A post-colonial comedy of errors

Post-colonial theorists agree that “there is no strict division between the coloniser and the colonised”.

56th BFI London Film Festival: The Pervert''s Guide To Ideology
"Dabashi takes out of context the first sentence in Zabala's piece on the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek" and offers a rant that ignores the entire history and the conclusions of post-colonial studies from the last 50 years [Getty Images]

The ZabalaDabashi debate, which has recently unfolded on Al Jazeera and which has been enriched with a nuanced article by Walter Mignolo, follows the structure of a comedy of errors. Yet, there is nothing comical about the misconceptions propagated by one of the participants in this debate, which is why further clarification is in order. 

In an op-ed ominously titled “Can Non-Europeans think?” Hamid Dabashi takes out of context the first sentence in Santiago Zabala’s piece on the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek and, instead of thoughtfully and critically engaging with it, offers a rant that ignores the entire history and the (practical as well as theoretical) conclusions of post-colonial studies from the last 50 years. 

What is Dabashi’s core accusation? It is that Zabala is Eurocentric in his enumeration of distinguished philosophers and in his locating “philosophy today” squarely in the confines of Europe and North America. With this in mind, Dabashi attempts to construct a fantastically Manichean view of the intellectual world, where what or who stays “inside” Europe is segregated from what or who is positioned “outside” it. 

In contrast to this simplistic construal, post-colonial theorists agree that there is no strict division between the coloniser and the colonised; that both colonial and post-colonial structures of power and domination are complex and multilayered, as they are shot through with class, gender and other differences; that claims to a rightful political representation of the subaltern are usually ungrounded, as they are voiced by those most privileged in the colonial or post-colonial societies – men, wealthy elites and so forth. 

Clearly, these kinds of nuances are not worth mentioning, from Dabashi’s point of view, as they stand in the way of his self-professed ideals of non-European thought’s “self-consciousness and evident universality”, ideals articulated in the terms that are unabashedly (19th century) European. Nor does Dabashi pause even for a second to problematise the monolithic fiction of “Europe”, given a modern tradition of marginalising Southern Europe – from which his opponent, Zabala, hails – and the apogee this tradition has reached in the humiliating and dehumanising designation PIGS, attributed to Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (with Ireland at times in, and at other times out of, the equation). At the very moment when, as I have recently written on Al Jazeera, South European public companies are being bought by non-European private firms, such an undifferentiated approach to the entire continent is unforgivable.

 Talk to Al Jazeera – Slavoj Zizek

The real comedy of errors starts when we contextualise the list of philosophers cited by Zabala, as well as the philosophical school of thought, to which the latter adheres: weak thought. In the first place, every single thinker on that list will be at least sympathetic to the project of post-colonial theory and decolonial thought!

Every author cited by Zabala can be broadly described as counter-hegemonic, or, in his words, “having the ability to disrupt”, just as weak thought itself takes the side of all those who are oppressed, left on the margins of the new world disorder, denied the basic material conditions of possibility for their existence regardless of where they physically live. It is this very plea for a counter-hegemonic solidarity among the weak in the global South, North, East and West that gets mistaken, whether willfully or not, for its exact opposite, namely hegemonic, Eurocentric discourse. And it gets rhetorically trodden upon for the sin it has never committed, much like Dromio in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is beaten up for deeds he has never done. 

On the other side of fake barricades, the presumably guiltless representative of non-European thought writes the following

What in effect Gramsci discovers, as a southern Italian suffering in the dungeons of European fascism, is what in Brooklyn we call chutzpah, to think yourself the centre of universe, a self-assuredness that gives the philosopher that certain panache and authority to think in absolutist and grand narrative terms. 

Exactly what does this collective subject, this “we” (“…what in Brooklyn we call…”), have to contribute to the “self-consciousness and evident universality” of non-European thinking? Does a southern Italian need to be first cleansed by his “suffering in the dungeons of European fascism” to deserve the privilege of being cited by someone non-European? Is that what it takes to purge the Italian of his Eurocentrism? 

More importantly, are self-consciousness and universality, both concepts swathed in the Hegelian intellectual tradition whence they are drawn, the magic keys to emancipation? Haven’t we witnessed enough oppression of human as much as non-human living beings carried out in the name of these ideals? The counter-hegemonic thought of those who stand accused of heinous Eurocentrism has long put these chimeras, along with other “absolutist and grand narrative terms”, to rest. The variegated trajectories of 20th and 21st century Continental philosophy all stand as testimony to this fact. 

In Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, the final appearance of the Syracusan twins in the abbey puts an end to the play’s confusion with the words, “Most mighty duke, behold a man much wrong’d.” In the post-colonial comedy of errors, it is not difficult to see which position has been “much wrong’d”. 

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of books and articles in phenomenology, political philosophy and environmental thought. His most recent book is Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). His website is here