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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 325-343

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Of Border-Crossing Nomads and Planetary Epistemologies

David Alvarez
Grand Valley State University

Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking By Walter D. Mignolo. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

FOR ALL OF ITS AUTHOR'S OCCASIONAL PROFESSIONS OF MODESTY, WALTER D. Mignolo's Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking is a monumentally ambitious book, unabashedly global in its geographic scope and self-assuredly sweeping in its assertions. In the first instance, Mignolo seeks to draw attention to the lacunae he sees in the construction of the "modern world system's imaginary" and to the manner in which "other" knowledges have been "subalternized" by hegemonic orders of knowledge ("global designs") emanating from "the Occident" during the five-hundred-year period that began with the Iberian invasion of the Americas. 1 But in a far bolder move, the author proposes what he calls "gnosis" and "gnoseology" as the epistemological means by which such lacunae can be exposed and filled in. 2

Before I address the book's conceptual framework and its epistemological goals, I think it is worth noting that Mignolo considers the primary research for this book to have consisted of (literal) "conversations": with [End Page 325] undergraduate and graduate students, with fellow faculty at Duke University, and with scholars across the Americas from North Carolina through the Caribbean and all the way down to the Southern Cone. It is perhaps helpful to see the book itself as a multitudinous (metaphoric) "conversation," one conducted simultaneously across countries, continents, and borders (of both the physical and figurative variety). For within its covers, Mignolo engages writers as ostensibly disparate in aim and idiom and as far-flung from one another in location and method as the Moroccan theorist Abdelkebir Khatibi, the Argentinean liberation theologian Enrique Dussel, and the Chicana lesbian-feminist essayist Gloria Anzaldúa, among numerous others. 3 On rare occasions, the conversation at the table around which Mignolo convenes these diverse figures achieves a sort of heteroglot felicity. I would submit, however, that for the most part the din and echo of voices yield a kind of deafening silence.

What is the nature and object of this international, or, as Mignolo might prefer, "transnational," dialogue? Local Histories/Global Designs is by turns intellectual history, metaphysical disputation, and cultural critique. (I should note that the author might disagree with these descriptors. 4) In his preface, Mignolo asserts that his book's main topic is "the colonial difference in the formation and transformation of the modern/colonial world system" (ix). He goes on to observe that a corollary of this overarching topic is "the emergence of the Americas and their historical location and transformation in the modern/colonial world order, from 1500 to the end of the twentieth century" (ix). 5 By themselves, these topics might be considered sufficiently weighty. But, as Mignolo likes to note, there is more. Time and time again throughout this frustratingly repetitious book, the author circuitously returns to one of his central claims: namely, that theorizing and critiquing the lacunae in the West's imaginary from within the Occident's own conceptual schemas and critical methods patently will not do. 6 Instead, he purports to advance no less than a new epistemology for our postmodern, postcolonial, and post-Occidental moment: "gnoseology," or in more mundane terms, "border thinking," a radically novel modality of critical thought that, so the author intimates, transcends tired dualities, debunks dusty methodologies, and consigns to the trashcan totalizing orders of knowledge. 7 [End Page 326]

What exactly are border gnosis and gnoseology, and whence do they emerge? According to Mignolo,

Border gnosis as knowledge from a subaltern perspective is knowledge conceived from the exterior borders of the modern/colonial world system, and border gnoseology as a discourse about colonial knowledge is conceived at the intersection of the knowledge produced from the perspective of modern colonialisms (rhetoric, philosophy, science) and knowledge produced from the perspective of colonial modernities in Asia, Africa, and the Americas/ Caribbean. (11...


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