DECOLONIAL THINKING AND DOING IN THE ANDES: A CONVERSATION BY WALTER MIGNOLO WITH CATHERINE WALSH: A PROPOS OF HER BOOK INTERCULTURALIDAD, ESTADO, SOCIEDAD. LUCHAS (DE)COLONIALES DE NUESTRA EPOCA/ Interculturalism, State, Society. (De)Colonial Struggles of Our Times
Of course, we can ask what is the idea and meaning of “common” at work here. It is the uniting of free individuals within a model (of citizenry, community, country, nation, region) that surpasses ethnic collective identities and, most particularly, indigenous nationalisms. The common here purports to enable, as the International Development Bank–IDP and the United Nations Development Project–UNDP argue, a more equitable, inclusionary, and cohesionary society, a society, of course, that remains under and within the dominion of liberalism as we know it today and the world market. But what is especially interesting –and in the context of your question and our conversation – is the present role of Europe and the European Union in promoting an idea and meaning of a common sentiment that is rooted within their (the European) model of social cohesion and development and aimed to make Europe (read: Western Europe) the most competitive and dynamic economy in the World.
Social cohesion has, in fact, been one of the key objectives and strategies in consolidating the European Union model. It is understood as the capacity of a society to secure the well-being of all of its members, minimize conflicts, disparities and differences, and avoid polarization. The policy and politics of social cohesion – a convergence of the social-democratic tradition with its emphasis on the State, politics and rights, and the social-Christian tradition focused on the family, civil society and community – have aimed to confront internal fragmentation within Europe and reestablish a common sentiment from which to build European integration. Social cohesion, in this sense, establishes a desirable horizon for the nations forming part of the European Union, a medium, as Eugenio Tirón points out, for harmonious, balanced and sustainable development where all citizens (supposedly) feel integrated within the social weave.5
While the efficacy of such strategy and model can clearly be questioned in terms of the inequities within the Union itself, its “Western” hegemony and orientation, and its racialization and exclusion of nonwhite immigrants and non-Christian religions, this is not the subject of our conversation here. Rather, what I wish to point out is the imposition of this strategy and model in Latin America today, what the recently formed EUROsociAL6 calls the “[European] ideal of what should be a dignified society …A possible horizon for the politics of development in Latin America.”7 Social cohesion now constitutes, according to the Office of Cooperation of the European Commission, the most important objective and action of European Union and Latin American cooperation8 and a required component of all project funding. Critically exploring the meaning of social cohesion and creating a significance not only more consonant with community-based realities but defined by these communities themselves has, in fact, been the focus of the work I have recently been involved in with the Network of Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean women and the Foundation “Azucar” in their project “The Black Gaze” (La Mirada Negra) funded by the European Union-Italian Cooperation.
Going back to the issues you raise, the broader problem here is with the new formulation and imposition of notions and paradigms – maybe better termed “paradogmas” – of common welfare and the common good that intend to confront and overcome – within the frames of social cohesion, integration and humanistic development – the “other” logics and civilizatory frames that “buen vivir” or “sumak kawsay” – roughly translated as living well or collective well-being – afford. Making “sumak kawsay” part of state development policy – or even worse UNESCO policy – in a way that empties it of its real sociohistorical, ancestral and cosmological significance (including the significance established in the 2008 Constitution) is one example. This is what I have criticized (in my article which you cite) with regard to current development policy in Ecuador. In this policy, “buen vivir” or “sumak kawsay” are used interchangeably with development and as the State. That is to say, “buen vivir” as development is the State. And it is the State that signifies what is development and “buen vivir.”
