Aspects of the Coloniality of Knowledge
Looking at work on advocacy research, this article raises concerns about researchers, exploring and illustrating four aspects of the Coloniality of Anglo-European knowledge practice possible in such research. It suggests that it is not because we are able to be scholars that we are positioned to develop knowledge of marginalized others; it is because of how we are positioned in relation to marginalized others that we are able to be scholars. This article ends with a suggestion for an epistemic shift.
coloniality of knowledge, decolonial feminism, advocacy research, María Lugones
This work of mine began at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Jackie Anderson and I were walking along the road and passed a lesbian sitting on a hill passing out a survey about survivors. A year before, another lesbian had been passing out a survey on lesbian sexuality. This time I stopped and looked at her and said, "Why?" Jackie kept her mouth shut.
I received an enthusiastic answer about getting information on a marginalized population to improve policies or practices, she understood [End Page 48] herself to be pursuing a liberatory agenda for a population not being properly served. She was taking advantage of her institutional authorization to help a marginalized population.
When she noted that I was less than impressed, she assured me she was an academic. I replied that I was, too, and walked on.
Early on Sandra Harding challenged the specter of political neutrality in research. Lorraine Code wrote about advocacy research, and argued that the knowing subject needs to be examined with the same degree of care as are the subjects of knowledge that the knowing subjects place under scrutiny. Subsequently I developed some questions, thinking deeply about María Lugones's work on oppressing ←→ resisting subjectivities (Lugones 2003). Briefly and in sum:
1. How is a researcher competent to hear another in order to be an advocate? She may be a member of the marginalized group, affording her some epistemic privilege, but that's no guarantee of competency. For while a particular population may have been rendered invisible in certain ways, that population is also likely rendered highly visible through stereotyping tropes which we all absorb.
2. While the researcher may have privileged access as a member of the community, she is also a member of and apprentice to another community: her academic or commercial community. Thus she is being disciplined in a discourse which has rationalized that marginalization.
3. Many doing advocacy research or theorizing recognize that there are some unable to advocate for themselves or who are dismissed. But there are others who won't bother to engage in fruitless and de-moralizing appeals. Moreover, some subjects play to a researcher's ignorance and hold disdain for the researcher's conceptual framework.
These concerns invite us to think about what Decolonial Theorists have named the Coloniality of Knowledge.
When a researcher, as an authorized, knowing subject, as a member of or a pledge to a disciplined community, approaches the subject (object) of knowing, what discursive production does she bring? I want to take up and take in a number of things that have been offered about Western knowledge practices in relation to Anglo-European colonial practices developed over the past five hundred years. For in critical ways, as these practices authorize a researcher, they undermine her competency to hear an other. [End Page 49]
For example, Chandra Mohanty investigated work by a number of academic feminists and argued that this work has the effect of discursive colonization. She is particularly concerned with the Western feminist use of an ahistorical, acontextual, universal, analytic category of "woman" (Mohanty 1991). While doing what might be called advocacy research, the Western researchers analyze their non-Western subjects through the Western category of "woman," a category that is not a simple denotation (e.g., Hoagland). By so doing, Western feminists are interpellating their subjects into Western semiotics and practices, reading them through Western categories and values, and thereby delineating the possibilities and limitations the researcher has access to or can imagine in her advocacy. Many Western feminist researchers are reading their subjects through cultural productions that can only see the subjects as inferior to Western standards of "woman" and hence in need of enlightened rescue. Western feminist practice thereby becomes a version of Gayatri Spivak's observation of "white [wo]men saving brown women from brown men," utilizing white men's colonial constructions to cover/clothe them (Spivak 1994, 297). Chandra Mohanty points out that this discursive colonization can also be enacted by Third World women theorists.
In other words, there is a problem if the question taken up of how a subject of knowing can be acknowledged by discourse as a knowing subject is actually the question, How can a subject of Western research be acknowledged within Western discourse as a knowing subject?
Discursive colonization, the coloniality of knowledge, involves Anglo-Eurocentered practices, whereby the only discourse for articulating Third World women's lives is a norming and normative Anglo-European one. This is a first feature of the Coloniality of Knowledge.
Advocacy researchers eschew positivist values of impartiality and disengagement. This is critical. Nevertheless, what might position a researcher to hear the voice of the other without translating, interpellating, it into colonizing productions? The responsability I'm concerned with is not the obligation to respond but the ability to respond, an ability to be open to hearing things unfamiliar, things that will challenge normalcy, even one's place in its reproduction. This is a virtue, an Aristotelian-type skill that one develops only over time and through a practice of engagement.
