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Walter Mignolo

Thoughts on modernity/coloniality, geopolitics of knowledge, border thinking, pluriversality, and the decolonial option.


The First Istanbul World Forum on Justice was organized by the Primer Minister Office of Public Diplomacy and SETA Foundation. Two intense days (October 13 and 14), hosted about 150 invited speakers plus a significant number of local audience congregated at the Istanbul Congress Center. The topics, well selected, touched on the wide spectrum of global un-justices and pushed forward visions for enacting global justice. Some of the topics of the conference were “Justice and Politics”, “Justice and Economy”, “Justice and Religion” “Justice and Global Order”, “Turkey in World Politics and the Question of Justice,” “Justice, Art and Media,” etc. I participated in the panel on “Just Memory.”  The panel was described as follows:

Victorious states have used history as an instrument to advance their narratives, thereby constructing a one-dimensional historical memory. In the face of the radical changes that we have recently been witnessing, the common memory needs to be reconstructed on just foundations.

Some of the questions asked beforehand to the panelist where the followings:

Can history be re-interpreted irrespective of ideological and nation-states biases?

What have been the consequences of reading the Ottoman-European encounters through the one dimensional lenses of “us” vrs “them”?

How do Europe, Asia, Latin America and the USA read and interpret their histories? And how are other nations/regions in these readings (Notice that the USA is alined with continents and subcontinents, which is an example of how coloniality works on the unconscious naturalizing the coloniality of knowledge)

Is it possible to clear the understanding of history in the political, ideological, and regional effects and to construct a just memory?

My presentation (a shorter version of what i transcribe here) addressed the last question from a theoretical, epistemic and political platform that emerged in “Latin” America, known as modernity/coloniality/decoloniality paradigm or conceptual frame. This conceptual frame did not originate in Europe or in the US. It is indeed one case  of “just theoretical memories” for we are living a global period in which neither Europe nor the US have the monopoly of philosophical and theoretical thinking in all the areas of human experiences and daily life.

The main point of my presentation was that in order to enact global justice we need to know the logic that engenders and perpetrate unjustice. It is necessary but not sufficient to deal with particular cases. However, if the deep structure of global unjustice in the modern/colonial world is not addressed, justice would be difficult to be enacted effectively. My thesis was and is that the source of global unjustice shall be found in the logic of global coloniality, the logic upon which the idea of modernity has been built and maintained.

I began by recognizing–in this respect–the relevance of the First Istanbul World Forum, next to the World Public Forum and the World Social Forum. Each of them is anchored in their particular local memories and all of them are contributing to building the polycentric world of the future. All of them, furthermore, are multiplying the options toward global futures beyond Davos Economics and Davos University. These Fora are not “alternatives” to Davos: they are instead multiplying the options and preventing the dangers of a single story. Polycentricism doesn’t mean only decentering the control of economic regulations and unilateral political decisions but it means, above all, the closing of a five hundred year period of the formation and domination of Western civilization.

My first point on the topic of the panel was to stress the need to know how and why un-just acts and decisions take place, what is its logic, what are the beliefs, the actors and the institutions where un-justice originates.  It is necessary of course but hardly sufficient to concentrate and amend, when possible, singular acts or situations where injustice has been committed. But we need to have a better understanding of the logic that allows for un-justice to be perpetuated. My suggestion is that research to understand the past and present of global un-justice is as necessary as research devoted to progress, development and growth. Progress, development and growth are key words of the rhetoric of modernity. But more often than not, these words hide the logic of coloniality, the logic that produce and reproduce un-justices covered up by the illusory promises of the rhetoric of modernity anchored today in progress, development, growth and innovation.

