Towards a Locatedness of Postcolonial Knowledge: Report from the Exploratory Workshop “Postcolonial Critique”
By Dorota Kołodziejczyk
On September 23rd-24th, 2019, the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung held a two-day workshop, Postcolonial Critique: Latin American and Eastern European Perspectivations (America South – European East), convened by Clara Frysztacka, Jennifer Ramme, and Pablo Valdivia, all affiliated with the Viadrina Institute for European Studies at Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder. The event was pitched as “explorative” because of the questions posed to participants in the invitation and the program of short presentations to trigger intensive brainstorming.
The purpose of the seminar was to explore the potential of using knowledge related to the problems of coloniality and postcolonial thought between Latin America and Eastern Europe. The participants shared the proposition to use “postcolonial thinking as a variety of located critical perspectives on the replicating mechanisms of power and power asymmetries in globalised modernity.”
Through such an exploratory venture, the organizers sought to create a multidisciplinary and intersectional space of critical dialogue on the regimes of knowledge and the circuits of intellectual and artistic labour from the regional perspectives of Latin America and Eastern Europe. The two regions, each in their own way, remain entangled in various consequences of colonial modernity that bear upon societies, cultures and politics, both in a long historical perspective and in the immediate global present. These consequences, in turn, are manifest in the processes of identity construction, in political discourses, and in collective memory archives and their uses.
The organizers made the point that it was an explorative workshop whose structure encouraged the development of a shared acumen in putting the two regions, Eastern Europe and Latin America, in a dialogue. The somewhat ambiguous location of postcolonial studies, both as critique of the West’s imperial history, its contemporary residues and consequences, and, at the same time, part of the theoretical industry at the very heart of western academia, became the common grounds for discussing the potential gains and misgivings of developing a postcolonial framework that considers the relatedness of Latin American and Eastern European modernities.
The conveners gathered a richly diverse array of scholars, artists and cultural activists whose work engages with questions of peripherality and decoloniality, the dialogue with power centres, conceived of as both institutions and intellectual markets, and, last but not least, the mutual influences of art, intellectual thought, and cultural activism in creating localities: that is, places, communities, and both human and non-human environments.
The workshop hosted several artists of international renown: Esther Shalev-Gerz, known for her contribution to the role and place of art in public spaces; Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) – artist, critic and curator whose work includes an ironic takeover of the Cold-War iconography, and Joulia Strauss, who introduces herself as the Mari “the political activist supercat shaman artist in Athens,” originally from the Mari El indigenous national minority at the outskirts of the Ural Mountains. In a special session dedicated to this artistic work, entitled “Artist Talk: »De-centering the Gaze: Artistic Strategies for a Decolonial Future«”, and moderated by Sara Alonso Gomez, the artists presented their art as a critical intervention into social and cultural constructs: as a search into places of (non)memory (Esther Shalev-Gerz), as ironic takeovers and quotations across the borders of the Cold War divide and its aftermaths (Tonel), or as a tour-de-force cosmopolitics of indigeneity in a performance titled “Songs of a Transindigenous Environmental Front” (Joulia Strauss).
Bringing together these artists with scholars resulted in a lively and cogent exchange of approaches communicated in multifarious languages of scholarship and intellectual thought. The uniquely multilingual – international and transmedial – dialogue made it possible to canvass a tapestry of transregional reflection, rich in detail, in which postcolonial/decolonial thought displayed a strong local imagery and power to interrogate global theories and knowledge constructs. Putting the two regions in a dialogue together through postcolonial discourse, the conveners sought not so much to find similarities between them, as, more pertinently to the leading question of knowledge location and transfer, “to discuss Eastern Europe and Latin America as specific loci of postcolonial critique and knowledge production. The workshop aims to break through the hegemonic logic of theoretical transfer, expressed through the canonization of postcolonial theories, languages and scenes” [from the programme]. It sought to speak through postcolonial discourse, but also, as the workshop’s development attested, to respond to it critically from contextualised local sites of knowledge through the lenses of decolonial thought, world-systems theory, and post-dependence studies.
The premises of the workshop, i.e. the search for the locatedness of knowledge and its response to power centres, understood as both political sites and also as the academic “industry”, recurred in the 3 sections of the workshop, which were structured in short kick-off presentations and follow-up comments and discussions. In this format, artists and academics pursued the related questions of asymmetric power relations and the potential of the concepts of colonial, postcolonial and decoloniality in Section 1: Arenas and Scenes of the Colonial: Latin-American and East-European Paradigms (kicked off by Danijela Majstorovic, Redi Koobaak, Victor Viviescas and Sara Alonso Gómez, discussion by Claudia Kraft and Fernando Nina); the concept and usability of the postcolonial dispositive in Section 2: What Defines a Postcolonial Dispositive? Contextualized Critique (kicked off by Alexei Penzin, Dorota Kołodziejczyk, Teresa Kulawik, Emilian Ortega, comment by Ruth Sonderegger); and the positionality of the (American) South – (European) East in Section 3: (American) South – (European) East: Shared Positionalities, Risks and Potentials (kicked off by Janis Nalbadidacis, Clara Frysztacka, Pablo Valdivia, Jennifer Ramme and Fernando Nina, discussion by Manuela Boǎtca ).
