Decolonizing theory: thinking from the global south




EURO-AMERICAN theory provides our existing academic interpretations of the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change them. The impulse towards theorizing anew has always arisen within the urgency of historical conjunctures. Decolonization had provided an impetus within the Global South to imagine new relations to the past, present, and future; free of the political and intellectual teleologies and civilizational hierarchies imposed by a colonial epistemology. There arose the necessity to look back, neither with nostalgia, nor anger. Rather, it was the imperative to recover from the paradigm imposed by colonial rule that had allowed for an engagement with native pasts only as irrelevant, outmoded, or mired in forms of imagination unsuited to the idea of the modern.

Colonialism had inculcated an amnesia towards local forms of intellection with their own long histories. More important, it gave a determinate geographical location to the provenance and geneaology of thought (philosophy as originating in Greece, or in the European Enlightenment). This occluded the history of the circulation of ideas while nurturing the lethargic as much as learned habit of making distinctions between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ ideas. Finally, it only allowed for the consolation of a distant golden age when there had been the efflorescence of thought in now colonized spaces; a body of thought that was deemed irrelevant for the present condition of modernity.

Sudipto Kaviraj theorizes the emergence of a Euronormality: an implicit reorienting of the social sciences everywhere towards European conceptualizations that were universalizations of its own parochial histories.1 The universalization of European particularism, needless to add, was the result of wars, conquest, and the imposition of new structures of pedagogy. Addressing amnesia in its various manifestations lies behind the present impulse to theorize; to recover from the loss of self and of an indigenous imagination under alien rule.2

This essay concerns itself programmatically and polemically with the politics of knowledge in the academic space and addresses primarily the question of a Euro-American insularity that projects itself as universality, i.e. the globalization of theoretical production arising from a limited geographical space and its parochial trajectories of development. It asks that we broaden our archive of concepts not only through engaging in transdisciplinary conversations, but also through moving away from Euro-American formulations to a conversation across the Global South, that is also necessarily multilingual. In short, it thinks with the problem of intellectual imperialism, academic dependency, and the captive mind – the themes of this issue.



It is not only about rendering visible words and ways of thinking across the Global South through mere translation within a monolingual space. This would merely entrench the politics of English as a universal language of rendition.3 A true conversation must engage with the nuances and hardness of multilingualism as much as the possible quiddity of concepts. All political locutions arise from a sense of place; existing, constructed, and imagined. What does it mean to speak from the Global South, a space that bears the wound of former colonization, and therefore the loss of ways of thinking, imagining, and living? As de Sousa Santos puts it, this is an ‘epistemological rather than a geographical south’ from which an ‘alternative thinking of alternatives’ can be carried forward.4



I believe that thinking about the Global South (its traditions of intellection and its conceptual categories, as much as their imbrication with the miscegenated genealogies of western ideas), is a project that we have yet to embark on.5 We have been through the enterprise of thinking  from the Global South, which has meant, as in the case of postcolonial theory, the reiteration of a European episteme, but merely from our location. A new paradigm need not entail a nativist rejection of European theory or an insistence that we work only on our spaces. The ‘space’ that comprises Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean cannot be thought without considering international relations of power and capital.

We cannot also be unreflective of  the interpellation of the Global South in the period of the Cold War and the fact that we live in the time of the continuing ‘decomposition’ of its political and intellectual structures.6
As Ann Laura Stoler has recently argued, ‘we live in a temporal and affective space in which colonial inequities endure’ and there is the imperative to think of the (post) colonial sceptically and insist on ‘imperial durabilities in our times.’7

If we are to frame the temporality of theorizing from the Global South, Partha Chatterjee’s formulation of the moments of departure, manoeuvre and arrival within Indian nationalist discourse is a compelling heuristic device to think with.8 Chatterjee characterises the intellection of anticolonialists in India as moving through three moments: departure: the moment of a break from tradition and the consequent desire for Europe (in the works of the 19th Bengali litterateur Bankim Chandra Chatterjee); manoeuvre: a reconstitution and reimagining of indigenous thought as against an idea of Europe (Gandhi); and arrival: the confident assertion, with its compromises, of an independent nation (Jawaharlal Nehru). I adopt the triad of concepts but invest a different set of meanings to these moments.