The problem here is to two-fold. On the one hand, it is the ascertaining from above (from government and the State) of policy that portends to define and regulate “sumak kawsay” or “buen vivir”. And, on the other hand, it is locating such definition and regulation within the frame of citizenry understood as individuals, a frame that challenges as antiquated and counterproductive the continued presence of social movements, the collective and the communal. The concept of “buen vivir” points to notions, logics, practices and modes of living grounded in collective well-being and the mutual dependence of all beings (human and otherwise). Its point of departure is the collective, a co-dependence, and the complementariety and relationality that both necessarily entail. Its translation in public policy, however, is beginning to suggest something else: the idea that all begins and rests with individuals (as citizens), who together can build a common project and thread. This, in essence, seems to be the philosophy and general sense behind Ecuador’s so-called “citizens’ revolution.”,
Here we can witness a difference with Bolivia, where the notion of the communitarian (a plurinational and communitarian State and a representative, participatory and communitarian democracy) is a central component to the processes of change. This is not to discount the difficulties, complexities and contradictions within the Bolivian process (initially similar but increasingly distinct from the processes we are now living in Ecuador). Instead, it is to suggest the contrasts between efforts to construct a plurinational State, efforts that assume the communal or communitarian as one of its basic components, and efforts to promote a so-called “citizen revolution” where individual agency and participation (including across differences) are key. And, of course, all this points to another concern: that is the meaning in this context of “revolution” as well as of 21st Century Socialism.
While space does not allow me to elaborate on this concern, let me make just a few short comments. First and as you pointed out above, it is liberalism that promotes the common good and it is socialism that argues for the common. The communal you suggest is something different, not subsumed by liberalism or socialism. I agree that the logics, philosophies and world-views underlying each of these concepts and practices are radically distinct. Yet in the emergent conceptualizations, practices, policies and models of State in Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as in the practices and life styles of the communities themselves, the lines are not always clearly drawn or the borders clearly delineated.
First off, let’s think about the new context of State. As I have described above, the incorporation in the Ecuadorian Constitution of these other logics, philosophies and world-views, is made nebulous in new laws and public policy where communities, the communal, and the communitarian lose the force of real meaning, collective voice and concrete signification. The reference to 21st Century Socialism clouds the issue further. While assuming distance from the socialism (or socialisms) of the past, but continuing its overall ideological legacy and term (that is, of “socialism”), this supposedly new manifestation works to include difference. It recognizes racism, sexism and other institutionalized frameworks and apparatuses of coloniality, power and discrimination, and it recognizes the right to collective territory, autonomy and community-based authority. However, and as I mentioned above, it gives centrality in its conceptualization to “citizens” understood in their difference and diversity; citizens as individuals. In this context, community is perceived as a group of individuals, individuals whose role is to participate in and support the [socialist] State, not question its practice or authority, or its understanding and promotion of the “common,” in essence the “common good.” Here the lines between the “common” and the “common good.” between socialism and new forms of liberalism (and humanism or humanistic neoliberalism), are increasingly blurred.
Different tensions are present in the Bolivian case. There, the “communal” has become a point of contention in its definition and hegemonic positioning as Aymara. The primary goal of the Constitution and the Evo Morales government is to build a new Plurinational State grounded in the idea of the “communitarian.” Yet what is beginning to become evident is the conflict present in these very terms (the communitarian, the plurinational, and the communal) when they deny or overlook the plurality of meaning and practice inherent within and derive from the singular, utopian and abstract, and not from concrete contexts. For example, lowland indigenous nations in Bolivia argue that the models of territory, community and autonomy being discussed today are not representative of their realities and thus are beginning to protest and rise up. Indianist sectors say the model being developed is not Aymara enough. Similarly, arguments for distinctions between rural and urban manifestations are increasingly frequent; the city of El Alto, with a majority Aymara population, being a clear example. Also key are considerations, not only in Bolivia, but also in Ecuador and the region, of how ancestral practices that include the communal, the collective and the community-based are being co-opted, fractured and split by the presence and interests of “outsiders,” most especially those involved in the exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of Mother Nature or Earth. In these latter contexts, resistance, but also new strategies of the collective and communal, become part of everyday struggle, practice and living.
