24 March. Coloniality

Our discussion of coloniality considered terms such as medicine, family, flesh, opacity, spirit, indigeneity, empire, Itongo, nomadism, disenfranchisement, property, multiple trauma, religion, slavery, transparency, and colonialism.

Please, write a reflection on coloniality, especially as it relates to reading religious texts comparatively. If you can, please post this reflection by 5pm on Saturday March 28.

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In the wake of coloniality, how do we relate to those we deem as “other”?

David Chidester, when reflecting on “Spirits of Empire,” describes the ways that spirits are often seen and understood within empire. Perhaps in a quest to better understand “the other” and how these others relate to spirits, those who worked with (and against) empire sought for an explanation of the unity of religion. Focusing on interfaith dialogue for peace, adherents who are living within empire were invited to speak for their own faith traditions. Although one can rightly questions whether adherents of African-heritage religions were truly able to speak to their own spirituality, those who speak on behalf of practitioners of African-heritage religions emphasize the unity of religion. Two characteristics of African-heritage religions were understood to be in unity with the religions of the west and the east: firstly, animism which was redefined as knowing God through nature and secondly ancestor worship, redefined as an infinite continuity of life. Theosophical Comparative Religion, a critique of academia, focused on the occult. These groups of practitioners understood that with a focus on knowledge and rationality, academia shows contempt for notions of secret wisdom. Yet, despite their focus on occult, they too promote a common ancient wisdom that unites all religion. On the other hand, the Critical Comparative Religion scholars view scholarship as myth with footnotes. To highlight this perspective, Chidester gives examples of different scholars who use the same source of knowledge and come up with very different theories.

Whether through interfaith dialogue, theosophical comparative religion, and critical comparative religion, scholars who work with empire promote transparency as a basis for understanding “the other.” Yet, for Glissant, although the Theory of Difference (that requires transparency as basis for comparison) challenges thought produced in genetics and stresses the importance of recognizing the “minority groups” in the world, in the wake of coloniality, we must go beyond transparency. Emphasizing the right for opacity, Glissant views opacity as the foundation of relation. Glissant does not give an exact definition of opacity. However, Glissant clearly states that a dialogue with the West—while recognizing the “universal” values of the West relate to the suffering of the South—is necessary. Within this dialogue however, the opacity of the diverse is what makes up (the transparency of) Relation. Put simply, we can be in solidarity with a person without needing to grasp that person. In fact, it is dangerous to think that we have a clear, lucid idea of what truth is; that is, a common value that relates us all, that is ultimate truth. Perhaps truth lies in understanding that there are things about “the other” that I will never be able to understand, and still, I remain in solidarity with them. I do not need “the other” to be like me in order to be in solidarity.

In /Poetics of Relation/, Édouard Glissant argues that the thought of the Other is insufficient. The thought of the Other, or the Ethics of the Other, is perhaps paradigmatically expressed by the 20th century Franco-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas, despite his celebrated ethics of alterity, which he sought to give primacy to before and beyond ontology–which is to say, rather than Being, he sought to make the ethics of the Other “first philosophy”–remained woefully neglectful if not outright hostile to the Palestinian struggle. Without knowing or presuming that Glissant had this in mind–though it would not surprise me–the example of Levinas’ thought of the Other is instructive for appreciating Glissant’s emphasis that “the thought of the Other is sterile without the other of Thought” (154). That is, the thought of the Other, as an ethical imperative, can keep the person thinking of that Other in tact; whereas the other of Thought necessarily alters the thinking thing. This is the altering alterity of the Relation that precedes any distinction between one(self) and the Other. In this regard, Glissant’s theory/poetics of Relation is a lot more idiosyncratic and demanding than our standard or colloquial understanding of relation/ality (though I would still question whether Relation is a viable concept, even in Glissant’s poetically ingenious hands, when we take seriously Warren’s argument about Black [non-]Being’s void of relationality). So much so that the other of Thought introduces opacity into ethics as an “aesthetics of turbulence whose corresponding ethics is not provided in advance” (155). Perhaps we can then say that, for Glissant, aesthetics–as (the poetics of) Relation–is the true “first philosophy” before both “Being” and the “Other.” This would thus be the guiding (other of) Thought for reading religious texts comparatively–or, rather, as always already in Relation–which coloniality taxonomically obfuscates with, at best, a thought of the Other that presupposes the (colonial) Other as Other.