The long conjuncture of decolonization, as countries in Asia and Africa achieved independence from the end of the Second World War to the 1980s, had already created an impulse to decolonize the mind. This moment of departure with its staggered temporality was accompanied by the making of nations, the creation of pedagogical and economic infrastructure, and the emergence of a new generation of intellectuals. The emergent new native elite may have been rooted in nationalism; however, they had been schooled in structures of pedagogy that were governed by knowledge in thrall to a Euro-American idea of the university and a replication of its disciplinary form-ations.

The very idea of national being was governed by a split consciousness. The reality of the postcolonial nation was seen in empirical terms: thick descriptions of social and economic inequalities, accompanied by visions of science and technology driven futures that were governed by the sign of self-reliance. However, when it came to theorizing, intellectuals drew upon inherited social science paradigms – what Tagore called histories from elsewhere – rather than on indigenous traditions of intellection about self, community, politics, and ethics.



Ashis Nandy and Ngugi wa Thiong’o were among the first to address the colonial wound of amnesia, as it were, dredging language as much as psychoanalytic frames to reflect on resources of thought that had not been hijacked by a conception of singular trajectories of development towards a western state of being.9 Fanon was the penumbral presence in their thought, the idea of the psychic devastation inflicted by colonialism and the need to heal were the dominant themes.

Nandy looked at the implicated selves of colonizer and colonized and in a characteristically innovative juxtaposition, studied the early works of Kipling and the ouevre of the Hindu mystic Vivekananda as contending with the discourses of hypermasculinity generated by colonialism. He was clear that there were other psychic resources within Indic traditions that allowed for a recovery of self, particularly in Gandhi’s invocation of the ‘feminine’, of passive resistance, and of the notion of care and love as central to politics.

Ngugi, in a parallel move, asked for a decolonization of the mind against the biggest weapon unleashed against the native mind. He called this the ‘cultural bomb’ that annihilated a people’s belief in their languages, their heritages of struggle, and ‘ultimately in themselves’, which made them see ‘their past as one wasteland of non-achievement.’10 Both Nandy and Ngugi departed from the idea of the post-independence moonshot to the modern by addressing the amnesia towards what lay at hand; the intellectual resources and categories that would allow for the restitution of damaged selves.



The theorizing of the next generation represented the moment of man-oeuvre. It reflected the presence within Euro-American academe of a postcolonial elite that bristled against the condescending characterization of the spaces that they came from as being not-yet-modern. Dipesh Chakrabarty in his broadside against existing descriptions of decolonized societies, spoke of a reckoning of lack, a dispiriting accounting of absences – of capitalism, modernity, or of real democracy.11 However, he was also conscious of the ‘conceptual gifts’, as he called them, of historicism and of politics, from 19th century Europe which allowed for reflection on the way forward.

Postcolonial theorists like Chakrabarty, Spivak, and Bhabha challenged the imposition of singular trajectories of the future, deploying European epistemology with verve and skill, and denying derivativeness through adroit categories like hybridity, inter-stitiality, strategic essentialism and provincialization.12



These categories are revealing of the strategy of manoeuvre; one had to position oneself within an already determined field. If one were to be uncharitable, mimicry as theorised by Bhabha, was seen as the way forward; like-yet-not-like, the un-readability of imitation as repetition or difference. However, postcolonial theory was characterised by a distinct amnesia towards indigenous systems of intellection; the theorists having been schooled in a paradigm framed by Euro-American social theory and its internal dissensions and critiques.