All this is to say that what is occurring today in the Andean region is supremely complex. For those of us that live in this part of the world and are committed to and involved in the process of change and struggle, hope intertwines with frustration and even despair. And that is because of the new paths and possibilities being constructed, but also because of the new strategies of domination, control and co-optation being waged. The coloniality of power, of knowledge, of being and of nature in this context, is simultaneously being transgressed and reconstructed.
Still, in the effort to move away from the models and paradigms of the past (including those of the Right and the Left) and to build and mold new processes and projects that think and act with indigenous and African descendent peoples, cosmologies and practices, Ecuador and Bolivia are breaking a radically different ground. The challenge, as I have attempted to make clear here, is not to resurrect or reconstruct the communal, nor is it to assume or impose a third philosophy and model of society and State (with liberalism and socialism being the first two) that can be exported elsewhere. Instead, and from my perspective, the present and emerging challenge is to make real a thinking and acting with the peoples, nations and communities, and the knowledges, histories and life-based cosmologies that have been suppressed, subalternized and denied. It is to move away from and beyond the lineal precepts of the modern, of development, and of progress, precepts clearly interlocked with the designs of transnational capitalism and the market. And it is to fashion a practice of society and State (possibly under different terms) that engenders and derives from the plurinational, and works to encourage and enable articulations and convergences, interculturalizations of a sort that give centrality to the necessary interconnectedness and interdependence of beings, nature, knowledge and/as life.
MIGNOLO: Now Cathy, everything you just said, supported of course by the long tradition in your own work, including your creation and leadership in the PhD program in “Latin American Cultural Studies” at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, bring to the table the crucial issue of the “orientation” of knowing and understanding. Let me see if I can make clear the issue I am trying to address, and I would ask if you could contribute to its clarification.
The term “studies” in “Cultural Studies” doesn’t make clear to me what the study of culture is for. Stuart Hall links cultural studies to the political, and that is good, but I still feel a certain dissatisfaction with it. I admire Stuart Hall’s work, but I still feel I am in a different track, parallel of course and complementary, not opposed or in competition. So the questions are: What is research for? What do we want to know and understand and why do we need to know it? Simplifying matters, I would like to put the issue in the following terms: there is a tendency in the U.S. and European academia, but also in Latin America and East Asia and South Asia, to operate on the basis of “change”: “change” becomes a goal and a mission in itself. So, you “study” to change the vision or interpretation of certain events or problems of the previous generation; you study to “change and update” the discipline (and you are in what Lewis Gordon describes as “disciplinary decadence”). Striving for change is a very modern goal, which is maintained in all post-modern philosophies. Postmodernism doesn’t question the basic principles of modernity, it questions some of its consequences in the history of Europe. Consequently, postmodernity is predicated on the very basic and modern mission of “change.”
Reading/listening to you, in the previous answer and in your published works, I would say that “Cultural Studies” doesn’t describe what you do (and I hope what I do, either). I see your work as research projects prompted, invoked and demanded not by any discipline in particular (even Cultural Studies), but by the issues and problems you encounter in your daily life as an academic and activist, as an academic/activist and as an activist/academic. Research is always for some thing: for the academy itself (disciplinary decadence), for the State (cf., departments of political sciences, public policy, law), for the corporations (departments of economy, of computer sciences, of biotechnology, etc). What is the research, knowledge and understanding you (and others like you, engaged in a particular politics of knowing and understanding) for? One way to make these issues more concrete would be to say that your research is for education and socio-economic justice. Now the question would be, if your research is for/oriented toward those goals, what disciplinary paradigm (paradogma) informs your research? Is it a discipline in particular or “something” else that is being defined in the process of thinking and doing and in that process displacing the assumptions we have about what knowledge is all about and what knowledge is for?
WALSH: Here you bring up a number of concerns, Walter, that I think are crucial to our work. The first has to do with what Iris Zavala described a number of years ago as the problem and the politics of naming.
