F- Decolonizing Theory

This webpage includes…

  • Definitions
  • First Wave of Post Colonial Theories
  • Second Wave of Decolonization Theorists
  • Biocultural Diversity


To understand postcolonialism theory and its current iteration as decolonization discourse theory, I will explore the connections between decolonization and indigeneity, biocultural diversity and matriculture.  Five concepts are basic:   

  • Colonialism is the strategy of appropriating another culture’s land, identity and subjectivity in order to rule over its people by redefining them and writing their history from the colonizer’s point of view. ‘Colonial’ not only means ‘foreign’; it also means imposing and dominating. It includes ecological imperialism and eurocentrism.
  • Postcolonialism theory is a critical theory that analyzes the legacy of colonialism and its contemporary extension in neocolonialism and globalization. Postcolonialism analyzes the effects of colonization on cultures and societies, particularly the study of “controlling power of representation in colonized societies” (Ashcroft et al, 1998, p.186); it is relevant to the political, linguistic, ecological and cultural experience of societies that were colonized.
  • Decolonization, or anticolonialism, is the intellectual, cultural and political resistance to hegemonic ways of knowing and related practices perpetuated by neocolonialism and eurocentrism. It is the agentic activity of enlivening postcolonialism theory with a dignity-affirming, bottom-up approach that transforms social relations (Dei, 2010, p.118).
  • Indigeneity refers to an expanded, generalized and internationalized dimension of indigenousness; it recognizes that knowledge is derived from long-term habitation of a place that allows a people to reference their own established cultural, ecological and linguistic ways of knowing to resist the imposition of external ideas and values (Dei, p.34, 92). Indigeneity differs from aboriginality which makes specific cultural claims.
  • Biocultural Diversity refers to interconnected cultural, biological and linguistic diversity which, together, face the common threat of extinction due to neocolonialism and ecological imperialism. The principles of biocultural diversity include respect for all living things, reciprocal relationships with nature and among humans, and maintaining balance and harmony with ecosystems that the culture inhabits.

I capitalize proper nouns for places and languages (e.g., Europe) but use lower case for adjectives derived from those proper nouns (e.g., eurocentric).  I use a culture’s self-identification (e.g., Tamazight) rather than a colonizer’s imposed identification (e.g., Berber).

First Wave of Postcolonial Theorists

The first generation of postcolonialism theorists situate themselves in critical theory.

1005703-Jacques_DerridaJacques Derrida (b. 1930 in El Biar, Algeria; died 2004) and his family fled their Algerian homeland in 1962 during the Algerian Revolution.  He later identified the Algerian Revolution as a historical event that significantly shaped his thinking.  France occupied Algeria from 1830 to 1962.  The goal of the Algerian Revolution was decolonization because the Algerians wanted to form a nation defined by Arab culture, Berber roots, and Islamic tradition (Shepard, 2008, p.5f).  The irony of this revolution was that it removed only the most recent layer of colonization – the French.   Muslim dynasties invaded Algeria around 650 CE and in the 16th century, when the Ottomans conquered the area, re-naming the people Berbers and the region The Barbary Coast.  During a millennium of arabization, a series of colonizers imposed foreign languages, cultures and governance on the indigenous Tamazight culture.  Today the Amazigh Movement seeks to overthrow the arabist, islamist governments and install indigenous governance.  After two millennia of colonization, it appears that the subaltern of North Africa still remember their indigenous roots.

Derrida argues that modern Western scholars produced a “white mythology” – anemic because it “dims the colours of the ancient fables” (Derrida, 1982, p.213). Derrida critiques eurocentric scholars who deride the myths of ‘other’ cultures’ even while they project eurocentric values onto the cosmologies of those cultures:

Metaphysics – the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason” (p.213).

Derrida argued that ethnocentrism is synonymous with logocentrism in that it imposes european culture on the rest of the world through language or logos (Young, 1990, p.18).  Derrida’s deconstruction compels “European culture’s awareness that it is no longer the unquestioned and dominant centre of the world” (p.19) by exposing false dualisms and replacing them with neologisms for the purpose of changing how we think.

