The Latin American Turn

I haven’t posted for quite some time, so a brief update:
– I’ve been working on my film paper and have found the comments shared on this blog very helpful. So thanks for all the suggestions.
– Two things people should check out: Michael Burns’ blog has recently featured an enlightening discussion of Logics of Worlds and academic bullying (though the two are not related…); and Adam Kotsko is on a mission to problematise popular religious positions on homosexuality and abortion. I’m not sure I agree with everything he says, but his exchange with his commentators is quite provoking.

Last week I had the good fortune of attending a daylong conference at Birkbeck entitled ‘The Latin American Turn: On the Unfinished Project of Decolonisation.’ The following is a summary of the papers and my thoughts regarding the themes that were addressed.

The papers focused on current Latin American political theories and praxis and their relations to European thought. The speakers challenged the current nature of this relationship on two fronts: (1) European thought (even post-colonial theory) tends to operate in European categories perpetuating a Eurocentrism that subordinates non-European thought to the canon of European theory; (2) Latin American thought must be receptive to European thought, but must resist being determined by it. This latter point was excellently summed up by Enrique Dussel when he said, ‘We need Badiou, but not Badiou.’ I’ll summarise each of the papers and then end with my thoughts about the themes of the day. Two preliminary notes: I’ve reproduced the majority of my notes in all their scattered and fragmentary glory in hopes that they will be helpful to as many people as possible; I missed the last paper because the conference was running 45-50 minutes behind schedule and I didn’t want to miss my hus home.

Enrique Dussel

Dussel started the day off by giving a keynote consisting mainly of themes from his Twenty Theses on Politics. He sought to theorise the transition from a revolutionary politics (often restricted by its negative posture) and leftist political praxis. Latin America is intriguing in this regard as the Argentinean and Bolivian governments offer potential examples of such a praxis (Dussel and everyone else speaking seemed to Bolivia seems much more promising). He formulated this transition in the form of the question ‘how do we exercise power rather than just criticize it?’ Power is often reduced to domination. This characterises the work of Hobbes, Locke, Weber, Habermas, and Foucault. Indeed for Weber, power is defined as legitimised domination.

Dussel argues that rethinking power is to strike at the being of politics. He defines politics as a field relating to other fields (social, economic, cultural, etc.). His paper thus focused on understanding the relationship between politics and power.

Power is first characterised by force (a will), but this will is not the will to power, but a will to life. This understanding of political power is characterised by three determinations:

(1) A will to life (a vitalist position): The first determination of the ontology of politics, it is material in content, but not material in the sense of physical. This will is a general will; that is, it is the will of a community, not of individuals.
(2) The capacity for union: unity is a moment of practical reason. There is a consensus that attaches a united (general) will to a goal.
(3) Feasibility: contra the Frankfurt school, instrumental reason is crucial to politics.

Dussel offers this ontology of politics as a positive conception which might perpetuate revolutionary ideas without succumbing to a purely negative position. Here he sited the Zapatista’s reluctance to formulate or participate in political institutions. This reluctance forces them to only offer negative critiques without offer a positive political vision capable of advancing a/ the community. If one thus remains negative, the movement is a social movement, not political.

Communities are potentia (taken from Spinoza). They are power in itself, without determination. Through political praxis the power of the community becomes an institution. This institution must be characterised by obediential power (connected this to the speeches of Eva Morales). In short, the community holds sovereignty and authority. Institutions do not hold power, but exercise it on behalf of the community. When institutions become convinced that they hold power, they are fetishising power. In this moment, authority believes its own will becomes foundational for the exercising of power and politics becomes domination. This moment is constitutive for modern understandings of power, from Hobbes to Lenin. The people become obedient to power rather than vice versa.

From Carl Schmitt to Machiavelli to Laclau, theorists have focused on praxis to the exclusion of institutions. Contra Foucault and Freud, institutions are not inherently oppressive. Similarly discipline does not equal oppression. There are moments when institutions meet the needs of the people.

Dussel divides political institutions into three types:

(1) Material: economics, technology, security, ecology. They must organise the reproduction of the community.
(2) Legitimising: democratic means of validating institutions, enabling the community to exercise its will to live.
(3) Institutions of feasibility: I was a little unclear on this last one

Politics is thus divided into three levels:

(1) Praxis
(2) Institutions
(3) Political principles

Dussel notes that there is resistance in contemporary theory to political principles. He argues that this level should include at least three positions:

(1) Material affirmation of life
(2) Validity principle (not sure about what he meant here)
(3) Feasibility principle

From here Dussel shifted to a discussion of law drawing especially on the Christian theological tradition. Agamben demonstrates, in his commentary on Romans, how law becomes a metaphor for order. Dussel argues that the law is not the basis for action. The law can by unjust. The justification for action is faith, not the law (connected to St. Paul).

