31 March. Transcendental Coloniality

This, our last week of assigned readings, we consider the quality of ‘transcendental’ in the politics, economics, culture, and personal dynamics of coloniality.

We kicked off with a set of working definitions of empire, colonies, imperial and colonial subjects, expansions and settlements, colonialism, coloniality, and postcolonial and decolonial thought.

With Biko’s black consciousness we revisited disidentifications, and passing; with Mbembe’s necropolitics we remembered biopower, communities, and sovereignty; with Maldonado Torres and Ndlovu’s advocating for decolonial thought we considered and reconsidered race, earth, hierarchies, and history; and with Sánchez, we revisited Boyle Heights, District Six, and Waikoloa Beach alongside Andalusi studies and comparativism, to better relate to tolerance, convivencia, multiculturalism, and danger.

We acknowledged that the time and space in which we find ourselves make it extremely hard for us to think of bringing our final projects to fruition. Hence, we are going to reconvene next Tuesday to discuss possibilities and our various venturings into reading and writing.

In the meantime, please post your reflection on this week’s discussion on transcendental coloniality. By 5pm on Saturday, if you can.

4 replies on “31 March. Transcendental Coloniality”

I must admit, like many of my South African brothers and sisters, I am cautious in using the term “decoloniality.” Like them, I often wonder, if decoloniality is a term, much like postcolonialism, that is favored in academia and yet, does not work in bringing about change and transformation as we continue to struggle and live with coloniality. Is decoloniality too idealistic, I asked? Knowing that colonialism happened, understanding and still feeling its effects (coloniality) on our marked flesh, how can we ever decolonize? Can we even imagine what decoloniality will look like for each person, for each nation-state that was created under colonialism, while remaining a collective as people living in the African continent and its diaspora?

I began the semester reflecting on the term “religion”—its usefulness and its limitations. For me who is both Catholic and Vodouizan, the term religion presents a particular challenge. Is Vodou a religion? If Vodou is not a religion, it is also certainly not a cult. How do I best describe this system of beliefs/this mode of practicing as a scholar-in-training within the field of religion? Perhaps my work will be considered as a work of decoloniality as I seek to challenge the moral Christian order that was forced upon my ancestors, my parents, and myself who lived and who are living under colonialism (my distant ancestors) and coloniality (my parents and me).

And yet. . . I know how to read. I cannot unlearn the fact that I am literate. Furthermore, my choice to become a scholar requires a high level of literacy. Academia often requires Reason. It asks of me to become rational, distant, and objective. Like my grandmother and the women before her who were marginalized within their community, it is perhaps easier to be a Vodouizan as a non-literate person. These women, and women like them, are the ones who have managed to conserve the Haitian oral histories and traditions, including an indigenous faith that is non-textual. My mother and my aunt, both literate and highly educated choose to no longer serve spirits. Learning to draw a sharp distinction between the invisible world and the visible world, life and death, spirits and nature, my mother and my aunt who could not rationalize the faith of the ancestors gave it up. It was not enough for them to feel the spirits who watch over them and help them, the ancestors- the dead- who walk with them, my mother and aunt become distant from a faith they could not rationalize.

Nevertheless, my late grandmother walks with me. She who was non-literate believes that there is a place within academia to do the work of spirits. In that setting and through my work, my first divination reading says, my grandmother wants me to bring back her children (my aunt, my uncle, and my mother) back to her and to spirits. Through my many conversations with my mother, my aunt, (and eventually my uncle), through the stories that they tell me and the ways in which they remember her, my work thus is to re/member my grandmother. This work of re/membering, according to Ndlovu-Gatsheni is “a quest for wholeness. It aims at addressing problems of colonization of the mind, alienation, and fragmentation.” I have found that to be true. This process of re/membering is decoloniality. Or rather, I think it is, in Professor Carrion’s term “transcendental coloniality.”

In his preface to the 1970 edition of /A Black Theology of Liberation/, James H. Cone writes that thought “this books is written primarily for the black community, … [w]hites may read it and to some degree render an intellectual analysis of it, but an authentic understanding is dependent on the blackness of their existence in the world. There will be no peace in America [or the World] until whites [and non-blacks] begin to hate their [desire for] whiteness, asking from the depths of their being: ‘How can we become black?’ I hope that if enough whites [and non-blacks] begin to ask this question this country [and World] will no longer be decided on the basis of color.”

I believe this passage helps deepen our understanding and appreciation of “black consciousness.” As Steve Biko defines it, 1) being or becoming black is not a matter of color (or, we might add, cultural appropriation), but an orientation to the World; and 2) “by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your [or others’] blackness as a stamp that marks you [or others’] out as a subservient [or non-]being” (52).