The sections proved to be an experiment which yielded very interesting results. The conveners’ idea of “perspectivation” – of applying the theoretical formulas of postcolonialism and decolonial studies to the multifarious disciplinary narratives of the two regions – allowed participants to find many intersecting areas of interest for scholars working on the two regions. For example, the potential of visual and verbal arts to critically intervene into political discourses and produce alternative social, cultural and political imaginaries; indigenous and marginalised positionalities in art and culture with their hybridising and decentring work; the problem of developmentalism and modernization discourses in semi-peripheral regions; the related problem of transition models taken or not taken by post-socialist countries and the sense of insufficiency of own voice in these processes; the aftermaths of changes in political and economic systems on societies; semi-peripheral/off-centre regions and their position in globalised modernity; the contentious legacies of Marxism and its changing appraisal, the aftermaths of state socialism and postcommunist transitions and how they resurface in the current rise of right-wing populism, and many more.
The postcolonial framework served as a space of theoretical reference working as an exploratory toolkit rather than as a matrix for abstracting the regional specificities into a theoretical speculation. Thus, the comparability of the two regions was elaborated as a shared reflection on semi-peripheral and decolonial spaces in global modernity and on respective concrete issues arising from these locations, rather than similarities yielded through the postcolonial matrix. Also, the locatedness of scholarly and theoretical reflection allowed for an interesting interrogation of postcolonial paradigms, encouraging a shared acumen between the two regions.
One of the most interesting conclusions of the concluding roundtable was the vulnerability of theoretical discourse to the uses, or, rather, abuses in political sphere. Postcolonialism is especially susceptible to political interceptions. It has served to describe the ambiguous attitudes between Western and Eastern (postsocialist/postcommunist) Europe and the inequal relations between these two parts of Europe. This particular use of postcolonialism was also turned into a very effective weapon of right-wing populism in Poland and Hungary, as well as Russia as Turkey. Postcolonial terms may serve to legitimate nationalist discourse, allowing it to be disguised as a struggle against the ongoing colonisation of Europe. The theme of art’s immanent disobedience discussed throughout the workshop encouraged explorations into the immediacy of art’s intervention into public spaces and discourses, and aesthetics’ critical power.
experimental structure of kick-off introductions to a problem, which were then
subsequently discussed in a constellation of regional and disciplinary
perspectives, proved not only productive but also extremely invigorating, to
the extent that the conveners had some difficulties closing the day of
discussions. Likewise, the closing session was open by Joulia Strauss’ summarising
presentation, in which she performed an aleatory replication of the critical
and theoretical terms that recurred during the workshop’s discussions. This both
ironic, yet fond Dada-style recording of the whole course of the workshop was a
masterful feat of an impromptu critical artistic cosmopolitanism best
expressing the spirit of the conference and the results of its two-day work.
 The participating academics represented a broad spectrum of disciplines and affiliations: Manuela Boǎtca, Professor of Sociology with a focus on macrosociology at the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg; Clara Frysztacka, historian, Postdoctoral Researcher at Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder; Claudia Kraft, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna; Redi Koobak, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research, University of Bergen; Dorota Kołodziejczyk, Assistant Professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Wrocław, Director of the Postcolonial Studies Center, co-founder and board member of the Post-Dependence Studies Center research network; Teresa Kulawik, Professor of Gender Studies, School of Culture and Education, Södertörn University; Danijela Majstorović, Professor of English Linguistics and Cultural Studies, English Department, the University of Banja Luka; Janis Nalbadidacis, Doctoral Candidate at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; Fernando Nina, Research Associate at the Chair for Romance Languages at Heidelberg, Guest Professor at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar (Ecuador), Universidad de Antioquia Medellín (Colombia), Universidade Federal Do Rio Grande Do Sul in Porto Alegre (Brazil), Universidad de Granada (Spain) and Universidad Nacional de Educadores (Ecuador); Emilian Ortega y Feili, PhD in Romance Philology and Culture, Universität Heidelberg; Alexei Penzin, Reader in Philosophy and Art Theory at the University of Wolverhampton, and Research Associate at the Institute of Philosophy of Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; Jennifer Ramme, Faculty of Social and Cultural Sciences at Europa-Universität Viadrina/Collegium Polonicum, member of the Institute for European Studies (IFES); Ruth Sonderegger, Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetic Theory at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna; Pablo Valdivia, PhD in Romance Literature Europa-Universität Viadrina; and Víctor Viviescas, Professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Director of Teatro Vreve – Proyecto teatral, Bogotá.
Dorota Kołodziejczyk is Assistant Professor of the Institute of English Studies, Wrocław University. She is Director of the institute’s Postcolonial Studies Center. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, postcolonial literature, novel genres, theory and history, comparative literature, translation studies, and disability studies.
Citation: Dorota Kołodziejczyk, Towards a Locatedness of Postcolonial Knowledge: Report from the Exploratory Workshop “Postcolonial Critique”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23464.