The underlying logic of western modernity
WALTER D. MIGNOLO
‘Colonialism is not satisfied with snaring the people in its net or draining the colonized brain of any form or substance. With a kind of perverted logic, it turns attention to the past of the colonized people and distorts it, and destroys it. This effort to demean history prior to colonization today takes on a dialectical significance’.
– Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. Grove Press, London, 2005, p. 149).
‘Part of being indigenous in the 21st century is that regardless of where or how we have grown up, we’ve all been bathed in a vat of cognitive imperialism, perpetuating the idea that Indigenous Peoples were not, and are not thinking peoples – an insidious mechanism to promote neo-assimilation and obfuscate the historic atrocities of colonialism. In both subtle and overt ways, the current generation of Indigenous Peoples has been repeatedly told that individually we are stupid, and collectively our nations were and are void of higher thoughts […]. Cognitive imperialism also rears its ugly head in every discipline every time a student is told that there is no literature or no thinking available on any given topic from within Indigenous intellectual’ traditions’ .
–Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtleęs Back. Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and New Emergence. Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Winnipeg Canada, 2013, p. 32)
AN essay titled ‘Scientific Colonialism’ authored by Johan Galtung was published in 1967. The starting point of the argument is a quotation from the Project CAMELOT extracted from an official document, dated 4 December 1964, published by the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) of the American University in Washington, D.C. Galtung dispels easy and obvious political criticism pointing to specific agencies, in this case SORO, under-scoring that it was not a governmental project. Rather, it was an academic one.
So Galtung asks, what makes this project more political than academic? He focuses instead on the design of the project itself and asks ‘what kind of perspective of the political system studied is implicit in the design?’ The goal of the project as quoted by Galtung will be the launch pad of my argument:
‘Project CAMELOT is a study whose objective is to determine the feasibility of developing a general social system model which would make it possible to predict and influence politically significant aspects of social change in the developing nations of the world’.1
The short life of Project CAMELOT reveals the spirit after WWII when the US took over the world leadership following the collapse of the British Empire, French and Dutch colonialisms. However, the academic idea of Area Studies to focus on the Third World that had been neglected in the social sciences (with the exception of anthropology) was conceived between 1943 and 1953. There was a significant debate and social scientists’ concern about the possibilities that the CIA and the FBI would interfere with academic purposes. Project CAMELOT confirmed the suspicions it awakened and thus its short life.
Area Studies, however, continued as a debate internal to social sciences, particularly among economists and political scientists implementing rational choice theory. Chalmers Ashby Johnson has been quoted as asking, why study Japan if rational choice theory will tell you what the Japanese do and why they do it?2
Area Studies, however, made its way into the academic field at US universities, though it was branded as hardcore social sciences. At the same time, the creation of social sciences departments took root in the Third World. In Argentina, for example, the social sciences entered the academic mind in the late fifties and early sixties, part of the package of modernization and development launched by Harry Truman.3 And it was also a consequence of the work promoted by the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC), founded in Paris in 1952, under the auspices of UNESCO. The Social Sciences went global under the leadership of the US academy.
Responses from the Third World soon appeared in print, although conversations would have started before, simultaneous to the US academic and/or political projects for the Third World. One of the classic responses was Syed Hussein Alatas’s ‘The captive mind in Development Studies’ (1974).4 A department was created at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (1957-1962) supported by the colonial/liberal government that destituted the populist leader Juan Domingo Perón in the midst of a turbulent political project and the anti-capitalist and anti-Fascist student movement.5
Later on, in preparation for the meeting of the 14th World Congress of Sociology, under the leadership of Immanuel Wallerstein, a series of regional pre-congress volumes were prepared and edited. Most of the contributions focused on sociological issues in the Third World. However, Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander (who also organized two panels in the said congress) published a significant article in the volume devoted to sociology in Latin America focusing on eurocentrism and colonialism in Latin American social thought.6
The volume devoted to Southern Africa and to Arab societies includes contributions on the lack of local/Indigenous knowledge and of historical thought in Arabic.7 In both cases the emphasis is on the legacies of European colonialism rather than in the US American rise of Area Studies. However, the problems persist: the epistemic dependency to the North Atlantic.
In 1981 historian Carl E. Pletsch published an article that did not receive the attention it deserved. Perhaps because it triggered some discomfort among social scientists at home and abroad. The article addressed head-on the distribution of scientific labour for Area Studies after WWII and well into the Cold War. All the examples I quote before are local formulations.8
The argument, in a nutshell, is the following: in the distribution of scientific labour, sociology and economics was assigned to investigate the First World, which is objective, democratic and scientific and the model for modernization and development. Political sciences was assigned to the Second World which is scientifically advanced but neither objective nor democratic. And anthropology was assigned to the Third World which rather than sciences produces culture.
The next sections elaborate on the logic of the distribution of scientific as well as non-scientific ways of knowing and knowledge. I use gnosis and gnoseology in reference to human knowing and knowledges at large, which are referred to in Frantz Fanon’s epigraph and in the quoted articles recording the destitution of Indigenous knowledges as well as registered in non-western languages. And I use episteme and epistemology in reference to the western modern regulations of knowing and knowledges, from Christian theology since the renaissance and secular sciences of philosophy since the enlightenment.9
The common feature throughout the cases enumerated before highlights a common refrain among the introduction of social thoughts in/and beyond the North Atlantic. Variations of course will depend on local histories but the destitutions of local knowledge in the constitution of western social sciences is not only a common thread in this particular sphere of knowledge but in all spheres, encompassing the humanities, natural sciences, art, and above all, the relevance of local languages for the validation of ‘scientific’ knowledge, the relevance of local visual images and music for the validation of ‘art’; the local relevance of taste for the validation of ‘aesthetics’. Not to mention technology.10
The logic of sustaining these phenomena across time and space since 1500 is the coloniality of knowledge and subjectivities that created, sustained and still sustains the epistemic and ontological differences. Epistemic and ontological differences are the foundations of racism as we know it today. Racism is an epistemological, not biological, problem and no doubt invades all spheres of living of racialized people and regions.
In the 16th century the Atlantic commercial circuit emerged in the European consciousness and soon after in the awareness of First Nations in the continent that was named America and of the African captives transformed, in the European consciousness, into slaves. As Fanon stated in the epigraph, colonialists are not satisfied with draining a subjugated people’s brain. With a kind of perverted logic they turn to their past, rewrite it and destitute it. Which means destitution of memory, ways of knowing, knowledge to erode the sense of personhood and their belonging to the same humanity (subjectivity) rather than the colonizer.
Thus, colonization operates at many levels simultaneously: destitutions of existing economies, governance and uses of military force when necessary. But above all, destitution of languages, knowledges and memories. At that moment, the overall epistemic frame was Christian Theology.
However, the 16th century set up the historical foundation for what would come later, in the late 18th and 19th century when the UK, France and The Netherlands began to expand through Asia and Africa when the sword of secular science and philosophy (which intramurally displaced theology) took over and implanted the idea that their knowledges and way of knowing were universal and bene-ficial for all humanity.
imperialism’ (as Simpson has it in the epigraph), ‘intellectual imperialism’ as
the title of
this volume has it and ‘coloniality of knowledge’ as the collective modernity/coloniality/decoloniality describes it after Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano are synonyms, names referring to the common experiences rendered from the experiences of local knowing, knowledges and praxes of living. The logic upon which coloniality of power was established, and is maintained today, are two basic epistemic strategies unnamed and invisible in the imaginary of western modernity: the epistemic and ontological colonial differences. How do they work?
