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Coloniality and Its Preoccupations

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 3, 2013
pp. 214-220 | 10.1353/lar.2013.0042

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The concept of coloniality was first articulated by Aníbal Quijano in his 1989 essay “Coloniality, Modernity/Rationality.” He argues that after the end of colonialism, early instruments of social domination survived and continued to shape Eurocentric forms of rationality and modernity. For Quijano, the idea of race and the social construction of racial classification legitimated colonial structures of power depending on labor production. For him, this point explains the asymmetry of power and unequal conditions of existence that still persist today in varied forms of neocolonialism, internal colonialism, and poverty. All of these are encompassed in deterritorialization processes across the Americas.1

The theorization of coloniality and recognition of the central place of Spanish imperialism sit at the core of the reconsideration of postcolonial thought as it was introduced in North American universities during the 1980s.2 At that time, the field of postcolonial studies was chiefly concerned with the age of high imperialism and decolonization in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the non-Spanish Caribbean. Yet it had one major blind spot: the material and ideological impact of the Spanish conquest of the Americas on all subsequent forms of colonialism around the world. The response of Latin American scholars to the postcolonial turn cannot be understood without considering its connection with the ongoing critical reappraisal of the history of social, racial, and cultural difference in the region. This critical reappraisal began with the pioneering work of literary scholars Ángel Rama and Antonio Cornejo Polar, which still occupies a prominent place in the canon of Latin American critical thought.3 Influenced by Marxism and poststructuralism, their work emphasized the history of Latin American cultural imaginaries as articulations of the political, most notably in their reassessment of the work of José Carlos Mariátegui. While social approaches were nothing new in Latin American literary studies, Rama and Cornejo Polar gave increased prominence to cultural difference in the transhistorical study of Latin America’s cultural production. Rama redefined the “lettered city,” while Cornejo Polar traced the roots of Latin America’s cultural heterogeneity. Together, they mapped out the role of power in ordering and controlling society under Spanish rule and long after independence.

Exactly how the wave of postcolonial scholarship in the United States coincided with these revisionist projects on Latin America’s cultural modernity and how it influenced colonial studies more generally are questions of ongoing debate.4 But most would agree that the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group played a prominent role in configuring these trends. Its key members (John Beverly, Ileana Rodríguez, Robert Carr, Alberto Moreiras, José Rabasa, Javier Sanjinés) set a clear agenda for academic scholarship emphasizing its political potential that has underpinned subsequent research on identity politics, diasporas, race and ethnicity, historical process, and other concerns of great significance to the humanities and social sciences. As both a moment and a movement, Latin American subalternism provided a clear alternative to postcolonial studies and as such, went on to fuel a generation of critical scholarship on the symbolic articulations of coloniality.5

In the wake of these interventions, five recent books provide an overview of the different approaches to the study of colonialism that have developed across disciplines. A pair of edited volumes—A Companion to Latin American Philosophy, edited by Susana Nuccetelli, Ofelia Schutte, and Otávio Bueno, and Globalization and the Decolonial Option, edited by Walter Mignolo with Arturo Escobar—assemble provocative critical essays that can serve as a starting point for anyone interested in becoming current on philosophical and theoretical debates shaping Latin American literary and cultural studies. Monographs by José Rabasa, Catherine Walsh, and James Mahoney also demonstrate how postcolonial paradigms and a concern for understanding the history of colonialism have escaped from these disciplinary confines.

In a discussion on coloniality, A Companion to Latin American Philosophy might seem out of place. However, this volume lucidly attends to the philosophical traditions embedded in Latin American critical thought and the study of colonialism. It offers a comprehensive and refreshing reference that finds the roots of Latin American philosophy not in the boom of nineteenth-century positivism but instead in precolonial indigenous thought and sixteenth-century scholastic debates regarding the justice of...

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