Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy


The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 


Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.


borisUnder these colonial rules the priestly caste is prone to admit that no living knowledge traditions exist except for those that constitute their Western Academy. Sociology of knowledge and social anthropology frameworks allow this caste to claim unprecedented cognitive access to all lifeworlds (including their own) by virtue of their extraordinary self-reflexivity.  All other living knowledge calcifies as dead data. In social and political theory the priestly caste use this extra-ordinary self-reflexivity to make sense of their modernity through a knowledge tradition that is uniquely translatable into the modern – that of ancient Greece (and occasionally Rome). Some of the priestly caste, who on the one hand declare modernity to be a ruptural condition rather than an unfolding chronology, nevertheless on the other hand still sharpen their understanding of this condition by reference to this European tradition. In short, the Greek knowledge tradition, unlike others, is living not dead and still generative of knowledge today. This is the priestly caste’s claim on modernity.

african athenaEdward Blyden, a theologian born in the Danish Caribbean island of St Thomas with Igbo parentage, moves to Liberia in the 1850s and in 1881 becomes the president of Liberia College. His inaugural address provides some thoughts on a “liberal education” for Africans on the coast. The future direction of this self-determining community, for Blyden, lies in the trek inland, away from the coast and its dependent relationships with the USA, and towards the natives of the hinterlands. Here Blyden is faced with a problem: for some time the College will be thin on imported resources and will also be lacking a developed intellectual relationship with the living knowledge traditions of the hinterlands. Blyden suggests that in the meantime, as a stepping stone, the philosophies of the ancient Greeks could be retrieved for this liberal education so long as they are detached from their subsequent entanglement with colonial Europe. In an attempt to re-Africanize the episteme of a liberal education, Blyden commits heresy and teaches the ancient Greeks absent the colonizing Europeans.

In the later twentieth century the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott compares the islands of the Caribbean and the Aegean and suggests that if the ancient Greeks were resurrected today they would be considered Puerto Ricans – brown, gaudy, sensual, decadent… as their descendents are now being considered by Germany. Ironically, it is perhaps the Germans that the Greeks have to thank for their European status. Worried that his peoples might not be deemed worthy of the status of knowers by other Europeans, Hegel makes the case that Germans alone can preserve agape in an unforgiving modernity through the process of Aufhebung – preservation, incorporation, supercession. Blyden and Walcott both expose European modernity to be a tradition whose flame would be extinguished if it whispered its own lie.


But the priestly caste prefers to fuels its flame by utilising an epistemic division between knowledge production and knowledge cultivation. Let us turn to the barbaric usurpers of those ancient Puerto Ricans for some explication. Using the Latin roots of these words, we could say that to produce knowledge is to lengthen, prolong or extend, whereas to cultivate knowledge is to till, to turn matter around and fold back on itself so as to encourage growth. Knowledge production is less a creative endeavour and more a process of accumulation and imperial extension disguised as “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”. Alternatively, knowledge cultivation requires the intellectual to turn over and oxygenate the past. Most importantly, cultivation also infers habitation, which means that knowledge is creatively released as the intellectual enfolds her/himself in the communal matter of her/his inquiry.


In this colonial division of knowledge, the priestly caste, as knowers, allow themselves to cultivate their own living traditions and extend them productively into the future. Hence, as the knowers, they gift themselves the privilege of being cultivators (to themselves) and producers (for all others), just as they are also traditional and modern. The priestly caste projects its knowledge tradition across historical and spatial trajectories away from a European genus in the form of a straight line. Recipients are not considered co-creative or self-determining in this intellectual process. They must merely receive and consume produced ideas, and extend them. The colonized and their descendents, as the known, must always be catching up with someone else’s production line.


Immanuel_Kant_monument_in_KönigsbergThis colonial-modern production line is formed by a set of connecting points that pay homage to the revealing flame of science. And  these points are constituted by the testimony of prophets. Now called authors, the prophets are apprehended as remarkable individuals, self-creators who can pierce the esoteric veil with their texts, while these items become magical touchstones that enliven reason. If the prophets themselves disavow this role and ability, their acolytes will realign them into the straight line. (In this process, Europe also colonizes its selves, although that is not my concern here.)   The straight line cuts through colonial political, military and intellectual entanglements. Cleaved from the colonial venture, the key concepts announced by prophets to inaugurate modernity – the human, subject, freedom, rights, civil society, tolerance, development, consciousness/unconsciousness, identity, the individual, revolution, sovereignty, order, oppression, expropriation – can be automatically traced back to a singularly European genus.