We stand now at the threshold of a moment of arrival, with theorizations that start with the idea of intellection from the Global South as their premise. In one sense, it is a taking up of the standard again, a theorizing from where we are; a resistance to what Ngugi had called the method of ‘Europhone Theory’ and ‘African fact’. A slew of recent work that engages with forms of thinking in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Arab world has allowed us to question the Eurocentricity of postcolonial theory and to engage with indigenous landscapes, epistemologies, and temporalities.13

There are many distinct intellectual trajectories here pointing to different futures of interpretation. What is very clear in these works is an engagement with long histories of intellection and debate in the Global South. Euro-American epistemologies were transformed by their commensuration with already existing fields of interpretation. The act of reading Darwin or Freud in Egypt, for example, is not one of startled discovery but a negotiated and careful process of translation, situating within existing paradigms, and a questioning of the universalist assumptions of historical and psychological evolution.



The South American thinkers rethink the temporality of the modern by displacing the Enlightenment as the fons et origo. They put the violent Spanish conquest and the genocide of native peoples by Europeans at the beginning of European engagement with the world at large. Modernity is inaugurated less by the cogitations of the philosophes than by the genocide perpetrated by the conquistadores.

In this moment of arrival, we need to think with questions of inheritance as much as a rejection of a colonial patrimony. Words must arise from their worlds. For too long we have thought with the trajectories of a European history and its self-regarding nativist epistemology that was rendered universal largely through the violence of conquest and empire. As the aphorism goes, a language is a dialect backed by an army.

Benedict Anderson has argued that colonialism generated a double consciousness of the world: the connection between colony and metropole – London and Delhi; Djakarta and Amsterdam; Hanoi and Paris.14



This seems to suggest that the geography generated by empire exhausted the possibility of other worlds and connections. Existing networks before the onset of colonialism were never severed entirely as Engseng Ho shows in his magnificent study of the uninterrupted flow of people, ideas, and commerce over half a millennium
from the Hadramawt to Southeast Asia.

Moreover, empire created what I have called new ‘geographies of affinity’ which exceeded the incarcerative and schematic maps that reflected merely the imperial hubris of control.16 Rebecca Karl, in her work on late 19th century Chinese nationalists shows how they drew on the historical experiences of the resistance in the Philippines to American imperialism; the Boer resistance to the British; and going back in time, to the partition of Poland in the 18th century that sparked off nationalism.17

Such alternative geographies of resistance generated their own vocabularies and concepts like that of swadeshi – of one’s world – in the early 20th century in India. Much
of this new work has alerted us to
the parallel and emergent maps of
a ‘coloured cosmopolitanism’, of  ‘entanglements’ beside the map
of empire, and of the world of oceanic movements that laughed to scorn
the inscribing of imperial borders and shadow lines in the dust.



There are clusters of ideas that we can think of together when reflecting on words and worlds. The first is of the ineluctable relation between language and life worlds. This is usually overlooked when we engage with the act of theorizing as opposed to description. We could indeed ask of the elite postcolonial theorists from the decolonized world – who present themselves as the resistant underdogs of the academic hierarchies of knowledge production – can they, as subalterns, speak? Or does a theoretical production from Europe speak through them?

To go back to Chakrabarty’s idea of the gift of the Enlightenment, one is reminded of Derrida’s reading of the idea of the pharmakon as both remedy and poison.19 If life worlds must provide the infrastructure for thinking, raising questions of acquiring and working with knowledge of languages other than English,
French etc., as much as situating oneself within existing traditions of intellection in Asia and Africa is important.

The second question is that of intelligibility and translation of
ideas. We do need to converse across intellectual traditions even as we recover from what Maria Lugones has termed the ‘colonial wound’
20 and begin to think with Confucianism, or Buddhist philosophy, or African ways of being in the world.

This makes the question of language as much as conceptualising important, while recognizing that the issue is not of producing one-to-one commensurability. We need not swing from asking misplaced questions of whether there are ideas of individualism or secularism in African and Indian languages to the equally ill-conceived venture of assuming that concepts in the languages of the Global South have exact and resonant equivalents in English and European languages. What we need is the beginning of a conversation in a space which has been dominated by a monologue, as much as monolingualism.



