This thought-provoking collection of essays treats the decolonization of the university from a variety of perspectives. It explores a wide variety of issues starting with the decolonization of the content of the curriculum and up to the decolonization of teaching as a practice. In so doing, it opens up a rich space of reflection. I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to dwell in this space and to write this afterword.
I’ve always aimed to make both my writing and my teaching conscious and critical of, and endeavoring to offer an alternative to, the way colonialism has marked and continues to mark anthropological thought and practice. When I started teaching in the late 1980s I often found myself as the only ‘non-Anglo-Celtic’, as we say in Australia, in the staff room. I have had situations where students looked visibly stunned that a non-Anglo-Celtic voice of academic authority was directed at them in the classroom (mostly pleasantly but on the odd occasion not). I have also dealt with a number of situations where students would come to me to say that they had problems with my accent. It was mainly students from an exceptionally insular background as I know that my accent is hardly of the incomprehensible variety to most ears. Luckily, most found me engaged and engaging, so they didn’t say this about me behind my back but felt comfortable telling it to me in my face. I remember starting to use my accent playfully to challenge the students with it by making it a political issue. I consciously used my position to habituate White students to the very idea of a non-White voice that can have something to tell them. Likewise, I encouraged non-white students to believe, not by talking about it, but performatively, that they are not always destined to be the listening subjects and that they can be listened to. And I was always made aware, by the realities unfolding before me, of the ways complex dynamics of class, gender and sexuality were always there practically intersecting within the above processes.
Likewise, in my early post-PhD writings, particularly in White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Hage, 2000), I played the fact that I was a Lebanese-background Australian researching White Anglo-Celtic Australians for all its worth to try and challenge the dominant expectations about the identities of the researching and the researched subjects. Nonetheless, I thought mainly with white European males, especially from Marx to Bourdieu. This was so even when, as an anthropologist, I thought it crucial to be open and able to respect and take seriously the thinking of the colonized other as an object of research. It took me a while before I internalized the anthropological tradition which thought that the higher critical aim of anthropology was not to respect and direct one’s (Western) thought to think the other but to understand and direct the thought of the other to think oneself. But I was already thinking along such lines when I encountered Povinelli’s ‘otherwise’ (2012), and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s wonderful description of anthropology as ‘the permanent decolonization of thought’ (2014) along with the wider tradition which has been referred to as ‘the ontological turn’ by some (Holbraad and Pedersen, 2017) and, more recently, ‘comparative metaphysics’ (Skafish, 2016). In the encounters with such trends I immediately felt ‘yes, this is what I aspire to do in my writing’. The ‘permanent’ bit of Viveiros de Castro’s sentence was particularly evocative to me. I see colonialism in the same way my friend the late Patrick Wolfe so neatly put it regarding settler-colonialism: it is ‘a structure not an event’. And by that very fact it also makes it ‘a culture not an event’. Its influence is defused throughout the world we inhabit, and, crucially, decolonization of thought is not just about dealing with the effect of the past on the present. Colonial thought continues to re-formulate itself anew and to find new niches in which to instill itself in all disciplines because colonialism itself continues to renew itself in all kind of ways and to find new niches to instill itself in a multiplicity of spaces. Thus, the appeal of a critical thought that is in a permanent state of vigilance and permanent state of reworking itself to disallow itself to ever become a colonized or a colonizing structure.
Despite the above, I cannot say that I always feel familiar with all dimensions of the recent debates about decolonization, nor even that they are all easily within my intellectual reach. I also sometimes feel taken aback by the intensity of the affect between postcolonials and decolonials that reminds me of arguments between Trotskyist groups I have witnessed in the past. The issues raised sometimes seem to have emerged from a ground that is different to the ground in which my thought had been developing. Perhaps my positioning, first, within Australian settler-colonialism and the way it articulates racism towards indigenous people and racism towards immigrants from non-White/non-First-World background, and, second, within the Middle East in the face of the defining Israeli colonial-settler project, explains some of this. Neither of these two regions, nor the struggles that are happening within them, have greatly influenced the current global debates about the post-colonial and the de-colonial in anthropology. There is of course the over-arching work of Edward Said, as one of the papers makes clear. But it is the Said that is treating the West-Orient configuration rather than colonialism in Palestine that is the main template in these debates. The post-colonial/decolonial debates, and I am really relating my impressions here rather than some well-researched history, seem more influenced by the struggles that are happening within a North-American, South-Asian, South-African and to a lesser extent South American geography. This is all to say that I feel I am continuously being exposed to new arguments and directions, and at the same time exploring the connections and the differences between these new arguments and directions and mine.
One positive change has to do with the centring of feminist issues within rather than beside colonial issues. While in the initial work I have done on race and colonialism I always thought that in critiquing colonialism one could learn from the way feminists critiqued patriarchy, today the emphasis is more on the intimate entanglement between the two. Not that using feminism analogically needs to be devalued. My early usage of the category ‘Third-world-looking-people’ in White Nation is inspired by the differentiation that feminists introduced between what a word really means and what it claims it means. Such as with the now classical deconstruction of the word ‘man’ to show that it continues to have an exclusionary and devalorising ‘man not woman’ embedded in it even when some people are committed to using it in a non-gendered manner. By analogy, though in a different way, I thought that all the neat words that Australian bureaucrats use such as ‘Non-English-Speaking-Background’ hid in their underbelly an exclusionary and devalorising aesthetic imaginary that fused negative class and phenotypical types, and that I rendered as ‘Third-world-looking-people’. The object of this racism is imagined to involve a combination of what the racists consider as non-White, ‘ugly’ and ‘not-modern’. Here, a beautiful, tall and trendy Eritrean model is not ‘Third-world-looking’ and is less likely to be subjected to racism.
