RE(DIS)ARTICULATING THE MYTH OF MODERNITY THROUGH THE DECOLONIAL PERSPECTIVE
Environmental catastrophes are a result of the darker side of modernity, that of global coloniality, as a “set of long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism but continue to exist long after colonialism and colonial administrations as such are gone, surviving in culture, labor, inter-subjective relations, knowledge productions, books, cultural patterns and other aspects of modern existence.”1 Produced by Western capitalist modernity, the discourse of exploiting nature as an object cannot be successfully deconstructed from within neo-liberal capitalism. It takes something other than modernity to conceptualize, criticize and rethink ecological disasters instead of masking them as inevitable side-products of progress and development. Only through alter-modern in the sense of other-than-modern perspectives, standing on the border of Western modernity and non-Western reasons, can we hope to work out a solution. Capitalism the way it exists now seems to be increasingly incapable of dealing with its own consequences. While alter-modern perspectives need to be redeemed from the discourse of modernity, which habitually has treated them as sentimentalist, romantic, archaic, and retarded in order to easier discard them and present the dominant scientific-technocratic ideal of the future as the only possible and reasonable one.
The mythology of modernity presupposes an institute of sacrifices, according to Enrique Dussel, who stated that “as the civilizing mission produces a wide array of victims, its corollary violence is understood as an inevitable action, one with a quasi-ritual character of sacrifice; the civilizing hero manages to make his victims part of a saving sacrifice.”2 Hence, the myth of progress and development justifies violence and other “side-effects,” often growing today into major ecological and humanitarian catastrophes which in turn are regarded as sites of competition for resources and dominance. The progress myth is based also on taking groups of people outside the realm of the human and into the sphere of the natural. The Western consciousness traditionally praising itself on account of its own morality needs very little provocation to justify any violence against those who are objectified, commodified, demonized or exoticized and thus taken outside of human realm.
Both neoliberal xenophilia and xenophobia are guided by similar thinking operations, and difference is still interpreted in the Western thinking that projects itself onto the rest of the world as either absolute and too difficult to understand, or somehow taken to sameness. This happens within the familiar progressivist universal paradigm which assigns people from the ex-third and ex-second world to some earlier stage that the West already went through long ago. This allows treating them in a condescending way and prevents any real efforts to understand others. The problem is not that the Western scholars or creators of cultural politics do not understand what difference or sameness is but that the Western discourse has the right to assign difference to non-Western people and phenomena and interpret them accordingly without having to really get to know them.3
Re-articulating the scenarios for environmental catastrophe necessarily includes a rethinking of the ecology of human beings themselves, as a species, and as social beings. But the concept of the human has to be seriously scrutinized and de-linked from the five hundred years of modernity’s mythology. The ideal human being was imagined as a Western European White Christian male, occupying the subject position and regarding everything and everyone else as an object of study, exploitation, classification, taming, altering or destroying. This founding division into subject and object, culture and nature, is grounded in the Cartesian split and in Francis Bacon’s interpretation of nature as something to be conquered and dominated by humans. The human dimension is juxtaposed to a natural one and they form one of the endless binary oppositions that modernity rests on. However, this abstract binary becomes concrete and hideous, when we realize that the whole of humanity has been classified by Bacon’s and Descartes’ heirs into real humans with all rights, and into disposable lives, whose humanity is constantly disputed and who are classified as belonging to nature rather than culture or society. To this realm there belong not only the indigenous peoples of the New World, but also quite contemporary phenomena such as unregistered migrant workers or people used as live goods in human trafficking. The logic remains the same and lies in the clear distinction between the superiority of a European/Western man and the inferiority of non-European Nature and those who are part of it. What is hidden behind the sunny side of the Cartesian logic of ego cogito is the Western ego conquiro which has led to the global naturalization of the sub-human status of the colonized people and hence of the coloniality of being.4 A perfect manifestation of ego conquiro is the secular belief that divides Human from Nature and assigns various people their status with respect to culture, society and nature. Delinking from this rhetoric is crucial on both theoretical and practical levels.
