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Has the Humanities Defanged the "Decolonization" Movement?


The notion of “decolonization,” as both a project and a concept, has entered the discourse of art and academia in recent years. “Decolonization” has multiple meanings and applications, but it generally refers to the effort to identify and uproot the traces of colonialism in one’s thinking and practice. At the web magazine RaceBaitR, Clelia O. Rodríguez wonders if the adoption of the concept by the humanities has in fact tamed the subversive power of decolonization, reducing it to an empty gesture aimed at career advancement. Read an excerpt from her piece below:

Today, anything and everything is allowed if a postcolonial/decolonizing seal of approval accompanies it, even if it is devoid of any political urgency. These tendencies appear to be ornamental at best, and we must challenge the basis of those attempts. We can’t keep criticizing the neoliberal system while continuing to retain superficial visions of solidarity without striving for a more in-depth understanding. These are acts for which we pat ourselves on the back, but in the end just open up space for future consumers of prestige.

The corridors of the hallways in the institution where I currently work embodies this faux-solidarity in posters about conferences, colloquiums, and trips in the Global South or about the Global South that cost an arm and a leg. As long as you have money to pay for your airfare, hotel, meals and transportation, you too could add two lines in the CV and speak about the new social movement and their radical strategies to dismantle the system. You too can participate in academic dialogues about poverty and labor rights as you pass by an undocumented cleaner who will make your bed while you go to the main conference room to talk about her struggles.

We must do a better job at unpacking the intellectual masturbation we get out of poverty, horror, oppression, and pain–the essentials that stimulate us to have the orgasm. The “release” comes in the forms of discussions, proposing questions, writing grant proposals, etc. Then we move onto other forms of entertainment. Neoliberalism has turned everything into a product or experience. We must scrutinize the logic of power that is behind our syllabi, and our research work. We must listen to the silences, that which is not written, and pay attention to the internal dynamics of communities and how we label their experiences if we are truly committed to the work of decolonizing.

Image: From the exhibition “Decolonize This Place,” organized by MTL+ and held at Artists Space, New York City, 2016.