What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: Poststructural and Postcolonial Thought

…(drumroll)… We are collectively joyous at being able to introduce a new contributor to The Disorder Of Things: Robbie Shilliam, currently at the Victoria University of Wellington and author of a slightly staggering array of critical texts (on the impact of German intellectuals on IR; the Black Atlantic in modernity; the Haitian Revolution; race and sovereignty; and the imperatives of decolonial thinking, among others). Cross-posted at Fanon/Deleuze.

At the recent ISA conference in Montreal, I participated in a lively, weighty and difficult roundtable on postcolonial and poststructural approaches to International Relations. Alina Sajed had supplied the panellists with a provocation by way of refuting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous injunction that Europe was the inadequate and indispensible to frame the epistemological constellations of “modernity”. Sajed challenged the panellists to debate whether Europe was in fact dispensable as well as inadequate. There was certainly a spectrum of opinions given and positions taken on the function, possibility and desirability of the relationship between poststructural and postcolonial approaches. As a form of reflection I would like to lay out some thoughts by way of clarifying for myself what the stakes at play are in this discussion and where it might productively lead.

For myself I do not read the Europe that Chakrabarty considers in terms of the historical expansion and exercise of material colonial power. I read it in terms of a fantasy that captures the imagination. At stake is a conception of the whys, hows and shoulds of people suffering, surviving, accommodating, avoiding, resisting and diverting the colonial relation and its many neo- and post- articulations. In this particular respect, I take Frantz Fanon’s position and agree with Sajed: “Europe” must be dispensed with. In any case, as Ashis Nandy has shown, the monopolisation of the meaning of Europe by a fascistic figure (rational, male, hyper-patriarchal, white, civilized, propertied) has required the re-scripting of the pasts of peoples in Europe and a concomitant distillation of the traditions of European thought themselves so as to accord to this fantasy figure. Europe is a fantasy through and through, but one that damages different peoples with different intensities. And those who look in a mirror and experience no significant cognitive dissonance when they proclaim “European” can still count themselves, to different degrees, as being a thoughtful protagonist in a contested human drama. For others, there is only the promise of living this drama vicariously through the thought of others. That is why “Europe” is dispensable, even though for some peoples Europe has never been indispensible; regardless, it must be dispensed with.

Let me explain a little more what I mean by all of this. Europe is first and foremost a sense of being that constructs its empathy and outreach in terms of a self whereby all who cannot intuitively be considered of European heritage are categorized into two entities. First, they might be the “other” – foils to the understanding of the self. Their emptied presence is to be filled as the verso to the internal constitution of the European self. If they are lucky, they are given a kind of non-speaking part in the drama. In fact, they usually are lucky. Much critical European thought – and certainly almost all of canonized European thought – speaks volumes about the ”other” but only so as to fill in the European “self” with greater clarity.

Second, they might be the “abject” – the entity that is impossible for the self to bear a relationship to, although even this impossibility will be instructive to the inquiring European self. Abjects, under the European gaze, are reduced to a primal fear out of which an intensity of feeling is engendered that wills the drama of human (European) civilization. Defined in excess to the other/abject, the internal life of the European self can substitute itself for humanity at large in all times and spaces, and develop itself as a richly contradictory being that overflows its meaning and significance.

I do not know whether other colonialisms predating and contemporaneous to the European project matched this audacity. And in a significant sense, it really does not – and should not – matter. After all, the lure of making comparison is the precise methodology through which the European self overflows to define all others by a lack. I do though want to hazard a particular claim at this point, which might or might not bear up to scrutiny: the prime “others” of European colonialism were the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And while we owe much to Kristeva’s work on the term, the prime “abjects” of European colonialism were the enslaved Africans bought over to the Americas.

A quick note here: the abject is not the woman – and certainly not the woman without race; starting with Wollstonecraft, a feminism tradition has developed wherein the (white) woman is abjectified by a rhetorical sleight of hand. i.e., they are treated “as if” they were slaves. In this confluence of meta-racial ascriptions made in the conjuncture of various processes of dispossessions it was possible that “natives” worldwide, behaving badly, could turn from others into abjects and that “negroes” could, with Christian baptism, strive towards other-status. To this day, “natives” and “negroes” share a relationality that is marked by the tension of these strivings. In general, all “others” – when judged to be unsalvageable – can slip into abject status to be dealt with by various extermination methods: directly, as in the Jewish Holocaust; “benignly” as in the megalomaniac policies of assimilation supported by the “fatal impact” theory; or through a combination of both, as in the ongoing Palestinian nakba.

