A critical review of Walter Mignolo’s “Politics of Decolonial Investigations”, by Kavish Chetty – 30 July 2023

Universities have no shortage of naked emperors enrobed in the finest of phantasmal silks and, here, Walter Mignolo endeavours to show off the latest in decolonial couture. The Politics of Decolonial Investigations (2021) is his most recent contribution to a scholarship which argues that a “colonial matrix of power” or “CMP” was established around 500 years ago and acts as the origin-point for almost all our contemporary sorrows. Mignolo proposes “epistemic reconstitution” (4, 24), the act of dredging up half-forgotten indigenous ways of being, as the remedy. Despite the utopian seductions of this theory which aims to challenge the asymmetries of Eurocentrism, to repair the humiliations of racism and to restore occluded autochthonous knowledge-systems, Mignolo’s proposals are not simply confused and wrong, but often dangerous. This is because his work frequently collapses into cultural relativism, romanticism of the Other, and, often, it even seems as though Mignolo has gone full-circle and reinvented a new segregation for the twenty-first century, with each adjacent cultural unit, or “ethnie,” condemned to its own epistemic vantage point.

The grand sweep of the decolonial project includes, at a minimum, the proposal that one could seriously produce a metanarrative which explains all forms of oppression over the last half-millennium and continuing into the present. Among the diverse moments of conflict spread across time and space which are alleged, ultimately, to be the effect of the CMP, we may number: the genocide in “Ayiti” in the late 1400s, the Atlantic slave-trade, the ascendancy of the Third Reich, the Israel-Palestine conflict and even the internal class-antagonisms of the modern United States. And, on the other side, one seems to find decolonial retaliation everywhere avant la lettre. Biographers of Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah (16) will be fascinated to learn these historical figures were always already decolonial theorists. Mignolo also arrogates unto his decolonial cause a disorienting multiplicity of heterogeneous movements, such as the Zapatistas and Black Lives Matter (13), as though all anti-establishment forces share a common soul, a unitary ideology and a singular enemy: The West, the evil West.

The sum total of this insistence on the Western CMP syndicate as the author of all misfortunes is a diminishment of the complexity through which we might otherwise understand the world.

Mignolo’s “investigations” frequently appear to sink to the level of conspiracy, suggestive of a shadowy cohort of pale-throated men who have, for 500 years, been shaping the order of the planet under the aegis of “the West.” Compared to the magnitude of these claims, Marxist prognostics seem positively coy. He announces early on that “classifications [. . .] that create colonial wounds [. . .] are made by the presumptive creators of the world order who intend to imply that their classifications unquestioningly represent the world ‘as is’” (10, emphasis added). In order to support this vision which centres the West as the “final boss” of all progressive struggle, Mignolo must resort to strawmanning. He offers an undifferentiated, monolithic account of the West which is insensible to the histories of internal dissent which powered Western thought for hundreds of years; the productive disagreements out of which were borne endless chains of anti-orthodox points of view for which many a light- complexioned individual paid in mortal currency. We are told that “‘the pursuit of happiness’ is a Western obsession connected to the Western glorification of the individual [. . .] and of material possessions” (31) and that “there is a confusion in Western epistemology between what one sees and what there is” (129).

How, then, has Mignolo, a blue-eyed “Argentine of Italian descent” (93), and effectively another “white man,” escaped his imprisonment within this Western episteme? One pathway is the indulgence of several biographical excursions in which Mignolo is at pains to distinguish himself from other white men who are the custodians of the CMP. Mignolo allows himself a racial and ontic complexity which he ungenerously withholds from his opponents, in lines such as these: “I was deficient: not quite European and not quite white, even if I have white skin” (94); and I enjoyed [. . .] the (second-class) privileges that immigrants of Italian descent in South America have in the CMP. In that regard I had an edge on the diversity of Indians and African descendants in South America, while falling short of the privileges of first-class citizens in Argentina [. . .] and also by virtue of being not European but of European descent. (93, original emphasis) This gesture is at odds with the general flattening out of the heritage and “lived experience” of anyone he disagrees with. Mignolo, like the long procession of white saviours before him, is begging to be oppressed and to flaunt his credentials as an ostensible victim (to say nothing of his entrenchment at the institutional Ivy League powerhouse of Duke University). He would like to show that he is able to manoeuvre himself into an epistemic position that gives his viewpoint legitimacy because, in his discourse, who you are – the colour of your skin, your social disadvantage and your geographic place, combined into your “geo-body politics” (xx) – are the things which determine the value of your propositions. This is argumentum ad hominem elaborated into an entire philosophy.