A third and related question is one
of time. What is lost when one reflects with the social theory of modernity,
and its abbreviated sense of time,
that creates a timeline from the Enlightenment in Europe? The idea of time here is a judgement on societies that are
present at the same time as Euro-America but inhabit their own temporality, rather
than the putative common time of the
21 How far back then, does one
have to go to write a history of the
present? This is not merely an empirical question of deciding whether one wants to work with hundred year stretches of time or go back a few hundred, perhaps thousand years, to establish the longue durŹe of processes. One of the consequences of periodization (ancient, medieval, modern) is the establishment of a caesura between these periods at the same time as assuming a continuity within.

There is a further complication arising in colonized spaces that the time of the modern, which also is the time of the colonial, is seen as distinct and separate from the earlier periods which are not just temporal segments but also involve judgements of lack, i.e. the lack of political stability, rationality, or traditions of thinking equality. While Confucius or the Buddha may have been sages, they are not seen as thinkers or philosophers in a modern sense, since ‘philosophy’ is seen as invoking a set of questions that trace their genealogy to Greece.23



As Derrida has observed, ‘philosophy has never been the unfolding responsible for a unique, originary assignation linked to a unique language or to the place of a sole people. Philosophy does not have one sole memory. Under its Greek name and in its European memory, it has always been bastard, hybrid, grafted, multi linear and polyglot. We must adjust our practice of the history of philosophy, our practice of history and of philosophy, to this reality which was also a chance, and which more than ever remains a chance.’24 Derrida raises the sig-nificant questions of special origin that is always already corrupted by miscegenation and what he calls chance, or mere contingency.

This introduces another set of problems. A page of contemporary western philosophy may have references to Plato as much as Augustine, Spinoza and Levinas, from different spaces and times. The invented genealogy with Greece25 and years of commentary as much as political and intellectual consolidation in western Europe (not uninflected by empire and the demand for a ‘European canon’) has made Plato a contemporary of Foucault, so to speak.



On the other hand, in Indian philosophy, the idea of the hermetic spaces of ‘ancient’ and ‘medieval’ India has entailed that those who work on ‘modern’ India do not look back to engage with reflections on aesthetics, political economy, or jurisprudence. The colonial caesura has meant that to work with the abbreviated time of the modern, there is a resort to theorizing from Europe. For example, those who work on ‘ancient’ India are seen as Indologists, whose work is of little relevance for theorising the present.

The iniquitous imperial shadow of the division into Hindu, Muslim and British (not Christian!) periods is reflected, for example, in seeing the texts and thinkers of the ‘medieval’ period as unavailable for thinking the modern. This reflects an inability to think with connected histories and the circulation of ideas. Moreover, it freezes the idea of provenance thus generating an inability to think about miscegenated genealogies. There is a general suspicion about the availability of ideas of freedom, equality, and emancipation within Asian and African traditions of thinking; resulting from centuries of condescending imperial rhetoric on the rescue of the native from the sleep of reason.26

Just as the thought of Aristotle and Plato has had to be recuperated from their uncritical location in a slave society; or Kant from his anti-blackness and misogyny;27 there is much theoretical work to be done in recovering political philosophy and thinking about freedom from Asian, African, and South American tradi-tions of thought.



Doing theory from the Global South stems from the exigent demand for decolonizing knowledge and developing a conceptual vocabulary from traditions of located intellection. We cannot go on as we are doing; southern fact, northern theory, as it were. Questions like is there an idea of logic, mind, matter in Indian/Islamic/Chinese/African/Caribbean/American traditions of thinking are moot. How can we make our conceptual vocabulary without our effort being overdetermined by the anxiety of how it would translate or travel within a Euro American conceptual world?

The idea of translation lies at the heart of the social sciences, since it seeks to make visible worlds of thought, life, and material production. While we live in an interconnected world (through the histories of colonialism, migration, and telecommunications) language is the threshold on which we stumble, as we try and enter spaces of thought other than ours.

The search for commensurability and the tyranny of monolin-gualism has characterized academic practice whether in Europe or the spaces that it colonized. Concepts from a European history, such as secularism, individualism, and rationality in all
their singular brightness have travelled well. Social sciences in the post
colony have assiduously found these categories to be in existence, waiting to come into being, or culturally absent without asking whether indigenous concepts have related to time, history, and self differently.