The difficulty of going against the grain, even by those similarly positioned in relation to the center, is highlighted by Susan Brison's description of the massive denial of her attempted murder, which "takes [End Page 50] the shape of attempts to explain the assault in ways that leave the observer's worldview unscathed" (Brison 2002, 9). When embarking on an advocacy project, does a researcher, a knowing subject, consider that the process of engagement could undermine the researcher's own values, her discursive authorization, indeed her worldview?
That is, When a knowing subject approaches the subject of knowing, what kind of engagement is she anticipating? What relation does she animate, perform? Does the knowing subject, the advocacy researcher, proceed as if the subjects, objects, of knowing are naively opening themselves to view? Does her approach include naïve expectations about how the other positions herself? (I remember my freshman year, taking a required psychology course and the teacher requiring us to fill out some survey [anonymous] about our practices. I remember being irritated, and I, and I know others, began messing with it—"oh yes, I do a LOT of drugs, sex, etc." And my lesbian interlocutors reminded me of how kids treat substitute teachers.) Does it include expectations of forthcoming sincerity, particularly if the researcher herself is a member of the community of the subjects of knowing? Is she presupposing, perhaps unwittingly, what Doris Sommer characterizes as "artless confession, like the ones that characterize surveillance techniques," an "inquisitorial demand for knowable essences?" (Sommer, 1996, 132).
More interestingly, Does an advocate researcher recognize that the subject (object) of knowing is strategically positioning herself in critical ways with respect to authority? In his book Impossible Witness, Dwight McBride analyzes rhetorical strategies used by several abolition activists/witnesses and former slaves. Among other things, he draws our attention to the dis-cursive terrain these activists witnessing slavery had to fit to be intelligible, the competency or lack thereof of the white abolitionists to hear the narratives, and the means by which former slave witnesses constructed their narratives to meet the non-slave white imaginary (McBride 2001, ch. 1).
How does the researcher/advocate develop her ability to move in what Mary Louise Pratt calls, Contact Zones, "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today" (Pratt 1991, 34)?
Western practitioners often dismiss the possibility of self-conscious address in the other's self-presentation. Moreover, when forced to recognize this error, many call it lying. For in opening to an other, we may find ourselves reflected back in ways that bring us face-to-face with our [End Page 51] inheritance, the legacy that frames us, for example, our gendered racialized colonial legacy.
In a performance piece inspired in part by Franz Kafka and constructed for the five-hundredth anniversary of the "discovery of America," Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez Peña presented themselves as undiscovered Amerindians from a fictitious island, Guatinau, in the Gulf of Mexico, living in a golden cage for several days at different exhibition sites. They were parodying the "European sense of self that was constructed by constructing an Other" (the "savage"). To their surprise they discovered, as white Western audiences mostly interpreted their work literally, that colonial subjectivity is alive and well (Fusco 1995, 37–38). Moreover, those authorities not informed ahead of time and responding to the exhibit as if it were "real," when discovering their mistake, did not take the opportunity to reflect on the colonial self exposed; rather, like René Descartes, many chose to frame the situation as deception. Many, including museum officials, expressed outrage over being fooled, complaining that the performance should not have been staged in museums, for example the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, but in art galleries; they protested it should not have been exhibited in places of fact, truth. But this was precisely Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña's point—to locate their performance in museums, which are themselves a main site of historic and ongoing Western performances of The Other (Fusco).
The persisting desire to "look upon predictable forms of Otherness from a safe distance" is powerful enough to allow knowing subjects, disciplined researchers, to dismiss the possibility "of self-conscious irony in the Other's self-presentation" (Fusco 1995, 50). As Latin American theorist Anibal Quijano articulates, the coloniality of knowledge, practices begun with the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 1500s, made it "unthinkable to accept the idea that a knowing subject was possible beyond the subject of knowledge postulated by the very concept of rationality put in place by modern epistemology" (Mignolo 2000, 60, citing Quijano 2000). That is, the subject is approached only in terms of the concept of rationality put in place by modern epistemology. This is a second aspect of the Coloniality of Knowledge.1
The possibility of being played, of being conned, by one's subjects is a substantive fear of researchers (except when they understand their subjects to be dumb), because it is the ground on which the testimony of subjects is discounted by promoters of objectivist methodologies to which [End Page 52] advocate researchers can feel beholden. Significantly, this is the point at which hegemonic discourse actually acknowledges the agency, or active subjectivity (Lugones 2003, introduction and chapter 10), of research subjects in relation to the field of knowing. That is, the authorized knower ceases to be the only agent in the engagement when scientific methodology understands itself to be in danger of losing control of the research.
