Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Arts/Research Collective & Our Bodhi Project by Sarah Amsler
This blog post iis a contribution to ‘Voice and listening: Techniques for political life‘
I approach this position statement with humility and awe. The questions posed here are both urgent and historical; the depth of what must be engaged, fathoms that we cannot fathom from where we are and yet must strive to become able to respond to. My inclination is not to attempt to answer them, but to ask what else these questions might enable us to ask; to ask what ‘strong questions’ they disclose at their limits. A ‘strong question’, according to Boaventura de Sousa Santos, is one that addresses ‘not only our options of individual and collective life but also and mainly the roots and foundations that have created the horizon of possibilities among which it is possible to choose’.
My first invitation is to compassionately interrogate the ‘we’ in the questions we pose; to ask not only which voices my own questions about voices amplify or muffle but also which voices – and which kinds of voices and forms of communication – I can and cannot hear; which have had, to this point, any chance of informing the kinds of questions it is possible for me to ask. By ‘we’, here, I don’t mean anyone or everyone. I mean whoever is positioned to be asking these questions in these ways. People for whom these questions are important and strategic ones. Who are currently part of and invested in (even if critiquing or resenting) established modern political and educational institutions, and for whom these institutions still play a significant role in anticipatory consciousness as either indicators of ruin or horizons of hope. People who may have little experience or possibility to experiment with living and being together in other, radically less-institutionalised and less institutionally dependent or systemically subservient ways. People who may encounter the term ‘decolonisation’ at least in part as an institutional practice and perhaps more so this than as a fleshy ancestral struggle; for whom decolonisation appears as an alternative to superficially reforming or abruptly abolishing the institutions themselves, and who may or may not apply this same logic to the entire modern-colonial order of being. People for whom ‘the institution’ can sometimes feel like it is outside the bodies, subjects and voices of decolonisation; for whom ‘moving beyond’ colonial and colonizing institutions might be a geographical undertaking more than a cosmological, ontological, epistemological or spiritual one. People who yearn to learn from ‘movements and campaigns which have tried to create space for unheard, marginalised voices’, but may not themselves be unheard or marginalised. People who are historically and ancestrally positioned, partially or fully, in the ‘north of the global north’ and ‘north of the global south’.
My second invitation is thus to reflect on whose questions we are asking, what questions we in our own collective positions are most responsible for asking now, and whose voices and interests our questions serve. As a white woman positioned in the ‘north of the north’, the ‘we’ I evoke in this instance is not exclusively white people (recognizing whiteness as an ontology, epistemology, relationship and system of power), and at the same time I am specifically addressing us. To say that it is important that we situate the questions we ask both in the contexts of twenty-first century post-politics and disinformation as it is currently being experienced in the AngloEuroWorld and its ‘globalised’ webs, and within a wider historical and geographical frame that recognises how the colonial roots and foundations of our selves and institutions have systemically excluded more radical – and existing – forms and imaginaries of the political, and survived on the fruits of societal disinformation, ideology and mythology (Sharon Stein’s work on the colonial foundations of the university is clarifying here). In other words, we can ask these questions deeply. Vanessa Andreotti and call attention to the fact that ‘what those of us in low-intensity struggles in the Global North (and the North of the Global South) call social and ecological collapse is already an everyday reality for many Indigenous people in high-intensity (also high-risk and high stakes) struggles. These communities are swimming against the same colonial violence that subsidizes and sustains the institutions, comforts and securities that most of us in low-intensity struggle fight to maintain, even as the water levels continue to rise in our own and other contexts’. This reference to Indigenous communities emerges from particular engagement with these questions on colonized settler-colonial lands in North and South America, but the argument travels. A Canadian-based poem about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations entitled ‘Why I can’t hold space for you anymore’, Reni Eddo Lodge’s British-based book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People about Race or transnational knowledge statements like ‘White privilege in African Studies: when you are done, please call us’ all generously clarify that some questions, like whose voices can be heard, are already answered, and that other questions are being asked; that sometimes the work is not to pose new questions ourselves, with our same concepts, relations and horizons of hope, but to sharpen our sensibilities for hearing a broader metabolic chorus of inquiries.