He then discussed the plebes as a future people, creating a populace of the future. The problem of liberation is not the order, but developing a critical consensus against the order. This future populace will also develop a law, but in the meantime the justification for action is faith.

He ended by arguing that the end of the state is a logical postulate, a regulative idea, but impossible. During Q&A, he argued that in order to sustain the moment of liberation it is necessary to grow the people’s consciousness of their ability to be an actor in history.

Ramón Grosfoguel

Grosfoguel sought to address differences between post-colonial studies (PCS) and coloniality/modernity (C/M) studies. I spent most of the paper wondering what the hell coloniality was. Maldonado-Torres later defined the preliminary difference as this: post-colonial studies focuses on the consequences of a period of history termed colonialism; coloniality focuses on the networks of power that defined that period and continue to operate even though the historical period of traditional colonialism has ended. Grosfoguel made it clear that he did not see the two camps as diametrically opposed, but equally stressed that there are important differences that need to be highlighted. The differences are:

(1) Genealogical: PCS tends to start its discussion of colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. C/M starts 300 years earlier in 1492. This year marks the formulation of global capitalism and modernity. This 300 year period is sometime marginalised in PCS and impacts the understanding of the relationship between modernity and colonisation. C/M strives to understand the Renaissance as part of modernity. For this position, modernity is inherently colonial. C/M’s focus on this relationship between modernity and coloniality allows it to push for the de-colonisation of knowledge and being. In this sense, C/M is transmodern (a term adopted from Dussel) rather than post-modern. The latter, with its modern determinations remains colonial.

(2) Epistemological: C/M argues that Occidentalism is the condition for Orientalism. In addition to the ethnic hierarchy and global division of labour that came with colonialism, there is an epistemological hierarchy which produces an epistemic racism that undergirds the racism that is constitutive for productive exploitation. This epistemic racism is entangled with epistemic sexism, forming a complex global class division often ignored by classical Marxism. This ignoring is symptomatic of Eurocentric fundamentalism. Other fundamentalism are varieties of this originating fundamentalism. From Christian fundamentalism to Islamic fundamentalisms to nationalistic fundamentalisms, they all arise from the binaries established by Eurocentric fundamentalism. C/M’s transmodernity thus seeks to complete the work of de-colonisation by de-colonising knowledge, but how can we go about this task if we only read Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida? C/M calls for an expanded cartography of power. The figures of European theory are not ignored, but viewed from the perspective of a new geography. We must de-colonise political economy.

[The next two papers were given by Carolina Sanin and Marcia Martins de Rosa. Sanin’s paper was interesting, but focused less on theory and more on literary embodiments of theory. De Rosa spoke about her various experience, but, to be honest, I found it difficult to follow.]

Nelson Maldonado-Torres

Maldonado-Torres stated two goals: 1) a tentative genealogy of de-coloniality; 2) exploring the basic problems that de-coloniality seeks to address.

His genealogy consisted of three moments:

(1) First wave (late 18th, first half of the 19th century in the forming United States and Latin America): this moment in the US was ultra-racist in that it was characterised by ethnic divisions amongst white Europeans. There were discussion about whether the Spanish or Italians were less white than the French or British. In Latin America, the diversity of indigenous peoples made for a more racially mixed context. In light of this racial situation, the often overlooked Hatian revolution is especially significant. The Hatians had to critically develop a new understanding that overthrew European understandings of humanity. Hatian intellectuals developed these theories in the 19th century. The first wave thus refers to this period of questioning European categories of being. This dating denies neither the existence of colonial projects nor anti-colonial movements prior to this period. Indeed de-colonisation began at the first moment of colonisation. Rather this dating indicates that this resistance did not become formal until the 19th century.

(2) Second wave: this period comes after the Pan-African Conference, the end of World War II, and the decolonisation of India. It is marked by a period of fascism in Europe. Fascism is domestic colonialism. No longer is it possible to view European colonisers as bringers of civilisation. The paradigm of progress and Enlightenment has begun to colonise itself, rendering European intentions much more suspicious. This amounts to the demystification of Europe. Thus, while the first wave is marked by the affirmation of Europe (an affirmation varying in intensity), the second wave becomes more radical in its disenchantment with European Enlightenement.

(3) Post-coloniality?: Maldonado-Torres sought to indicate the tenuous nature of this characterisation by including the question mark. This period is marked by the global mobilisation of indigenous movements. From this indigenous perspective, however, coloniality still exists. It is post-coloniality only from the perspective of colonial powers who argue their colonial operations have ceased. Coloniality studies argues that there is no post-colonialism.