He who controls money controls meaning. In the 16th century the dismantling of ancient civilizations in the New World was not due to the fact that the colonizer had more money. Above all, they had the concept of money that First Nations in the Americas did not. Money is not the materiality of coins but above all the idea that certain material objects are money. Money, in other words, is gnoseological, not material. Or it is a gnoseological idea projected on a certain class of objects to which are assigned some specific kinds of functions. The absence of such ideas among people of the First Nations was one of the many signs of their inferiority, not to mention not having knowledge of God. Which is also an idea that the colonizers brought with them in body and mind.
Thus, the inferiority of First Nations people was not ontic (that is, inferior by some kind of standards beyond those of the human beings who made them inferiors) but ontological: it was in the mind and knowledge of the colonizers. And since First Nations people were considered ontologically inferior they were, consequently, epistemologically deficient as well.11
There was not, and it is not undoubtedly today, a question of cultural difference (which is the western expression) but the colonial difference (a decolonial concept): the former hides the power differential under the surface of modernity; the latter reveals the power differential that cultural differences hide. All the cases I mentioned in Section I are distinctive materializations of the epistemic and ontological colonial differences.12
I already mentioned that in 1992 Aníbal Quijano introduced the ground-breaking concept of coloniality. Coloniality is a concept created in the Third World and it adumbrates the darker side of western modernity. Quijano puts it in these words: ‘coloniality and modernity/rationality.’
The concept, its meaning, and significance couldn’t have been created in the First World. Intellectuals and scholars in the First World invented the three-world partition because it was what they perceived and sensed: two Worlds outside from their own, the First. They invented colonialism, also something outside, something that did not happen to them in Europe. In the US the Founding Fathers knew about colonialism, and as inheritors of the upcoming British world empire, the independence from their ancestors followed their imperial legacies. But coloniality could hardly be created by the Founding Fathers, either: they were precisely enacting it in the name of democracy.
But in the former colonies beyond the North Atlantic, coloniality is not something you sense, whether you have a concept of it or not. The concept of coloniality named that discomfort and opened up the reflections and understanding of its mechanisms. Coloniality makes you feel inadequate and, as Simpson states in the epigraph above, shameful for not being what the dictates of modernity tell you that you should be. And you feel, like Fanon did, that coloniality is ‘that something’ that makes you feel devalued, your memories stolen and your pride in your praxis of living destituted. The normative grounding of each history (as Simpson and Fanon evince) are locally dissimilar although both are entangled in the same power differentials: the epistemic and ontological colonial differences.
If coloniality was brought out into the open, it was not with the help of the social sciences, or any other disciplines. Or at least not entirely. Although Qujano was a trained sociologist, he did not write books (apart from one or two small ones) but was constantly on the move speaking, writing essays, and op-eds that were edited after publication and published again.13
Quijano’s thinking and doing were sparked by his engagement in the public sphere, in the debates and consequences of the liberal doctrine of modernity and development that mutated into the neoliberal doctrine of market democracy and planetary homogeneity. Quijano was not concerned with disciplinary strictures or shortcomings: he just used his disciplinary training to change the terms of the conversation. As he did when he introduced coloniality.
Changing the terms of the conversation is, I think, a major task of the politics of decolonial investigations and of gnoseological and aesthesic reconstitutions (I will come back to this later in closing this essay), in and outside the academy, among the disciplines and in the public sphere, on the street and in independent media.14
The terms of the conversation can only be attained by changing the enunciations: that is, the assumptions and principles, the beliefs and convictions upon which you built your enunciation in which you engage as doer and/observer (e.g., what your argue, describe, the story you tell, the scientific research you do, the political speeches you hear or the world-making you see, generally called ‘art’, although for many world-makers beyond the West ‘art’ is an unknown concept unless it was exported/imported from a western vocabulary.