Czarist Russia and later the Soviet Union were more interested in the appropriation of the purely technological side of modernity, and the continuous and unsuccessful efforts to disentangle it from the rhetoric behind it. It is in this point that one sees the common roots of (neo)liberal modernity and socialist modernity which both lead to ecological catastrophes based on the rhetoric of progress and development they share. No matter what concrete economic forms were used in the Soviet Union or in the USA, the race for progress based on the conquering of nature and those who were considered part of it, was there at work. The modern human being, no matter Western or Soviet, preferred to ask the question “how” and not “why” or “what for.” In fact, the Soviet project of ego conquiro, only in this case, not ego, but an anonymous conquering collective, a communitarian social body, was much more endearing than Francis Bacon could ever imagine. The end results turned out disastrous, as we can witness today. The crucial feature of Soviet modernity, marked with imperial difference from the West, was the fact that it did not make much differentiation between sameness and otherness in ecological or any other exploitation policy, for that matter. A human being in Russia and later, in the Soviet Union, as well as today, lacks respect or human rights, no matter if he or she is an other or one of the same. Within the reigning paradigm of lacking freedoms, authoritarianism is automatically justified and even those who realize their lack of freedoms do not act, for they are aware of the meaninglessness of any actions. In this logic all lives remain dispensable.
Neoliberal globalization made a much larger group of people vulnerable to ecological, cultural, social, economic and other disasters. An average middle-class Westerner discovers today that nobody is immune in the scenarios of global ecological or economic disasters, that ecology, if nothing else, is one of the very few things that we all share and that his life is also dispensable, similar to that of unregistered immigrant workers and ethnic minorities. Whether this would lead to sweat-shop sublime or Chernobyl sublime depends on the individual going through this experience. Surprisingly, the old Russian and Soviet situation, with respect to ecology or human rights, and with the double standard of populist slogans and anti-human economy at its far right at work, has simply become more universal than anyone would like to admit today.
A rearticulation of the scenarios of environmental catastrophe can take place in two interconnected spheres – that of epistemology and that of aesthetics and ethics. Lacking the real access to the decision making, what we are left with as activists, intellectuals, artists, and thinkers, is to try to change the way we and the people around us think – to alter our consciousness, free it from the enchantment with the rhetoric of modernity, in W. Mignolo’s metaphor, which lies at the basis of most of today’s ecological and humanitarian catastrophes.5 It is easier and more effective to do it in the realms and through means that are not quite entirely mastered by modernity and its discourses; in places where modernity feels not quite at home, in transdisciplinary areas escaping modernity’s ‘disciplinary decadence.”6
There is a profound asymmetry when a few people are making money and the majority is held responsible for the ecological disasters, poverty and lack of rights because the first few are using liberal arguments and ethical norms to induce this sense of guilt and responsibility. But we can disentangle from the pleasures and myths of modernity, decolonizing our thinking, being and acting. The very forms of participation, elaborated by modernity, need to be rearticulated in our effort to create a non-racist and non-patriarchal future. We cannot change the power structure, but we can turn to the virtual, spiritual, aesthetic praxis which would change the way we pose questions, altering not just the content, but also the terms of the conversation, the tactic of dealing with modernity.7 If we place our arguments outside of modernity’s system of reference and create alternative humanities and arts that would force modernity to play outside its technocratic binary logic, then there is hope that we can contribute to the on-going process of dismantling of modernity and its discourses.
The usual tactic of modernity consists in replacing meaningful questions with instrumental and applied ones, thus hiding the real reasons and modernity’s own crucial role in virtually each and every catastrophe that we deal with today. Modern disciplines study various objects by means of disciplinary instruments and within the frame of monotopic hermeneutics, rather than dialoging about what knowledge is as such, as the pluritopic hermeneutic would suggest to do instead, thus making the object in the Western understanding disappear and different problems come in its place. Then, instead of the usual object we would ask a question: what kind of knowledges do we need in order to make the world more livable and just for us all?
1 Cf. Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “On the coloniality of being: contributions to the development of a concept,” in Cultural Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2-3, 2007, p. 243.
2 Cf. Enrique Dussel, “Europe. Modernity, and Eurocentrism,” in Nepantla, 1.3, 2000, p. 472.
3. Shu-mei Shih, “Towards an ethics of transnational encounters, or “when” does a “Chinese” woman become a “feminist”?” in Dialogue and Difference. Feminisms Challenge Globalization, New York 2005, p. 5.
4 Cf. Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “On the coloniality of being: contributions to the development of a concept”, in Cultural Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2-3, 2007, p. 252.
5 Cf. Walter Mignolo, “The Enduring Enchantment: (or the Epistemic Privilege of Modernity and Where to Go from Here),” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, 101: 4, Fall 2002.
6 Cf. Lewis S. Gordon, Disciplinary Decadence: Living Through in Trying Times, Boulder 2006.
7 Cf. Walter Mignolo, “Delinking. The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of Decoloniality,” in Cultural Studies, Vol. 21, No 2-3, 2007.
Dr. Madina Tlostanova is Professor at Department of History of Philosophy, The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, Moscow.