Over the past year, I have been asked on three different occasions to explain my understandings of cultural studies, particularly in the context of the doctoral program that I direct and that you mention above, a program in which you are also a faculty member. These reflections will soon be published in Spanish in a collective volume edited by Nelly Richard and in the journal Tabula Rasa, and in English in an article entitled “The Politics of Naming: (Inter)cultural Studies in De-colonial Code” that will appear in a forthcoming issue of Cultural Studies. I also take up this concern in an earlier article published in the dossier that you coordinated for Cultural Studies in 2007. In these texts, I discuss some of the reasons why we chose to name this program as such, including the strategies and politics of this naming, and make evident the elements and perspectives that define and orient its project. Let me say something here about these two concerns in the context of the questions you raise above.
You may recall that our use of “cultural studies” at the Universidad Andina first began in the late 1990s as an area of focus or study within the master’s program of Latin American Studies. The idea was to create a space for critical work that linked the cultural with social, political, economic and epistemic struggles, structures and frameworks. Calling this space “cultural studies” was, in essence, strategical. In fact, it was part of an interest and effort shared with Santiago Castro-Gómez of the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota and the Institute Pensar. On the one hand, this naming enabled us to locate our efforts within a broader named legacy that, in the 50s and 60s and particularly under the direction of Stuart Hall, understood the cultural as clearly political, as a place of differences and of social struggle with regard to the dominant hegemony, including that of academia. In this sense, our understanding and use of “cultural studies” at the outset was not as an academic program or discipline to replicate, either from its base in Birmingham or its traveling (and mostly de-politicized ) manifestations elsewhere. Instead, we considered it as a formation and project of intervention, transdisciplinary and indisciplinary in character and possibility, to be constructed, thought and articulated from this region; a project or projects not interested in the study of culture per se, but in the ways that the cultural intertwines with the political, social, economic and epistemic within a matrix of power grounded in, as you have made so clear in your work, the ongoing relation of modernity-coloniality. The strategy thus, and on the other hand, was in this very politics of naming. Given its international recognition as a field of study “permitted” within the disciplined structure of the academy, “cultural studies” gave us a place of leverage to argue from; a place and space that could not be simply localized to Bogota or Quito.
I am sure you remember the meeting of our project modernity/coloniality/decoloniality in Quito in 2001 and the large public event for the Andean region planned to coincide with this meeting. That event, as you recall, focused on the problematic, the challenges, the disciplinary, political and ethical predicaments, and the politics of naming of cultural studies – or better yet (inter)cultural studies – from Andean America. Again, there was a strategy at work here that was essential in getting off the ground the intellectual-political project now reflected and constructed, since 2002, in our doctoral program, a project and program that, as you well know, takes seriously the social, political, epistemic and ethical challenge, project and work of interculturality and of decoloniality. The strategy was to open up a dialogue among committed intellectuals – from universities, social movements and other places of praxis and struggle – focused on the possibility of (re)thinking and (re)constructing “cultural studies” – or (inter)cultural studies – as a space of political and critical encounter and of diverse knowledges. A place of encounter among disciplines, rationalities and forms of thought, and intellectual, political and ethical projects grounded in distinct historical moments and distinct epistemological places, with the aim of confronting the socio-political fragmentation and divisions that neoliberalism has encouraged and of building shared postures and projects of intervention towards a more just social world.
Here, the idea – first in the event and since in our doctoral project-program – has not been to create or identify new objects of “study,” or to simply propose study “on the basis of change,” a (post)modern proposition as you mention above. Rather, it is to recognize the need, especially in the Andean region, but also elsewhere, for spaces and places of critical thought, analysis and reflection from and with the struggles being waged in the context of what Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has called the long colonial horizon, and toward deeper understandings of the operation of this horizon, of the structures of domination – epistemic, political, social, cultural and economic – in order to assume a position and to intervene.