With this said, I want to lay out three strategies within which Europe might be dispensed with, and its peoples redeemed through their humbled reinsertion into a multivocal human drama.

The first strategy is one that I used a little while ago to understand German idealism and those core scribes of the European self, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Weber. An internal critique of Europe is deployed that targets the pretensions to exceptionalism that structure the story of its modernization and support its special claim to modernity. For this purpose, one must use the tropes and analytics that usually define the relationship of Europe to its outside – i.e. difference, uneven development, multilinear development, cultural differentiation, and even processes of colonization – and instead use them to explore the internal relationality of the European self. Hence, one can re-interpret and re-narrate the substantive processes of modernization internal to Europe as well as European traditions of thought.

However, if used only on its own, such analysis runs the risk of re-affirming the narcissism of Europe, i.e., the assumption that the European self is so richly contradictory that there is no need to look anywhere else. This assumption is itself a form of erasure: one does not need the (post)colonial world and its peoples to understand colonialism. These peoples are held in abeyance or left alone to form the backdrop to the European drama. Intellectual travel to the hard-edge – the generative point of colonial practice – is deferred. At best, there is no need to cross the Atlantic after one has “discovered” Ireland. Europe has an infinite self-reflexivity… and therein lies the seductive pull of this strategy.

To tackle the reproduction of European narcissism and its deferral of colonialism requires two other strategies to be worked on, either at the same time or prior. One of these strategies was represented at the panel that I mentioned above by some comments from Gurminder Bhambra, a sociologist from Warwick. It is, on the face of it, a simple strategy, almost naively empirical: to account for all the myriad social inter-connections utilized by and often created by colonial practices. Yet the effect is not empirical, because, once begun, this strategy makes it impossible to talk about the making “modern” of Europe without talking about the making “colonial” of the places and peoples of the Americas, Asias, Africas and Pacifics.

Retrieving and exposing this interconnectivity – which has had to be constantly disavowed by the narcissism of the European self – therefore works at two levels: first, with regards to substantive encounters and relations, i.e. the enforced flow of peoples, goods, things; and second, with regards to the flow and production of ideas, knowledges memories and narratives. There is no modernity that is then applied to the colonial world; there is rather a planetary colonial-modern. (Works in IR theory that, in my opinion, tend towards this re-interpretation are those that relate classical political thought – and classical political economy – to the context of discovering the Americas and its indigenous peoples). Inter-connecting these histories saturates the production of the European self with its stipulated “others” and “abjects” and thus holds the potential, at least, to dissipate and make un-sensible the self/other|abject mode of narcissistic cognition.

However, I believe that for this potential to be actualised impels a third strategy: to use the awareness and acceptance of inter-connectedness to think otherwise – and certainly pluri-wise – about time, space and relation. The inter-connected worlds of past and present must be related to in ways that do not reproduce the fantasy of the European self/other|abject . This European self must be lost in order to retrieve relatable selves. And for this task, there is no redeemable resource in critical European thought. To be more accurate I mean that critical European thought, as soon as it is canonized as the radical resource, transforms into the mind of the European self to which all other bodies of thought have to be compared, assimilated, othered or abjected. For example, a disservice is done to the potential of Foucault’s thought if he is used to make sense of the colonial world on terms already given by the European experience and which valorise said experience. And this raises the question: why start with Foucault and not Fanon?

I suggest that, instead, attentiveness should be given to the way in which one is already personally implicated in actually existing relationalities and inter-connections forged by colonialism. For some who look in the mirror and experience cognitive dissonance when they say the word “European” that attentiveness might not be a choice but a reality. In any case, the apprehension of this reality needs to be lovingly developed by all. To claim that the personal is political is not the same as calling for a personification of the political and a narrow identity-politics. Hence, I am thinking in terms as basic as an orientation rather than a framework of analysis or even a methodology: simply, an orientation towards relatable selves. The fact that such an orientation might be and has been coopted by neo-liberal governance does not invalidate the task; rather, it makes it an even more pressing political task. Else we might just as well give up on talking about community, self-determination, liberation etc. (But to give up on them is a privilege afforded to a few. Interestingly, the critical European tradition has not yet given up on talking about sovereignty, governance or labour).