The panel on “Justice and History/Just Memories” addressed fundamental questions for building polycentric, diverse, harmonious and decolonial (that is, non-imperial) global futures. In a pluriversal and diverse world, Memories have to be diverse and cannot be controlled by a generous Global and Universal History “including” them. “Inclusion” is always already an un-just word. For who has the right to include whom? Tariq Ramadan said it clearly and loudly in Vienna when he stated that “inclusion” is a word of the past and that Muslim do not want to be “included” in Europe but to cooperate in building a pluriversal European future. “Cooperation” not “inclusion” is the word of the present toward just, equitable and harmonious future. [1]

For, one of the sites in which abstract universals have been effective was in the role Western History (as a discipline) played in the control of Global Memories. Global Memories exceed by far what the discipline of History can do. However, it is often assumed that what is written in a Historical narrative what can and should be remembered. History has contributed to create the conditions and to perpetuate the results of global epistemic un-justice. “Justice” in this case doesn’t mean to correct singular instances but to understand the epistemic regulation that legitimize the discipline of History to colonize Memories. Thus, the first step would be to decolonize History in order to liberate Memories. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie has made this point loud and clear in her celebrate 20 minutes talk on “The Danger of a Single Story.”  [2]

Hegemony, in a polycentric world, would require of pluriversality to a universal principle–an apparent contradiction that deserves careful attention. If the principle of pluri-versality is uni-versaly (that is, globally) assumed, then dialogues and alliances of civilizations—instead of competitions between imperial nation-states and dependency of small nation-states—would be “natural” to cooperate instead of competing in international relations. The goals, in a polycentric and pluri-versal world order would be to administer scarcity rather than promote development and to promote harmony instead of competing for natural resources and growth; the philosophy guiding such global plan would be cooperation rather than competition, harmony instead of war. Progressive historians are instrumental in illuminating what has been obscured by conservative and imperial histories. But History is extremely limited in relation to the richness of the world and the communities for whom Memories is not an academic discipline but a way of being in the world, of building, maintaining and transmitting identity and consolidating identities that imperial histories taught them to despise. Oral traditions and transmissions, art and literature and communal way of living are sites of living Memories that cannot be controlled by the discipline of History. Memories, as I said, exceed History. Memories have been silenced by hegemony Histories. To decolonize History means to liberate Memories an to correct epistemic un-justices. [3]

My second point was—following up on what I just said–to push further the distinction between History and Memories to understand the un-justice in History and the need to decolonize imperial history to liberate colonized Memories.  The word “history” refers to past events as well as to the discipline that study, organize and interpret past events. Here I am using “history” in the second sense, that is, “history” as a discipline in the scholarly spectrum of the social sciences and the humanities. History then is one particular way to deal with the past. Memories are much larger than History and do not require the discipline to manifest themselves. As I said oral communication, what is called “folklore” and what is called “art and literature”, are all effective and powerful means to bring the past into the present and to project possible futures. Memories are embedded in living organisms, be this organism, plants or animals, to make a long story short. To live is to remember and to remember is to live. How does this principle affect the question of Justice and History?

There is a significant bibliography on the etymology and meaning of the word “justice,” from Latin justitia. The fact that we do not have the same amount of analysis and information about equivalent words in Ancient China, in Islam and among the Mayas and Aztecs (to name just a few examples), makes us believe that Latin justitia translated into modern European imperial languages (“Justice” in English, “Justice” in French, “Justicia” in Spanish), shall be the universal concept we have to deal with. However, the examples just make clear that Western “justice” belongs to one memory, the memory of European people, languages and institutions. Latin “justice” is irrelevant in Nahuatl or Chinese, Hindi or Bambara, Arabic and Russian. Just to give you an example: the investigations being carried on by Aymara scholars and intellectuals in Bolivia on the on justice and the law of the Ayllu. [4]

The claim I am making is grounded at the moment in which the discipline of History turned into a tool to disavow Memories. The well-known Eric Wolff’s formula “people without history” summarizes what I am arguing. First, there are indeed many people who do not have “history” as a discipline, since History is a Western concept and practice;[5] but there is no community without Memories. The coloniality of knowledge however managed to make us belief that, as Wolff has argued, that there are people without history and people without history are inferior human beings that nee to be civilized. Such arguments served well–past five hundred years–to legitimate any and every process of appropriation, expropriation and exploitation. The fact that History is a Western concept and practice doesn’t mean that Western Civilization was the only civilization able to keep record of the past. Every known culture and civilization came up with a technology for recording the past, starting from just plain oral Memory and going through inscriptions on stones or in knotted strings, like in the Kipus among the ancient Incas in the South American Andes.

