Postcolonial theory and the strong arm of identity

The major problem with the term "decolonization" is its status as empty signifier, argues South African psychologist Wahbie Long.

Students at one of South Africa's universities protest for free public higher education and against persistent racism in 2015. Image credit Nicholas Rawhani.

I have always been mistrustful of the rhetoric on decolonization. Our difficulty deciding its meaning not only consigns it to a realm of needless obscurity but also frustrates our cause, which I understand to be the reimagining of the entire knowledge-making apparatus in the pursuit of a just, humane and equitable social order. The major problem with the term “decolonization” is its status as empty signifier. My concern is that the radical potential of decolonization discourse—because of its indeterminacy—is always at risk of being co-opted by hegemonic political formations. We have witnessed such reversals already in the fate of the so-called African Renaissance, an idiom that was meant to signify continental rebirth but was converted instead into the ideological glue that rationalized former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s export of free-market economics across Africa. We also observe it in university life today with the relentless commodification of engaged scholarship into just another signpost on the road to tenure.

I would regard decolonization as being another one of those radical chic terms. Everyone who cares about the future of higher education in South Africa is talking about it, yet most admit they do not know what it actually means. It is no accident that the looseness of the term is consistent with the anti-foundationalist values of the intellectual tradition with which it is most closely associated, namely, postcolonial theory. Indeed, the postcolonial genre is itself difficult to master, being viewed in some quarters as not theory at all. It has been regarded, even, as a form of post-theory: criticize a postcolonial writer, Vivek Chibber warns, and you may be dismissed for having misunderstood.

But there is a second problem with the term decolonization: it seals us within a colonial imaginary in which the binaries of colonizer and colonized, white and black become impossible to displace. If we are committed to a nonracial future as enshrined in our constitution, it is difficult to imagine how that can ever be realized for as long as we continue to reify—and weaponize—certain highly contentious markers of social difference. I am of course speaking about race, for despite the common sense that it is a social construction, some of us continue to assert the value of strategic essentialism. It cannot be denied that racism remains an integral part of lived experience in South Africa, but it has to be distinguished from race, which, again, has no external referent.

Postcolonial theory proceeds from the premise of social difference, an insistence that underpins its trademark critiques of Eurocentrism, colonial ideology and economic determinism (Chibber, 2013). The result is an abiding suspicion of grand theory and a corresponding focus on marginality, alterity, and particularity instead. Inevitably, identity becomes the basis for political mobilization as the possibility for universal comradeship slowly disintegrates.

The influence of postcolonial theory on student movements in South Africa has been substantial. Unwilling to frame their struggle in terms of the universal values of dignity, security and equality, protestors have opted for the particulars of white privilege and black pain, practicing a form of identity politics that is unmistakably middle-class. Trapped in a self-referential form of protest, certain narcissism has set in, as self-styled radicals reveal a decidedly un-radical preoccupation with their own bourgeois destinies. Whereas the May 1968 generation pursued causes that extended far beyond the confines of the academy, to date our students have shown little interest in backing the causes of the South African majority—most of whom will never set foot inside a university. Young people who are functionally illiterate and virtually unemployable have no interest in decolonizing consciousness let alone in resurrecting the past glories of the color black.

I am not attempting to disavow or trivialize the lived experiences of protesting students. What they perceive more than anything is an acute sense of dislocation—a feeling of otherness that is the fate of anyone entering an institutional space that is deeply alienating. But these psychological concerns must be recognized for what they are, namely, an emergent elite’s struggle for a coherent sense of self, rather than a movement for radical social change. The future of South Africa does not depend on the middle class—black or white. It depends on the millions of South Africans whose terminal state of wretchedness is both a necessary and sufficient condition for revolution.

The fact that decolonization discourse is saturated with bourgeois concerns also tells us that something is seriously wrong with the academy. The marketization of knowledge-making processes over the last four decades—and the gradual insertion of South African higher education institutions into that global landscape in the post-apartheid years—has resulted in the assembly-line production of graduates who are quickly assimilated into the well-oiled machineries of a market-friendly economy. Yet decolonization activists, by and large, do not seem to take issue with the instrumentalization of their education, directing all their energies towards the attainment of what they call “free, quality, decolonized education.” Instead of a materialist reading of the asymmetries of academic life, they support an agenda that centers on high-level abstractions, such as “epistemic violence” and the like.

There is another reason to question the decolonization agenda—specifically, its suggestion that the academic disciplines we have inherited remain suitable as disciplines in a society as historically contingent as ours. For example, it is one thing to question the topics and methods of a discipline such as psychology, but it is another matter entirely to question the existence of psychology altogether. Disciplines as they exist today do not represent, in the words of Plato, “the carving of nature at its joints.” They only exist because particular societies have deemed particular problems worthy of investigation. There is nothing given about a disciplinary order, which only emerges as a result of specific arrangements between knowledge-making communities and powerful interest groups. Approaching decolonization as an intellectual project that targets individual disciplines, therefore, is a nonstarter.

In the 1970s, the theorist Gayatri Spivak castigated French feminists for expressing solidarity with Vietnamese women. It was the first time in the history of the socialist left that someone from the Global South had questioned the possibility of universal comradeship. From there, postcolonial theory took off, its popularity in no small measure the result of the general disarray of the left. Today, internecine conflicts among academics and students—both in South Africa and internationally—find socialists and anti-racists being put down as conservative and racist. And that is perhaps the most pernicious effect of decolonization discourse: the now widespread belief that one’s identity constitutes an argument in and of itself, a belief that is surely antithetical to the very concept of a university. The idea that only black people may speak for black people, that only women may speak for women, that only disabled people may speak for disabled people, that only disabled black women may speak for disabled black women—in short, the idea that only the oppressed may speak for the oppressed, and only if they are identically oppressed—is one of the most absurd yet dangerous ideas in circulation today.

Postcolonial theory denies the possibility of empathy—of a shared humanity—and it is for that reason that it cannot provide the ethical vision we need now more than ever.

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