legba1-e1294218788927And yet the prophet’s vocation is more than just taking part in colonial knowledge production. There is another aspect to the vocation that can be mobilized towards decolonial ends: the prophet can also express the self-cultivation of a community’s knowledge. The Hebrew root of the word prophet (navi) means to bubble forth, to utter, to call, and is consonant with the ancient Aegean Puerto Rican word pro-phetes, i.e. the forespeaker or interpreter. The interpreter (Hermes) is a cosmological archetype, its genus is not distinctly European: in Dahomey and the Caribbean it is Papa Legba; in Aotearoa New Zealand amongst the Māori it is sometimes Maui, sometimes Tāne.  This decolonial vocation of the prophet eschews the straight line because it apprehends the past as an intimate, living and agental site for the reconfiguring of the collective present. This prophetic vocation demands that (one’s) past that must be redeemed rather than (another one’s) future arrived at.

To undertake such a vocation, the prophet inhabits the crossroads of the profane and sublime, the presently manifested existence and the super-manifested spiritual world. At this point, “God is raging in the prophet’s words”. These words are not received passively or unconsciously; they are rather an active casting of events, a passionate summons. In the prophet’s words the past cultivates as animated matter at the crossroads outside the city, or at the threshold of the home; and this is why the prophet’s interpretations are, in principle, autonomous to the sovereign’s law.  Prediction, the archetypal utterance of the prophet, is a testimony to the crucial problems in the present apprehended as the manifestation of a living past suffered and authored by a community. To be clear, it takes a community to interpret and act upon (or not) the prediction of the prophet. Thus the prophet’s texts are not magical, neither is the prophet self-made or the extension of another sovereign. Moreover, the particular problems faced by a self-identifying community always take on universal significance through their prophets’ public invocations of injustice, reparation, compassion, dread and hope.

When they follow this vocation of decolonial knowledge cultivation the prophets of the colonized peoples threaten to diminish the singular light of reason held aloft by the priestly caste of the Western Academy. These prophets manifest something outlawed and impossible: contemporaneous and epistemically valid communities struggling other-wise to cultivate their living knowledge traditions while making a claim on humanity. And surely there could not be legitimate intellectual lives outside of the imperial knowledge production line?

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel (author of The Prophets) walking with Martin Luther King. Heschel said "it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the red sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses"

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel (author of The Prophets – second to right) walking with Martin Luther King. Heschel said “it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the red sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses”


At the height of the Algerian war of independence against France, a son of the colonial Republic, John Paul Sartre, commits apostasy. In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Sartre decides to stand behind the colonized peoples who are warming themselves around a fire that they themselves have lit. From this fire comes the new dawn, and, Sartre warns, if the priestly caste do not embrace it, they will become the new zombies of the night. Sartre’s provocation has gone unheeded. His name is anathema in the French academy, especially when it comes to political thought. Fanon, likewise. The public intellectuals who succeed Sartre rarely seek to re-engineer an equivalent relationship between living traditions of thought that span colonial difference. Meanwhile, Fanon is given a new preface by Homi Bhabba.

Fanon’s most famous texts – Black Skins, White Masks and Wretched of the Earth – both emanate from and interact with a liberation struggle of colonized peoples. Their subject is the same: how to break the imperial straight line that makes of the colonized mere receivers of Western logics with their attendant violence. The method of each text is also the same – Fanon calls it sociogeny. And in both texts Fanon indicts those who would deny the possibility of community, although he does so via different themes: Black Skins addresses the corporal body, and ends with a plea: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”; while Wretched addresses the social body and ends with a hope: “for Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, … we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.”

women_take_part_in_a_pro-independence_rally_in_algeriaCasting Sartre’s preface into the past, Bhabba declares that only Black Skins, with its invocation of the inquiring body, is sufficiently adequate for the examination of the modern subject. Wretched, the text that finishes with an invocation of redeemed community is declared passé. Paradoxically, Wretched is also the text that demonstrates how the violence of colonial logic is based fundamentally on the attempt to make community impossible. In making this selection Bhabha effectively appropriates Fanon as matter to fuel the knowledge production of the priestly caste. Fanon can now be safely said to extend psycho-analysis, or recognition theory, or the new somatic turn. But he cannot be said to be speaking with and for another community. In these ways Fanon is incorporated into the (postcolonial) Western Academy as one more self-creating author with a magical text.

In any case, Fanon himself is doubtful as to the possible existence of living knowledge traditions amongst colonized communities that would be adequate for the task of decolonization. For Fanon, the colonial relation destroys everything, thus requiring an almost utterly new creation. Fanon’s ethics of violence ultimately testifies to this condition by asking: who in the colonial relation can and should set afoot the new human being? (the answer: the colonized). Fanon is therefore concerned less with living knowledge traditions of colonized communities, but rather, with creating brand new living knowledge traditions for decolonized communities. And yet, the question remains to be asked of Fanon: from where are the intellectual resources garnered to charge this promethean act? Is muscle and spontaneity enough? Does not muscle have memory?


Fanon is remembered in the Anglo offices of the priestly caste less for his involvement in Algeria and more for the fact that, soon afterwards, Black communities in the United States redeem him as their prophet of Black Power. The Oakland Black Panther’s 10 Point Programme for “community survival” is a remarkable document that builds a decolonial ethos around intersectionality, sexuality, neo-imperialism and the prospect of transnational histories. Even if they are clarified in Oakland, these intellectual resources do not owe their existence to a modern urban environment. In fact, much of the Black community in Oakland at this point in time – including the families of some of the key Panthers – are recent arrivants from the sharecropping South, especially the state of Louisiana. These Southern communities practice what Erna Brodber calls the “little traditions” – those inherited and iterated thoughts, sensibilities and practices that are considered epistemically impossible and ungovernable by the priestly caste. Many of these traditions have their seedbed in what St Clair Drake calls the “invisibile institutions” – the night time congregations on plantations presided over by fellow enslaved part-time preachers and prophets. I would embellish this phrase as “the invisible institutions of knowledge cultivation”, because through these institutions the cosmologies, philosophies and practices of diverse African communities creatively survive the middle passage, to be re-invigorated and applied to the emergency conditions of the slave plantation.

The Panther image was a Southern rural creation, not a Northern urban one

The Panther image was a Southern rural creation, not a Northern urban one

By the late 1700s, prophets publically emerge out of the freed men and (occasionally) women who have been educated, often in the formal institution of the white laity with its associated theologies and increasingly in the new temples of the academic priestly caste. Over the course of the next century the living knowledge traditions of enslaved Africans resonate in the American agora for the first time. Northern and urban, certainly; yet few of the new prophets deny the authority of the invisible institutions of the rural South from whence the community has been moved to action by the spirit. WEB Dubois, for example, in asking whether slavery has destroyed all “spontaneous social movements of the Negro”, answers, pre-empting Fanon, yes… except in the case of the “vast power of the priest in the African state”. In Dubois’s rather sceptical view, this realm has nevertheless remained “largely unaffected” by the plantation system and continues to express the “longing and disappointment and resentment of a stolen people.”

mona2-001Modernity is not the Americas and tradition is not Africa. The urban is not the future and the rural is not the past. Unlike those of the priestly caste, the “little traditions” of knowledge cultivation confound such colonial geo-cultural segregations and their prophets must testify to this fact. Witness Dubois’s thoroughly modern historical sociology of the civil war wherein the moment of emancipation is announced as “The Coming of the Lord”. This title is an invitation to partake in a democratisation of the episteme.

Courtesy of the Black Power movement, Black theology extends into the public arena once again. Its prophets re-assess the epistemological question as to how one can claim to have knowledge of God. James Cone famously answers by politicizing revelation as a process emanating out of suffering and injustice:  “God comes to those who have been enslaved and abused and declares total identification with their situation, disclosing to them the rightness of their emancipation on their own terms.” This answer also sets up a relationship between a Biblical hermeneutic and a claim to communal identification (rather than a passive identity). The experience of the oppressed becomes God’s experience, hence knowing God is to participate in liberation and thenceforth to determine, phenomenologically, that “we must become black with God!” An invitation for epistemic democratization is offered once more. It is mostly refused.


Living knowledge traditions – even those of the oppressed – are neither good nor bad before the fact. They contain struggles and multiple tendencies that are regressive and progressive according to their own complex value systems that already weave outwards and spiral inwards so as to speak with and make claims on behalf of humanity. But this “complicating” or “troubling” fact is extraneous to the emphasis that I am placing, in principle, on a democratisation of knowledge cultivation instead of an extended critique of knowledge production.

8850-Munch-The-ScreamThe priestly caste has many strategies for deferring such a democratising impulse. Their present deferral strategy directs the episteme – that sacred flame – away from liberation to illuminate, instead, the problematique of representation. Post- liberation (wherever that might have actually taken place), community is no longer considered epistemically valid. What has been revealed, say the keepers of the flame, is that community, as an object or as a sovereign entity, is always already shot through with fracture, non-equivalence, power, lack, flux. (The move is exemplified in Bhabha’s preface). A new wing is built in the Western Academy just for this task: postcolonial studies. I am not damning the enterprise, but clarifying the fate of its institutionalisation. Initially following an impulse of epistemic democratization and a politics of global justice, postcolonial studies recedes into a politics of limiting the pretensions of the priestly caste, and soon enough all kinds of prophets from Nazis to Martiniquan psychiatrists become safely incorporated into this school of multiple posts. Indeed, many students would now imagine that the postcolonial is a category of French provenance. Certainly, its curriculum now teaches that, somehow, those who fought for collective self-determination were naive or insufficiently trained or simply tragic characters. Students learn these lessons well, but are uncomfortable with the melancholia that surrounds the prospect of cultivating knowledge other-wise.   And melancholia is the emotion of deferral.

The crisis of representation always accompanies collective struggles for self-determination. There is no chronological sequencing. Black Skins and Wretched might be written sequentially but they do not speak to different epochs. In fact, every community cultivating itself has always known about and engaged with the issue of representation. We should remember that, unlike the prophets who have been sequestered to pursue the vocation of colonial knowledge production, the prophets of decolonial knowledge cultivation abide at the crossroad and threshold; they resist inhabiting the (sovereign’s) palace. So there is nothing special about the revelations of epistemology in terms of modern “self-reflexivity” and the modern “subject”. To return to Kant’s Aufklärer, Hegel’s Philosopher and Marx’s Communist, this reflexive specialism claimed on behalf of modernity is simply the conceit of a priestly caste that lay claim to their privileged corporate status by situating their enunciations as uniquely both “social products” and “factors in social change”

Ultimately, the fetishisation of representation enables the priestly caste to take back the flame and guard it selfishly. After all, epistemic justice offers no utility when the priestly caste are always free to represent themselves.



These thoughts have been partly provoked by a recent question and discussion: do we live in the end times of IR theory? Well, not so long as the priestly caste of the Western Academy are able to hold tenaciously onto their flickering flame of revelation. In this respect, internecine debates are largely irrelevant. So long as the flame is selfishly guarded, the line of knowledge production will remain populated by self-made prophets and their magical texts.  The key concepts enunciated by these prophets will continue to defer any serious entanglement with their colonial genus in race science and imperial administration on both sides of the Atlantic. The deferral will continue even if the evidence is presented. The leftfield will continue to largely mirror these strategies so long as their academics value their place as part of the priestly caste. This corporate body will refuse to consider it strange that they alone can inhabit a living knowledge tradition while conjuring a science that declares the impossibility of such a thing. Therefore the Western Academy will continue to struggle against living knowledge traditions that are other-wise; and when there is forced interaction, the priests will busily transmute these other-wise traditions into texts and authors to be placed on an increasingly rickety production line. Meanwhile, the priestly caste themselves will be progressively waylaid by a managerial caste with priestly ambitions themselves. No one shall attempt to save them or mourn as they pass.

The end or not of IR theory is an un-spectacular proposition. IR theory is nothing to do with international relations. To participate in such connections, you would need to commit apostacy, disavow the colonial episteme, extinguish the flame of modern revelation, shake free the thin line of the white West’s (co-opted) prophets and (even if just occasionally) stand at the crossroads rather than sit in the agora. You would have to find your other community or communities once again, take part in their redemption, and cash in your privilege wisely. You would have to publically affirm that impossible and ungovernable communities exist, as do their living knowledge traditions, and that the problematique of representation is a deferral strategy for a democratisation of dialogue with these communities. If you did this – if we did this as a critical mass – it would precipitate the end of the Western Academy. Our job specs would change, perhaps for the better.


2 thoughts on “Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy

  1. Reblogged this on The Non-Buddhist and commented:
    Read this marvelous essay by Robbie Shilliam reblogged from the ‘The disorder of things ‘. Its a fine explication of the ways in which the results of critical thinking is made to fit within systems of abstract knowledge consecrated as truth by various factions of the ‘academy’. There, thinking functions as the raw material of production, within a hierarchy of power relations in which the division between intellectual and physical labor is concreted as a form of institutional privilege. Even radical thought becomes a component of an idealogical assault on the dispossessed by a process of exclusion in which the ‘truth’ is expropriated as the private property of the privileged caste of those sanctioned to be its ‘makers’.


  2. Pingback: Non-Philosophy: Academic Discourse or Radical Heresy? | The Non-Buddhist

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