For example, Lorraine Code takes up Karen Messing's work in occupational health studies. Karen Messing carefully investigated many different workplace conditions, from those of poultry processors to those of bank tellers, in order to understand and work toward improving them. She challenged standard views that workplace problems which the women faced were the result of women's biology or psychology and showed, rather, that the problems stemmed from workplaces occupationally designed for men, which put many women and some men at a disadvantage (Code 2006, 52–54). In a footnote, Lorraine Code notes that the politics are complex: "When workers engage in activist projects to improve their circumstances, their activities tend to corroborate a suspicion that they will fake their symptoms to gain their point" (54). That is, when workers act on their own behalf, they could manipulate the data and the researchers. A strategic con.
However, if one considers the discourse the workers must enter to be heard, including that of company doctors and lawyers whose obligation is protecting the company, then faking symptoms is a critical epistemic strategy to address institutional indifference beyond company liability, indifference practiced toward the collective workforce and, in particular, toward the conditions they face. Indeed, in this case, lying facilitates the production of knowledge.
Significantly, academics are disciplinarily framed to consider the interpretation and packaging (i.e., manipulating) of information to be the province of the knowing subject, the researcher, but not of the subject of knowing, the one being researched. Because only the researcher advocate is understood to have or to rightfully have agency, those concerned with "lying" subjects don't consider the interaction between researcher and subject as a give-and-take relationship. (Or, they see such actions on the part of a subject (object) of knowing non-relationally through the lens of Western individual self-interest.)
While offering a great deal of information to her anthropologist/advocate Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, Rigoberta Menchú repeatedly declares there are secrets about her communities of Guatemalan Indians that even friendly anthropologists will never know (Menchú 1984, e.g., 247), [End Page 53] challenging the terms of their relationship. Doris Sommer suggests that in relation to white audiences, Rigoberta Menchú is exercising "the uncooperative control that turns a potentially humiliating scene of interrogation into an opportunity for self-authorization" (Sommer 1996, 135–36). Rigoberta Menchú is requesting advocacy, but that request does not authorize a researcher and advocate to make her into either a text to be studied or an object to be rescued (note Menchú 1984, 244). She has not tacitly agreed to become an Other upon whom agents of liberation can perform their own agency.
Research methodologies dictate that the only agents in the relation are presumed to be the knowing (authorized) subjects, and within authorizing institutions, theirs is the prerogative of interpretation and packaging of information. Western scientific practice thus positions the researcher as a judge of credibility and a gatekeeper for its authority. This is a third aspect of the Coloniality of Knowledge, a discursive enactment of colonial relations.
A conversation of "us" with "us" about "them" is a conversation in which "them" is silenced. "Them" always stands on the other side of the hill, naked and speechless, barely presence in its absence.—trinh t. minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other
But there are still further issues.
If an advocate researcher understands herself to be representing her subjects or her subjects' knowledges in key ways, what does that mean? How does she take what she has learned and make it intelligible to dominant logic, to knowledges that could not or would not recognize such understandings to begin with? In re-presenting a population to power, is she presuming Modern Western ideals of transparency and translation, presumptions that drive the Coloniality of Knowledge?2 That is, what becomes of the Western knowing subject's critical ability to respond to her subjects of knowing when faced with going before power?
For example, to what extent does advocating to power, encouraging authority to widen its gaze, actually promote assimilation or genocide? As Édouard Glissant writes, "We have a right to opacity," to not being made to be transparent (Glissant  1989, 189). One hears echoing María Lugones's words: "I keep secrets. Even though I am told over and over by white feminists that we must reveal ourselves, open ourselves, I keep secrets. Disclosing our secrets threatens our survival" (Lugones 2003, 11). [End Page 54]
At times, one subjected may knowingly choose to address the dominant discourse, as there may be no other option at the moment, but this is not without consequences. Dwight McBride argues that "in using the very terms of the institution of slavery to talk about these human beings as 'slaves,' 'Africans,' and later 'Negroes,' one supports and buttresses the idea that the slave, if not subhuman, is certainly not of the same class of people as free Europeans" (McBride 2001, 7). Their interpellation frames their possibilities of meaning and engagement. Hence the strategies developed in contact zones.
Moreover, while a practice of epistemological advocacy may recognize exclusion and work toward inclusion, research itself remains a problematic concept. Not everyone wants to be included. Maori theorist Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that research is "probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary," and for the colonized, is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. She argues that "research is a site of struggle between interests and ways of knowing of the West and the interests and ways of resisting of the Other (Smith 1999, 1–2 emphasis mine). "Reclaiming a voice in this context has also been about reclaiming, reconnecting and reordering those ways of knowing which were submerged, hidden or driven underground" (69). Reclaiming voice means maintaining a distinct ontology/cosmology/epistemology.