Another positive difference that I note with the new wave of arguments concerning decolonization is a more affirmative sense of entitlement. It reminds me of the difference between the way first and second generation immigrants relate to racism. First generation immigrants can tell me horrendous stories story of being subjected to some seriously vile racism. But they often finish with a kind of acceptance of what they are enduring as normal, even as something that they deserve by the mere fact of migrating. Their kids on the other hand can be subjected to much less but find it far more unacceptable and see themselves as entitled to better, à la: ‘fucking cops I can’t walk the streets without them giving me a bad look’. I think this entitlement to better seems to be very present in the more recent wave of decolonial thinking. And while it is not necessarily generational in the case of the university, as it can be grounded in a variety of sociological variables, I am sure generational differences do play a role. For instance, there is a difference between a department or a school or a university which doesn’t include enough third-world-looking people and where this minority sits there silently enduring, deploring (but sometimes also enjoying) their minority status and their underrepresentation, and a department which doesn’t include enough third-world-looking people but includes just enough to make them feel capable of saying ‘this department doesn’t include enough third-world looking people’. Likewise, in fighting for a decolonised curriculum in universities, one needs a certain form of entitlement to move from a struggle for symbolic inclusion of non-White thinkers to a whole scale short-circuiting of the colonial symbolic inheritance of future White generations.
There remains, of course, some unresolved, and probably unresolvable, tensions. These are not necessarily a negative feature of the struggle for decolonisation. Spaces of unresolvable tension are often the source of genuine creativity. Sometimes, for instance, one can see in the literature on decolonization an opposition between anthropological knowledge which is a professionalized western knowledge of otherness and folk non-western knowledge of otherness. Here we see an interesting tension emerge: is decolonization de-professionalisation? Does it have to be? I doubt there is ‘an’ answer to this. But reflecting on the question is clearly an intellectually enriching pursuit.
There is an even more perennial tension between decolonization as a weapon and decolonization as an end. Ritty Lukose insists on seeing feminism within the university as ‘in and of this world’. But surely this is true of the university as a whole. Thus the general question: Is the struggle to decolonize the curriculum or the university a way of creating decolonized bubbles in an otherwise colonized social space, or is it about creating a generation of cultural fighters who extend the struggle for decolonization from the university to its outside? Likewise, one can launch a process of decolonization from within the university but one cannot hope to ‘decolonize the university’ without having decolonized everything. Or, at least, there is a limit to the extent to which the university can be decolonized without having decolonized the more general culture and the other social institutions of the society concerned.
Another space of tension the papers made me think about resides in the difference between decolonization as a unitary struggle and the meaning of particularly situated struggles for decolonization. Jamaican, Middle Eastern, African and Asian-located struggle all partake in the process of decolonization. Are they all necessarily the same kind of decolonization? And in what ways are they compatible or incompatible? A sociology of this plurality that delineates areas of similarity and areas of difference seems crucial.
There is also the question of the tensions and the compatibilities between decolonization and the opposition to neo-liberalism. Let me end with this and with what is perhaps a defensive note. But I hope a productive one. It concerns my call for anthropologists to ‘respect the elders’ mentioned by Mogstad, Tse and Morningstar. I find it interesting that people only see this as a defense of the canons and no one picked up the de-colonial and anti-neo-liberal move embodied in the call. I hope no one thinks that I was expressing some ‘primordial’ middle-eastern desire for traditional authority!
So I’d like to make the logic behind it very explicit: First of all, I was hoping that there is an obvious anti-‘colonial modernity’ playfulness in the call given that it sounds incredibly anachronistic. It belongs either to another time or to another more traditional culture. Indeed, in many parts of the world, the modernization that came with colonialism can be seen to kick-in the moment people stop thinking in terms of respecting their elders. ‘Respecting the elders’ has to do with respecting the wisdom they are supposed to have accumulated, and the idea that ‘elders’ have accumulated wisdom to bestow on the next generation represents a non-modern pace of change where this accumulated knowledge is still relevant. Modernity in general, but particularly colonial modernity, always aimed to short-circuit this inter-generational traffic. Neo-liberal modernity pushes this to an extreme where it encourages us to think each generation is starting from scratch and every day involves a ‘revolution’: a revolution in everything except an actual revolution. So, a call to respect one’s elders is a call to refuse this celebration of false ‘fresh starts’.
But there is another important dimension to perceiving certain anthropologists as repositories of accumulated experience. Readers of academic texts are encouraged to experience reading as a form of consumption, whereby texts are available to us as if we are shopping in a vitrine, and as with buying shampoo, we proceed to look at the variety available to us and buy and consume the text that we like. But as with what Marx described as commodity fetishism, indeed as an instance of it, this process of consumption disallows us to experience the concrete labour that goes into the writing of a piece of academic work (both the labour of writing and the dead-labour that one brings into the writing process). It is a quaint neo-liberal ‘democratic’ view of things that wants all products of knowledge production to be of the same order. It takes us an hour to ‘like’, ‘dislike’ and even rubbish something that has taken years to write and that can on top of this embody a long history of reading, thinking and writing that are also present in the text. It is in this sense that I see in the call to ‘respect the elders’ both a de-colonial and an anti-capitalist experience of consuming knowledge. But I am also aware that the ‘elders’ like ‘man’ has a long gendered imaginary.
Charbonnier, P., Salmon, G. and Skafish, P. 2016. Comparative Metaphysics. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hage, Ghassan. 2000. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Routledge.
Holbraad, Martin and Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2017. The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2012. “The Will to Be Otherwise / The Effort of Endurance,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, 111, 3: 453–75.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology. Univocal.