More Notes for Discerning Travellers

A little while ago I wrote a blog, Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller. It was a fictional travel guide, but with all points speaking to historical realities.

What is it about a certain “European” sensibility? Not all people who live in European countries have it, of course, but this sensibility seems to define in the main what it means to be essentially “European”). I want to ask: what is it about a sensibility that can never, ever, look at itself, for itself, and in relation to what it does to others?

We all know that the European enlightenment was supposed to be built upon the pillars of self-reflection and accountability in thought and politics. It is funny, then, that the “European” so rarely seemed to be able to hold him/herself to reflexive account especially over European colonial pasts.

It continues.

I swear, if I believed in such a cosmology called “Modernity” I’d be calling the “European” a backward, traditional native ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his/her particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror to start the process of socialization and “childhood development”.

But I don’t believe. So I’ll just have to call this sensibility by more mundane descriptions, such as un-reflexive, un-accountable, un-relational.

Example (twitter response to my Travel Notes blog):

Feb 25

@X @RobbieShilliam The intellectual’s version of Boko Haram.

Ok, that just made me giggle. Must have seen my dreadlocks. I was tempted to add that response to my Travel Notes. It almost carried on writing itself.

And then this response:

  1. X    Feb 28

@RobbieShilliam Would it be any different if someone wrote on Asia and Asians (or Africa and Africans) for European discerning travellers?:)

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏   Mar 1

@X yes it would. This is specifically about Europe and it’s colonial pathologies, one of which is avoidance of its pathologies!

  1. X Mar 1

@RobbieShilliam But it sounds as if European were intrinsically greedy and evil, and the rest were noble human beings dedicated to goodness

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  Mar 1

@X I didn’t say anything about the rest. Your projection. All the statements have truth behind them.

All quiet on the Northern front.

Until just now (same tweeter):

  1. 2h2 hours ago (19th April)

BBC News – South Africa anti-immigrant violence: Hundreds held … Who is to blame on this, @RobbieShilliam? 😉

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  2h2 hours ago

@X why ask me? I am not a south Africa expert.

  1. X 1h1 hour ago

@RobbieShilliam Sadly, racism and xenophobia are not exclusive of white people: they are a human (and ape) disease. No need to be an expert!

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  57m57 minutes ago

@X that’s your obsession X not mine. I never said those were exclusive to white peep. Ask yourself why u are defensive. 

Over the last eight years, one experience I have constantly had, mostly in the academic world it has to be said, is people from a very strong “modernity” (read, partially, “European”) perspective (variously articulated) consistently interpreting my work as “essentialist”, “nativist”, “racialist”.

All my work in this time period – ALL of it – is about cultivating deep relationality required to heal the wounds of colonialism. Isn’t that a global concern?

I have to ask myself: why can’t these people see my relationality? It’s not a matter of me writing badly. I own up to when I do that. But this is on a different level. It’s a wilful un-reading.

Case in point: I finish a paper which is engaging with but sympathetically criticising the Communist Manifesto on the grounds of its use of the slave analogy but at the same time consigning real-living enslaved Africans to the distant past of political economy. I finish the paper (pithily, I admit), with: “Forward, then, to a Manifesto coloured human”.

Respondent (has actually read the paper): Is worried about my engagement with Marcus Garvey in the paper. What do I want to replace the Manifesto with? (Computer code: do you want to replace class with race, Marx with Garvey?) My last sentence!!! LAST sentence!!! THE LAST SENTENCE!!! I don’t want to replace it at all. I want to reckon with it fully. Is that unclear? Did I say, “forward only to Marcus Garvey?” Or, “Forward to a new manifesto written by blacks only for blacks… in black ink, on black paper”?

Neither is it about people agreeing with me. There are plenty of grounds of disagreements and I really don’t mind them – I usually love them and learn from them. But it’s beyond disagreement through a dialogue. There was no dialogue!

As Gurminder Bhambra puts it in this blog, I have engaged with the Hegels, Kants, etc, the intellectual folk of the “European” culture. But their avatars never engage with my folk. They have an epistemological stereotype in their head – Fanon will tell you where they got it from – and then they respond to a stereotype.

Who is accountable? Who is self-reflexive? Who is seeking to cultivate relations? If I decide that I don’t want to waste any more energies on a conversation with a wall, then I guess it will be my “essentialism” that will have been the cause of my retreat.