For example, Linda Tuhiwai Smith draws attention to the ontological move of framing a culture's practices in terms of individualism that capitalism requires. Individual rights drive reasoning within Western institutions such that indigenous claims based on collective practices make no sense (Smith, 49). As Ashwani Peetush argues, within liberal discourse there is no reason to negotiate or even dialogue with members of a community on terms that demand cultural rights based on shared membership, for such people and practices are understood to be primitive, that is, prior to the evolution of Western society, and so in need of being developed, brought up to speed, civilized (Peetush 2001, 2003).
Re-framing indigenous claims to be intelligible within Western institutions is re-writing to the point of covering over indigenous culture. Thus such a subject of knowing, of research, will not be approached as a knowing subject on her own terms (since there are none worth pursuing outside Western understanding), and she falls short as a knowing subject on Western terms, is not "rational," does not operate with and accept individualism. [End Page 55]
If an advocacy researcher represents an other to power, what logic does she use in her re-presentation? Again, the skills I find critical are not those of transparency and translation into hegemonic meaning, for those skills strategically function to leave the dominant worldview unscathed.
Within Western intellectual practice, the coloniality of knowledge presumes commensurability with Western discourse, and is a process of translating and rewriting other cultures, other knowledges, other ways of being into Western understanding (Dussel 1995; Mignolo 1995). This covering over of others' knowledges, not to mention a covering over of culture, is a fourth aspect of the Coloniality of Knowledge. (To cover over is not necessarily to eradicate. For this reason, decolonial theorists are looking at palimpsestic traces in current practices [e.g., Marcos 2006; also Mignolo 1995, on the work of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala].)
Noting that positivist research paradigms are framed by particular experiences (which until proven irrelevant in specific cases, remain the model for constructing normalcy and abnormalcy), Lorraine Code is concerned to decenter those experiences, destabilizing those subjectivities: "The decentering that ecological thinking sets in motion is enacted in its refusal to continue silently participating in a philosophy tacitly derived solely if imperceptibly, from white, affluent, western, male experiences that generate hyperbolic autonomy ideals. It displaces 'man' from his central position in the world and in himself and disturbs the (often narcissistic) inwardness of autonomy in its self-transparency aspect" (Code 20006, 198). This project is critical.
Even within Western discourse, individual autonomy is an illusion. Our identities, indeed our subjectivities, are relational. If, for affluent white men, autonomy makes any sense at all, it is only because such men have a cadre of people taking care of things they need to have happen in order to carry out things they imagine they have autonomously conceived. The illusion of white male autonomy exists because there are enormous collectivities to back up the "powerful" (Lugones 2003, chapter 10; speeches by U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren). To de-center affluent white male experience, subjectivity, is to destroy it. (Consider Franz Fanon's goal was not that the native resignify himself if that is understood to be the native adopting the colonialist's or settler's framework and speaking back, resignifying "native." His goal was to destroy both the native and the settler [Fanon 1963].) [End Page 56]
But there is more to it. Latin American Decolonial Theorists have been making visible the internal relationship between Western Modernity and Western colonialism, tracing the emergence of both to the conquest of the Americas and the control of the Atlantic. They note that there is no "post" to colonial modernism (e.g., Quijano 2000; Dussel 1995; Mignolo 1995, 2000). Although in many cases political independence has been achieved, the economic, political, social, and epistemic restructuring of cultures through the process of Modern Western colonizing continues unchecked.
Anibal Quijano argues that the individual differentiated ego is a phenomenon of Modernity, yes, but Modernity happened in relation to others (e.g., the Mexica, Aztecs). There is an intersubjective dimension of the modern ego where others have been reorganized economically, culturally, spiritually, linguistically, socially through the praxis of colonization, and designated inferior through the racialized codification of differences. These differences formed and were formed by Modernity and replace the idea of "superior and inferior" that was justified through power and domination, re-conceiving the idea as biological. This is a myth of Eurocentrism whereby Anglo/American/Europeans see history as beginning in a state of nature and culminating, through a linear, evolutionary, historical process, in the development of Anglo-European culture. "I think" is preceded by and formed by "I conquer."
Thus it is not just an individual consciousness that formed during Modernity, but an intersubjective one involving inferior, primitive, others about whom a Western subject has a proprietary relationship (Quijano 2000; Dussel 1995; Mignolo 1995). This is a fifth aspect of the Coloniality of Knowledge. And this is precisely the subjectivity Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez Peña encountered in reactions to their performance piece.
