Against Decolonization

I Just Watched a Land Acknowledgement on Masterchef Australia

“I think even racism can be ambiguous here. You know, once I made an interview where I was asked how do we find reactionary racism. You know what was my answer. With progressive racism. Then, ah, ah, what do you mean? Of course I didn’t mean racism. What I meant is the following things. Of course racist jokes and so on can be extremely oppressive, humiliating, and so on. But the solution I think is to create an atmosphere or to practice these jokes in such a way that they really function as that little bit of obscene contact which establishes true proximity between us. . . when I met with other people from ex-Yugoslavia republics. . . We were in a wonderful way competing who will be able to tell a nastier joke about ourselves. These were obscene racist jokes, but their effect was a wonderful sense of shared, obscene solidarity. And I have another proof here. Do you know that when civil war exploded in Yugoslavia, early ’90s and already before in the ’80s, ethnic tensions. The first victims were these jokes; they immediately disappeared. . .  you see this ambiguity — that’s my problem with political correctness. No it’s just a form of self-discipline, which doesn’t really allow you to overcome racism. It’s just oppressed controlled racism. . .  So again even with racism, one has to be very precise not to fight racism in a way which ultimately reproduces, if not directly racism itself, at least the conditions for racism.” 

— Slavoj Zizek, Political Correctness is a More Dangerous Form of Totalitarianism

Since 2013 Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has run a winter festival version of its programming. The name, Dark Mofo, combines the summer version’s acronym FOMA (Festival of Music and Art) with the institution that supports it: MO(-NA) + FO(-MA) = MOFO.

Dark Mofo’s director Leigh Carmichael explained the project’s intention to redefine seasonal festivities in the southern hemisphere: 

“Our calendar is filled with festivals and events that are kind of the wrong way around. Christmas is a winter solstice festival. . . They kind of don’t really make any sense here. . . Dark Mofo is a winter solstice festival… In the southern hemisphere we have this unique opportunity to explore that theme with clear air and clear space. . . The longest night and the darkness kind of seeps into who we are. I don’t know whether we understand it, but we feel it.”

The sub-theme for the 2020 festival was death. You’ll intuit that Dark Mofo has a ‘horror’ edge; as such it’s drowned in controversy since inception. Though, nothing sells more than brand awareness. 2021 featured tension around the festival’s commission of a work by artist Santiago Sierra: a flag drenched in blood, to be voluntarily donated by various indigenous people. Sierra’s intentions were brazenly advertised on social media through Dark Mofo’s brand identity, blocky black text on a maroon background reading “WE WANT YOUR BLOOD.” The post’s caption explained further:

“On behalf of artist Santiago Sierra, we are looking for people to take part in Union Flag: a new artwork that will see the Union Jack immersed in the blood of its colonized territories at Dark Mofo 2021. Expressions of interest are now open to First Nations peoples from countries claimed by the British Empire at some point in history, who reside in Australia. Participants will be invited to donate a small amount of blood to the artwork, facilitated by a medical professional before the festival. Register now via link in bio.”

The reference to Uncle Sam propaganda; the project’s own cognizance of its ethical implications; Sierra’s critique of colonialism and long history as an artist interrogating exploitation was seemingly lost on everyone as the outrage machine whirred into action. The most-common rhetoric of course being that indigenous people “already gave enough blood.” 

A key figure in the online dissent was ecology student and self-proclaimed artist Jamie Graham Blair, who used his Instagram account to critique the project. Blair encouraged reporting Sierra to Australian border authorities, to presumably block his entry to the country — acting as if his proposed artwork was a crime. Many others, including Blair, called for Carmichael’s firing. Via his Instagram story Blair wrote, “This isn’t cancel culture. This is consequence.” Then told his followers to spam Dark Mofo as an act of political solidarity — as if a copy pasted email to an arts festival constitutes any material politik.

