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?

A concern for epistemic justice has increasingly framed my writings. Epistemic justice calls for a reckoning with the racialized inequalities of knowledge production that have historically accompanied the European colonial project. Complicit in this form of injustice is the cognitive framework of colonial-modernity which categorically segregates humanity into different meta-groups: the moderns, who deem themselves competent to rule themselves and others, and the sub-moderns – or traditionals – whom moderns deem incompetent to rule themselves. Epistemologically, this segregation creates the knowers and the known, that is, those groups who are racialized as competent to produce adequate and generalisable knowledge of the contemporary world and those who are racialized as incompetent to do so. In colonial-modern frameworks, colonized communities and/or their postcolonial descendants are represented as collective entities whose cultures lack epistemic authority in contrast to the norms and procedures of the civilized colonizers and their descendent societies. Alternatively, the pursuit of epistemic justice affirms that the living knowledge traditions of such communities are resources that, in principle, hold epistemic authority when it comes to identifying what counts as a problem, what constitutes the problem and what are the means of redress. Epistemic justice is therefore a crucial dimension of the wider struggle for reparation of colonial injustice.

In this respect, I find myself nowadays working besides and not through or against the “subaltern”, and here I am talking specifically of the way in which this figure has become a vernacular of postcolonial studies. Initially, historians of colonialism such as Ranajit Gupta mobilized the category of the subaltern to reference the epistemic dimension of the struggle over democracy in postcolonial India. Imported into the heartlands of the Western academy, the category was translated into the vernacular via an incorporation into poststructural preoccupations, so that the subaltern could be considered, as Gayatri Spivak once famously announced, “an allegory of the predicament of all thought, all deliberative consciousness”. This universalising of the subaltern also translated the category into a marker of the limits of knowing under modernity. Hence the subaltern no longer needs to reference first and foremost a struggle over epistemic justice in the (post)colonial world.
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One ramification of this translation, to my mind, is the way in which the subaltern has become part of an academic disposition that shares much with the narcissistic “gaze” of the imperial world map, famously illustrated by John Charles Ready Colomb in 1886. The peripheral others: they are subalterns. They can only look towards Britannica, the masterful self. Universal knowledge is dispensed at the point of Britannica’s centred perspective, and from there all are named and defined. Look more closely: you’ll see that none of the peripheral figures are making sideways glances. All roads lead to Rome: crop, mineral, goods, bodies, value, narrative, concept, Jesus. Hawaiki and Ethiopia-Zion could never connect. This disposition of “critical thought” that I am describing situates the Western self as the only entity that is critically knowable. The peripheral others, even if considered morally worthy, nevertheless serve only to reflect and refine the Western self.

But if the subaltern has become a philosophical category of limitation it cannot be at the same time a lived experience. For when a lived experience is auto-ethnographically named as subaltern it does not complete the philosophical category of the same name. It runs beside that category instead, on a distinctly different track. Concerned with epistemic justice rather than a modernist – and narcissistic – philosophy of limits, my book travels these tracks besides the subaltern. The book’s arguments dwell in living knowledge traditions that address global injustices in ways other-wise to the colonial science of the gaze, traditions that make the task of relating seminal to their cosmologies. Philosophies of limit are antithetical to relation. My book works with deep relation in the pursuit of epistemic justice.

blk4Relation – from the Latin, meaning, to bind back. The depth of relation that I am retrieving exists underneath the wounds of coloniality: coloniality being the cutting logic that tries its best to segregate peoples from their lands, their pasts, their ancestors, spirits and agencies. Deep relation is a decolonizing ethos of repair: repairing wounds, binding back peoples, lands, pasts, ancestors, spirits, agencies. It’s depth is marked primarily by the challenge of binding back the manifest and spiritual domains. For there, in the spiritual domain, there exist hinterlands that were never colonized by Cook and Columbus. Therein lie the supports of a global infrastructure of anti-colonial connectivity. Deep relation confirms Rufus Collins’ reply to the elder at Te Hāpua that ‘the ancestors are meeting because we have met’.

All intellectual dispositions have premises. Deep relation grants, in principle, epistemic authority to ways of knowing that do not respect the colonial-modern division between profane analysis|critical acuity (i.e. a modern sensibility), and sublime dogma|blind belief (the supposed “traditional”). This division forms the foundational premise of social-scientific thought and thereby grants epistemic supremacy to sociological analysis, modern historiography and other such profane pursuits. The recent resurgence of forays into political theology highlight the pretensions of such a supremacist premise. Besides these revelations I am committed to working with and through the living knowledge traditions that are not premised upon such colonial-modern divisions. We know: just as complexly, critically, multi-vocally, and fractiously as those whose tradition is, in fact, modernity. Indeed, just because some of us  do not start with the premise of colonial-modern division we do not outlaw profane analysis at all; we simply do not grant it providential status. Still, our knowledge cultivation – how we know – works besides the dispositives of self/other, master/slave, manculture/spiritnature that define the epistemic limits of modern thought in social science.

The provocations I have made here are principally directed towards the academic community. And I make them considering the audience of this fora. My book, however, while not antithetical at all to such conversations, is not written principally to, for or about academics, (in fact, you will rarely read the word “subaltern” past the introduction), but with the peoples resident in the book who, in various ways, are all-at-once the protagonists, theorists and guardians of the Black Pacific, past and present. Much of the research for this book was cultivated through collaborative projects in Aotearoa NZ that sought to retrieve and rethink the presence of Africa in Oceania. Not simply for antiquarian purposes, but for what decolonizing possibilities this presence might open up for a still-colonial present.

In this respect, the most important purpose of my book is to retrieve the relationship between African and Māori anti-colonial struggles as a space that supports spiritual, intellectual and political commitments to mana motuhake, a central term which in Te Reo (the Māori language) can be glossed as ‘self-determination’. Such retrieval is especially important for a settler-colony – Aotearoa New Zealand – which tries to bury its living frontier under a worldly ‘multiculturalism’ that normalises neoliberal governance at the same time as it desecrates the spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty signed in 1840 between many rangatira (chiefs) and Queen Victoria) and whitewashes New Zealand’s imperial legacies in Oceania. My book, in some ways, is an exercise in multiculturalism before Multiculturalism. A second purpose is to strengthen the confidence of diverse peoples of African heritage as to the general (and never marginal) importance of our ongoing struggles for justice – epistemic and otherwise. A third purpose is to better understand how Europe’s colonial project erected a long-standing architecture with a racialized foundation that interlocks the super-exploitation of labour and the super-dispossession of land. The exorcism of contemporary global racial inequality requires the cultivation of spiritual, philosophical and political standpoints that reach across these lines to rebind the various descendant communities who have and continue to variously suffer from the weight of this architecture yet still creatively survive, and more…

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3 thoughts on “The Black Pacific: Thinking Besides the Subaltern

  1. Pingback: The Black Pacific: forum, critiques, responses | Robbie Shilliam

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