by Priya Raghavan
I recently had the opportunity to work as an RA on a transnational review of readings for a Gender course, with an aim to incorporate more thinking from the ‘Global South’. The rather formidable undertaking proved in equal parts challenging, rewarding, and deeply unsettling. Efforts to interrogate epistemic practices in universities draw from a veritable history of academic and activist efforts, often led by marginal groups, challenging entrenched institutional power at considerable risk. In acknowledgement of the significant debts owed to these critical interventions, this blog is an attempt to reflect on some of the disquieting elements of implementing curriculum reform in UK Higher Education.
Commitments to displace epistemic hierarchies and their neo-colonial effects often begin with moves to diversify the curriculum: to include more authors and works based in and on the ‘Global South’. The virtues of such an undertaking seem largely un-controversial: surely, a reading list that is more representative of the range of debates and inquiries across the world can only aid processes of epistemic democratisation. There is, however, a veiled danger inherent to diversity initiatives: the risk of disappearing the culpability of the department, university and discipline in preserving neo-colonial, racial structures of privilege. A diverse reading list often presents an aesthetic fix to disguise or conceal the continued coloniality of knowledge and other practices within institutes. Saha wrote about the political and ideological function served by diversity initiatives, i.e. “managing the demands for equality while keeping racial hierarchies intact.” Such ideological subterfuge is particularly damaging in the contemporary context of UK HE, where racial, class and gender hierarchies remain seemingly settled realities.
Further, diversity moves also often fail to appreciate the distinction between epistemic and embodied difference. Racist or colonial ideologies routinely find perfectly hospitable harbour in the works of ‘Southern’ academics. The formulaic inclusion of ‘diverse’ works does not necessarily dent the coloniality of knowledge unless there is an express and attentive interest in ensuring so. Recent illustrations of this in popular politics and culture include the appointment of Tory Home Minister Sajid Javid, and Kanye West’s endorsement of Trump. In fact, the ultimate testament to the potency and guile of coloniality is that subaltern subjects are often its most willing agents. The intellectual contributions of these subjects serve to fortify oppressions, and betray the often appreciative, even beholden nature of the subaltern’s relationship with coloniality. While this is by no means a fresh or novel reflection, it might bear repeating while finding ways to work with ‘diversity’ that are vigilant to the risks of what Crenshaw has referred to as the “demographic defence”.
Gopal articulates an important distinction in this regard- to her, “to decolonise and not just diversify curriculums is to recognise that knowledge is inevitably marked by power relations.” Gopal’s sentiment is one that most campus movements seem particularly alive to: demands for the decolonization of universities are underwritten by a sharp attentiveness to relations of power in the production of knowledge. Attending to these power relations, however, proves exceptionally challenging given the simultaneously embedded, as well as dexterous nature of institutional power in the academy. By this I mean that epistemic hierarchies are preserved not only through structural rootedness, but also through the agile adaptability of power to fold in, and reinforce itself through critique. Institutional response to decolonial, anti-racist critique then becomes a strategy of appropriation and re-legitimisation rather than disruption.
To clarify this point, I look to Novetzke’s work on the Brahmin double. The Brahmins in India are historically the caste group divinely consecrated as having a monopoly over authorized knowledge production; at the very helm of the violent and oppressive caste system. In pre-colonial India, Novetzke argues that critiques of the caste system circulated by Brahmins themselves served to deflect or diffuse criticism away from the privileged Brahmins, while cementing their role as ‘knowledge specialists’. When universities in the UK claim diverse or decolonial thinking and practice, there is a similar risk of displacing and appropriating a radical and deeply critical politics, instrumentalising it in the service of legitimating UK HE. Through processes of what Crenshaw has called “ideological gentrification”, subaltern critiques are occupied through their take up in the hegemonic white western university, and emptied of their radical, redistributive originary roots. In the face of sustained critiques of racism, neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism, the inclusion of anti-racist, anti-capitalist and decolonial texts and critiques from the ‘Global South’ serve, above all, to redeem and reaffirm the Northern university as a citadel for the reproduction of exclusive and exclusionary knowledge practices.
