[How Do We Know the World Series] Part VIII: The Power of Agency: Bringing Back Subjects’ Agency in Academia and Activism

by Sophie Bergmann

In the last few months a spectre appears to haunt Europe and its cultural institutions, namely museums and their artefacts – it is the spectre of postcolonialism.

The cultural and intellectual structures, that epistemically prepared and justified the occupation of the African continent and the exploitation of its economic and cultural wealth in the past, are now the same that ‘contextualise’ the looting of art during the 18th and 19th century in an attempt to legitimize and perpetuate the composition of Europe’s museums.
The impact of postcolonial thought and theory on power asymmetries will hopefully go beyond the contentual and epistemic orientation of exhibitions in Africa’s and Europe’s museums, and alter the systems of knowledge that have caused colonization, racialisation and discrimination.

What I deem crucial in this attempt is the term and practice of ‘agency’ highlighted in postcolonial thought, namely valuing people’s daily and embodied actions and behaviours to de-link from predominant theories and practices of the alleged superiority of the Global North on one hand, and to question the linkage of modernity, economic development and liberal rights on the other hand. How rigid and patronizing those theories and practices are, is evident in the departments of social sciences.

Despite the postcolonial turn, its acknowledgement and superficial encouragement, academic curriculums largely employ chronological teachings of the ‘isms’ of European modernity and allocate only few hours on those theories that attempt to erode the epistemology on which the curriculums, the departments and the learning institutions are built upon. But the current academic structure does not only restrict what we learn as a compulsory canon but mentally impedes students from confidently pursuing their own research agenda and content.

In academic and journalistic work on social movements and uprisings in non-European countries, for instance, Eurocentric universalism is constantly revived, as we can see in research on the uprisings in Arab-speaking countries of the last eight years. The histories of their social movements are often compared to European histories of revolutions and uprisings, their quest for a democratic society of equal opportunities and rights is portrayed as the temporarily delayed spread of the European modernity. Furthermore, research that attempts to examine contestations outside of Europe and North America in their own right and merit mostly apply common theories of political and social sciences originating in epistemologies of the Global North. This is not to say that ‘subaltern’ histories and presences cannot be contextualized and interpreted in a convincing and non-Eurocentric way with the aid of political philosophy, communication theory and social movement theory since “the universal statements of theory and the parochialism of Eurocentric thinking are not one and the same thing” (Dikec, 2010). But, as a fresh postgraduate of a social science researching the Tunisian Uprising since 2011, I ask myself about the unspoken demand and requirement to study and ‘consider’ those theories and philosophies mentioned above at all?

The term demand/requirement is less meant as a coercion in form of a narrow-minded and imposing supervisor, teaching staff or department but it aims to allude to the restrictive interpretation of academia and the transmission of knowledge in most universities.
Initially, wanting to detach myself from common political and social theories, I often felt trapped in the belief that in order to be ‘allowed’ to disregard them I would first need to study and comprehend them all in order to secondly justify a research framework ‘solely’ containing histories, practices and theories of the Global South.

In the introductory article “Decolonising teaching pedagogies” (2018) on Convivial Thinking, Aftab Nasir speaks of the necessity to ‘delink’ from common ideas of knowledge transmission and the transmitter – receiver dichotomy predominant in universities (and schools). This “basic delinking” may entail the possibility for students to acknowledge themselves as already knowledgeable and able/competent. A postcolonial turn in academia where research projects forego comparisons with historical examples and theories of the Global North must therefore bring back and out the student’s agency to decide upon the meaningfulness and adequacy of their chosen research framework (which may very well entail the complete disregard of 19th/20th European knowledge production).

The attempt to take back and exercise one’s agency and to delink from the epistemological structures in European academic institutions, though, poses challenges in form of lack of resources (lectures and appropriate reading material) and shy of boldness that I was not able to overcome in my own postgraduate dissertation.

However, the world beyond the many walls of the university is one step ahead of academia and institutionalised education (as it is often the case).
The domain of international cooperation is similarly affected by power asymmetries in the transfer of knowledge, expertise and experiences insofar that networks and exchange opportunities are created between actors of the target region and the donor’s/NGO’s geographical origin (of the Global North). Spaces of practice and exchange on social and political struggles between countries of the Global South across continental borders rarely take place without the financial, contentual and humanely involvement of North Europe and North America.

Exceptions that disengage from the epistemic and material paternalism and dictation within development and international cooperation do exist, though, as one example from Tunisia shows. In summer 2018, the Tunisian feminist organisation CHOUF and the South-Indian Fearless Collective came together for an art and storytelling workshop on gender-based violence and discrimination that was (financially) funded by AWID and the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.

Various aspects and circumstances surely played a part in the success of this non-Eurocentric workshop. However, one important aspect is the Tunisian and South-Indian feminist organisations’ firm belief in their own agency as conscious, knowledgeable and competent subjects which  – even prior to the workshop –  entitled them to create spaces that illustrate postcolonial feminist struggles for their targeted audiences (and not the donors’) as well as opportunities to learn, teach and discuss practices of resistance and solidarities among women speaking and acting from the subaltern side of the colonial difference.

The power of agency, the consciousness thereof and commitment to exercise one’s own within and against restrictive structures, represents a crucial asset of postcolonial theories for teaching, researching and cooperating.

Sophie is a human geographer specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. She is interested in fostering international cooperation of activism and culture that constantly interrogates and dismantles asymmetrical power relations.
Sophie is happy to be contacted at sophie_bergmann [at]web[dot]de
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