This description of black consciousness, especially as it concerns non-blacks, also helps deepen our understanding and appreciation of Biko’s call to “all true liberals” to realize that “their fight for justice is within their [civil] society” (27; though I do not think that designation is sufficiently radical if we consider our global [neo]liberal consensus to preserve civil society, which is tantamount to assimilating blackness into its “inclusive” framework; in fact, “post-“Apartheid South Africa testifies to the limits of liberal ideology–and perhaps even how liberal consciousness necessarily betrays black consciousness, which, as Biko notes, applies to blacks and non-blacks alike). Further, Biko emphasizes that, with the revelation of black consciousness, “liberals must realize that they themselves are oppressed if they are true liberals [sic] and therefore must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous ‘they’ with whom they can hardly claim identification” (27). This sentiment is echoed in a contemporary context by the French-Algerian political activist, Houria Bouteldja, who observes in her 2018 keynote to The Political Theology Network Conference (held at Emory) that those in the global North need to fight for liberation at home because they ultimately dictate the structures of domination and exploitation that govern the global South.

(Here is a link to her keynote:
And here is a link to a wonderful review-introduction of her recent book, /Whites, Jews, and Us/, which both takes note of the symptomatic reaction to the book, applauds Bouteldja’s intervention, and nonetheless notes its limit as it concerns the singular position of Blackness–all of which helps us think through transcendental coloniality: )

Recalling what I noted of Glissant’s emphasis in my previous post, Biko’s black consciousness could be considered the other of Thought that alters one more radically than any thought of the Other. Following Cone’s imperative, in asking “How can we become black?”, non-blacks could be understood as undergoing the other(ing) of Thought. And, lastly, this is what Biko summons non-blacks to do: “apply [one]self with absolute dedication to the idea of educating [your] white [and non-black] brothers [and sisters] that the history of the country [and modernity] may have to [or, rather, must] be rewritten” with/through/as black consciousness (27).

In other words, to ask oneself Cone’s question is to begin to inhabit black consciousness as the means of unthinking–as the precondition of undoing–transcendental coloniality.

“[Colonies] are similar to the frontiers. They are inhabited by “savages.” The colonies are not organized in a state form and have not created a human world…In sum, colonies are zones in which war and disorder, internal and external figures of the political, stand side by side or alternate with each other. As such, the colonies are the location par excellence where the controls and guarantees of judicial order can be suspended—the zone where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of ‘civilization’” (Mbembe 24).

At the earliest stages of panic which would eventually become our current pandemic moment — that time when the massive death toll was not yet imaginable but somehow still imminent — there was rumor that spread across the internet that those of African descent were biologically immune from the ravages of COVID-19. This was based on a few passing observations, most notably that the majority and most severe cases of the disease seemed to afflict, based on what we saw in the news, those who we deemed Asian or European. There were memes floated around that black people were safe. Back then I knew this to be utterly false, but now that it has been well documented that black folk in America, already burdened by poor health and immense poverty, are suffering more than any other racial category, I wish that I could have been wrong. In the silence of my apartment I hold onto that moment, laughing at the idea with my girlfriend back home in Virginia. What a novel idea, to have such a righteous disease as to spare those who have already endured so much. Even now I think that it would make for a good short story, or even a speculative fiction script: how unimaginable that death could come for America and not embrace black people as an old friend.

Reflecting now on Mbembe’s text, I pulled this quote because of the way that it links the afterlives of Colonialism to both the political (the nation state) and the metaphysical (disorder and death). What follows are my, somewhat coherent, thoughts
Not a human world: The world that we are living in is not one that is conducive to the survival of the many. This is fueled by anti-blackness but it extends well beyond the pale of black flesh.
War and Disorder: These become one and the same. Interchangeable. Exchangeable. Fungible. War expands depending on the technologies of violence wielded against those who ask for care, against those who are vulnerable.
Violence begets civilization: There are a multiplicity of violences exposed in this current moment. The rhetoric of sacrifice is false. Sacrifice infers heroism? We are living in and against a political cult of death.
What now of the (religious) other?: What do we make of learning from each other? How do we open ourselves to that which is othered to us if it is in fact toxic? Do we even have a choice in the matter?

This sounds more bleak than I intend it to. We are also living and witnessing great moments of unabashed care. I am making room for that. But I am also thinking and processing the ways in which mourning is made un-sacred by the intervention of/defilement by the state.

I am grateful we ended our class with such a rich discussion of transcendental coloniality; it drew me back to a number of our other readings and discussions, especially on literature, and space and place. It also nourished my thinking about history, particular in terms of national narratives and the problems with progress.

Transcendental coloniality resists a tidy story. Colonialism doesn’t have an ending, a particular location; the agents of colonialism are not always obvious; resisters to colonialism not immune from its pernicious reach. Transcendental coloniality also reveals how easily we separate form from content, veil from what is veiled, ideology from history. Transcendental coloniality provides an account of the world that is messy, tragic, melancholic, and full of at once great suffering and great care and attention—neither of these powerful enough to occlude the other.

I am reminded of the Fanon reading I did for last week, in which he talks about medicine and colonialism. Transcendental coloniality, I think, provides a way to see Fanon’s arguments most clearly. Death, as we often think of it, is staved off by medicine, by taking the right pills and following the doctor’s orders. But, what kind of death happens when the pill is taken? Fanon says, this colonial “medical injunction is a new form of torture, of famine, a new manifestation of the occupant’s inhuman methods” (Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 144). This resonates with Mbembe’s statement, “politics is therefore death that lives a human life” (Mbembe, Necropolitics, 14-15). Transcendental coloniality is an idea I’ll carry with me; it shows how death exerts power over more than just bare life, but still need not have the final word.

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