My third invitation is to consider the questions raised about whether and how to decolonise modern political and educational institutions in the UK and elsewhere (post-imperial, post-colonial, settler-colonial societies), and about how to listen to or for voices that are being devalued, marginalised and excluded or that are presently unintelligible or even imperceptible to our existing senses and sensibilities, through the curiosities of questions asked from other positions. We can imagine this as a kind of ‘diffractive’ reading, one that does not assume our questions are the same but that they can be read through one another ‘to engender creative, and unexpected outcomes’, and that offers some protection from what is a frequent desire to ‘borrow’, fetishize or attempt to answer, within the parameters of this reality, questions that emerge from other realities. It is a gift, presuming reciprocity in the form of accountable engagement, to be able to think with questions that arise from answers we are still seeking: from, for example, the question of how to live with/out existing institutions towards either healthy coexistence or less-violent extinction if we start with:
Denise da Silva Ferreira, who writes that modern-colonial institutional existence is always-already violent and the question is how to announce the End of the World as We Know It through a liberated Category and Poethics of Blackness that ‘would announce a whole range of possibilities for knowing, doing and existing’ otherwise
Kyle Whyte, who writes that it is ‘too late for Indigenous climate justice’ and that the ‘hardships many nonIndigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have endured already due to different forms of colonialism: ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation, and cultural disintegration’
Robin Wall Kimmerer, who writes that we are estranged from the living beings and systems that we are part of and upon which we depend and ‘people can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how’, and Dani d’Emilia, who writes that we have become exiled from our affective and sensual wisdoms by systems that ‘place a hierarchy between cognitive and affective knowledges’ that cause us to doubt ‘our body’s capacity to relate beyond identification and understanding’ and beyond simplistic solutions
Cash Ahenakew, who writes that Eurowestern knowledge frames are trapped in an ‘abyssal’ box from within which they simply ‘cannot comprehend’ that Indigenous knowledge encompasses past, present and future human, animal, plant and other non-human beings’ voices and ways of knowing and therefore cannot see their gifts and limitations within a collective effort to learn for survival
My fourth invitation, following from these declarations and the other kinds of voices they make (potentially) audible, is to play with the following questions as well:
What does it look like to give up hope for the survival of the World as We Know It, or let’s say political and educational institutions as we know them (and defining your ‘we’)? What parts of it are crumbling, dying or need to die? What is emerging through this process and might emerge from its ruins? Whose voices and ways of being – thinking ecologically beyond the human – will these emergent possibilities benefit?
How is the present ‘crisis of the university’ in Britain and elsewhere (defining your ‘elsewhere) part of longer historical processes? What might be the roots of pressing problems? For example, how might we approach the problem of ‘whose voices are heard and engaged with’ from a position of healing historical divisions and separations, and which does not take the death or survival of the institution as its primary concern?
What are our bodies and our environments already saying to us about what is needed to create democratic and inclusive spaces and ways of being, especially as our bodies and other natural entities don’t worry about whether particular institutional formations play a part in this or not? How can we approach this question with a commitment to ‘non-purity’ (as those of us who are currently dependent upon or invested in the institutions in various ways will likely be meaningfully in, in relation with and moving in and out of them for a while, not as a goal or horizon of hope but as a condition of im/possibility as we move through these times)?
Ahenakew, Cash (2016) ‘Grafting Indigenous ways of knowing onto non-Indigenous ways of being’, International Journal of Qualitative Research, 9(3): 323-340.
Andreotti, Vanessa and the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective (2020) ‘Preparing for the end of the world as we know it’, OpenDemocracy, 24 August, online at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/preparing-end-world-we-know-it/.
d’Emilia, Dani (2020) ‘Engaged disidentifications’ Musagetes fellowship report, online at https://decolonialfutures.net/engageddisidentifications/.
da Silva Ferreira, Denise (2014) ‘Toward a Black Feminist Poethics’, The Black Scholar, 44(2): 81-97.
de Sousa Santos, Boaventura (2014) Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide, New YorkL Routledge.
Enno-Lodge, Reni (2018) Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race, London: Bloomsbury.
Geerts, Evelien and van der Tuin, Iris (2016) ‘Diffraction and reading differently’, New Materialism, 27 July, online at https://newmaterialism.eu/almanac/d/diffraction.html.
Stein, Sharon (2018) ‘Confronting the racial-colonial foundations of higher education’, Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education, 3, online at: http://www.jspte.org/Volume3/JSPTEv3p077-098Stein4732.pdf.
Wa Ngugῖ, Mukoma (2021) ‘White privilege in African Studies: when you are done, please call us’, BrittlePaper, 28 January, online at: https://brittlepaper.com/2021/01/white-privilege-in-african-studies-when-you-are-done-please-call-us/?fbclid=IwAR39cV6Mcfz5NUDlMqTKW8AQPoGn8EWvvbQZbr4SActgOtOfU84-hw9BLiQ#
Wall Kimmerer, Robin (2020) ‘People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how’, The Guardian, 23 May, online at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/23/robin-wall-kimmerer-people-cant-understand-the-world-as-a-gift-unless-someone-shows-them-how.
Whyte, Kyle (2018) ‘Indigenous science (fiction) for the Anthropocene: ancestral dystopias and fantasies of climate change crises’, Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 1(1-2): 224-242.
Whyte, Kyle (2019) ‘Too late for Indigenous climate justice: ecological and relational tipping points’, Climate Change, 11(e603).