In contrast, Sierra is far more engaged in the problematics of labor relations and social inequity than Blair. Sierra summed this irony up when speaking about his work Six People Who Are not Allowed to Be Paid for Sitting in Cardboard Boxes in Bomb Magazine

“Well, I have been called an exploiter. At the Kunstwerke in Berlin they criticized me because I had people sitting for four hours a day, but they didn’t realize that a little further up the hallway the guard spends eight hours a day on his feet. . . Many of the people who make those criticisms have never worked in their lives; if they think it’s a horror to sit hidden in a cardboard box for four hours, they don’t know what work is.”

Sierra’s Black Flag project, a precursor to his Union Flag proposal for Dark Mofo, consisted of hoisting the anarchist symbol of the black flag in both the north and south poles. An extremely difficult endeavor to engineer, requiring the collaboration of governments, military personnel and international scientists — a gesture to undermine statecraft. Union Flag would undeniably function as such too. Mike Watson writing on Black Flag in ArtReview said, 

“Clearly the relationship between statecraft and art production is not parallel: the nation-state can exert a powerful influence over art production via its governmental representatives and its legal apparatus, while the politically engaged artist can do little to challenge or destabilize state power. However, art can mimic the processes of power, thereby throwing them into question.”

The anti-Sierra ‘artist activists’ ended up following the processes of power; utilizing the ideology of the nation-state against Sierra. In calling for his blacklisting from the country, these activists have engaged in the very same pithy nationalism they claim to deride with such twee slogans as ‘Invasion Day.’ Blair’s fellow ‘activist’ Caleb Nichols-Mansell went from complaining on regional radio about the trauma Dark Mofo and Sierra had caused — to being employed as a cultural advisor for Dark Mofo’s parent operations company DarkLab. During the controversy, Blair gained 2,500 followers. Having already been profiled by i-D, this Dark Mofo affair surely helped Blair’s own brand construction. The suffocating virtuosity of these ‘activists’ is satirically complimented by their bland careerism. 

Sierra’s work was a success in that it pulled these processes of power into focus and questioned them, at his own cost. To echo Sierra: If people think posting on Instagram is activism; being paid as a cultural consultant is activism, not only do they have no idea what work is; they have no concept of what activism is. Liquid modernity, etc. Predictably, Dark Mofo apologized and cancelled the project while Sierra dug his heels in, to a negative reception. The festival opened with a reclamation walk through the Hobart CBD led by Aboriginal artists as a gesture of ‘good faith.’ For MONA, a privately owned institution, to cave to the demands of these ‘activists’ makes it clear that all anybody did was in the interest of the market. Capital is in favor of your indigenous politics, so take a second look. . . otherwise you’ll find yourself in a bourgeois argument, bickering over some flag art.

In response to Dark Mofo and Sierra, a collective of Aboriginal artists/activists shared an Instagram info-graphic-esque post, listing demands for MONA and its affiliates, if they were invested in creating a ‘culturally safe’ environment and ever working with the signatories. Dollar signs, cough, cough. On their list was a call for all staff to undertake “mandatory cultural awareness training and decolonization workshops.” But what is a decolonization workshop? How does decolonization play out in the workplace? Does the abstraction of an academic concept, liquified into social media, really help the cause of indigenous civil rights?

A Girlboss Building her Imperial Core

Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples is a key text of contemporary decolonial scholarship. While the book is pertinent to an Australasian context, it holds global relevance as well — Smith is a superstar academic. The book takes an anti-positivist approach, questioning dominant modes of research in academia; investigating how ‘research’ harms and conceives of ways to make research less harmful. Decolonising Methodologies is oft-cited in liberal ‘anti-racist’ reading lists and is standard reading within humanities departments across Oceania. Like other decolonial scholars, Smith rejects the label postcolonialism. She sees colonization as an ongoing process. Colonization has not — possibly will not — reach an endpoint. Hence the title, Decolonising Methodologies

Throughout, Smith rails against the concepts of history, of philosophy, of theory (note: her PhD was in education). Forever claiming that the book is not anti-theory, “if it is a good theory it also allows for new ideas and ways of looking at things to be incorporated constantly without the need to search constantly for new theories” — just as long as it is a ‘good’ theory that ascribes to her worldview. Positioning oneself is a fool’s errand. 