In a nutshell, the point I was arguing: History in the European Renaissance was a fundamental tool to colonize Memories of non-European people, cultures and civilizations. [6] It started in the New World, and continued in Asia and Africa during the expansion of French and British imperialism. Philology since the late eighteenth century complemented the task of History in disavowing non-European memories and, from the early nineteenth century on, Anthropology came into the picture to further erase from their sources and appropriate for the disciplines, Memories in non-European geo-historical formations.

The logic of coloniality is the historical foundation of global un-justice in the modern/colonial world, whose consequences are being addressed in this Forum and similar one like the World Public Forum on the Dialogue of Civilization an the World Social Forum. The difficulties in addressing the logic of coloniality and the making and reproduction of un-justices, is that it is hidden under the rhetoric of modernity. And the rhetoric of modernity is always promising us a better world, making claim about social justice and ethical behavior. However, since today the rhetoric of modernity is based on the belief that salvation and happiness is based on economic growth and a large middle class of consumers, the devastating consequences of open pit mining in Africa and South America are hidden and silenced below the triumphal noise of iPods and cell phones that cannot be produced without mining and its devastating consequences for the people and Memories of the people and the places.

To deal with History and Justice means to deal with epistemic un-justices that have been committed since the historical inception of the modern/colonial world during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the Mediterranean was displaced by the Atlantic and Christian Theology became the overarching frame for the control of knowledge and subjectivity. Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations and Suleiman the Magnificent were contemporary rulers of two powerful socio-economic and cultural formations, the Ottoman Sultanate and the Holy Roman Empire. Since then, the Ottoman Sultanate began to be ruled out, until its demise, by the growing economic, politic and epistemic power of Western civilization. An epistemic un-justice that began to be corrected today within the First Istanbul World Forum is a sign of the redressing historical un-justices and building truly democratic futures. Futures in which the word “democracy” indicates a point of arrival through many roads built on local Memories and local knowledge rather than through one road whose traffic is directed from above.

My third point was an illustration of how the power of collective Memories superseded academic history in Ecuador and also in Bolivia. Aymara, Quechua and Quichua intellectuals in both countries made their voice and that of the communities heard in the re-writing of the constitution of both countries in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Both constitutions declare that Bolivia and Ecuador are pluri-national states. The concept of “pluri-national” state did not come from the Memories of the population of European descent in both countries, who have been in control of the government, the economy and education since independence from Spain in early nineteenth century. It was not History that kept Indigenous Memories alive. History in South America is written in Spanish. In the Andes, Memories survive in Aymara, Quechua and Quichua mainly. Furthermore, a Historian of Ecuadorian or Bolivian nationality of Spanish descent who learns Aymara or Quichua because of his or her profession, do not carry with him or her the memories imbedded in the language and the bodies of Quichua-Aymara speakers. The official Historian could “include” Indigenous memories as a theme, but cannot dwell in Memories that are not his or hers. The concept of pluri-national state emerged from Indigenous Memories who have been always aware that in modern/colonial nation states the correspondence between one state and one ethno-class is unsustainable. There are many nations in Bolivia and Ecuador, not only the nation of people of European descent. And that embedded knowledge provides the ground for an advocacy that could be supported by non-Indigenous historians but that cannot be replaced or even worst “represented” by official historical narrative in Spanish including Aymara and Quechua speakers’ Memories.