Societies and individuals are not commensurable in some absolute way, it is merely a heuristic hubris that assumes this. And of course, the sheer relief of there being equivalence which allows comparisons between Mongolia and Munich, Rotterdam,  and Rajasthan. However, given the ways of power in the world, travel is a privilege as also an act of power. Concepts from Asia and Africa are seen as mired in particularism; the fact that the idea of universals is merely a European self-regarding nativism that was backed by armies is often forgotten.


Footnotes :


1. Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘Marxism in Translation: Critical Reflections on Indian Political Thought’, in Raymond Geuss and Richard Bourke (ed.), Political Judgement: Essays for John Dunn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017.

2. Ganesh Devy, After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1995.

3. Aamir Mufti, Forget English: Orientalisms and World Literatures. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2018; Minzae Mizumura, The Fall of Language in the Age of English. Columbia University Press, New York, 2015.

4. Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Maria Paula Meneses, ‘Epistemologies of the South – Giving Voice to the Diversity of the South’, in Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Maria Paula Meneses (eds.), Knowledges Born in the Struggle: Constructing the Epistemologies of the Global South. Routledge, London, 2020.

5. Dilip M. Menon, ‘Thinking About the Global South: Affinity and Knowledge’, in Russell West-Pavlov (ed.), The Global South and Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018.

6. Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. Leftword Books, New Delhi, 2013; Heonik Kwon, After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006; Stephen Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998.

7. Ann Laura Stoler, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Duke University Press, Durham, 2016.

8. Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. Zed Books, London, 1986.

9. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Oxford University Press, Delhi,1983; Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. J. Currey, London, 1981.

10. wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind, p. 3.

11. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2000.

12. Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: An Introduction. Columbia University Press, New York, 1998; Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism. Routledge, London,1998.

13. Kuang-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Towards Deimperialization. Duke University Press, Durham, 2010; Silvia Cusicanqui, Ch’ixinikax Utxiwa: On Decolonizing Practices and Discourses, translated by Molly Geidel. Polity Press, London, 2020; Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of World. Duke University Press, Durham, 2018; Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, African Philosophy: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1998; Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1760-1950. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014; Omnia El Shakry, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in the Middle East. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2020; Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Duke University Press, Durham, 2018.

14. Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. Verso, London, 1998.

15. Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006.

16. Dilip M. Menon, ‘The Many Spaces and Times of Swadeshi’, Economic and Political Weekly 47 (42), 2012, pp. 44-52.

17. Rebecca E. Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Duke University Press, Durham, 2002.

18. Kris Manjapra, Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals Across Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2014; Kris Manjapra, Colonialism in Global Perspective. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2020; Renisa Mawani, Across Oceans of Law: Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire. Duke University Press, Durham, 2018; Nico Slate, Coloured Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2017.

19. Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, in Dissemination (trans. Barbara Johnson) University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981.

20. Maria Lugones, ‘Toward a Decolonial Feminism’, Hypatia 25(4), 2010, pp. 742-759.

21. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. Columbia University Press, New York, 1983.

22. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and  Sover-eignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secular-ization Govern the Politics of  Time. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

23. Bryan van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. Columbia University Press, New York 2017; Peter Adamson, A History of Philosophy Without Gaps, 5 volumes. Oxford University Press, 2016-20.

24. Jacques Derrida, ‘Of the Humanities and the Philsophical Discipline: The Right to Philosophy from the Cosmopolitical Point of View (The Example of an International Institution)’ (translated Thomas Dutoit), Surfaces IV (310), Folio 1  (accessed 15 October 2020).

25. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985), volume 1. Rutland Local History and Record Society, Rutland, 1987; Martin Bernal, Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to his Critics. Duke University Press, Durham, 2001.

26. Hamid Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think? Zed Press, London, 2015; Kishore Mahbubani, Can Asians Think? Marshall Cavendish International, Singapore, 2009.

27. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ‘The Color of Reason: The Idea of “Race” in Kant’s Anthropology’, in Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.), Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1997; Robert Bernasconi and Sybol Cook (ed.), Race and Racism in Continental Philosophy. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2003.