To me, it is clear Smith models a postmodern feminist revisionist history, 

“The debate over positivism which emerged from European academic tradition has been continued in the Anglo-American world by feminist and other radical critiques of the positivist position. While Marxism provided a powerful counter to liberal thought in the first part of the twentieth century/in the latter part of this century, the second wave of feminism may have been far more important in its challenge to the epistemological foundations of Western philosophy, academic practice and research. . . Arguably, Western feminism has provided a more radical challenge to knowledge than Marxism because of its challenge to epistemology: not just the body of knowledge and worldview, but the science of how knowledge can be understood.” 

While Smith is outwardly a feminist, the text itself is ambivalent about poststructuralism, only somewhat associating with postpositivism. Smith lightly criticizes postmodernism writing, “our colonial experience traps us in the project of modernity. There can be no ‘postmodern’ for us until we have settled some business of the modern.” This is a deeply tame statement, lacking bite. In fact, Smith’s scholarship reproduces postmodern discourse, despite her claim about being ‘stuck in modernity.’ Case in point: “Fragmentation is not a phenomenon of postmodernism as many might claim. For indigenous peoples fragmentation has been the consequence of imperialism.” ‘Fragmentation’ is coyly redefined for Smith’s narrative. The narrative fragmentation of postmodernism is not the same as the material fragmentation of imperialism. Making such a link is a relativist assessment which undermines Smith’s work. 

Carla Wilson, a researcher for the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), positively reviewed Decolonising Methodologies for the state-sponsored Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, interpreting the text’s position as none other than postmodern:

“In the end, this important book should contribute to the growing tide of postmodern, poststructuralist, and activist-minded scholarship that is interested in reclaiming, asserting, and resituating the Indigenous voice out from under the weight of Imperialism.”

It is distressing that MSD, the state, relatively uncritically approves of this text. While Smith writes that “the book is written primarily to help ourselves [indigenous people]” . . . in acting as a critique of an ethnocentric approach, it recreates a racialized language of commentary, or as Smith calls it: “an indigenous language of critique.” Erika Balsom summarizes the plight of those like Smith, “postmodernists are guilty of a metaphysical investment in presence and identity valorized at the expense of recognizing difference.” Smith valorizes marginalization above truly recognizing difference. Smith is a sentimental, wishful thinker on the causes of violence and poor relations between the state and its citizens. Despite her claims, Decolonising Methodologies continues to fragment. It is atomistic, breaking knowledge into small parts rather than providing a broader view of society in its justification.

Still, Decolonising Methodologies is slippery. I often agree with passages: “notions of the Other are more deeply embedded in classical philosophy but became racialized within the framework of liberalism and the ideas about people and society which developed as disciplines through liberalism.” However, this line of thought comes from David Goldberg and though Smith agrees with it in the moment, she problematizes her coherency by later agreeing “that the key tenets of what is now seen as Western civilization are based on black experiences and a black tradition of scholarship, and have simply been appropriated by Western philosophy and redefined as Western epistemology” — here, Smith recreates Goldberg’s point, utilizing the framework of liberalism to racialize knowledge. It’s unnecessary. But for Smith’s work to function it is a necessity. She must obscure material relations to appear correct. 

It is this obfuscation that causes Smith to perpetually contradict herself. Her position on artists and intellectuals preempts the especially liberal turn the latter half of the book takes. 

“The role of intellectuals, teachers, artists and writers in relation to indigenous communities is still problematic, and the rhetoric of libera­tion still forms part of indigenous discourses. . . Much of the discussion about intellectuals in social and cultural life, and their participation in anti-colonial struggles, is heavily influenced by Marxist revolutionary thought, is framed in the language of oppositional discourse, and was written during the post-war period when struggles for independence were under way. Included within the rubric of ‘intellectual’ by liberation writers such as Frantz Fanon are also artists, writers, poets, teachers, clerks, officials, the petit bourgeoisie and other professionals engaged in producing ‘culture.’ Their importance in nationalist movements is related to their abilities to reclaim, rehabilitate and articulate indigenous cultures and to their implicit leadership over ‘the people’ as voices which can legitimate a new nationalist consciousness.”