Gayatri_Spivak_200_170_s_c1Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (February 24, 1942 in Ballygunge, Kolkata, India)  states that the subaltern is denied access to political forms of representation in hegemonic power structures. The subaltern’s identity is imposed by external colonial power. Spivak borrows the term ‘subaltern’ from Gramsci, another Marxist theorist, who used it to describe a social group who is excluded from a society’s established structures for political representation, the means by which people have a voice in their society. When Spivak asks “Can the subaltern speak?” she does not mean that it is impossible for the subaltern to reclaim a voice; she posits that when the subaltern speak, they create a voice consciousness that may not be perceivable by dominators because it is not pertinent or useful, and thus has no practical value to the dominator (Spivak, 1988a, p.80f).  Spivak’s question is a caution to avoid the notion that the subaltern can ever be isolated in the essentialist constructs created by the colonizers.  In her view, subalterneity is synonymous with change, which occurs when there has been “a functional change in a sign system” – a violent event usually driven by a crisis (Spivak, 1988b, p.197).

Spivak uses the term ‘othering’ for the process by which colonialist discourse creates its ‘others’ – those that are homogenized and marginalized by mastering them into the category of “subjects”.  I concur with Ashcroft’s critique of Spivak’s adherence to the Lacan’s distinction between ‘Other’ and ‘other’ (Ashcroft, p.171f) because Lacan privileges male subjects and posits that women can only become subjects if they adopt a man’s way of thinking.

Spivak critiques the Western academy which assumes that its scholarship is transparent, yet it discards non-Western ways of knowing as lacking ‘Reason’ and thus justifying its exclusion from intellectual discourse.  The academy reformulates ‘other’ ways of knowing as myths and folklore – works of imagination, not Reason. In order to be heard and known, the subaltern must adopt Western ways of knowing and reasoning.

Second Wave of Decolonization Theorists

The first wave of postcolonial theorists focused on critique of colonialism and its impacts.  Following the model of feminism, I suggest the term, ‘second wave’ to describe the second generation of scholars who generate decolonization theory and praxis, which focuses on political agency, resistance and forward-moving action as well as a critical view of history.  This section draws on scholars who are agentic about decolonization.

Vandana ShivaVandana Shiva (b. November 5, 1952, Dehradun, India) suggest that colonization is a three-phase project of capitalism in which denying the rights of nature and nature-based societies is essential in order to acquire uncontrolled rights to exploit and maximize profits (Mies & Shieva, 1993, p.264f).  The control of nature is called ecological imperialism.  Building on the work of Mies & Shiva, I offer a fresh articulation of the three phases that they identified.  The first phase was driven by the eurocentric urge to ‘civilize’ non-white peoples as pretence for depriving them of human rights, land, identity and political rights.  The second phase, neocolonialism, is driven by Western governments’ urge to ‘develop’ Third World peoples as a pretence for depriving local communities of their so-called ‘resources’, languages, health and human rights.  It imposes a globalized economy that increases the wealth of a few and impoverishes colonized peoples and working classes.  Agricultural practises have produced monoculture, resulting in food insecurity, poverty and loss of biodiversity.  The emerging third phase is driven by multinational corporations and Western governments to limit Third World use of fossil fuels as pretence for mitigating climate change (p.265).  This globalized colonization project is driven by a Western sense of superiority and greed.

In Soil not Oil (2008), Vandana Shiva writes that “the transition from oil to soil is a cultural transition – from a deadly consumerism to reclamation of our rightful place as cocreators and coproducers with nature…As globalization violently pushes peasants off the land, the soil symbolizes another culture, a culture of non-violence, a culture of permanence, a culture of dignity in work, a living culture for the protection and renewal of life” (p.7). Shiva’s decolonizing work reflects the connection between biocultural diversity and matriculture:

When nature is a teacher, we ­co-create with her—we recognize her agency and her rights. That is why it is significant that Ecuador has recognized the “rights of nature” in its constitution. In April 2011, the United Nations General Assembly­—inspired by the constitution of Ecuador and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth initiated by Bolivia—organized a conference on harmony with nature as part of Earth Day celebrations. Much of the discussion centered on ways to transform systems based on domination of people over nature, men over women, and rich over poor into new systems based on partnership” (Shiva, 2012).

