Comforting Discomfort of Rebel Music: Some Diaspora Legba/Pākehā Reflections on Robbie Shilliam’s ‘The Black Pacific’

author pic RutazibwaOur fourth commentary on The Black Pacific. Olivia U. Rutazibwa is Lecturer in European and International Development Studies at the University of Portsmouth, UK. Currently she is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Käte Hamburg Kolleg/ Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Duisburg in Germany where she looks into ways to decolonise the scholarship on sovereignty and self-determination, drawing from philosophies and practices of autonomous recovery in Somaliland, Agaciro in Rwanda and Black Power in the US. She is the former Africa desk editor and journalist at the Brussels based quarterly MO* Magazine and continues to write monthly op-eds for them.


When I first started reading Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific last April, I was only a couple of pages in when I shot him the following email: “Sitting on a sunny terras [sic] by the waterfront in Antwerp and reading your book. It is not often that I feel deeply comforted, healing, cared for and utterly inspired reading an academic text… At some point I’ll hopefully have more eloquent ways to share my thoughts with you on your book, for now it’s just feelings…J

Today, more than half a year later, the point of ‘more eloquence’ has supposedly arrived, but I doubt that I will ever truly reach it when it comes to this remarkable book.

In what follows I will share some preliminary thoughts on The Black Pacific, rather than venture into a full on book review. The book challenges our traditional (read: colonial) ways of doing research so convincingly and profoundly, that a conventional review would not do it justice. Too many of our research ways continue to be concerned with the generalizable and the linear. Divisive categorisations still play an important role and we end up with consumable knowledge at the service of the (oppressive) control of reality and peoples. Too often then, academic conversations, ideally conceived as open spaces for dialogue, exchange and creation, ossify into zones of judgementality, oxygenised by a misguided belief that there are indeed some absolute truths out there. The Black Pacific speaks a radically different language.

To me, it sang like Rebel Music at the heart of the (IR) academy and as such, it was a source of comforting discomfort. More on that later.

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‘We Nah Want No Devil Philosophy’: A Note on the Decolonial Science of ‘The Black Pacific’

The third commentary in our forum on Robbie’s The Black Pacific, this time from Ajay Parasram. Ajay is a lecturer and Doctoral Candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, unceded Algonquin Territory. His dissertation considers the gradual de-politicization of the colonial norm of “total territorial rule” emerging out of the collision of local and European ontologies of territory in mid-19th century Ceylon (Sri Lanka). One or two more posts to come before Robbie’s rejoinder.


I read The Black Pacific while walking through Coast Salish territories on Turtle Island, known in colonial vernacular as Washington State, USA, and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada. Attesting to the wide reaching applicability of the ideas advanced within this book, I engage it by drawing examples from Turtle Island, where I live.

The Black Pacific asks readers to reconnect with our shared humanity through cultivating a decolonial science of “deep relation.” This starkly contrasts with the prevailing “colonial science” of categorical separation and developmental hierarchy that is essential to ‘uni-versal’ modernity. To understand the distinction between “deep relation” and “categorical separation,” Shilliam says “We must start by acknowledging that the manifest world is a broadly (post)colonial one, structured through imperial hierarchies that encourage the one-way transmission of political authority, social relations and knowledge from the centres outwards” (20). Colonial science depends on the rigid separation of manifest and spiritual domains, as well as the separation of people into categories such as “enslaved, indentured, native, free, poor and masters. None can relate sideways to each other. They are fixated by the gaze of Britannica, the master” (23).

The Black Pacific is a nuanced, multifaceted call to abandon the science of separation that renders “profane” the myriad knowledges that people cultivate globally. The distinction offered between knowledge production/consumption vs. knowledge cultivation makes a valuable methodological contribution to decolonial research by treating the past (as opposed to History) as something in need of oxygenation:

Unlike knowledge production/consumption (a subaltern under-taking), knowledge cultivation turns matter around and folds it back on itself so as to rebind and encourage growth. This circulatory process of oxygenation necessarily interacts with a wider biotope, enfolding matter from diverse cultivations. (128-129)

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Of Uncolonized, Spiritual Hinterlands

The second commentary in our forum on Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific. Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa and can be reached at this email. He would like to thank Jairus Grove, Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller and Akta Kaushal for their comments; the usual disclaimers apply.


Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections is an unusual work in many ways. Not too many, if any at all, in the field of international relations have a sentence like this one as their impetus: “Let the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the ancients protected and the infants cared for” (p. 185). Shilliam centers colonialism – the legacy of Columbus and Cook- as the event that broke the world. In a sentence of startling brevity and insight, he demolishes the self-contained history of European rise to dominance as he notes, “The whakapapa (a Maori word which can be glossed here as ‘genealogy’- SK) of global capital starts with colonialism – a plantation on expropriated land next to a provision ground – and not in a factory next to an enclosure” (p. 185). The making of the west, of industrialization, capitalism, modernity, science and rationality, is coeval with – or more accurately, is preceded and produced by- the unmaking of the rest of the world through colonial conquest: Africa and Oceania, Natives and Negroes, Shem and Ham, Maui (a god within Hawaiian and Oceanic mythic history) and Legba (from West African Fon cosmologies).

This fractured and alienated world of ours is produced and reproduced through what Shilliam describes as a ‘colonial science’ that cuts, divides, opposes and exploits. It’s a world in which the modal being is one who runs for cover when it begins to rain without sparing a thought for others who may be getting drenched. To this epistemology of colonial science, Shilliam posits an alternative, ‘decolonial science’ that emerges from the deep solidarities that always have and continue to bind together those who were colonized, and the many victims of the rapacious drive of global capital.

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Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections

The first commentary in our forum on Robbie’s The Black Pacific. Heloise Weber is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Development Studies at the University of Queensland. Her main research interests are in the Global Politics of Development/Critical Development Studies and Global/International Political Economy (GPE/IPE), and relations of inequality. Heloise is the author most recently of Rethinking the Third World: International Development and World Politics, with Mark T. Berger (Palgrave, 2014) and ‘Reproducing Inequalities through Development: The MDGs and the Politics of Method’ in Globalizations.


The prophet therefore channels the binding skills of Tāne/Māui and Legba so that colonized History can give way to decolonial pasts. And key among these skills is the use of voice. (p. 135)

Robbie Shilliam presents more than a beautiful and inspiring account of how through ‘grounding’ with the world we can cultivate deep relations that heal colonial wounds and further a ‘project of restitutive justice’. The Black Pacific is itself a whakapapa (a groundation of deep relation) for mana motuhake (self-determination) with the project of restitutive justice at its core.

As the sub-title suggests The Black Pacific is about rendering anticolonial struggles and/through oceanic connections. In this sense, it is a decolonial project that

seeks to bind the manifest colonized world back to uncolonized spiritual hinterlands, the colonized present back to decolonial pasts, (post) colonized peoples to other (post)colonized peoples, and the children of Legba to the children of Tāne/Māui. (p. 30)

More specifically, it is about how through deep relations – spiritual and material– indigenous peoples of Aotearoa NZ have been connecting – with ‘more multiple and diverse peoples than European Settlers’ (p.31).  Shilliam retrieves

the deep relation between the descendants of Africa  and Oceania as part of the broader politics and narrative of the pan-Maori anti-colonial struggle for mana motuhake, a struggle that must involve tātou tātou– I and I. (p. 31)

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The Black Pacific: Thinking Besides the Subaltern

The first in a forum on Robbie’s recently released The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (Bloomsbury, 2015). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming week.


May 1979. A Black theatre troupe from London called Keskidee, along with a RasTafari band called Ras Messengers, land at Auckland airport, Aotearoa New Zealand. They have been invited by activists to undertake a consciousness-raising arts tour of predominantly Māori and Pasifika communities. They are driven almost immediately to the very tip of the North Island. There, at a small hamlet called Te Hāpua, Keskidee and Ras Messengers are greeted by Ngati Kuri, the local people of the land. blk1An elder introduces his guests to the significance of the place where they now stand. Cape Reinga is nearby, where departing souls leap into the waters to find their way back to Hawaiki, the sublime homeland. The elder wants to explain to the visitors that, although they hold an auspicious provenance – the Queen of England lives amongst them in London – Ngāti Kuri live at ‘the spiritual departure place throughout the world’. The elder concludes with the traditional greeting of tātou tātou – ‘everyone being one people’. Rufus Collins, director of Keskidee, then responds on behalf of the visitors:

You talked of your ancestors, how they had taken part in our meeting, and I do agree with you because if it was not for them you would not be here. You talked of our ancestors, taking part and making a meeting some place and somewhere; the ancestors are meeting because we have met. I do agree with you.