The orientation I have sketched out corresponds to what Walter Mignolo terms the “decolonial option”. To my mind, the scholarly aim in picking up this option is to make the self/other|abject framework obsolete in the realm of academic knowledge production. Moreover, to consider other relatable selves requires approaching un-modern cosmologies in the first instance as legitimate and problem solving contemporary sources of knowledge production. Sources for example, which render the inhabitable world as naturalpsychicalsocialspiritual rather than as ontologically discrete and profane dimensions. Sources, for example, wherein time is not linear, the “past” exceeds the notion of History, it is the past that is more alive and amenable to transformation than the present or future, and profane notions of cause and effect still exist but as “alongsides” and not as “definitionals”. Sources, for example, wherein agency (and not just ideas) is constituted as much as – and sometimes more through – spiritual relationality than through materiality or discourse. (Invoking these sources, I find Hegel’s embarrassing un-Europeaness flashing into focus to be blurred instantly by his desire to be quintessentially European.) And so sources wherein other selves relate without waiting for approval from that narcissistic European self. Having dispensed with Europe, those who look in the mirror and comfortably see a “European” might feel the weight of bearing the modern world lifted. That, though, is merely one – and certainly not the defining – purpose of decolonizing thought.


10 thoughts on “What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: Poststructural and Postcolonial Thought

  1. Great post Robbie. You are totally right that it is the third process – the active disalienation from the divisions of modernity – that is in some senses the most urgent task. I am sometimes preoccupied in the course of my own work by how treating as ‘alongsides’ can work though in the process of making dispensable. Specifically and by way of example, I am thinking about the idea of human and societal ‘development’ which pervades the modern intellectual framework – do you think this can/should be an ‘alongside’ in a project of decolonisation/disalienation?


    • I liked Robbie’s article: indeed, why don’t we listen to Fanon instead of Foucault? RE: Meera’s question whether ‘alongside’ should be employed in ‘development’.. the answer is surely: ‘of course’ and ‘why not’.. aren’t we already ‘alongside’, involved in horizontal relations when we talk and text on our mobiles? And let’s not make the mistake that Afghans won’t need this technology because it’s too developed i.e. Western and that in imposing such technology upon them we are colonizing them again. This post-card view of the ‘other’ has got to stop. Why can’t they develop too? The question is whether development can be seen in a way that is epistemologically free as is possible of the infection of Europeanism, White Man’s burden, progress only in our name, etc. Are ‘other(ed)’ notions of postcolonial ‘progress’ and ‘futurity’ thinkable outside the verticality of Euro-narcissism? The self-the other-the abject are the detached parts of ourselves we perpetually re-animate with substance so as shore up our lives against death, decay and meaninglessness. Its the gated community, the sky-rise apartment, the sanctions, the wars, climate change, market failures, gloria in excelsis, the metaphor of God looking down at us, the great chain of being from which we are trying in our secular way to escape from but which we (dis)simulate in our thinking, particularly in designating hierarchies of power, existence, detachment, the objective, subjective and abjected selves…severed heads desiring to live on Mars and Venus but not here on earth with its dust, dirt, the memory of bones, the ozone hole and depleted uranium in the next juicy date you eat from Iraq.. development must surely proceed the other way, if it is not too late..


      • Hi Keni,

        I am dubious as to whether the notion of ‘development’ itself – so not objects of technology like phones etc – can be made free of the epistemological baggage it carries. It depends on temporal and geographical ‘othering’ to make sense as a logical concept – this seems to me to be the problem.


  2. yeah, i know what you mean. thus, ‘development’ needs to be re-thought both via auto-critique as well as by seriously engaging critique from without. i only raised the idea of ‘the mobile phone’ as an instance of the difficulty of situating notion of ‘othering’ within technology in toto. there are different forms of technology. some types may cause cultural aversions but others may be quite amenable to ‘local’ notions of development. i agree with you that technology is ideologically loaded but that does not mean that a) it can’t be appropriated by the indigenous or Third World peoples for their own concerns or b) that there may be certain types of technology that they themselves invent that ‘they decide’ are ideologically suited for them. in short, technological development does not mean ‘suitably designed’ technology fits their needs more than it fans our greed. again, re: epistemological biases.. well, this surely needs self-reflection, cultural auto-critique, and face to face dialogue with the ‘other’..


    • sorry that should have been..”technological development, if it means ‘suitably designed’ technology, could fit their Third Word needs (sustainability) more than simply fan our (unsustainable First World) greed”.


  3. Awesome comments, in short, “development” is hopeless. But broken down, particular aspects of development are in no way peculiar to colonialism, but usually woven into cosmologies. The active mitigation of suffering is in no way peculiar to development. The idea that this mitigation requies an evisceration of existing psychosocialspiritual personhood is peculiar to development. It is an acid version of baptism. Cosmologies lurk within Europe too. Development is itself a cosmology that cannot admit to it, and much of the pathologies associated with development work arise from this refusal.


