite Indian people in a common vision, as a corollary to ideas of a national language. Central to her meditation were questions of what constitutes world literature and how Indian writers of the time challenged the aggregative models of world literature by creating alternative conceptions of the world as constitutive to their practice.

Taking us on a temporal journey and describing the ways writers formed cohorts and circles to explore and debate questions of translation, uncovered was an appreciation of the ways these writers took up translation questions in world literary production, thus placing translation at the forefront of anti-imperialist efforts. There was also a consideration of how these writers defined literariness as a way of interrogating the status of world literature, and as such, performing acts of worldings that created alternative standards of literary value.

Following her query “Is a text translatable because it is literary or is it literary because it is translatable?” the answer is found in the ways worldliness is defined. Showing some of the challenges with theories of world literature and their aggregative borders that apply European standards to mark what belong and what doesn’t, Prof. Mani’s impulse is to define a new methodology of what constitutes worldliness. “What if literature is something more than a single literary discourse? What if literary processes of worlding have different origins? Can we see these as distinct processes informed by specific socio-political processes?” Prof Mani uses the case of Tamil writers and how they addressed these questions, showing how these writers welcomed foreignness and untranslatability in the face of changing world literary standards and norms. These writers embraced contaminated language, using multiple languages to defamiliarize Tamil literature and mark it as part of the worlding project and still part of the Indian literary and language project.

Thus, worlding is a multi-scalar approach that considers the meta literary approaches that shape which texts are considered world literature. As such, worlding is a useful ontological category for Prof. Mani as it enables a way of engaging or producing a kind of human community that ties us all through language, yet is still broader than just language as it also produces conceptions of what can be defined as literary.