The self-preserving tendency of epistemic power and privilege works in various other diffuse ways, posing serious methodological challenges to the project of curriculum reform. Libraries and institutional research resources impose a first set of exclusions, often failing to provide access to important but less globally visible or recognised Southern resources, while re-inscribing the linguistic hegemony of English within the western academy. ‘Universal’ research tools, including Google Scholar, Worldcat etc present a secondary form of erasure: results on these sites are ranked by number of citations. Such a formula inevitably abets accumulated epistemic advantage: more frequently cited, inevitably Northern, often white works are foregrounded while others are systematically obscured. Beyond the constraints of access, Connell and Hountondji describe the political economy of knowledge production, where academics from the South are forced to engage with, and often orient their works around theories of the ‘Northern metropole’. In fact, most Southern theoretical interventions that circulate within Northern universities are either produced by Southern authors within Northern universities, or by Southern authors writing to/against Northern texts (Hountondji). Thus, even popular Southern critiques of Northern knowledge practices take reference from, and fundamentally orient themselves in relation to the hegemony of the North. This in turn serves to re-naturalise the universality of Northern epistemes even as they are questioned, and re-provincialise Southern knowledges even as they are asserted.
A final methodological impediment to interrupting epistemic hierarchies took the frustrating form of my own trained limitations. Throughout the review, I felt fundamentally constrained by my own indoctrination into and within the Western academy, attained through generations of caste and class privilege channelled in the single-minded pursuit of this ultimate inclusion. My careful cultivation for and within the academy left me with habits of mind that materially affected every stage of my engagement with texts: how I encountered them, processed them, assigned value, defended inclusion, reasoned exclusion. Not only am I myself scarcely the de-colonial solution, but through my coached complicity, I am fundamentally impaired in my ability to apprehend or heed it.
My role and location within the Western academy brings me to my closing concern that efforts to reform syllabi often re-produce a binary between the Imperial Global North, and a monolithic, subaltern Global South. This binary then occludes native hierarchies, which often mimic the violent, civilisational and oppressive inclinations of Western coloniality. Within the Indian context, this often takes the form of the erasure of dalit epistemes through the global elevation of Brahminical accounts of dalit and other subaltern realities. While post-colonial theory and its progenitor subaltern studies found considerable purchase in the western academy as anti-colonial critique, it remained the preserve of a small and elite group of urban, upper class and upper caste theorists, from a historically privileged Bengali Brahmin lineage. Dalit activists and scholars (Karthick, Chandal, etc.) have expressed censorious views on the manner in which these theorists mediated and monopolised discourse on post-colonial subaltern existence, and accumulated stature and privilege for themselves: reproducing Brahminism and Brahmin privilege through anti-colonial and even anti-Brahmin critique. My entanglement with the Western academy is but a symptom of the selective embrace of the non-threatening, advantaged, interpellated native in a manner that secures rather than challenges my own, as well as the academy’s carefully accumulated privileges and futurity. Thus, it is imperative to remain alert to erasure and oppression in Northern and Southern garb, recognise them as often linked and even symbiotic, and decry them both with equal fervour.
Despite the litany of limitations above, this blog is by no means a nihilistic call to abandon any de-colonial aspirations, and resign ourselves to an inevitably sexist, racist, neo-liberal, colonised academy. What it asks for is to think of these not as failures or aberrations in an otherwise noble institution, but as symptomatic of the very nature of the scholarly project, woven inextricably into the tapestry of knowledge production in UK HE. We must continue to insist on diversity in curricula, panels, citations, classrooms and beyond- but we must also see how we are all implicated, even invested in regimes of epistemic inequity. In a rather absurdly perverse manner, each of us participating in UK HE has a stake in the academy even as we are marginalised within it, and that stake often takes the ironic form of contributing to its continued hegemony. Acknowledging our complicities, and the contradictions and limitations they pose to the possibility of a truly democratic, decolonial academy requires more than reforming space: it demands ceding it. This could take the form of lending names, reputations, resources and labour to critical knowledge projects in the global South; resisting the marketization of education; addressing racialised, gendered and classed attainment gaps at all levels: above all placing an expressly redistributive rather than purely recognitive politics at the heart of our efforts. For us participants in UK HE, working to reform it from within means acknowledging that we are reluctant but complicit denizens of Lorde’s ‘Master’s House’: unable to affect systemic, radical change unless we challenge or renounce its sanctuary.
Priya Raghavan started her LSE funded doctorate at the Gender Institute in 2016. Her work examines the production of a binary between victimhood and agency through discourses of sexual violence in India.