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.

Decoloniality Workshop: “Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”

by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán with notes by Haruki Eda and Rafael Vizcaíno, and pictures by Rafael Vizcaíno

At the beginning of the Spring semester, on February 19th, 2019, Comparative Literature PhD student Thato Magano shared with the Decoloniality Workshop audience their soon-to-be published paper[i],“Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.”  In it, Thato highlighted the importance of Nervous Conditions as a critical feminist text that “negotiates the seemingly inescapable bind of inter- and intra- cultural patriarchal prescriptions,” and emphasized its significance within Black studies, African Literature and postcolonial studies.

Thato builds up on the work of Susan Andrade and Tendai Marima, and challenges previous readings that describe the main character and narrator of the novel, Tambu, as heterosexual and as representative of the nation. Thato instead argues that Tambu and her cousin Nyasha, with whom she holds an intimate relationship, exist as “queer subjects not synchronous with national reproductive time.” The article places them as figures that “rearticulate sexual politics” and radicalizes queer politics. Thato centers the queer subject within the often-restrictive political discourse of black experience, and analyses how lesbian desire within Nervous Conditions opposes the family as social norm. Through its exploration of Tambu and Nyasha’s relationship, “Fucking with [The] Family” proposes a reading of “incest as a queer emotion, affect and aesthetic that can be instrumental in destabilizing heteronormative nationalist desires in postcolonial literatures.”

In the Q&A section, audience members were interested in exploring with Thato the cultural limitations of incest, the distinction between queer identity and queer politics, and the relationship between queerness and spirituality. Students who work on Caribbean Literature asked about the relationship that Thato sees between African epistemologies and those of the Caribbean where literary queerness is usually analyzed through a spiritual lens. To this inquiry Thato answered that spirituality is often used as mediation (or mediating tool) for talking about queer intimacies, “my investment is to try to produce two subjects who can stand in their own terms… my resistance is against the premise that queer sexuality can only emerge in a cultural context (e.g. mythology, culture, spirituality), but that cultural context privileges heterosexual production and national time…so these sorts of mediations that queer subjectivity can only hinge upon is what I am resisting.”

The conversation continued outside of the meeting room, as Thato’s fascinating paper brought up more questions and conversation topics. Thato’s paper and the presentation successfully met its goal, to examine Nervous Conditionsas a text that “negotiates escaping heteronormative conventions of Black female subjectivity”, and “make[s] legible alternative modes of caring and belonging within the nation” outside the heteronormative construction of the family. This paper allowed a richer understanding of queerness and brought to light many of the assumptions that exist when reading about relationships among black women. Congratulations to Thato Magano on a wonderful presentation!

[i]It has been accepted for publication by the Research in African Literatures Journal (RiAL).

Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens: A Colloquium Presentation by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

by Phil Yakushev

Comparative Literature hosted its first colloquium on April 1, when María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán presented “Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens” and contextualized this talk within her dissertation-in-progress. María Elizabeth’s project seeks to challenge what she identifies as a common tendency in studies of African diasporas—a centering of Anglophone spaces which, in turn, leaves the Spanish Caribbean at the periphery of this field. Her presentation, structured around two 19thcentury Spanish Caribbean texts, not only directly resisted this dynamic of African diaspora studies but also showed how love practiced by black and mix-raced women, as agents, can challenge the constraints of the nation and establish community.

María Elizabeth used two works to build her case: Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La Cuarterona, and Cuban novelist Ciriollo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. These texts share several similarities, making them useful for a comparatist who traces how literary characters and black subjectivities in the Caribbean were shaped by their recognized relationship to slavery and how these recognitions effected social relations. Both works were written in the late 19thcentury by authors who were renowned in their spaces; their plots proceed around racially ambiguous female characters of African descent who fall in love with white men in times of slavery; both feature incest; and, perhaps curiously, both works are set in Habana. María Elizabeth used the latter similarity to illustrate the complex relationship between black subjectivities in the Spanish Caribbean, the family and the nation, and love and incest. Tapia most probably did not set his play in Cuba out of ignorance of how race operated on his own island, and María Elizabeth summarized the scholarly debates around question of setting. As she argued, Rivera places La Cuarterona in Cuba to present the “audience with a transnational perspective that allows for connections between isolated spaces and bring to light a pressing issue,” that of blackness and slavery.