This insistence on the “body-political location” (393) of the speaker is generative of some spectacular oddities. “If we shift the geography of knowing, sensing and believing,” Mignolo writes, “and look [. . .] at the Industrial Revolution from the lived experience in and of the Americas since the sixteenth century we will form a different picture [than the Marxist view]” (27). On the shortcomings of Karl Marx, he writes, “Marx was looking backward from the nineteenth century and from Europe,” and with regard to his mentor, the recently-departed Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano: “Quijano was looking forward and sideways from the sixteenth century and from the Americas to the world” (27, original emphases). Now, whatever disagreements one might have with the Marxist tradition, why is it that in this formulation Marx is unable to peer beyond the rim of his own worldview, while Quijano, the time-traveller, is able to wend his way through the centuries and occupy an estranged body-political location and a hitherto occulted episteme? It is as though a hindsight bias could be elevated to the level of a methodology.

These exceptionalisms characterise the decolonial project, which often appears to be impervious to the ordinary rules of categorisation and disciplinisation, such as when we read that “coloniality” is “not a sociological concept but [. . .] a decolonial one” (8), as if the concept of “coloniality” is floating above the normal world, therefore disqualifying the traditional methods of criticism.

Among Mignolo’s intolerable commitments, we should mark that he is guilty of a romanticism for the exotic and a nostalgia for the non-Western ideas of epochs past; that he homogenises pre-colonial cultures, regarding them all as noble savages with a natural antidote to the ways of the “West;” and that he often seems incapable of expressing himself in anything other than hyperbole. He declares as much in his “prolegomenon” when he writes that “No living organism at this point in time is immune to coloniality [which is] the underlying logic that has tricked all of us on planet Earth under the mirage of the universality of knowledge and human destiny” and that he will “reconsider the cosmogonies and cosmologies that never sought to divide us from the living energy of planet Earth and the cosmos” (3). This is one of those moments, along with the remark that the human species has been severed “from the cosmic planetary energy” (3) in which Mignolo reveals just how much he shares in common with Deepak Chopra; that he is, at least in some of his moods, a hippie spiritualist with a penchant for neologism. Every now and then, the so-called West undergoes an existential crisis and reaches to the East (and more fashionably these days, “the Global South”) for spiritual succour. This is precisely why ideas such as “Ubuntu” (70), “Pachamama” (241, 262), “Sumak Kawsay” (336–337), and talk of “Mother Earth” and “Gaia” are so enticing to him. The actual content of these ideas is entirely irrelevant, especially to those fetishists combing the Earth for candidates to groom into noble savages.

But what happens when an individual departs from the thought patterns of their native culture and is no longer espousing views consonant with their “body-political location?” By what authority might Mignolo patrol the borderlines of thought, and will his reply entail that this is a case of brainwashing by the CMP? This is what I call the problem of the wrong natives. It is a counter to his assumption that non-Western peoples intrinsically “think” and “do” in ways which are constitutively anti-Western and that, if they do not, then they must be helplessly ensnared in the colonial matrix of power.

Part of Mignolo’s lure inheres in a kernel of truth – that the demythologisation of the Western cultural superiority exported through colonialism is a noble objective. But Decolonial Investigations, with all its conflations, elisions and shadow-boxing with the 500 year-old journals of European explorers, is an underwhelming addition to this world-historical process. Only the already-converted will be pleased by the grandiose sloganeering of this self-ordained oracle of the Other.

Kavish Chetty is a writer, teacher and PhD student in the Department of English Literary Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

This book review was originally published on 30 July 2023 in Social Dynamics: a Journal of African Studies. Republished by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd, To contact the author, email: [email protected].