Now, one would assume Smith’s position on the role of the artist to be critical — yet, in the eighth chapter, where Smith lists twenty-five projects which envision decolonizing through “reclaiming, reformulating and reconstituting indigenous cultures and languages,” she lists “cultural survival” as being spearheaded by artists and writers — “[cultural survival] is reflected sometimes in story form, sometimes in popular music and sometimes as an event in which artists and storytellers come together to celebrate collectively a sense of life and diversity and connectedness.” Another concept Smith finds value for the arts in is ‘representation,’

“Representation is also a project of indigenous artists, writers, poets, film makers and others who attempt to express an indigenous spirit, experience or world view. Representation of indigenous peoples by indigenous people is about countering the dominant society’s image of indigenous peoples, their lifestyles and belief systems. It is also about proposing solutions to the real-life dilemmas that indigenous com­munities confront and trying to capture the complexities of being indigenous.”

Are the arts bourgeois? Problematic? Or not? Her previous scrutiny of this relationship suddenly disappears. Is it an ethical idea to use cultural producers and “their abilities to reclaim, rehabilitate and articulate” for propagandistic nationalist movements? Or more pertinently, is this the way Smith wants the arts to function? Moreover, representation is a vacuous ideal; spuriously linked to the material circumstances of the people it claims to benefit: i.e. In the 2020/21 season Asian representation on screen reached — even exceeded — proportions, while reporting of Asian ‘hate crimes’ surged

Furthermore, Smith caricatures academia, ignoring the nuance of the massive scholarship which underpins all contemporary knowledge, in favor of a simpler frame of the “racist practices of modernity.” A buzzphrase which under today’s social pretenses can be used to easily dismiss criticism. While she admits her “focus is primarily on social science research projects rather than what may be happening in the natural or physical sciences or technology,” there is a complete lack of acknowledgement of the material import of hard science and technology. Notably, Smith’s twenty-five indigenous ‘social science’ research projects include such ‘ground-breaking’ ideas as, “Connecting,” “Reading,” “Writing,” “Gendering,” “Networking,” “Sharing,” etc. I assume that Justin Trudeau’s recent vow to tackle the “she-cession” will save us all. Then media theorists will find the cure to cancer! 

Anywho, speaking of “gendering,” in the fourth chapter Smith raises a crackpot worry of “having the umbilical cord blood of aborted babies ‘farmed.'” She argues that all Māori should object to this based on cultural concerns, yet perpetuates an anti-religion, anti-evangelical streak throughout, “Western philosophies and religions place the individual as the basic building block of society.” I find it deeply ironic for Smith to play the “cultural belief” card when she objects to others’ cultural beliefs, displaying a purposely ignorant misunderstanding of the positive functions of religion, like community and social cohesion. Acknowledging the role Christianity played as a colonial tool shouldn’t come in tandem with dismissing religion wholesale. Besides, her unease about the use of umbilical cord blood in research is a specific issue around medicine and ethics, which needn’t be racialized; it’s only of concern if the mother is coerced. Its faux-anxiety, disingenuous and devoid of anything. As is her apprehension towards GMOs, which plays into the same “Clean, Green New Zealand” stereotype that Smith critiques for paternalistically commodifying Māori ‘earthiness.’

Want for not, the book upholds that misty-eyed approach to gender and ethnicity, 

“These Other/ed women have argued that oppression takes different forms, and that there are interlocking relationships between race, gender and class which makes oppression a complex sociological and psychological condition. Many have argued that this condition cannot be understood or analyzed by outsiders of people who have not experienced, and who have not been born into, this way of life. Patricia Hill Collins has argued that ‘while Black feminist thought may be recorded by others, it is produced by Black women.’ Further, she argues that ‘Black women possess a unique standpoint on, or perspective of, their experiences. . . [and]. . . while living life as Black women may produce certain commonalities of outlook, the diversity of class, region, age and sexual orientation shaping Black women’s lives has resulted in different expressions of these common themes.’ This position intersects with Maori attitudes to research, and the writings of African American women in particular have been useful for Maori women in legitimating, with literature, what Maori women have experienced.”