A similar analysis could be carried on with Sumak Kawsay (in Quichua) and Sumaq Quamaña (in Aymara). The concept is generally translated as “buen vivir” (good living), which is confusing because it could be interpreted in a bourgeois sense of having more, earning more, buying more, living better than your neighbor, etc. A better translation would be “to live in harmony and in plenitude” which is totally different to a concept of good life based on the materiality of possessions. Such a concept comes from Indigenous Memories and philosophy. The un-justice was that Indigenous ways of life were repressed because it did not conform to the ideas of progress and modernity, understood as economic wealth and forced life style. History, official History in Bolivia and Ecuador, silenced Indigenous Memories. But even if now a progressive historian wants to “include” them in the history of the nation, it is too late, for Indigenous intellectuals are strong enough now to make their voice heard and to reject the bourgeois generosity of “inclusion.” Inclusion is a word of the past, as Ramadan argued; cooperation is the word of the present and the future. This is an epistemic historical unjustice in the process of being corrected. When “inclusion” is no longer accepted by those who are supposed to be included, historical un-justice began to be corrected and universal History reduced to size: there is no longer room for one generous Global or Universal History that will include the excluded for, those who include try to maintain a privilege that the excluded are no longer willing to grant.

Last but not least, Sumak Kawsay has been a fundamental concept to show that development is unsustainable. [7] To live in plenitude and in harmony means to live in plenitude and harmony with the planet, with the plants, with the animals, with the rivers, with the fields. Development instead presupposed that all beyond an unjust and limited concept of “humanity” is “nature” and that “nature” is there to be exploited by “men” to his own benefit. It is in indigenous Memories and philosophy, and not in the discipline of history, where the force of these concepts and the advocacy that they generate reached a point of no-return.

In sum, History as a discipline has been a tool to colonize non-Western Memories, an epistemic un-justice that shall and is being corrected by Historians as well as by the enactment of Memories silenced by official Histories (as Trouillot have argued). However, History could be also a tool to correct the disciplinary silencing of the past. That would be a question of History and Justice within the discipline itself. However, beyond the discipline, there is the wide range of Memories that are finding today their place in the global unfolding and changing world order. Memories are the foundation of political visions and decisions. If the First Istanbul World Forum focused on the issue of “Justice” one could surmise that the problem of (un) Justice is embedded in the very Memories of Istanbul and Turkey’s in the global order from the Ottoman Sultanate to the nation-state built upon the ruins of the Sultanate to, I would surmise, a rebuilding of Turkey future by retrieving the memories that Western as well as nation-state historian tended to demise.

[1] ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7GAAGFo2Eo&feature=relmfu

[2] ) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

[3] Haitian anthropologists Michel-Rolph Trouillot has strongly argued this point in his celebrated book, Power and the Production of History (1995).

[4] Marcelo Fernandez Osco, “La ley del Ayllu: Justicia de Acuerdo”, 2008, http://www.scribd.com/doc/83744285/Fernandez-Osco-2001-La-ley-del-ayllu-justicia-de-acuerdos. “Ayllu” is the basic cell of social organization in Inca Civilization. It is equivalent to the Greek oykos. The Ayllu is well and alive today not because of work of Historians, who silenced its importance, but because of the Memories of Aymara and Quechua communities.

[5] Eric Woolf , Europe and the People Without History, Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1982. Walter D Mignolo, “When Speaking was not Good Enough. Illiterates, Barbarians, Savages and Cannibals”, 1992, http://books.google.com/books?id=3QuXJtkhhKcC&pg=PA312&lpg=PA312&dq=mignolo,+when+speaking+was+not+good+enough&source=bl&ots=9fJ_kPZvD4&sig=kDue_djxIsxfX6Zm7Z6xp8MHuds&hl=es&sa=X&ei=RYKEULq0LZHc8ATWzoHwBA&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mignolo%2C%20when%20speaking%20was%20not%20good%20enough&f=false:

[6] Walter D. Mignolo “On the Colonization of Amerindian Languages and Memories”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1992, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=4418392;

[7] Hernández Sánchez, Maribel: “Sumak Kawsay, Sumaq Kamaña. The Challenge of Learning from the South¨, 2009,  http://rua.ua.es/dspace/handle/10045/13394



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  2. kasay says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am kasay Sentime. I would like to get in touch with Professor Mignolo. This is mainly with regrads to my PhD studies in Forestry which i have extensively use his readings on coloniality and would like to have his opinions/suggestions about my work and keep also in touch about future references.
    Thanks in adavance for replying to my queries.

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