[How do We “Know” the World Series] Encounters with Theory: (Un)Learning Ways of Knowing

by Zeynep Gülşah Çapan

The manner in which knowledge systems are organized and disciplinary formations are delimited work to delineate who can ‘speak’, who can ‘think’ and who is worthy of being ‘read’ and ‘listened’. It is not that ‘other ways’ of thinking are not present, there is a wide archive of knowledge available if one sheds the self-imposed limitations of what counts as ‘legitimate’ knowledge. The courses I have been teaching at the University of Erfurt have been an exploration into how to ‘unlearn’ ways of knowing and how to discuss issues (whether it is race, colonialism, notion of history) through other vocabularies that are already present but ignored. Over the last two years I have been trying to write syllabuses and design courses that reflect these concerns. As part of this effort, I have taught various courses such as ‘Race and Racism’, ‘Fantasizing International Relations’ and ‘Anticolonial Connectivities’.

My discussion here will focus on the course entitled ‘Postcolonial and Decolonial Thought’ and discuss the ways in which it was designed to make us (un)learn ways of knowing. The course Postcolonial and Decolonial Thought aimed to problematize two related trends with respect to how theory is taught and understood in general and how postcolonial theory is understood specifically. Both points relate to a construction of ‘distinctness’ that influences the way in which theory in general and postcolonial theory in particular is understood and it is a way of understanding that is not only pervasive in teaching but is also pervasive in academic knowledge ‘production’ and discussions. The distinctness is constructed through the practice of ‘naming’ and ‘situating’ whereby ‘Postcolonialism’ becomes one week in our linear rendition of theories. The underlying assumption being that if at one point, for a week, we spare time for Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak, then we can teach everything else as if nothing has changed. Such an approach means that the knowledge systems themselves stay intact, unquestioned but we ‘congratulate’ ourselves for being ‘critical’. The purpose as such should not be to present syllabuses in a manner that outlines ‘theories’ and then moves on to the ‘classificatory’ ones.  By ‘classificatory’ ones I mean ones that require the previous explanation ‘Postcolonial’ theory, Feminist Theory, not theory but theory that needs to be named specifically. ‘Theory’ itself remains the purview of a specific production and ‘Postcolonial’ becomes ones produced about the colonial experience. This results in constructing a distinctiveness and uniqueness into postcolonial theory that has two ramifications.

Firstly, the distinctness works to delineate postcolonial thought as a separate moment specific in time and place. As a consequence, postcolonial and decolonial thought end up being presented as ‘distinct’ and ‘separate’ traditions solely applying to the postcolonial states themselves. As such, one ends up with the erroneous assumption that this body of thought can be applied to states that had been colonized and are from a specific location. The second consequence is that it leads to the erroneous assumption that because Edward Said has been read one can authoritatively speak, criticize and even dismiss postcolonial theory as if there is no variation and debates and disagreements within the thought tradition itself.

These two assumptions lead to not only people assuming that this thought tradition can only be applied to specific cases but that the thought tradition itself disappears where it is seen as enough to name drop Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak and any criticism or agreement directed towards them is equal to ‘postcolonial theory’. For example, when discussing ‘postcolonial’ theory one thing I encounter most is that either Edward Said is invoked with a critique of his Orientalism or Gayatri Spivak is invoked with a reiteration of the line Can the Subaltern Speak? This manner of invoking postcolonial thought is rooted in the way it has been presented and learned in a manner that continues two erroneous assumptions that permeates what is at times termed ‘critical’ thinking. The invocation works in two ways, either as a support of already held views to support their point or to criticize postcolonial theory as an entire tradition. In either case, it reduces an entire thought tradition to one or two ‘figures’ meaning that if one of them is cited or invoked that must be sufficient to either dispel any criticism of Eurocentrism or demonstrate the limits of the critique of Eurocentrism.

The archive of knowledge available to us (even if we may choose to ignore it) might present us with a ‘broader’ picture of the discussions. The course ‘Postcolonial and Decolonial Thought’ aimed to challenge both these assumptions by designing the course around different issue areas that constitute main discussion points in ‘theory’ whether it is the relationship between subject and language, notion of history or the politics of being. For example, the week that focused on the relationship between subject and language had two required readings. One was Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ and the other one was Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. These two readings were supported by two recommendations. One was Abdelkebir Khatibi’s Love in two languages and the other one was talks given by Angela Davis and Gayatri Spivak. The two constructions of distinctness then become questioned through this organization. Firstly, it challenges the distinctness attributed to ‘postcolonial’ theory as applying to a specific time and place and rather opens up the discussion to reflect that the colonial encounter influenced events, subjectivities and understandings of being in varied and entangled manners. Secondly, it broadens the scope of the debate and demonstrating that there is a vast archive of knowledge filled with debates and disagreements. There is no ‘one’ postcolonial or decolonial thought to reference to either dispel any criticism of Eurocentrism or demonstrate its limits. It is an ongoing and lively debate that should be engaged as such.

Zeynep Gülşah Çapan is a Lecturer in International Relations, University of Erfurt, where she is also a member of the interdisciplinary Center for Political Practices and Orders (C2PO). Her research agenda focuses on Eurocentrism in the field of International Relations, sociology and historiography of international relations, and postcolonial and de-colonial thought. She is the author of Re-Writing International Relations: History and Theory Beyond Eurocentrism in Turkey. She has published articles in Third World Quarterly and Review of International Relations. Her most recent publication is an interview at E-IR.

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