As if Black or Māori women aren’t as clueless as everybody. The idea that any one person, or group, is so special and unique that they can’t be understood by anybody who isn’t them is frighteningly individualistic. Published in 1999 the book is post necessity for an uber-racialized discourse; leaning into the tropes of identity politics with destructive anti-social moral messaging. 

This line of thought is extended into a pro-corporation stance, with Smith complaining that internal tertiary funding for the International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education was deeply contested despite having “already attracted corporate funding for a visiting professorship.” As if there’s not a variety of reasons for a university to be hesitant to fund any initiative. Besides, uncritically aligning with corporate interests is not something to be celebrated! Especially when you consider this institute was created in 1996, at the peak of New Zealand’s austerity measures, when education was reformed in favor of privatization. Smith continues this rhetoric heralding liberal professionalization,

“The problems of ‘voice’ and ‘visibility,’ ‘silence’ and ‘invisibility,’ became important concerns at a concrete level, as women attended international conferences and attempted to develop international policies related to women’s rights, population control, development and justice.” 

The most emancipatory act an academic can propose is radical economic change for the working class. But I guess, Smith is too busy. Linda Tuhiwai Smith is just a girlboss building her imperial core.

To give her credit, Wilson’s review does ponder some more complex areas: “For us, a difficult question remains: how do Tuhiwai Smith’s projects guide researchers in an  era of layered and shifting identities? What does it mean to revitalize and protect our communities in a globalizing world of hybridization, borderlands, and multiculturalism?” To put it another way, Smith’s ideas are outdated.

And I’d be remiss to not mention Smith’s endless citation of her partner, Graham Smith — which has been treated without reproach by the academy. 

(De)Colonized-(Neo)Corporate

Decolonization is not a metaphor! Or maybe it is? Within decolonial discourse, there is a fight for its definition. It is argued that decolonization’s contemporary manifestation as an obsession with ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ is a misunderstanding that fails to challenge ‘colonial structures’ by just using the strategy of ‘add POC and stir.’ What decolonization supposedly actually means is the process of uncovering colonized histories. Writing for Nordic Art Review, Zofia Cielatkowska explains, “Decolonization is not an act of exorcism, it is not about practicing anti-European critique, it is not about ghosts. It is about real people whose story was never written.” As admirably heart-wrenching that intention is, if decolonization is purely relevant to history as a discipline then why is it being applied so broadly? I’m still unsure of what decolonization actually does to history; if it is not about diversity and inclusion, then what is it about? And why is it deemed so especially important within the cultural sphere, made up only of bottom-feeders and wasters? Cielatkowska goes on, “History was written from the supposedly neutral position of objectivity and universality, which in fact was neither universal nor objective.” Perhaps you may have already realized this, that the true agenda of decolonization is to undo the concept of ‘truth.’ Here, the postmodern position of the theory becomes clear.

It is base to even state, but the art world relies on social, cultural and actual capital. A form of elitism is necessary for ‘Art’ to exist. Art isn’t social security. To function it can’t be for everyone. U.S. collective BFAMFAPhD’s 2014 report on the lives of arts graduates and working artists, notes that there are two million arts grads in America. The group’s advocacy for cultural equity is a catch-22. This dilemma comes back to the predatory neoliberal profiteering of today’s tertiary system. Two million want in. They want to pay off their loans. They want income. They want a ‘success’ that fundamentally comes from others’ exclusion. There would be no motive for the ego to engage if art was ‘equitable.’ No motive to sell these degrees. Breaking down barriers in the art world destroys the value people want. And yet, they beg. Pray for this universal truth to not exist. They look for something to confirm it doesn’t. Postmodernism. Decolonization. White privilege. Transphobia. Anything other than the variety of factors they lack (networks, wealth, skill) that determine success in the art world. Maybe it’s not even just art, maybe it’s more universal than that.