    • yes, a cosmology in denial. from the perspective of someone outside looking in at ‘development’, I see its Eurocentric biases big-time..yet whatever happened to the ‘small is beautiful’ strategies inspired explicitly by Buddhist and Jaina philosophies? Mind you, I wonder if there is anything worth salvaging from the Big Bang (war-like metaphor for the beginning of things..why not say the ‘crack in the egg’ instead?) worldview, or is the ontology of Western modernity so venal, parasitic and vile that nothing it says or has ever said has any merit? Or, is it simply the case, that a set of agendas has come to play upon the planetary screen that occludes other ways, other voices? The question then is how can ‘development’ be democratized so that it isn’t a top-down affair nor merely a form of assisted community self-help, but a way of getting groups and communities around the world talking with each other, sharing and deliberating together on the best ways forward to solving their various problems, with governments and NGOs looking on as facilitators of this dialogical process. What I have in mind is something like the concept of ‘sustained dialogue’ as encouraged by the Kettering Foundation…


  4. I do also think that when Robbie puts his finger on the disappearance of the psycho-social-spiritual personhood, he is saying something more than the simple us-them binary. There is something going on whereby at the very moment when ‘we’ are said to be involved in helping ‘them’, ‘they’ miraculously vanish as subjects in their own right, with agency, cultural protocols, social desires, dialogical and other praxes by which cultural ‘meaning’ is produced, i.e. the Western impulse to help seems predicated on the self-other divide, an incorporation that overshadows or nullifies the identity of the other, except as cipher in the hierarchical racial worldview of the West, where the Western person acknowledges herself subconsciously as being (a)part of a culture that situates itself at the apex of the pyramid. As such, it also follows that the giver need not learn from nor feel grateful to the receiver, since the implicit superiority built into the act of giving (giving to those who are pre-defined as those who cannot give back) prevents this.

    This does seem ‘religious’. At least, it incorporates hierarchical aspects, the gift, a sacrificial affect, and a liminal type of conversion or initiation experience whereby the ‘native’ is slowly inducted into ‘modernity’ (learns to give off signs of being educated, civilized, in modern Western ways).

    The irony may be that the agents of development may be completely oblivious of this implicit dimension of their work. It may be that no one consciously or personally feels superior to those they help but they are nonetheless parts themselves of a system that hierarchizes the relationship. Isn’t this a bit like what Ranciere wrote in his book ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’? But it also seems related to the linguistic differences identified by George Lakoff between the politically right and politically left worldviews that emerge out of different praxes and theories of childrearing. (see: Lakoff’s ‘Moral Politics’ or his shorter ‘Don’t think of an elephant’)

    What I am saying is that the Third World (and increasingly the First World too through the mass media) is a victim of infantilization, with all the implications this contains of fetishistic (in)violation, childlike innocence, ignorance, silence, the soft, passive, beneficiary of alien interventions…


  5. Europe and the making of social death

    in response to robbie’s piece, i am thinking about early modern enslavism as that which – if one could do something like a sociopsychogram of white capitalist empowerment – (how to do this: literature???letters, etc.??) needs to be analysed as the major propeller of modern capitalist mental and psychic constituencies of white Europeans: if the practices and discourses of commodification and propertization (post – Locke), the learning, grasping and materializing of the “world” as ownable things have been generally acknowledged as the characteristics of (post)modern capitalist societies, which evolved in the Renaissance, then the making of Black “sentient beings” (Wilderson) into packageable, shippable, transportable, and possessable and as such voluntarily have-able, financially accountable items (mind you, not Hegelian „objects,“ or post-Sartrean „others“), which could become the site of financial networking, crediting, speculation, insuring, of profit and calculation, must the practice of enslaving not be considered, genealogically speaking, as the primary psychosocial, cultural and individual training site for what we have come to term the “capitalist modern system”?

    to learn how to make social death of an always already resistant sentient being then, would be the primary threshold exercise to become “modern” in this white empowerment – because if a human sociability could achieve that kind of transport (in the physical and metaphorical sense) of 10.000.000 sentient beings as things, it must have passed the test of its own emerging system’s demands in the most generical way, and nothing could stop that sociability from further world commodification. this must be considered, with Sylvia Wynter and Frank Wilderson, as the founding practice of the human subject: the creation of a tradeable sentient species commodity. it – pace Patterson- differs fundamentally from other traditions of slavery; it not only creates social death, but also the global and negotiable and competitive profitability of social death for the human in its generations.

    the crucial difference, it seems to me, of the modern production of social death was the achievement of abstraction of non-personalized property (different from, e.g., warlords that kept prisoners as slaves on their grounds, and bound to them in “paternalistic” ways), item mobility and thus global marketization, and the capitalist inheritablity of social death. one could inherit social death, as one could inherit wealth, which of course meant a constant reproductability of socially dead sentient beings.