Changing the terms of the conversation requires changing the questions we ask and extricating ourselves from the vocabulary that controls us (e.g., discipline, epistemology, aesthetics), and that are the backbone of cognitive/intellectual colonialism controlled and managed by actors, institutions and western imperial languages, in and beyond the disciplines.15
Changing the terms of the conversation requires a shift in the politics of investigations (in the academy and beyond it) that presupposes taking nothing for granted by asking the crucial question, ‘How come what it is came to be what it is?’ and to start from someplace other than the already established locus of western theo-logical and secular cosmology. It means to start from what is destituted that is relevant to us (whomever is the ‘us’ in each occasion) today.
Following this line of argumentation takes us to understanding that col-oniality of knowing and sensing (control and management of knowledge and subjectivity) are carried out not only by military weapons, economic and financial transactions, or by casting votes to change or retain governmental actors. It includes all those things obviously, yes, but political, economic, financial and military transactions require not only knowing how to execute them technically, but mainly the shared convictions, beliefs, knowledge and subjectivities modulated and informed by the appropriateness of any given actions and transactions.
imperialism’, ‘epist-emic colonialism’ and, in my vocabulary, ‘coloniality of
knowledge’ means the control and management of the enunciations that generate
what is known and the rules to know. And
by so doing, the modulations and management of subjectivies that lead people to accept the rules of the game even if it goes against their interests. Changing the terms of the conversation means changing the rules of the enunciation, not only the contents of what is enunciated.
The question is then: where did/does cognitive/intellectual imperialism come from? Who are the creators, the managers, and what are the targets? When was it formed, why, what for? To change the terms of the conversation it is imperative to change the questions: not to ask what something is (e.g., cognitive/intellectual colo-nialism) but how what it is came to be what it is? To address this question decolonially I will briefly refer to the historical foundation of the coloniality of power (‘the technic’) and the colonial matrix of power (‘the instru-ment’), or CMP, two ground breaking concepts introduced by Aníbal Quijano in the South American Andes at the end of the Cold War.
Historically, CMP emerged in the 16th century as the consequence of the unprecedented experience, for Europeans and the so-called Old World (Europe, Asia and Africa), to realize that there was an entire continent they did not know existed and people they did not know. For the people in the continent, the First Nations, the experience was limited to the arrival of people they did not know but did not have the experience of a new continent. The Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) was neither on their horizon nor in their experience. The impact and the consequences are still with us today.
To single out the significance of the event Quijano identified two key elements: First, all existing forms of labour (slavery, serfdom, petty commodity production, reciprocity and salary) were assembled around the axis of capital to produce commodities for a global market (Quijano, 216). None of these types of labour remained what they were: ‘they formed a new, original, single structure of relations.’
Second, the principle of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) was an obsession among Catholics in 15th century Spain projected on conversos (Catholics of Jewish origin) that was extended to moriscos (Catholics of Muslim lineage). The principle was applied with force after Jews and Moors were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. It was extended to First Nations and captives and enslaved Africans in the New World and consequently to the natives and slaves in the colonial contexts. A new category of knowledge to classify and rank people: the concept of ‘race’.16 Race (which is always already a racist concept) created the epistemic and ontological differences.
Capital existed before the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuits (e.g., the conquest and colonization of the New World), but the emerging economic vision of producing more and the technicalities to achieve it, such as massive appropriations of land and massive exploitation of labour, reinvesting – instead of storing – the surplus to produce more, established the historical foundations of what is known today as capitalism. Ranking and differentiation before the expulsion of Muslims and Jews and the ‘discovery of the New World’ existed, but race was a 16th century invention that impacted First Nations in the New World and enslaved Africans.
were already destituted from the Christian cosmology as the descendant of Ham,
Noah’s cursed son, the slave trade built on the Biblical narrative to further
destitute Africans from Humanity.
The social relations and subjectivities (sensing, emotioning) created by the amalgamation of an emerging type of economy (capitalism) and the invention of a concept to classify and rank people (race) gave rise to a specific will to power: the coloniality of power (the technic) that was implemented by the gradual formation of the colonial matrix of power (the instrument).17
The colonial matrix of power was constituted by actors, institutions, and languages that were simultaneously constituting themselves in their particular actancial18 and insti-tutional roles to secure the privileges of western Christianity first (the second stage of the European Renaissance, 1500-1650), and western secular science and philosophy later (the Enlightenment, 1750-2000).
