Postcolonial study is concerned with the traces of Empire, and how it’s systems can be identified and deconstructed to build a future that looks a little less like PTSD. This past year has seen a significant shift from ‘postcolonial’ to ‘decolonial’ tactics - understood as a practice of de-centring certain knowledges, and moderating new forms. In his recent talk ‘Decolonising Knowledge’, the latest offering from the now cult-lecture series from the SOAS ‘Decolonising our Minds’ society, Lewis Gordon, a Jamaican-born American philosopher and scholar, one of the founders of ‘Postcolonial Phenomenology’, Black essentialist, and author of such titles as Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism and What Fanon Said, recommends the new tools needed to deconstruct the ‘master’s house’ and build anew.
‘The Stolen Generation’, a term used to describe the Aboriginal children stolen from their homes and slotted into white Australian families in an effort to re-program them into white society, is a process that has taken place on a far grander scale in the West. Years down the line, education, argues Gordon, still looks strangely like ideological imposition. Scores of children still find themselves invisible in their own textbooks - educated in isolation from their own histories.
Radically debunking the myth of how ‘far we’ve come’, Gordon takes off the rose-tinted glasses to show how reproduction of Imperialist ideology is still rife in educational institutions. Tackling the issue from within SOAS, a renowned ‘left-turned’ institution, with its own colonial history, contextualises the discussion. Gordon asks what can we do about our systems of knowledge production and dissemination? And in place with such a long history of migration as Britain, asks why, as the infamous Facebook group asks, ‘Why is my curriculum white?’
Gordon is one of many ‘fighting for an academy in which I could see people who look like me, teaching me.’ He grossly simplifies his mission in this statement to highlight the bigger task. Gordon critiques efforts so far, arguing two main points - firstly, that political acts of emancipation and justice are often too removed from the normal lives of their subjects, operating on a theoretical but not real-life level. Secondly, he logs a key contradiction in our approach to emancipation - that we are still looking for a master. We have forgotten that our teachers should be students too. The old, conservative dialectics of patronage, recognition, and equivalence - (ie. black can be and do the same as white) are short-sighted and misguided in Gordon’s model. Such methods still ask for recognition, still award a single authority, still looks outside the direct experience of the individual body to legislate it.
Looking at it’s the word’s origin, Gordon reminds us that ‘education’ is supposed to be a commitment to continued learning and expanding horizons. Gordon argues that the current educational system is an outdated, patronising and homogenous model that still operates via Centrism (the production, regulation and adherence to centres), and supports a narrow portrait of reality. In terms of universities, Gordon argues that this Centrism has brought about the rise of an ‘independent academic management class,’ that looks and operates, suspiciously, like a corporation. It pays lip service only to education and achievement, but is ultimately ignorant and unconcerned about the sociology and implementation of education, and how to cultivate its best environment. Under the current system, contradictions to the master logic are logged as errant. Arguably the main ‘contradictions’ to system logic today are Black and Indians/Native American people. Operating differently to what Gordon calls the ‘generating grammar’ or ‘grammar of coloniality’, the system marks them as the bug that must be eliminated to resume its normative function. But speaking from the other side - who more and more we see are not in fact a minority - it is the system that needs changing.
In the postmodern age, religious or not, we know that people too, design systems - that any decent system is a beta baby, ready to upgrade and adapt to better meet its user’s needs. Ecclesiastes 1:9 states ‘There is nothing new under the sun’. Gordon begs to differ. If we are to work towards a fairer and more inclusive world, then hubris is a necessary and radical act. A radical act is one that makes pre-formed logic suspect - that problematizes presumption. Gordon wants us to move from political commitment, and the fetishisation of theory to transformative action, calling for an end to what he calls ‘disciplinary decadence’, where one prefers to reside in theory than reality. This is a destructive and closed-minded system, that rejects everything that lies outside it; ‘... like empires, the presumption is that the discipline must outlive all, including its own purpose’. This approach is wildly idealistic and works against the way messy reality operates. The fallacy of totalitarian systems need to be called out more. Gordon explains how rigid adherence to any one theory - though it may help us achieve short-term stability, is a tactic doomed to fail. A system can never be complete, because matter reacts to conditions. Things are being born every day - new things, new views, new forms of life, and these must be catered for in any system that does not wish to incite its own bounty hunt from those it excludes.
The paranoid authority sees political disagreement and lived reality as problematic. But Gordon argues that you cannot build a successful system on rules and sanctions alone. Gordon instead recommends the method of teleological suspension. This re-organisation of knowledge acknowledges that the world is a place of contradictions, paradoxes and uncertainty. In practice, ‘teleological suspension’ (not referring back to a singular source of explanation) manifests in actions such as adopting humility, transdisciplinarity, producing new understandings of knowledge,, cultivating options, generating space for contradictions, building homes for alternatives, and making sure that the speech acts of subordinated groups are properly recorded and translated - not historicized as noise. In terms of universities, fighting this situation means building alternative institutions - setting up new management systems - resisting capitalist systems of knowledge production, where governance is outsourced to numerous, well-paid but uninvested leaders, and finding alternatives to privatisation.
It is the activist’s role to cultivate conditions for continued work. Projects such as Decolonising our Minds, and the newly developed Arabic coding language (did you realise all coding was in English?) are making significant inroads towards this future. Yes, Brexit has happened. The Apocalypse is coming. But if Gordon has taught us anything, systems are not built to last. Nothing is certain, but Gordon’s directive philosophy reminds us that human practice, is ‘an ongoing effort’ - and always in response to changing conditions. That ‘...every effort to change the system changes the way you relate to a system’ - in other words, every effort - however minute - sets future conditions, alters the degree or angle of relation and greases the path for the next. So hydrate, connect, and let’s keep going.
Words by Tamar Clarke-Brown, a London born-and-bred writer, curator and art director.