    as we have come to see over hundreds of years. i am interested in finding out what capacities the human, as a group, trained him/herself to exert, to be able to carry out such historically crucial endeavor. the point i want to make, to take my lead from wilderson, is that the purposeful making of social death was not a transgression of human value, in the sense of creating a repertoire of guilt, but a value, a capacity, a knowledge and a skill in the book/ledger of the modern human, as we know him/her. (see Hartman) the white empowered subject thus, contrary to Baucom, is not haunted by the specter of slavery; in fact, slavery usefully marks his/her human difference; without it, that very difference, the subject would not exist. thus, in what sounds a perverse, but is in fact a quite logical consequence, the (European) human must have learned to take jouissance from an enslavist practice, because black social death generated its own existence. how to trace this project of jouissance, in face of the human subject’s prima facie philosophical, ethnographic and abolitionist identification with „the poor slave“ (that thing that its very enslavement enabled him/her not to be!) – a challenge which overwhelms me right now.

    what I mean to point to is enslavism as a modern white supra-individual practice, and think about what it meant for white modern empowerment, not just in the economic sense, but also in the psychosocial, and psychohistorical sense. the problem is how to figure that out in retrospect, particularly, if it has functioned as something of the best kept inner sanctum of white (post)modern consciousness? if the documents of history are documents of barbarians (to paraphrase Benjamin)?

    what we need is a psychoanalysis of the meaning of abjectification (in the sense of the race fiction-based itemization of sentient beings) for the white human subject, which has used the assumed threat of its own always possible abjectification, perversely, as the legitmation for his/her own proactive self-possession by way of enslavism. what I mean to get at is the challenge to think about such white self-possession as learned, trained, acquired, and (ac)knowledged in a process not just of defense against feudal interpellation by the powers of the aristocracy, church rule, which has been the tenor of ideologies of the human’s liberation from overwhelming and restrictive, oppressive powers larger than him/her – which translates in the 19th and 20 century into further rebellions against subjectivation by the state, the factory, patriarchal power and the tyranny of the symbolic – but as learned, trained, acquired and (ac)knowledged in the production of Black sentient social death.

    as Robbie has so convincingly argued one needs to find steps that unmire white Europeans from narcissism … but i think the way to that is to go THROUGH it. I see so often in responses to my work, and to Black and decolonial work, among students and colleagues their refusal to undertake an examination of white practice, and before they engage with that, i am afraid, nothing much will change…

    Sabine Broeck, Bremen


  6. I like the idea of ‘unmiring white Europeans from narcissism.. and to look at the praxes of early modernity for signs of the racial miring taking place. I wonder if you’ve read Chiara Bottici’s ‘A Philosophy of Political Myth’? She’s got a few examples in there or early modern ‘philosophical’ instances of the separation in Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Kant, in the formation of science in general that never left the implicit Christian notion that ‘other’ cultures were ‘on their way’ to becoming Christians, thus, half-formed, not quite human, ‘savage’.. Apart from such Christian dogmas that worm their way into secular modern texts, I am not sure of what specific praxes one can find, but it would be worth the effort to try and find them. I suppose one place one ought to take a look would be at the ledgers of the slave traders themselves, look up their records and letters to see how this Western-Christian-secular-politically white-and capitalist myth came about.

    I have wondered, in an anthropological way, at the means of control, discipline and punishment exerted on the slaves. The methods of ‘lynching’, ‘the whip’, the idea of ‘the cage’.. We should also be careful to note the French Catholics employed these methods on their own Huguenots for over a 100 years, before they moved on to the black trade. I bring up the notion of ‘the whip’ especially because the other day I was gob-smacked when the Russian systema (a martial art) newsletter came out recently, the Russian headmaster of the art was selling ‘authentic Cossack whips’ for cheap, while saying how the whip was a favored weapon among the Cossack’s when defending the Czar. It occurred to me that one might categorize various early modern weapons by the people-objects they were meant for. The whip, a means of disciplining unruly peasants and beast of burden vs swords for warfare proper (killing other aristocrats..). The idea of the ‘noose’ as a kind of ‘wild’ justice, a problematic knot in the order of nature (‘natural law’?), rather than courtly justice; ‘the cage’ a space for the animal-human (in-sentient or sentient?). The notion of different orders of sentience, free, bound, and com-modifiable by instantiating them in these structured and symbolic separated spaces, as units of the economy of dis-possession, dis-possessing as part of the order of capitalistic possession…


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