But Collins also recalls the association made betweenblk2 the visitors and English royalty, and there he begs to differ: ‘we are here despite the Queen’. Then the Ras Messengers begin the chant that reroutes their provenance from the halls of Buckingham Palace to the highlands of Ethiopia: “Rastafari come from Mount Zion.”

This meeting is emblematic of the story that I tell of The Black Pacific wherein Maori and Pasifika struggles against land dispossession, settler colonialism and racism enfold within them the struggles of African peoples against slavery, (settler) colonialism and racism. Sociologically, historically and geographically speaking, these connections between colonized and postcolonized peoples appear to be extremely thin, almost ephemeral. But those who cultivate these connections know otherwise. How do they know?

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Solidarity with Academics for Peace: An Open Letter

Academic freedom and freedom for political dissent is under serious threat in Turkey. Following the publication of a statement signed by Turkish and Kurdish academics, condemning Turkish state violence against Kurds, 1,128 of the original signatories have been subjected to sustained attacks and threats from the Turkish state and fascist groups.

Erdogan

The Disorder of Things is proud to publish the following letter, signed by 1,211 academics, offering international support of those facing persecution in Turkey. This letter follows multiple statements criticising the Turkish state from research bodies and associations including, within the field of International Relations, ISA, EISA and BISA.

This is one of many such letters of international support for academics in Turkey. A comprehensive collection can be found here.

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Arab Political Thought After 2011 (Lines of Inquiry for a Research Agenda)

A guest post – on the eve of the 5th anniversary of the Egyptian uprising – by Michaelle Browers. Michaelle is Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs and directs the Middle East and South Asia Studies Program at Wake Forest University. She is author of Democracy and Civil Society in Arab Political Thought: Transcultural Possibilities (Syracuse University Press, 2006) and Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and has edited and contributed to (with Charles Kurzman) An Islamic Reformation? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Her articles have appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Journal of Political Ideologies, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, Theory and Event, and Third World Quarterly. An earlier version of this memo was prepared and presented at working group on “Re-envisioning the Arab State,” hosted by the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar (January 17-18, 2016).


Browers - Cairo Graffiti

The past five years has been a series of ups and downs, trading moments of great elation and hope with periods of deep disappointment for those of us who study Arab political thought and practice. We have seen declarations of Arab springs and Arab winters, and claims about the resilience, the end and again the resilience of Arab authoritarianism. We have seen people in the streets and squares of many cities call for justice, dignity, democracy, rights, revolutions – ideas that many Arab intellectuals have written about at great length and mourned for their lack – and heard commentators claim Arab intellectuals were absent from the uprisings or, as Ramzy Baroud put it, “resting, not dead.” In general, we have seen much in the way of claims of a lack of intellectual work or a lack of alternative visions to the status quo. I contend that the real lack is a full investigation of whether, in fact, such claims have merit—that is, that there is a need for research into political thought that assumes its existence rather than its absence.

But in engaging post-2011 “Arab political thought” we may need to revise some of our assumptions about what it is we seek at the outset. This intervention puts forth four subsets of questions in need of further discussion as we broach that larger question (of how we should study Arab political thought after the 2011 uprisings): one which raises an old question worth reconsidering anew, a second which suggests a different approach to our study, a third which maintains the need to look for answers in a slightly different place or with a broader lens, and a fourth which proposes one substantive line of theorizing that strikes me as politically salient after 2011. Embedded in each of these four broad question-sets are myriad avenues of research, as well as, of course, indications of some of my own convictions and commitments.

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