- Decolonial Feints:Ciccariello-Maher's Decolonizing Dialectics
We have to take Hegel seriously.C. L. R. James, Notes on Dialectics (1948)
Nowadays self-styled radical academics in the humanities and social sciences seem to be increasingly engaged in either provincializing or decolonizing this or that. Yet unlike the theoretical notion of "provincializing," which was made famous by Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe (2000)—an intelligent, highly original, graceful work—a decolonial equivalent to it has yet to appear. This is not to say that all invocations of decolonization are of the same intellectual caliber, or that the radicalism sported is homogenously vacuous. Better still: not every thinker that embraces "decolonization" is committed to the basic tenets of the "decolonial turn," something that further raises the question of the meaning and critical import of this notion. But its ubiquity is such that even otherwise impressive work indulges in it as a casual gesture.
Consider, for instance, Charles W. Mills' essay, "Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy." It opens by asserting that in "The past few decades have seen a wave of decolonization in the Western academy," which raises the expectation that something momentous is about to be revealed. But, anti-climatically, Mills proceeds to formulate his longstanding critique of racialization, its silencing strategies, in the academic field of "political philosophy" by criticizing Anglo-American academic political philosophy for its penchant for "ideal theory"—Rawls remains his "King Charles's Head"—in terms redolent of what as early as twenty years ago he had called the racial contract.1 So, the obvious question emerges: what does this rather belated invocation of "decolonizing" and "coloniality" add to a problematic that largely predates both and arose independently of any postcolonial and decolonial turns? Nothing of substance, it seems. Rather than supervening Mills' original critical endeavor, the invocation of decolonization is gratuitous in ways that, for instance, his closing nod to the idea of "provincializing Europe" is not.2 Perhaps what seems like Mills' captatio benevolentiae to decolonial jargon is either an attempt to buttress the critical credentials of a new trend or to breathe new life into a twice-told tale. Regardless, it adds nothing to the approach, substance and detail of his project.
That decolonization has become a trendy noun, with little bearing on the architecture of the works invoking it, is equally clear in Aziz Rana's "Decolonizing Obama" and Adom Getachew's "Universalism After the Postcolonial Turn."3 In these two intelligent and impressive essays the "decolonial" [End Page 324] motif is gratuitously appended to work that evidently owes nothing to it. And that even Duncan Bell, an otherwise utterly conventional Cambridge scholar, currently pleads for the "decolonization" of liberalism in what amounts to little more than refurbishing it further tells the tale.4 It makes abundantly clear how ultimately deadened and indiscriminate these invocations of the language of "decolonization" have become.
Yet what exactly does it mean to invoke decolonization as part of a "decolonial turn" in relation to ideas, intellectual systems, or traditions of discourse? Enter George Ciccariello-Maher, a pioneer of the decolonial turn within academic political theory, a gifted translator and shrewd polemicist, whose politics are well to the left of mainstream decolonial scholars. Ciccariello-Maher tacitly rejects the tepid work of the leading lights of the decolonial turn in the United States, which is fraught by right thinking platitudes about intersectionality (an idea that, in of itself, has become platitudinous) that frequently amounts to jazzy versions of John Rawls' idea of an "overlapping consensus." In an essay that objects to the indiscriminate use of "decolonization" apropos of critical theory, he clarifies what "decolonizing" a theory or body of work consists of: it is an approach that has a "Methodist" ring to it, as it aims to "perform" a "decolonial critique" of a body of work by revealing its Eurocentrism, defending situatedness as "epistemic 'exteriority'" (sic) and scolding thinkers who failed to thematize racism and colonialism as such.5 And in the very title of his newest book, Decolonizing...