“In colonies today millions of normal human beings are deliberately held in poverty and ignorance by force and fraud, because of the often conscientious belief on the part of their masters that no other condition is either possible or desirable for colonial peoples” (DuBois 53).

About a week into my isolation process I experienced the first of what has been/will be a series of emotional breakdowns. Being alone was not the issue per se, but instead I became very much overwhelmed with the lack of information, the lack of clarity, and the lack of momentum which accompanies quarantine practices. When I discussed my concerns with one of my close friends, I told her that the bleakest aspect of isolation was my inability to see a point when it would be over. “I just can’t imagine getting beyond this,” I told her. That moment of desperation (there would of course be many more to follow) brings me back to DuBois’ observation throughout his text that one of the central ways in which colonialism flourished was precisely because colonizers had spent so much time convincing themselves and also colonial subjects that there was no other imaginable way to relate to one other except through the power imbalance of master and slave. In thinking of the transition of coloniality from a state-sponsored political structure bolstered by military intervention, to that of an ideology and epistemology which permeates all reaches of modern global interaction, I am thinking of how colonial rupture limits and stagnates our ability to imagine each other outside of hierarchies of domination. In the time of this pandemic, that has manifested in a multitude of ways, most notably, in the conflicting ways that “freedom” is interpreted to both thwart and bolster notions of care. I am thinking specifically here about protests to “open” various states despite the reality that such an act would literally cost hundreds of lives. This is not to get too political, but to note that the spectre of colonialism flows through the thoughts and actions of people who cannot imagine that care and support of a community can manifest as anything other than inequitable modes of labor production. In truth, this pandemic is forcing all of use reimagine many things — how we work, how we survive, how we mourn, how we connect to one another — but the gravitational pull of colonialism and capitalism aims not to see how things have been irrevocably changed, but how quickly things can return to a familiar state of commerce and capital over the sustaining and preservation of life itself. This is not to say that people are not in a state of radical imagination during moments of quarantine and isolation, but more so I want to recognize that what and how we imagine beyond colonialism will always have to battle against a structure which works tirelessly to retain/maintain itself.

For weeks, I have been reflecting on Glissant’s remarks about opacity and transparency. Popular Western culture has led us to believe that transparency is good, positive, and productive, while opacity is bad, negative, and counterproductive. Glissant does far more than simply flip this script; he alerts us to the negative power of opacity. This resonates with the work of Walter Benjamin and Saidiya Hartman, two thinkers who feature prominently in my final project.

Glissant’s opening statement that the colonial subject has the “right to opacity” (189) is strikingly similar to Hartman’s notion of “narrative restraint” when dealing with archival subjects, especially enslaved people, who are irretrievably opaque and who have a right to be that way:

“Narrative restraint, the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure, is a requirement of this method, as is the imperative to respect black noise—the shrieks, the moans, the non-sense, and the opacity, which are always in excess of legibility and of the law and which hint at and embody aspirations that are wildly utopian, derelict to capitalism, and antithetical to its attendant discourse of Man” (Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 12).

The opacity and incomprehensibility of enslaved archival subjects, for Hartman, and colonial subjects, for Glissant, is not a result of absence but instead of overwhelming presence; a presence that refuses to be grasped but also refuses to be ignored.

This notion of “grasp” from Glissant’s work is helpful here and helps reveal the violence inherent in demands of transparency. The verb, “to grasp contains the movement of hands that grab their surroundings and bring them back to themselves. A gesture of enclosure if not appropriation” (Glissant, 191-192). As soon as we believe we’ve grasped someone else, we have given ourselves the last word—a profound violence. For Hartman, this is a second-order violence inflicted upon enslaved subjects in the archive. Many histories of slavery take the approach of centering the agency of previously ‘lost’ enslaved people. This method relies on grasping, recovering, claiming an authoritative knowledge about someone who does not legibly speak to us. Instead, as Hartman and Benjamin both propose, we ought to let the silent spaces of the archive exert a kind of negative, opaque power; a power that reveals both historical evil and the evil and power that underwrites the existing order.

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