- Looting the Theory Commons: Hardt and Negri's Commonwealth
A few months ago a graduate student came to see me to discuss her section on postcolonial studies for her Ph.D. exams. Talking about the ways the Japanese colonial past continues to affect everyday life in South Korea, she reflected that, "this is what Hardt and Negri call the coloniality of power." Taken aback, I said that she must have missed a citation or two and lightly scolded her that "coloniality of power" was a phrase post-Eurocentric scholars would identify not with European theory of the sort espoused by Antonio Negri, but with Latin American intellectuals such as the Peruvian Anibal Quijano, the Mexican Enrique Dussel, and the Argentine Walter Mignolo. I found myself surprisingly indignant, explaining that much of Hardt and Negri's previous work—in their historicist mode of "identifying the tendency"—was generally opposed to the insistence by such Latin American subalternists that the colonial past continues to impact crucial aspects of our contemporary present, albeit on the new political terrain of democratic politics and pluralist institutions. Wondering how she had made such a connection, I went right to my unopened copy of Commonwealth when I got home that night.
As Michael Hardt and I are in a study group together and have mutual friends, I was at first relieved not to find any signs of theory looting after my hasty CSI (crime scene investigation) of Parts I ("Republic") and II ("Modernity") of Commonwealth. Indeed, the proximity of my UNC, Chapel Hill to Duke University where Hardt teaches (and where Antonio Negri appears virtually via videoconference on occasion) must have led my graduate student and her peers to assume that much of what is important in contemporary critical theory emanates from nearby Duke, the home of Italian autonomia in the Anglophone world. However, my relief only lasted through that initial speed-read. Returning to Commonwealth a few days later, my eyes stopped at a peculiar phrase, "the coloniality of biopower." It appears as a section heading several pages into Part II, "Modernity (and the Landscapes of Altermodernity)," and builds on their earlier interpretation and appropriation of Foucault's notion of biopolitics. What they seem to mean by the neologism "coloniality of biopower" (hereafter, COB) is that modern power works on subordinated populations in ways structurally similar to the ways in which colonial power dominated indigenous peoples. Fair enough, I thought; let's see how Hardt and Negri distinguish their COB neologism from the source concept in Latin American criticism.
Coloniality of power (COP), together with the correlate notion of "coloniality," was originally deployed by Anibal Quijano in the early 1990s to designate the apparatuses of hegemonic power that first emerged during the modern period, the era of colonialism, whose long durée stretches from the conquest of the Americas to the present.1 In the hands of Quijano and Dussel, to name only two, COP consolidates a power matrix that infiltrates the domains of political administration, social production, private life, and general epistemological world-view. The modern forms these practical domains have taken are the nation-state, capitalism, private property, the heterosexist nuclear family, and Eurocentrism. Different from the more familiar strain of Anglophone postcolonial theory, which tends to emphasize the fractured and filtered influence of the colonial past, Latin American COP insists that the material and ideological ciphers of modern colonialism continue to hegemonize the ways in which sexuality, race, labor, and humans' relation to nature are lived and epistemologically grasped. In this sense, COP refers to a crucial structuring process in the world system that articulates peripheral nation-states in the global South to the modus operandi of the Euro-American North, resulting in a surprising homogeneity of race, gender, and labor hierarchies in North and South. Even in a postcolonial world, power remains colonial when it maintains the force to impose one Euro-American regime onto the rest of the world. Only through the dramatic overthrow of COP by decolonial thought and practice, Latin American subalternists argue, can the epistemic and material violence of coloniality be overcome. H & N's...