George Sefa DeiGeorge Sefa Dei (b. in Ghana) is intent on decolonizing education systems.  He exposes Western science for positioning itself as a neutral and universal knowledge and, like Spivak, he critiques the eurocentric Western academy for granting privilege to the epistemologies of logic and reasoning.  Unlike Spivak, Dei’s anti-colonialism rejects the Marxist tradition on the basis that the spiritual, not the material, forms the substructure of indigeneity (Dei, 2010, p.92). According to Dei, the spiritual knowing of indigenous cultural knowledge avoids the dualisms of sacred/secular and material/non-material (Dei, 2002, p.131; Dei, 2010, p.118). He works toward re-inserting spiritual and cosmological epistemologies into the academy.  Dei’s decolonization theory focuses on three actions:

  • challenging the processes that invalidate or delegitimize indigenous knowledges
  • respecting indigenous knowledge that emerges from the place where people are situated over a long period of time and thus integrates biological, cultural and linguistic diversity, and
  • supporting indigenous people in becoming subjects of their own cultural actions and projects (Dei, 2010, p.34, 118).

Biocultural Diversity

Indigenous cultures and biocultural diversity are mutually supporting.  In contrast, colonizing cultures tend to destroy diversity.

Luisa MaffiLuisa Maffi (b. in Italy) contributes to decolonization by participating in the development of international legal instruments that protect the living heritage of indigenous peoples, including their cultures, languages and ethnobiological knowledges (Maffi, 2001, p.414).  She notes that indigenous knowledges are incongruent with Cartesian dualism:

“There is a tendency among indigenous people toward a holistic, non-individualizing approach to the cultural as well as the natural world: a tendency to think not just in terms of parts of components but in terms of a whole and of the relationships among the elements of the whole – in other words, to think ecologically in both nature and culture.  Indeed, the very distinction between “culture” and “nature” appears to be little significant to indigenous peoples the world over” (p.415).

As a pioneer of the concept of biocultural diversity, Maffi studies the intersection of linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity. She is concerned that the loss of languages means the loss of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) embedded in those languages. According to Maffi, an anthropogenic extinction crisis is indicated by the massive loss of biodiversity in Earth’s plant and animal species and in the health of the ecosystems that sustain them. Cultures and languages are vanishing under the rising tide of global monoculture.  There has been a decline in global linguistic diversity since 1970 as populations shift from the small languages to the dominant ones introduced by colonizers, which are still used in most public education systems.  Maffi worries that we are rapidly losing critical life-support systems and the human knowledge that can teach us how to live in balance with our planet (Terralingua, 2014, np).

Marina ApgarMarina Apgar insists that biocultural diversity does not result from conservation initiatives or external factors; it results when indigenous cultures apply endogenous processes that include two protective strategies: aggressive boundaries and soft matriculture at the core.  In her doctoral thesis, she studied the Guna culture.  Adapting endogenous growth theory from an economic theory to a cultural theory, Apgar posits that biocultural diversity is primarily the result of endogenous forces, wherein internal investment in human potential, innovation, and knowledge are significant contributors to growth.  Apgar views the Guna as an endogenous community with aggressive boundaries that protect its core values of matriculture, personhood, biocultural diversity and participatory democracy. She recognizes that endogenous cultures use traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to protect their biocultural diversity, and considers how endogenous processes contribute to climate change adaptation capacity (Apgar, 2010, p.55ff; Apgar et al, 2011, p.555f).

Endogenous cultural practices are the antithesis of monoculture and globalization.  I find it interesting that Maffi and Apgar rarely use the words colonial or decolonization, not because they eschew a political agenda, but because they engage in place-based politics to support biocultural well-being.  In an indigenous context, decolonization can be reframed as  ‘emplacement’ or ‘embeddedness in place’.  A culture that values biocultural diversity is engaged skilfully, consciously and intensely with a place, and builds communitas that enlivens and perpetuates the reciprocal human/place relationship by integrating cosmological and spiritual epistemologies.  The Bhutan Declaration illustrates the interconnectedness of these themes.

See Reference page for details on citations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *