Grad School Knowledge – Or Posturing?


Quite some time ago, I wrote a series of very critical articles about post modernism and its effects on left students and the left more broadly. The tone was scathing, even hostile. 


I was not angry becuase I differed from and questioned advocates of post modernism. One can do that as a friend and even a caring reader. I was angry because I felt what I was questioning was not only intellectually wanting – but that it was imposed on students by the authority of faculty and departments, even though it stifled the best inclinations of those students. 


I hoped the essays would cause various advocates of post modernism to rebut my reactions so that a wide ranging debate could ensue. But that did not happen. No respected advocate of the views I criticized said where they thought I was wrong in those essays. Many students and even young faculty, however, replied saying that they wished they could write similar essays presenting their critical views, but their credibility in their fields, or their standing as students, would plummet, if they did so. It was my impression that sitting by, memorizing the lingo and cadences of nonsensical formulations, did a number on people. Students supporting such behavior typically either admitted they were being highly hypocritical and subservient in programs that verbally claimed to seek the opposite. Or they reconstructed themselves to the point where they became sincere advocates of obscurantism. 


I have been pretty much completely out of touch with academia since then, yet for some reason I had come to think that largely empty posturing, such as in post modernism, literary theory, etc., was dwindling. However, I currently have a house guest, Andre Grubacic, who is in close touch with academia, and just last night he was trying to explain to me some of the main schools of thought now dominating graduate programs, and their harmful effects. 


Given his knowledge of my interests, to explain to me the negative effects, Andrej said he knew lots of advocates of pareconish and parsocish views, highly informed and capable students, who would go off to grad programs and have it drummed out of them. They were told that their thinking was too simple minded, to be relevant. They had to get with some real theory. They had to learn what their programs highlighted, a whole new way of talking and writing – and, it was claimed, of thinking. More, it was so far superior to, for example, pareconish and parsocish views, as to make those not even worthy of debate or discussion, but simply ignorable. 


Okay, I said, can you give me an example? Can you point me to an essay respected by advocates of some school of thought that tries to make its views accessible for interested parties outside it. I will take a look. 


Andrej gave me a url telling me that it was one of the more accessible schools of the offending sort and one of the clearest available summaries – and so I took a look – and I was rather horrified.

Maybe it is because I am so simple-minded, so ignorant, so limited by my silly and trivial concepts, that I just couldn't understand what was plain as day on the page before my eyes. Or maybe it is because all that was there was masses of verbiage designed to sound erudite, some insights that were almost impossible to tease out and, if they were put into plain language, would be familiar in any case, plus lots of noise meaning nothing, plus some error, too. 


Okay, which is it? Maybe someone reading the following – which is the text I looked at following Andrej's guidance – can tell me.

Maybe someone can make what follows comprehensible for someone as ignorant and as out of touch with the intricacies and even the main streams of modern graduate school thought as myself. If so, I look forward to learning. But, I will own up that I doubt that will be the result, because my intuition is that appearing in the obscruantist words below are falsehoods, meaningless verbiage, some common place insights, and barely anything more.. 


If you are well schooled in the subject, you can append plain english clarifications of the text as comments on this post. If you read the text but weren't familiar before, and you get it, great. You too can let me know what it means. Or you can just send me separate email or essays, or whatever. If you read it and find it more or less absurd, perhaps you should say so, too.


Thanks, in advance!


Here is the essay, apparently very widely respected as evidencing the views of a prominent school of thought, that I do not get…

Transmodernity, border thinking, and global coloniality

Rámon Grosfoguel


Postmodernism as an epistemological project still reproduces a particular form of coloniality. A decolonial perspective requires a broader canon of thought that would require taking seriously the epistemic insights of critical thinkers from the global South. How can a "critical border thinking" that envisages a "transmodern world" moves us beyond Eurocentrism?


Can we produce a radical anti-capitalist politics beyond identity politics? Is it possible to articulate a critical cosmopolitanism beyond nationalism and colonialism? Can we produce knowledges beyond Third World and Eurocentric fundamentalisms? Can we overcome the traditional dichotomy between political-economy and cultural studies? Can we move beyond economic reductionism and culturalism? How can we overcome Eurocentric modernity without throwing away the best of modernity as many Third World fundamentalists do? In this paper, I propose that an epistemic perspective from the subaltern side of the colonial difference has a lot to contribute to this debate. It can contribute to a critical perspective beyond the outlined dichotomies and to a redefinition of capitalism as a world-system.

In October 1998, a conference/dialogue took place at Duke University between the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group and the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. The dialogue eventually resulted in the publication of several issues of the journal Nepantla. However, this conference was the last time the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group met before their split. Among the many reasons and debates that produced this split, there are two that I would like to stress. The members of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group were primarily Latinamericanist scholars in the USA. Despite their attempt at producing a radical and alternative knowledge, they reproduced the epistemic schema of Area Studies in the United States. With a few exceptions, they produced studies about the subaltern rather than studies with and from a subaltern perspective. Like the imperial epistemology of Area Studies, theory was still located in the North while the subjects to be studied are located in the South. This colonial epistemology was crucial to my dissatisfaction with the project. As a Latino in the United States, I was dissatisfied with the epistemic consequences of the knowledge produced by this Latinamericanist group. They underestimated in their work ethnic/racial perspectives coming from the region, while giving privilege predominantly to western thinkers. This is related to my second point: they gave epistemic privilege to what they called the "four horsemen of the apocalypse" (Mallon 1994; Rodriguez 2001), that is, Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci and Guha. Among these four thinkers, three are Eurocentric while two (Derrida and Foucault) form part of the poststructuralist/postmodern western canon. Only one, Rinajit Guha, is a thinker from the South. By privileging western thinkers as their central theoretical apparatus, they betrayed their goal to produce subaltern studies. 


Among the many reasons for the split of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, one of them was between those who read subalternity as a postmodern critique (which represents a Eurocentric critique of Eurocentrism) and those who read subalternity as a decolonial critique (which represents a critique of Eurocentrism from subalternized and silenced knowledges) [Mignolo 2000: 183-186; 213-214]. For those of us that took side with the decolonial critique, the dialogue with the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group made evident the need to epistemologically transcend, that is, decolonize the Western canon and epistemology. The South Asian Subaltern Studies Group's main project is a critique of western European colonial historiography about India and to Indian nationalist Eurocentric historiography of India. But by using a western epistemology and privileging Gramsci and Foucault, they constrained and limited the radicality of their critique of Eurocentrism. Although they represent different epistemic projects, the South Asian Subaltern School's privileging of western epistemic canon overlapped with the sector of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group that sided with postmodernism. However, with all its limits, the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group represents an important contribution to the critique of Eurocentrism. It forms part of an intellectual movement known as postcolonial critique (a critique of modernity from the Global South) as opposed to the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group postmodern critique (a critique of modernity from the Global North) [Mignolo 2000]. These debates made clear to us (those who took side with the decolonial critique described above), the need to decolonize not only Subaltern Studies but also Postcolonial Studies (Grosfoguel 2006a; 2006b). 


This is not an essentialist, fundamentalist, anti-European critique. It is a perspective that is critical of both Eurocentric and Third World fundamentalisms, colonialism and nationalism. Border thinking, one of the epistemic perspectives to be discussed in this article, is precisely a critical response to both hegemonic and marginal fundamentalisms. What all fundamentalisms share (including the Eurocentric one) is the premise that there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality. However, my main points here are three: 1) that a decolonial epistemic perspective requires a broader canon of thought than simply the western canon (including the Left western canon); 2) that a truly universal decolonial perspective cannot be based on an abstract universal (one particular that promotes itself as universal global design), but would have to be the result of critical dialogue between diverse critical epistemic/ethical/political projects towards a pluriversal as opposed to a universal world; 3) that decolonization of knowledge would require taking seriously the epistemic perspective/cosmologies/insights of critical thinkers from the Global South thinking from and with subalternized racial/ethnic/sexual spaces and bodies. Postmodernism and postructuralism as epistemological projects are caught within the western canon, reproducing within its domains of thought and practice a particular form of coloniality of power/knowledge. 


However, what I have said about the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group applies to the paradigms of political-economy. In this article, I propose that an epistemic perspective from racial/ethnic subaltern locations has a lot to contribute to a radical decolonial critical theory beyond the way traditional political-economy paradigms conceptualize capitalism as a global or world-system. The idea here is to decolonize political-economy paradigms as well as world-system analysis and to propose an alternative decolonial conceptualization of the world-system. The first part is an epistemic discussion about the implications of the epistemological critique of feminist and subalternized racial/ethnic intellectuals to western epistemology. The second part is the implications of these critiques to the way we conceptualize the global or world system. The third part is a discussion of global coloniality today. The fourth part is a critique of both world-system analysis and postcolonial/cultural studies using coloniality of power as a response to the culture versus economy dilemma. Finally, the fifth, sixth, seventh and last parts are a discussion of border thinking, transmodernity and socialization of power as decolonial alternatives to the present world-system.


Epistemological critique

The first point to discuss is the contribution of racial/ethnic and feminist subaltern perspectives to epistemological questions. The hegemonic Eurocentric paradigms that have informed western philosophy and sciences in the "modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system" (Grosfoguel 2005; 2006b) for the last 500 hundred years assume a universalistic, neutral, objective point of view. Chicana and black feminist scholars (Moraga and Anzaldua 1983; Collins 1990) as well as Third World scholars inside and outside the United States (Dussel 1977; Mignolo 2000) reminded us that we always speak from a particular location within power structures. Nobody escapes the class, sexual, gender, spiritual, linguistic, geographical, and racial hierarchies of the "modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system". As feminist scholar Donna Haraways (1988) states, our knowledges are always situated. Black feminist scholars called this perspective "afro-centric epistemology" (Collins 1990) (which is not equivalent to the afrocentrist perspective), while Latin American philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussel called it "geopolitics of knowledge" (Dussel 1977); following Fanon (1967) and Anzaldua (1987), I will use the term "body-politics of knowledge".


This is not only a question about social values in knowledge production or the fact that our knowledge is always partial. The main point here is the locus of enunciation, that is, the geo-political and body-political location of the subject that speaks. In western philosophy and sciences the subject that speaks is always hidden, concealed, erased from the analysis. The "ego-politics of knowledge" of western philosophy has always privileged the myth of a non-situated "ego". Ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location and the subject that speaks are always decoupled. By delinking ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location from the subject that speaks, western philosophy and sciences are able to produce a myth about a truthful universal knowledge that covers up, that is, conceals both the speaker as well as the geo-political and body-political epistemic location of the structures of colonial power/knowledge from which the subject speaks. 


It is important here to distinguish the "epistemic location" from the "social location". The fact that one is socially located in the oppressed side of power relations does not automatically mean that he/she is epistemically thinking from a subaltern epistemic location. The success of the modern/colonial world-system consists precisely in making subjects that are socially located on the oppressed side of the colonial difference think epistemically like the ones in dominant positions. Subaltern epistemic perspectives are knowledge coming from below that produces a critical perspective of hegemonic knowledge in the power relations involved. I am not claiming an epistemic populism where knowledge produced from below is automatically an epistemic subaltern knowledge. What I am claiming is that all knowledges are epistemically located in the dominant or the subaltern side of the power relations and that this is related to the geo- and body-politics of knowledge. The disembodied and unlocated neutrality and objectivity of the ego-politics of knowledge is a western myth. 


Rene Descartes, the founder of modern western philosophy, inaugurates a new moment in the history of western thought. He replaces God, as the foundation of knowledge in the theo-politics of knowledge of the European Middle Ages, with (western) man as the foundation of knowledge in European Modern times. All the attributes of God are now extrapolated to (western) man. Universal truth beyond time and space, privilege access to the laws of the Universe, and the capacity to produce scientific knowledge and theory is now placed in the mind of western man. The Cartesian "ego-cogito" ("I think, therefore I am") is the foundation of modern western sciences. By producing a dualism between mind and body and between mind and nature, Descartes was able to claim non-situated, universal, omniscient divine knowledge. This is what the Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gomez called the "point zero" perspective of Eurocentric philosophies (Castro-Gomez 2003). The "point zero" is the point of view that hides and conceals itself as being beyond a particular point of view, that is, the point of view that represents itself as being without a point of view. It is this "god-eye view" that always hides its local and particular perspective under an abstract universalism. western philosophy privileges "ego politics of knowledge" over the "geopolitics of knowledge" and the "body-politics of knowledge". Historically, this has allowed western man (the gendered term is intentionally used here) to represent his knowledge as the only one capable of achieving a universal consciousness, and to dismiss non-Western knowledge as particularistic and, thus, unable to achieve universality. 


This epistemic strategy has been crucial for western global designs. By hiding the location of the subject of enunciation, European/Euro-American colonial expansion and domination was able to construct a hierarchy of superior and inferior knowledge and, thus, of superior and inferior people around the world. We went from the 16th century characterization of "people without writing" to the 18th and 19th century characterization of "people without history", to the 20th century characterization of "people without development" and more recently, to the early 21st century of "people without democracy". We went from the 16th century "rights of people" (Sepulveda versus de las Casas debate in the school of Salamanca in the mid-sixteenth century), to the 18th century "rights of man" (Enlightenment philosophers), and to the late 20th century "human rights". All of these are part of global designs articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour into core/periphery that overlaps with the global racial/ethnic hierarchy of Europeans/non-Europeans. 


However, as Enrique Dussel (1994) has reminded us, the Cartesian "ego cogito" ("I think, therefore I am") was preceded by 150 years (since the beginnings of the European colonial expansion in 1492) by the European "ego conquistus" ("I conquer, therefore I am"). The social, economic, political and historical conditions of possibility for a subject to assume the arrogance of becoming God-like and put himself as the foundation of all truthful knowledge was the imperial being, that is, the subjectivity of those who are at the centre of the world because they have already conquered it. What are the decolonial implications of this epistemological critique of our knowledge production and to our concept of world-system?


Coloniality of power as the power matrix of the modern/colonial world

Globalization studies, political-economy paradigms and world-system analysis, with only a few exceptions, have not derived the epistemological and theoretical implications of the epistemic critique coming from subaltern locations in the colonial divide and expressed in academia through ethnic studies and women's studies. They continue to produce knowledge from the perspective of western man's "point zero" divine view. This has led to important problems in the way we conceptualize global capitalism and the "world-system". These concepts are in need of decolonization, which can only be achieved with a decolonial epistemology that overtly assumes a decolonial geopolitics and body-politics of knowledge as points of departure for a radical critique. The following examples can illustrate this point. 


If we analyze European colonial expansion from a Eurocentric point of view, what we get is a picture in which the origins of the so-called capitalist world-system is primarily produced by inter-imperial competition among European empires. The primary motive for this expansion was to find shorter routes to the East, which led accidentally to the so-called discovery and, eventual, colonization of the Americas by Spain. From this point of view, the capitalist world-system would be primarily an economic system that determines the behaviour of the major social actors by the economic logic of making profits as manifested in the extraction of surplus value and the ceaseless accumulation of capital at a world-scale. Moreover, the concept of capitalism implied in this perspective privileges economic relations over other social relations. Accordingly, the transformation in the relations of production produces a new class structure typical of capitalism as opposed to other social systems and other forms of domination. Class analysis and economic structural transformations are privileged over other power relations. 


Without denying the importance of the endless accumulation of capital at a world scale and the existence of a particular class structure in global capitalism, I raise the following epistemic question: What would the world-system looks like if we moved the locus of enunciation from the European man to an Indigenous women in the Americas, to, say Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala or to Domitila in Bolivia? I do not pretend to speak for or represent the perspective of these indigenous women. What I attempt to do is to shift the location from which these paradigms are thinking. The first implication of shifting our geopolitics of knowledge is the recognition that what arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century was not only an economic system of capital and labour for the production of commodities to be sold for a profit in the world market. This was a crucial part of, but was not the sole element in, the entangled "package." What arrived in the Americas was a broader and wider entangled power structure that an economic reductionist perspective of the world-system is unable to account for. From the structural location of an indigenous woman in the Americas, what arrived was a more complex world-system than what political-economy paradigms and world-system analysis portray. A European/capitalist/military/christian/patriarchal/white/heterosexual/male arrived in the Americas and established simultaneously in time and space several entangled global hierarchies that for purposes of clarity in this exposition I will list below as if they were separate from each other: 


