Dialectics and Difference: Against the “Decolonial Turn”


by Ross Wolfe (Insurgent Notes #15, August 2017)

The decade or so since the financial crisis of 2008 has seen a resurgence of interest in what nineteenth-century thinkers would have called “the social question,” backpedaling somewhat from the “cultural turn” of previous decades. Yet despite a series of recent skirmishes against the post-communist geopolitical order—from the Greek uprising in December 2008 to the London riots, Arab Spring, and Spanish indignados of 2011, up to the Polish women’s strikes in October 2016—old habits die hard. Few self-styled radicals who came of age during the nineties and aughts, especially those who attended universities, want to see the discourses of “difference” on which they were weaned suddenly abandoned wholesale. Alongside nascent and budding movements, then, one witnesses the recrudescence of concepts and strategies which ought to have been superseded by events themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the almost endless balkanization of identity formations. Each lays claim to a particular set of un-relatable “lived experiences,” as if hell-bent on proving the old psychoanalytic trope of Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen (narcissism of small differences).

“Decolonial” criticism is an example of just this sort of vogue academic approach, which can be grafted onto preexisting disciplines and practices with relative ease. Still further, in so doing, it offers the semblance of radicalism, because it appears to challenge the tacit erasures and hidden presuppositions of prior revolutionary perspectives. In reality, however, it simply transposes dependency theory in the realm of economics onto that of epistemology. Third-worldism, based on the model proposed by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, has been supplanted by talk of the Global South, based on the line proposed by the former West German chancellor Willy Brandt in 1983. But the substance remains the same. Mainly it consists in diagnosing the allegedly Eurocentric prejudices of various bodies of knowledge, down to their very methodologies, and then enjoining individuals to decolonize their minds. “Kill the cop in your head!” is seemingly replaced by “kill the Pilgrim in your head!” Recently, this procedure has even sought to “colonize” dialectical thought, although in the name of its decolonization. Here it becomes worthwhile to review one of the more elaborate efforts to subsume dialectics under difference.

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