During those periods, the consolidation of capitalism and of the belief in one totality of knowledge and regulations of knowing to which the rest of the world had to come to terms secured the constitution of western civilization and, therefore, of cognitive/intellectual imperialism. But the constitution of CMP meant simultaneously the destitution of all coexisting economies, governance, knowledges and ways of knowing, foundational cosmologies destituted by western sacred and secular cosmology and, above all, the appropriation and valuation of their creativity in the name of art and aesthetics and their knowing and ways of knowing devalued in the name of theology and secular epistemology (science and philosophy).
Last but not least, the disavowal of the humanness of the destituted in the name of the Humanity being constituted: the foundation of racism was simultaneous with the invention of the colonial epistemic and ontological differences. The colonial epistemic and ontological differences crossed and organized then until today, the colonial matrix of power sustained the hegemony, and today sustains the domination, of cognitive/intellectual imperialism.
Under the circumstances, one of the major, if not the most major decolonial tasks today, is the reconstitution of the destituted. But such reconstitution could not be effective if the categories such as epistemology, aesthetics and Humanity are maintained. What is needed are categories of thought that contain and reduce them to their own size; I have argued that gnoseology, aesthesis and life (which includes the human species in the splendors of life energy in the universe and on planet earth), offer us a starting point.
To advance the
decolonial agendas decoloniality should work in two complementary and
simultaneous directions: the analytics of CMP (e.g, how and when
cognitive/intel-lectual imperialism colonialism was formed, how it was
transformed and managed and how it operates on us
today) and the potential and prospective reconstitution of the destituted.
While the rhetoric of western modernity and the logic of coloniality drive global designs to westernize the planet, their implementations are diverse depending on the imperial state and the region and people invaded (physically, diplomatically,educationally, and epistemically) or intervened. On the contrary, decoloniality cannot be or become one global or pluriversal design because each region and people intervened in the past 500 years, dwells in their own past, memories, languages, knowledge, belief, creativity, food, taste, etc.19
The reconstitution of the destituted cannot be but local,
which doesn’t mean that we should expect homogeneity
and consensus in the each decolonial trajectory. What it does mean is that each decolonial project to exist (delink) apart from the colonial matrix of
power (e.g., cognitive/intellectual imperialism) and engage in the reconstitution of the destituted would operate by their own principles, assumptions and creativity. A way out of universal cognitive/intellectual imperialism consists of advancing pluriversal decolonial agendas towards cosmopolitan pluriversality. And this trajectory is already under way.
1. Johan Galtung, ‘Project Camelot and the 1960s Epistemological Revolution: Re-thinking the Politis-Patronage-Social Science Nexus’, Social Studies of Science 31/2, 2001, pp. 171-206 and the SSC report on Camelot http://individual.utoronto.ca/solovey/papers/CamelotArticle.pdf.
2. Chalmers Johnson and E.B. Keehn, ‘A Disaster in the Making: Rational Choice and Asian Studies’, The National Interest 36, Summer 1994, pp. 14-22.
3. Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development, The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995.
4. International Sciences Journal XXIV/1, 1972, pp. 9-25.
5. Julio Ithurburu, ‘La creación de
la carrera de Sociología en la UBA y su crisis: 1955-1964, una genealogía
política del proceso’, VI Jornadas de Sociología. Facultad de Ciencias
Sociales, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, 2004,
6. Edgardo Lander ‘Eurocentrism and Colonialism in Latin American Social Thought’, Social Knowledge: Heritage, Challenges, Perspective. Pre-Congress Publications. Proceeding of the ISA. Regional Conference for Latin America, Venezuela, 7-9, 1997. See also Edgardo Lander, editor. La colonialidad del aber. Eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas Latin-oamericanas .CLACSO, Buenos Aires, 2000.
