It is a hallmark of postcolonial theory to question selective, self-flattering accounts of European modernity. Postcolonial theorists from both Europe and the rest of the world have illustrated how ideals of emancipation, equality, freedom, and scientific and industrial development were only possible through their opposites: colonial exploitation, inequality, slavery, torture, and suffering in the Global South. That’s why, during the 1990s, theorists felt it was necessary to insist that coloniality was the other face of modernity, the “dark side of the renaissance,” as Walter Mignolo famously put it.
While European theorists such as Habermas have claimed that modernity began in Northern Europe with the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century, Latin American theorists such as Enrique Dussel see this as a sign of contempt for Spain and Portugal’s historic contribution to modern thought, and as yet another indicator of Europe’s colonial mentality with regard to Latin American intellectual production. Latin American postcolonial theorists have thus situated the birth of Western modernity in 1492 with the “discovery of America,” which marks the beginning of the history of international capitalism, globalization, and its intellectual production.
Given that the ultimate goal is to question modernity, does it not seem contradictory to dispute which side holds the patent to it? If Euro-American and Latin American postcolonial thinkers agree that modernity was the origin of all colonial evils, why should we insist on being acknowledged as part of it?
For many theorists, regardless of how postcolonial their work may be, rejecting the genealogy of the modern would involve denying any merit at all to what is still considered by many to be the West’s most precious and enduring legacy. The key question then becomes: Must modernity remain a mark of the West? Why do we still feel the need to define ourselves in terms of all those prefixes that locate modernity (anti-, pre-, post-, anti-, counter-) in order to remain in the orbit of Western history, the planetary system that shapes our understanding of the world and generates our frameworks of knowledge?
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