For María Elizabeth, this transnational perspective is vital. Overall, she “seeks to study blackness as a way of being that centers relationships and community, instead of addressing the nation which has established modes of love that constrain black subjects.” Both nation and language act as constraints even in the study of African diasporas, with conventional approaches being less willing to engage with black experiences in the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, where myths of “racial democracy and mesizaje are foundational and place an impediment” to a conventional discourse on blackness in which slavery is critical. María Elizabeth’s work, then, seeks to push African diaspora studies in at least three ways: broadening scholarship beyond Anglophone spaces, exploring the role of the nation in constructing racial ideology within the Spanish Caribbean itself, and showing how black and mixed-race women characters can challenge the dominance of the nation and its foundational unit, the family, by building their own communities. While love, in the texts María Elizabeth is working with for her dissertation, often takes on forms often identified as perverse—such as incest—she was careful to stress that, for characters in these literatures, love often does not ultimately fail. Rather, love becomes a way to form relationships among colonized communities, with instances of unconventional love creating “cracks on the concrete of coloniality, as fissures that challenge to break the colonial version of the family unit.”

After discussing these texts and introducing her analytical frames, María Elizabeth previewed the rest of her dissertation, and its themes and structure. The project, as a whole, will juxtapose and compare the black subjectivities produced, and reproduced, in literatures of the Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbeans. Other chapters in her work will explore Michelle Cliff’s Abeng and the limits of creole solidarity in Jamaica, as well as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowningand how love and relationships in the Virgin Islands can function outside of the colonial-sexual matrix. María Elizabeth hopes that her comparatist approach will not only expand African diaspora studies beyond the Anglophone but, relatedly, disrupt a potentially paralyzing centrality of slavery within the field. As she said, “Despite the long-lasting damage that slavery has left on peoples of the Afro-Diaspora, our ability to love affirms our ways of thriving, our ways of moving forward, and beyond, trauma as framework.” As a whole, then, María Elizabeth’s work seeks to highlight how literature can unleash the ability of love to serve as praxis and “heal the wounds of enslavement.”  Her colloquium presentation provided a powerful and fascinating preview of this critical endeavor.

Global Africa, Migration, Literature, and the Arts

by Joseph Sepulveda

On March 28th, I attended “Global Africa, Migration, Literature, and the Arts”, a three-day symposium held at Rutgers University. I will focus in this blog post on two parts of the Global Africa conference that I witnessed. The first is a collective presentation led and written by Thato Magano entitled “Cacophonous Cognates: A Hybrid”, which he performed alongside Alexandria Smith and Paulina Barrios. The performance was also accompanied by the drumming of Roger Noguerol, with technical support from Gabriel Bámgbóṣé and Yuanqiu Jiang. The second part is the keynote lecture by the Glissantian Manthia Diawara, whose focus was a mediation on the importance of returning to the philosophy of Èdouard Glissant for our current moment.

I listened to the performance piece “Cacophonous Cognates” not in order to try to understand it but to feel it as poetry. The choral qualities of the pieces that Thato Magano assembled reflected on our cosmic being, blackness, colonialism, love and endurance. The work transmitted what it meant to attend to the suffering and love of black people. Magano cited Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, and in many ways the piece felt and communicated what it means to love blackness under conditions of its undoing. It spoke about a longing for the textures, beauty, and luminance of blackness; it honored the ancestors and black mothering; it limned in its multivocality the possibility of becoming, gesturing toward our collective and unbridled transformation.

After the performance, I listened to Manthia Diawara’s reflections on  Édouard Glissant and the poet-philosopher’s singularity— for Diawara Glissant is a philosopher who breaks from filiation, and he emphasized Glissant’s sans père(ness), his distance from Western philosophy of monotheism and root-identity (identité-racine), of an essential totalitarian Western understanding of being, in favor of a world in Relation. But beyond highlighting Glissant’s eminence, Diawara’s speech resonated with the earlier performance in a number of ways. For Diawara, Glissant is a poet whose poetic concepts touch on and illuminate a world not of self/other opposition but of an extension of the self in relation to the Other. This is the essence of Relation. Moreover, Diawara pointed to another key Glissantian concept that resonated with Thato Magano’s performance: the ethics of opacity. While opacity can be understood as a failure to reveal or make oneself transparent, for Glissant the right to opacity is crucial to identity and to resisting the will to dominate. It becomes crucial therefore, to paraphrase Diawara, to not only take note of one’s own opacity to oneself but to grant to others the impossibility of ever fully comprehending. This failure, however, should not be the cause of despair but should open the way to creating a different collective world beyond possessive drives to conquer and control what can be or exist.