7. Teresa Cruz Maria e Silva,
‘Introduction. Southern Africa Social Sciences in the Late 20th Century’, Proceeding
of the ISA Regional Conference for Southern Arica, July 1998,
pp. 11-22; Amhed A. Zayed, ‘Knowledge in the Arab Countries: The Case of Egypt’, Proceeding of the ISA Arab Regional Conference, May 1997, pp. 47-61. Zayed notes that while Ibn Khaldun received due attention during the first phase, 1925-1965, in the second phase 1965-1975 Ibn Khaldun vanished from sight. On its part, Ali El Kenz addressed the crucial question of the destitution of local languages from the scene of international social science. Proceeding of the ISA Arab Regional Conference, op. cit. The absence of Ibn Khaldun in the sociological sphere was more recently forcefully recalled and rebuilt by Syed Farid Alatas, Makers of Islamic Civilization: Ibn Khaldun. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012.
8. C. Pletsch, ‘The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labor, circa 1950-1975’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 23(4), 1981, pp. 565-590. doi:10.1017/S0010417500013566
9. I have already proposed gnosis/gnoseology Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000. I picked up the concept from Valentine Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge. Indiana U. Press, Bloomington, 1988. While Mudimbe found in gnosis a way to talk about African knowledge without surrendering to western disciplinary regulations, for me it was a helpful concept to talk about border thinking and border epistemology, as an un-disciplinary way of knowing.
10. Mark Harrison, ‘Science and the British Empire’, Isis 96(1), 2005, pp. 56-63. For technology see Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga (ed.), What Do Science, Technology and Innovation Mean from Africa? MIT Press, Boston, 2017.
11. Nelson Maldonado-Torres, ‘On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept’, in Walter D. Mignolo and Arturo Escobar (eds.), Globalization and the Decolonial Option. Routledge, London, 2010, pp. 94-124.
12. Walter D. Mignolo, ‘The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference’, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(1), 2002, pp. 57-95.
13. Aníbal Quijano, Cuestionaes y Horizontes. De la dependencia histórico-structural a la colonialidad/decolonial del poder. Antologia Esencial. UNMSM and CLACSO, Buenos Aires, 2015.
14. Walter D. Mignolo, The Politics of Decolonial Investigations. Duke University Press, Durham, 2021.
15. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘North Atlantic Fictions: Global Transformations, 1492-1945’, Global Transformations. Anthropology and the Modern World. Palgrave, NY, 2003, pp. 29-46.
16. Walter D. Mignolo, ‘What Does the Black Legend Have to do with Race? In Margaret R. Greer, Walter D. Mignolo and Maureen Quilligan (ed.), Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourse of Religious and Racial Differences in the Renaissance Empires. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2007, pp. 167-187.
17. For more detail on the conceptual triade see Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality. Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Duke University Press, Durham, 2018, pp. 135-152.
18. The ‘actantial model’ has been introduced by semiotician Algirdas Greimas to analyze the ‘actantial roles’ (the acotres of a narrative) fictional and non-fictional (historiography, biography, journalism). See Luis Hébert, ‘The Actual Model’, Signo/o Online, Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec), http://www.signosemio.com/greimas/actantial-model.asp.
19. ‘The critique of the European paradigm of
rationality/modernity is indispensable even more, urgent. But it is doubtful if
the criticism consists of a simple negation of all its categories […] It is necessary
to extricate oneself from the linkages between rationality/modernity and
coloniality, first of all, and definitely from all power which is not
constituted by free decisions made by free people […] First of all,
epistemological decolonization, as decoloniality […] as the basis of another
rationality which may legitimately pretend to some universality.’ Aníbal
Quijano, ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality ’, Cultural Studies 21/2,
2007, pp. 168-178, https://pybarra.weebly