A Global Story of Psalms 68:31 | Against the Provinciality of the Twenty Years Crisis

‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God

Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.

We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.

There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story –  the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.

The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find  divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of  white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.

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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.

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