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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.1 (2002) 57-96

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The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference

Walter D. Mignolo

In December 1998 I had the good fortune to be one of the commentators in the workshop "Historical Capitalism, Coloniality of Power, and Transmodernity," featuring presentations by Immanuel Wallerstein, Anibal Quijano, and Enrique Dussel. Speakers were asked to offer updates and to elaborate on the concepts attributed to them. Reflecting on "transmodernity," Dussel made a remark that I take as a central point of my argument. According to Dussel, postmodern criticism of modernity is important and necessary, but it is not enough. The argument was developed by Dussel in his recent short but important dialogue with Gianni Vattimo's work, which he characterized as a "eurocentric critique of modernity." 1 What else can there be, beyond a Eurocentric critique of modernity and Eurocentrism? Dussel has responded to this question with the concept of transmodernity, by which he means that modernity is not a strictly European but a planetary phenomenon, to which the "excluded barbarians" have contributed, although their contribution has not been acknowledged. Dussel's argument resembles, then, the South Asian Subaltern Studies project, although it has [End Page 57] been made from the legacies of earlier colonialisms (Spanish and Portuguese). Transmodernity also implies—for Dussel—a "liberating reason" (razón liberadora) that is the guiding principle of his philosophy and ethic of liberation. The dialogues between Dussel and Wallerstein, between philosophy of liberation 2 and world system analysis, 3 and between philosophy of liberation 4 and opening the social sciences, 5 have two things in common. First, both are critical of capitalism, the neoliberal market, and formal democracy. Second, both (and Quijano as well) conceive of modernity as unfolding in the sixteenth century with capitalism and the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuit. However, there is a break between Wallerstein, on one hand, and Dussel and Quijano, on the other: they stand at different ends of the colonial difference. To explain this intuition is the main thrust of this essay.

Dussel's remarks can also be applied to Wallerstein's conception of historical capitalism, in that it states that Historical Capitalism is a Eurocentric criticism of capitalism. 6 By introducing the notion of colonial difference, I will be able to expand on Dussel's notion of transmodernity and Quijano's coloniality of power. I will be able also to compare the three in their approach to Eurocentrism and, toward the end of the article, to introduce Slavoj Zizek's own take on "Eurocentrism from the left." 7 My first step, then, will be to distinguish two macronarratives, that of Western civilization and that of the modern world (from the early modern period [i.e., the European Renaissance] until today). The first is basically a philosophical narrative, whereas the second is basically the narrative of the social sciences. Both macronarratives have their positive and negative sides. While Western civilization is celebrated by some, its logocentrism is criticized by others. Similarly, modernity has its defenders as well as its critics. Dussel is located between the two macronarratives, but his criticism diverges from both the criticism internal to Western civilization and the critique internal to the modern world, as in world-system analysis. 8 As a philosopher he is attuned to the first macronarrative, the macronarrative of Western civilization and its origins in ancient Greece. As a Latin American philosopher, he has been always attentive to the historical foundation of the modern/colonial world in the sixteenth century. He shares these interests with Wallerstein and Quijano, both of whom are sociologists. However, Quijano and Dussel share the Latin American colonial experience or, rather, a local history of the colonial difference. Wallerstein, instead, is immersed in the imperial difference that [End Page 58] distinguishes the philosophical critique of Western civilization in Europe and the sociological critique of modernity in the United States. In essence, then, the geopolitics of knowledge is organized around the diversification, through history, of the colonial and the imperial differences. Let me specify further the distinctions I am introducing here...


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