To name this cultural studies – or (inter)cultural studies as I prefer – is one option, certainly not the only one. It is an option grounded in a politics of naming that, for us in Quito, has helped construct a field of possibility within the university, transgressing its traditional boundaries, disciplines and disciplining, and walls. It is an option that enables a convening of intellectual-activists from a variety of fields and from throughout the Andes and Latin America, under a rubric and graduate program whose name has resonance and relative acceptance in the academic university domain, but whose content is not rigidly disciplined or defined. This is especially important when one takes into account the fact our students are, for the most part, university faculty and that such jobs, unlike the U.S. or Europe, are almost always precarious. In this context, “Latin America cultural studies” or Latin American (inter)cultural studies, as we more frequently call it, is part of a necessary strategic politics of naming.
Is this naming part of how I describe what I do? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I believe that the university is one place – certainly not the only one – where we can build ongoing processes and projects of critical interculturality and rouse decolonial postures, perspectives and thinking. Such work requires different strategies, including those that give new and different meaning to established and accepted rubrics. The “inter” here of (inter)cultural studies is to engage an “other” conceptualization, practice and understanding, one that in the Andean region calls up interculturality and its social, political, epistemic and ethical project. The “inter” works to disrupt and destabilize, to intercede, interfere and intervene in the “cultural,” to bring to the fore a series of issues, concerns, conflicts, tensions, struggles, and to push for different engagements and articulations, particularly with regard to knowledges and life visions. It is this engaging, interceding, disrupting, interfering and intervening that I take as central in my work.
Of course, and on the other hand, “cultural studies” as it is typically constructed and understood does not describe what I do, nor do I feel that I really “fit” within its field. Postcolonial studies, as constructed and defined, often seen as an offshoot of cultural studies, particularly in metropolitan countries, also does not feel quite right. In this sense, I guess there really is no discipline or field that fits me or that I fit into. Similarly, there is no one discipline or field that clearly informs my work. I am sure that you probably feel the same.
But I also do not feel comfortable describing my work as “research projects.” Rather, I see it as tied to, driven by and directed toward a project and projects that are simultaneously epistemic, political and existence-based; a project and projects that are concerned with understanding, and with shaping, encouraging and constructing “other” ways of being, knowing and intervening in the world, ways that the geography of reason, the geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial matrix of power have endeavored to subordinate, negate, silence and deny. Thus, and as I mentioned before, I am not interested in the research enterprise that studies “about,” but instead in the critical, pedagogical and decolonial posture and possibility of thinking, understanding and acting “with,” all the time realizing that this “with” necessarily requires challenging what it is I think I know, how I know it, and the purposes it serves.
So here, and in closing, I guess I am going back to the beginning of our conversation. Research for me is a pedagogical enterprise that is necessarily tied to praxis. As such, it is pedagogy – or the pedagogical – and not research per se that drives, defines and describes my work. I refer to pedagogy here not as a discipline or field but as a methodology, as a process and practice of doing, and as the work to be done; pedagogy, as Frantz Fanon once made clear, in order to build a new humanity that questions. As such, and pulling together much of what has been said above, it is the critical projects and processes of interculturality and decoloniality – and their intimate ties – that inform my pedagogy, work and perspective. It is they that give rhyme and reason to the particular politics of knowing, understanding and doing in which I am – and I believe you are also – engaged.
Walter D. Mignolo (born in Argentina) is semiotician and professor at Duke University, USA, who has published extensively on semiotics and literary theory, and has worked on different aspects of the modern and colonial world, exploring concepts such as global coloniality, the geopolitics of knowledge, transmodernity and pluriversality (http://waltermignolo.com/).
5 Eugenio Tirón, “La ‘cohesión social,’ o el retorno de Europa en América Latina,” Barcelona, 2007.
6 EUROsociAL is an alliance among the European Union, IDP, UNDP, and the Economic Commission of Latin America (CEPAL) with the support of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
8 See http://www.cumbresiberoamericanas.com/imprimir.php?p=712