1) a particular global class formation where a diversity of forms of labour (slavery, semi- serfdom, wage labour, petty-commodity production, etc.) were to co-exist and be organized by capital as a source of production of surplus value through the selling of commodities for a profit in the world market;

2) an international division of labour of core and periphery where capital organized labour at the periphery around coerced and authoritarian forms (Wallerstein 1974; 3);

3) an inter-state system of politico-military organizations controlled by European males and institutionalized in colonial administrations (Wallerstein 1979);

4) a global racial/ethnic hierarchy that privileged European people over non-European people (Quijano 1993; 2000);

5) a global gender hierarchy that privileged males over females and European patriarchy over other forms of gender relations (Spivak 1988; Enloe 1990); 

6) a sexual hierarchy that privileged heterosexuals over homosexuals and lesbians (it is important to remember that most indigenous peoples in the Americas did not consider sexuality among males a pathological behaviour and had no homophobic ideology); 

7) a spiritual hierarchy that privileged Christians over non-Christian/non-Western spiritualities institutionalized in the globalization of the Christian (Catholic and later Protestant) Church;

8) an epistemic hierarchy that privileged western knowledge and cosmology over non- Western knowledge and cosmologies, and institutionalized in the global university system (Mignolo 1995, 2000; Quijano 1991). 

9) a linguistic hierarchy between European languages and non-European languages that privileged communication and knowledge/theoretical production in the former and subalternized the latter as sole producers of folklore or culture but not of knowledge/theory (Mignolo 2000). 


It not accidental that the conceptualization of the world-system, from decolonial perspectives of the South, will question its traditional conceptualizations produced by thinkers from the North. Following Peruvian Sociologist Aníbal Quijano (1991; 1998; 2000), we could conceptualize the present world-system as a historical- structural heterogeneous totality with a specific power matrix, which he calls a "colonial power matrix" ("patrón de poder colonial"). This matrix affects all dimensions of social existence such as sexuality, authority, subjectivity and labour (Quijano 2000). The 16th century initiated a new global colonial power matrix that by the late 19th century came to cover the whole planet. Taking a step further from Quijano, I conceptualize the coloniality of power as an entanglement or, to use US Third World feminist concept, intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989; Fregoso 2003) of multiple and heterogeneous global hierarchies ("heterarchies") of sexual, political, epistemic, economic, spiritual, linguistic and racial forms of domination and exploitation. Here, the racial/ethnic hierarchy of the European/non-European divide transversally reconfigures all the other global power structures. What is new in the "coloniality of power" perspective is how the idea of race and racism becomes the organizing principle that structures all of the multiple hierarchies of the world-system (Quijano 1993). For example, the different forms of labour that are articulated to capitalist accumulation at a world-scale are assigned according to this racial hierarchy; coercive (or cheap) labour is done by non-European people on the periphery and "free wage labour" at the core. The global gender hierarchy is also affected by race: contrary to pre-European patriarchies, where all women were inferior to all men, in the new colonial power matrix some women (of European origin) have a higher status and access to resources than some men (of non-European origin). The idea of race organizes the world's population into a hierarchical order of superior and inferior people that becomes an organizing principle of the international division of labour and of the global patriarchal system. Contrary to the Eurocentric perspective, race, gender, sexuality, spirituality, and epistemology are not additive elements to the economic and political structures of the capitalist world-system, but an integral, entangled and constitutive part of the broad entangled "package" called the European modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system (Grosfoguel 2002). European patriarchy and European notions of sexuality, epistemology and spirituality were exported to the rest of the world through colonial expansion as the hegemonic criteria to racialize, classify and pathologize the rest of the world's population in a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. 


This conceptualization has enormous implications that I can only briefly mention here: 


1) The old Eurocentric idea that societies develop at the level of the nation-state in terms of a linear evolution of modes of production from pre-capitalist to capitalist is overcome. We are all encompassed within a capitalist world-system that articulates different forms of labour according to the racial classification of the world's population (Quijano 2000; Grosfoguel 2002). 

2) The old Marxist paradigm of infrastructure and superstructure is replaced by a historical-heterogeneous structure (Quijano 2000) or a "heterarchy" (Kontopoulos 1993), that is, an entangled articulation of multiple hierarchies, in which subjectivity and the social imaginary is not derivative but constitutive of the structures of the world-s

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