8 thoughts on “More Notes for Discerning Travellers

  1. “@X that’s your obsession X not mine. I never said those were exclusive to white peep. Ask yourself why u are defensive.”

    Is that defensiveness, or is it a call to consider all facets of the European status quo? What’s the difference? How much does an underlying human tendency matter in our judgment of a particular group of humans?

    For the most part, I agree with you. I also agree with several things you don’t say, and disagree with not saying them. Answers to questions like the above are important to the conversation, in my opinion.


  2. “As Gurminder Bhambra puts it in this blog, I have engaged with the Hegels, Kants, etc, the intellectual folk of the “European” culture. But their avatars never engage with my folk. They have an epistemological stereotype in their head – Fanon will tell you where they got it from – and then they respond to a stereotype.”

    This sentence of yours made me think about what i think myself: even from a let’s say “de-colonial” approach it seems to me impossible not to engage it “European” thought. on the other hand, it seems impossible (!) to engage with “non-european” thought (for many reasons) from the past and present and I don’t know how to get past it

    Anyways, great notes, Thanks


  3. I agree with you, Robbie, that there is a kind of European citizen “ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his/her particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror”. Indeed, I do know quiet a few! But change “a kind of European” for “a kind of African”, “a kind of Asian” or “a kind of American” and you would also be right. What I mean is that this is a human (not a European) feature. All humans are basically the same: exactly the same hardware, with only cultural software making the difference (and not that big!).

    You seem to put the blame only on Europe. Take into account that European or Western cultural stance must somehow be different because since 1492 Europe (namely, the West) has been calling the shots in the world and, obviously, views and collective imageries cannot be the same: it’s absurd to expect slave owners/colonialists (and their descendants) and slaves/colonized (and their descendants) to share the same ideological and cultural imagery. Those narratives from both sides have been passing on through generations (memory of slavery and colonization is not that old: southern USA was an apartheid regime until mid sixties!). Indeed, there is a dominant, conceited and dismissive Western cultural “sensibility” (nurtured by its very own “success” and hegemony, not very different –I suppose- to that of old Incas, Romans, Persians or Arabs), but at the same time there is a strong self-critical one (born in the political left, out of a feeling of guilt for the crimes comitted by forefathers).

    You hint that I am proyecting an alleged European self-cultural superiority (even a hidden guilt?) and you affirm that I am on the defensive. I concede, maybe you are right with the latter, but it’s only out of an itching for rigour and balance, because I don’t feel neither cultural superior nor guilty for being European, I don’t build my identity on “Europeaness” and personally don’t mind whatever be said about it (I don’t even take as an offense an attack on alleged Christian, Spanish or Canary characters because I feel free from nationalism and religion, fortunately!).

    But why don’t you admit that maybe you are also behaving in a defensive way? I promise you that mine is not a “wilful unreading” but a search for loopholes in your (thoroughly read) points. I want to show you that it’s not fair to attribute me (and to attribute many other Europeans) self indulgency, not accountability and inability to see your relationality.

    I admit that Europeans has inflicted a BIG damage on people from other continents, beginning with Portuguese and Spanish in America. But I am not going to flog myself for it because, as I said before, I am NOT guilty (by the way, I come from Canary Islands, whose population is a mix of European -not only Spanish but Portuguese, French, Italian, Flemish, British, Irish and so on-, Berber -Guanches natives-, Blacks -African slaves-, Jewish, Indian, Korean, Lebanese…). That damage was inflicted by humans from Europe (regarding slavery, with the invaluable aid from African tribal chiefs selling their own people) out of greed and search of power: the very same human motives that could have led the Africans to enslave Europeans (as Otomans used to do in the Balkans) or the Americans to conquer Europe if the historical and socioeconomic circumstances had been different. By the way, don’t forget Arab slave trading in the Indian Ocean and Europeans enslaved by North African Barbary states for ransom… And do not be tempted to blame it on capitalism (although, indirectly, it certainly influenced making European economy strong enough to face the challenge of conquest and submission of other peoples). Did capitalism encourage Roman, Persian, Mongols or Arab conquests?…

    Apart from recognizing that European societies have caused a big damage to others (mainly, to Africa), I acknowledge that Western countries have a debt for having profited from the monstrous crime of slavery (and colonization) and its long-term imprints (although not guilty, I admit that I have profited from that in some way or another). A way to pay off this debt is through extensive acceptance of immigration (nowadays Europe is a multiracial reality) and generous cooperation (not only economical but political) for African development. It’ll never be enough, and I am fully aware, but what else can be done? (once discarded the option of Westerners comitting mass suicide…). Imagine we could get rid of capitalism by decree (if such a thing was possible!): that wouldn’t make any difference as far as underlying human motives (greed and hunger for power) persist. The keys within our frontiers are integration, education and law (to assure convivence and severely penalize any kind of manifest racism or xenophobia).

    I appreciate your work and I don’t want you to retreat dialectically. Do you really think I am reasoning like a wall? You say: “All my work in this time period – ALL of it – is about cultivating deep relationality required to heal the wounds of colonialism. Isn’t that a global concern?” Of course, Robbie, but how to heal it effectively? Stigmatization and resentment is not the way because it doesn’t untie the knot. Let me say you that I see a hint of paranoia (I can fully understand it, anyway!) in your view. And you would commit a mistake in not taking many Europeans as crucial allies for that (shared) goal of healing.

    Of course, world is not -and will never be- perfect. We must be conscious (I follow an Evolutive Psychology approach) that humans are territorial apes and that Gaussian bell curve always apply: you’ll always come across bigots, racists, thugs and so on, no matter their race, nationality, religion or cultural background. Any sort of mesianism or naïve believe in utopia (in a perfect armonic world inhabited by perfect humans) is unrealistic (and, when “accomplished”, usually transmutes into the worst dystopia). This realistic disbelief will not prevent us, of course, from working for a better world through integration, education and law: I think we have made some progress in the last 200 years, don’t you?

    I don’t know what exactly “Modernity” is, but I’ll stand (and you too, I suppose) for whatever means freedom to lead your life no matter your ideas, religion (or non religion), race, gender and sexuality. This is a sort of ideology, indeed, but not properly a Western ideology (unless we render alphabet a semitic cultural artefact and potato a Native American product). Do you really think this view is an expression of eurocentrism? (I won’t stop using alphabet and eating potatoes!)…

    I keep following your very interesting articles and open for any conversation (and criticism).

    Let me include a post of mine, written in Spanish, about my view on Africa:


  4. thanks for your detailed comments Nicolas. I will let them mostly stand as part of the conversation. Except to say that people who know my work will know that I have no desire for resentment. The notion of resentment proposes that all that the sufferer can do is hate the one who caused the suffering. it is a way in which much “european” thought presupposes there is nothing of ethical or philosophical value in the thought systems of the colonized. resentment is a slave sentiment. that we can only say “no”. i am not a slave. In fact we say many yeses because we are free to do so. Yes, i do feel an accountability to testify with global justice. it is a different thing to resentment. It is about knowing that justice is the basis for any collective future. I follow Haile Selassie who said, remembering the 5 year long Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia – an invasion accepted by almost all members of the league of nations to which Ethiopia was itself a fully-paid up member:

    As we renew our vow that all of Africa shall be free,
    let us also resolve that old wounds shall be healed and past
    scars forgotten. It was thus that Ethiopia treated the invader
    nearly twenty-five years ago, and Ethiopians found
    peace with honour in this course. Memories of past injustice
    should not divert us from the more pressing business at
    hand. We must live in peace with our former colonizers,
    shunning recrimination and bitterness and forswearing
    the luxury of vengeance and retaliation, lest the acid of
    hatred erode our souls and poison our hearts. Let us act
    as befits the dignity which we claim for ourselves as Africans,
    proud of our own special qualities, distinctions and abilities.
    Our efforts as free men must be to establish new relationships,
    devoid of any resentment and hostility, restored to
    our belief and faith in ourselves as individuals, dealing on a
    basis of equality with other equally free peoples.

    Following that, many people will know that a lot of my work (including my new book) isn’t concerned with angsting over europe and modernity, even if it points out these sensibilities as sources of violence and injustice, but rather is concerned ultimately with retrieveing ways of knowing and relating that are other-wise to the violence of colonial logic. I wish “europeans” well in trying to do likewise in this collective endeavour, and have always helped where i can, because i think they will have a harder job with the meagre resources that they have at hand. I wrote something about the relationship between outrage, testifying, resistence and healing here, if anyone might be interested :


  5. Pingback: Humans are to blame, not Europeans – Picando voy (English version)

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