Moving on from dead white men
Focusing on Western thinkers leads to epistemic racism within academia, writes Jeffrey Sehume.
Johannesburg - Apartheid higher education largely followed colonial conventions of training a small skilled cohort to manage both the economy and political administration. The remaining unskilled majority was condemned to contribute their labour power in the mining, manufacturing and agriculture industries. An effective alliance was forged between monopoly capitalism and the apartheid machinery.
Higher education institutions were complicit - deliberately and unconsciously - in the provision of the instrumental knowledge and values to lubricate colonialism and apartheid.
The Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement began around demands to remove symbolic statues representing the “deprivation machine”, as educationist Crain Soudien termed apartheid. It soon morphed into political action to demand adequate representation in tertiary institutions and the decolonisation of academic curricula.
This decolonisation aimed to divest from a mantle of universal genius the assumed importance of figures like Plato and Marx and resurrect the corpus of non-Western thinkers and innovators.
The rationale and implications of this decolonisation is a focus of post-colonial critic Vivek Chibber, who delivers the 5th annual lecture organised by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) in Joburg on March 16.
Post-colonial theorists argue for the equal recognition of non-Western canons which offer an alternative to the works of “dead white men” dominating the curriculum. Such a recognition process would not only valorise Vasco da Gama but would honour the Arabic oceanographer Ahmad ibn Majid.
Likewise, in the celebration of autodidact Leonardo da Vinci, historical accuracy requires acknowledging the Chinese polymath Shen Kuo. Doing so would provide a catholic catalogue of human brilliance spread across geographies and physiological landscapes. If not, focusing mainly on Western inventors and thinkers leads to what philosopher Ramon Grosfoguel calls “epistemic racism”.
No doubt, progress has been made in opening the doors of learning for many previously excluded students. This owes much to the transformation agenda or promotion of equity codified in the 1997 Higher Education White Paper.
However, student representation has not been matched by a sufficient black staff complement reflective of national demographics.
If transformation has been relatively achieved in student numbers, this reflects how the vision of knowledge development is encapsulated in the 2012 National Development Plan, which prizes innovation, research and development innovation. These are imperatives integral to our country’s trajectory as it strives to compete in a post-industrial knowledge economy.
The focus on development is important because, as scholar Ashis Nandy notes, dominance in world affairs is no longer determined wholly by “military-industrial complexes, multinational corporations and the nation-states. Dominance is now exercised mainly through categories, embedded in systems of knowledge. Universities have come to share this power, for they specialise in handling categories”.
These matters - of post-colonialism, decolonisation, capitalism, transformation and development - feature in Chibber’s 2013 publication Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. His book is a heroic attempt to dislodge post-colonial theory, whose hegemony has ruled the academic roost since the 1980s. Chibber drives his attention to a major variant of post-colonial theory, namely subaltern (under-class’) studies which argue against the universal application of Enlightenment categories like objectivity, reason, science and class.
Advocates of subaltern studies - like its founder Ranajit Guha and, most famous of all, Gayatri Spivak - say that these Enlightenment categories are not applicable to non-Western societies since they are Eurocentric reflecting only Anglo-American knowledge and values.
The argument further states that these Enlightenment categories are not appropriately attuned to the cultural specificities of non-Western societies.
For example, in Western countries, concentration is fixed on attending to the individual and their human rights, whereas in, say, African or Eastern regions, the community and collective welfare are more privileged. Chibber says that such generalisations neglect the agency of individual African peasants and workers who voluntarily participate in the capitalist mode of production and consume its commodity goods without pandering to cultural stereotypes.
As such, post-colonial theory concludes that Western grand narratives like Marxist conceptions of class, Newtonian science and Cartesian notions of knowledge should not be assumed as universal in their conception and application. Instead they represent a localised version of truth and reality that cannot simply be transplanted to non-Western societies where experiences and histories are markedly different.
In direct response, Chibber says that it is counter-productive to abandon so-called Western categories since knowledge, at its core, like science and mathematics, is not confined to a particular ideology, geography or a select group of people.
In fact, the very categories used by post-colonial theory and, for that matter, the RMF movement, to marshal a critique against the Enlightenment or colonialism, were produced and elaborated by the very same “dead white men” like Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Jan Smuts, who coined the term “holism”.
A comparable argument was made by Archie Mafeje in his nuanced denunciation of classical anthropology that, contrary to Audre Lorde’s axiom, the master’s tools can be used to dismantle the master’s house.
The implications for the RMF’s movement are obvious.
Mobilisation based on justifiable objectives of transformation and development does not merely imply the total disassembly of our inherited colonial-apartheid legacy. If history is only rewritten by the victors, then it is correspondingly justifiable to destroy the slave castles conserved in West Africa which eloquently act as a reminder to the Atlantic slavery trade. Chibber is on point that decolonisation movements like RMF should not limit themselves simply to agitating for cultural demolition of colonial artefacts like the effigy of Cecil John Rhodes. To do so is to diminish their legitimate political struggles by replacing one fundamentalism (colonialism) with another (decolonialism).
As all malign fundamentalisms (for example, patriarchy, Boko Haram, US exceptionalism) have shown, they are fascist in their intolerance of opposing viewpoints.
Fundamentalism assumes there is only a single truth and reality. But our complex and interconnected world proves that there are many truths and realities.
* Sehume is a researcher at Mistra.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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