As time was running out, Maldonado-Torres was only able to provide a brief outline of the basic problems of coloniality studies:

(1) Philosophical anthropology
(2) Ethics and politics (and their relation)
(3) Epistemology

While all three are interrelated, the third must be the condition for the thinking of the other two.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

The organiser of the conference, Guardiola-Rivera gave an intriguing paper, though for some reason I only took minimal notes. He noted that contemporary discussion is marked by the fact that the US is the next Latin American country and the collapse of global-capitalism’s self-healing capacities, if not global capitalism itself. He argued that liberation has little to do with affect; it is an objective, essential praxis. He also stated that we have reached the end of vanguard theory. I found his contrasting of Kantian predicative with messianic time especially interesting. He argued that a liberating political praxis is not restorative, but messianic. In doing so, he drew on Che Guevara as embodying messianic praxis.

Eduardo Mendieta

Mendieta argued that the project of de-colonisation is also a project of de-secularisation. The latter occurs in the form of dispersing the modern myth of secularity. Mendieta calls this the theological enlightenment of the Enlightenment (a tendency he finds in Marx’s political theology).

Modernity sought to secularise politics, but in doing so theologised the market. In order to do this work, what Mendieta calls secularisation as a project (I was a little unclear on this point), the economy must re-politicised. The economy is always a consequence of political decision. Dussel’s re-founding of politics similarly calls for the de-fetishisation of the market.

Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin represent a negative or critical political theology, rejecting the founding of the political in a positive way.

Mendieta calls for a critical political theology that is both political and theological. It is political in its referencing of the political economy of theology especially in popular religiosity. It is the formulation of a critical political economy through theological discourse.

Religion is not a black box but a creative means of a community formulating a way of life.

Lewis R. Gordon

Gordon argued that the colonised find themselves in an unreasonable relation to reason. Reason dictates that the opposition to reason’s policing of experiences is unreasonable. Gordon terms this epistemic dependency: a state of receiving the theories by which we interpret out experiences. Communities are blocked from being the source of their onw theories of their own experiences.

The challenging of this state follows three thematics:

(1) Philosophical anthropology
(2) Freedom and theories of transformation
(3) Metacritique of reason

Gordon offered two specifications to these thematics: reason is a broader category than rationality; liberty and freedom are not the same thing.

He drew on Fanon to argue that racism creates a category below the self/other dialectic. From this perspective, one is fighting just to be regarded as an other.

He then shifted to argue that the market is governed by the tradition of doxa more than episteme. He also stated that we downplay the role of human agency in the market. We discuss the ‘market’ going up or down rather than the human actions that cause economic changes.

He concluded by discussing how the intellectual has become colonised by the market, becoming a commodity. When this happens, the methodological becomes confused with the ontological.

Question and Answer

Guardiola-Rivera re-emphasised the distinction between prediction (Kant) and anticipation (Che).

Mendieta discussed the selling of commodities as selling little nuggets of time, which amounts to a domestication of time. The market thus becomes an ontologisation of the future anterior. He also stated that neo-liberalism and Protestantism go and in hand. He concluded by defining theology as a critical reflection on praxis nurtured by popular religiosity.

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, I thought the conference was a strong showing of interesting thought that is easily missed by PhD students wading through their volumes of Derrida, Deleuze, or Lacan. I did think it was interesting that more than half of the people attending a conference highlighting the elision of Latin American thought in European theory seemed to be Latin American. There were a few points that I thought that slipped through the discussion.

(1) A lack of any interaction with what is often termed analytic philosophy: there was some discussion of coloniality operating in epistemological categories, but these remarks were generally still focussed on continental philosophy. This missed opportunity is particularly regrettable, in my opinion, because I suspect aspects of Latin American thought would challenge the analytic/continental divide, both resonating with and provoking current European efforts to deconstruct this all too often rigid border.

(2) While Dussel acknowledged the difficulty of addressing the will of the people, he didn’t address how the difficulty might be overcome. If a community’s will is united in the oppression of another community, how do we invalidate that will? The recent events in California surrounding Proposition 8 seem like a timely example. Badiou’s theory of the subject seems to offer one possible solution to this dilemma, but I’m not sure if I find it satisfactory.

(3) I’m always left confused about what I’m supposed to do regarding coloniality theory. I can’t adopt the perspective of oppressed or indigenous people without reducing their experiences through my imitation. If I allow Latin American theory to challenge my European or North Atlantic perspective, I still evaluate these experiences from that same perspective. I find the problem of addressing the European hegemony of theory an interesting one, I’m just not sure of the goal. I assume it’s not Latin American domination of theory (or the domination of any other group). So the end goal must be a democratic exchange of ideas. I’m still left wondering from what position one evaluates this exchange.

Sorry this post is so long, but I hope those interested in this field find the summaries papers helpful.