In other words, it is not because we are able to be scholars that we are positioned to develop knowledge of marginalized others. It is because of how we are positioned in relation to marginalized others that we are scholars.
Understanding that our subjectivities have inherited colonial framings, I am specifically interested in how we meet in the construction and performance of knowledge, particularly in ways that keep us reading, approaching, engaging, others through colonial/modern hegemonic scripts. We are positioned in relation to each other through structured political identities that are not always or necessarily named but which are nevertheless [End Page 57] enacted, political identities as created, structured, and enforced by the state (Mamdani), for example subjectivities and experiences of a white feminist and an immigrant woman both gathering information on domestic violence against undocumented workers. White Western subjectivity is what it is only because of its relationship to others, which it necessarily works to ignore. As women of color have been articulating for the duration of the women's movement, this is true of white women as well as of white men. And so what needs to be de-centered in and for feminist work are not just white affluent men's experiences but also white affluent women's experiences.
So we come back to earlier questions, but at a deeper level: When white feminists advocate on behalf of others, what subjectivities are we performing/animating, what relationality are we enacting?
In responding to questions I constructed for my circle of lesbian interlocutors concerning how we maintain epistemic sanity in the midst of the logical illogicality that is U.S. mainstream liberal discourse, Jackie Anderson countered, "I do feel that there are things clear to me that I don't understand why they aren't clear to others. Not because I think I'm right, but because I can't engage when they don't get it." She gave as an example, racialization in the United States. "For us, slavery is a genesis. For white people, it is another institution, an institution that is over so it is not something that comes up in any conversation between whites" (Jackie Anderson, remarks made at an Institute of Lesbian Studies gathering, Chicago, Winter 2005). I was focused on how we lesbians maintain sanity given mainstream impositions and narratives. She responded in terms of we lesbians interacting.
Her response opens the possibility of an (other) epistemic shift of thinking differently about engagement. What if we develop our critical epistemic skills/virtues outside dominant constructions that cover over oppressing ←→ resisting subjectivities? What if we develop our critical epistemic skills/virtues not in order to be right but in order to engage outside dominant constructions? [End Page 58]
sarah lucia hoagland is Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor; Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Women's Studies, Latino/a/Latin American Studies at Northeastern Illinois University; Director, Institute of Lesbian Studies, Chicago, since 1991; and Collective member of the Escuela Popular Nortena, 1997–2004.
I want to thank Nancy and Emma for the incredible work of putting this gathering together. And I want to thank María for your work and for the incredible way you engage each one of us in taking up our work. I dedicate this reading/paper to Jackie Anderson, who, along with María, ran the Women of Color Caucus of Midwest SWIP for decades, and both of whom, along with Anne Leighton, have been my interlocutors. And I would like to acknowledge that many of these ideas and sentiments have already been beautifully presented. I am directing my comments primarily to white academic feminists. This article is part of a longer paper, "Feminist Advocacy Research, Relationality, and the Coloniality of Knowledge," under review for inclusion in Decolonial Thinking: Resistant Meanings and Communal Other-Sense, edited by María Lugones and Patrick Crowley.
I want to thank Nancy and Emma for the incredible work of putting this gathering together. And I want to thank María for your work and for the incredible way you engage each one of us in taking up our work.
I dedicate this reading/paper to Jackie Anderson, who, along with María, ran the Women of Color Caucus of Midwest SWIP for decades, and both of whom, along with Anne Leighton, have been my interlocutors. And I would like to acknowledge that many of these ideas and sentiments have already been beautifully presented. I am directing my comments primarily to white academic feminists.
This article is part of a longer paper, "Feminist Advocacy Research, Relationality, and the Coloniality of Knowledge," under review for inclusion in Decolonial Thinking: Resistant Meanings and Communal Other-Sense, edited by María Lugones and Patrick Crowley.
1. See the work, for example, of Rodolfo Kusch, or Trinh T. Minh-ha on Leslie Marmon Silko.
2. For example, Richard Brandt set out to write Hopi Ethics. Assuming a deonto logical system as universal, he acknowledges that while within the Hopi language, there is no phrase which corresponds to the English phrase, "Your duty is …," nevertheless, he argues, "we" can ask: "(since we do not want to call a term 'ethical' unless it is equivalent to one of the English terms like 'duty,' 'blameworthy,' and so on), what concepts are expressed by those Hopi terms which interpreters regard as the nearest equivalents of 'right,' 'duty,' 'blameworthy,' etc., when applied to conduct? This is an empirically decidable question" (Brandt 1974, 91, 82–83). That is, he is translating Hopi communal and cultural phenomena into Western concepts of duty and obligation.