As seen with Linda Tuhiwai Smith, decolonial scholars aren’t really discussing power structures, just revealing their own narcissistic focus on identity. Decolonization functions as critique for the sake of critique itself; as academic Jonathan Jansen points out, “the language of critique [is] not enough to get students through the substance of a discipline.” Decolonization lacks precision in its undertaking. As Jansen also notes, “everything bequeathed by colonialism is not automatically to be rejected.” However, what Jansen misses is decolonialism prophets’ materialistic streak. Heavily cited in Decolonising Methodologies is Donna Awatere and her manifesto Maori Sovereignty — which was deeply critical of the then-New Zealand left. Maori Sovereignty sparked out of Awatere’s involvement with the group Ngā Tamatoa and her advocacy for Māori civil rights. After its publication Awatere pivoted into consultancy, working with various government agencies, including the New Zealand Police — which would seem at odds with her politics of Māori sovereignty. Even more confounding was her joining the ACT party, a Thatcher-esque organization. She served three terms as an ACT MP, later feigning ignorance describing herself as too “economically naïve to understand [ACT’s agenda] was a neoliberal agenda.” Though, she never left of her own accord. Awatere was removed from the party after a charity she’d established had come under investigation for fraud. Sentenced to nearly three years in prison. Some of the money she’d sourced from this fraud was used to finance her gastric bypass. After finishing her sentence Awatere continued to work across Māori organizations. Now working as the Māori Climate Commissioner for the Māori Carbon Foundation, a private carbon trading business. Awatere is currently undergoing a rebrand as a wronged, forgotten Māori feminist via advertorial. Decolonization is a management term that generates commercial value for its salesmen. 

As Smith wrote, “trading the Other is big business” and for indigenous people it is on the agenda.

“Indigenous peoples have argued strenuously for the right to self-determination and the right to establish sovereign nations within their tribal territories. These arguments have been mounting against a backdrop of social fragmentation in the West. The city is the dominating metaphor for the apparent breakdown of Western social values, systems and practices. Although now quite established as a term, the idea of the ‘urban jungle,’ evil and pervasive, crime-laden and populated by savages, presents the middle classes with new challenges to what counts as their domain. The very wealthy have always been able to escape, while the middle classes have been able to move out to suburbia or go on holiday from time to time. The middle classes, however, are also shifting more permanently into their own security zones with privatized police forces and self-contained social services. The possibility of disengaging themselves from the Other through the establishment of sovereign reserves is not too far-fetched.” 

A zombified version of Smith’s theory has come true: the Other has established these reserves. In New Zealand, during Covid-19 lockdowns Māori wardens guard regional borders, some set up without legal authority. Though I guess some would argue that the New Zealand government isn’t a legal authority. This has been followed by the announcement of the creation of a vaguely defined Māori Health Authority. Which as opposition leader Judith Collins pointed out has “the ability to veto decisions made by the government on general health. That is a veto power over $20 billion worth of government health spending. That is not something that is designed to address inequities.” Economist Keith Rankin critiqued this phenomenon: “the problem with racially targeted policymaking of this sort is that it doesn’t address the actual problem (‘disadvantage’); instead such policies use ‘Māori’ as a proxy for ‘disadvantage.’” The Māori Health Authority seems to be an addition of bureaucracy that will fail to benefit the unemployed and working class. Perhaps it may even fail exactly who it is designed to help. We have yet to see but it wouldn’t surprise me.

It’s ironic that Smith doesn’t note the highly visible development of Māori social services throughout the 1990s to present, policies which have developed the exact same self-contained social services she complains of. Policy consultant Taimania Clark outlines this construction: 

“The government, based on the idea that greater choice, competition and less government intervention in the social service sector would lead to more efficient and effective services, implemented a policy of devolution. For Māori, this meant that iwi and pan-Māori organizations could gain contracts to provide social services that had previously been provided by central government organizations. Furthermore, those Māori organizations would have a degree of autonomy over the design and delivery of those services.”

Today the government contracts out for a confused model “of public housing working alongside private housing in the open market.” Including a variety of corporatized iwi groups. This is neoliberal policy of decentralization which endorses precarious housing and only serves to benefit the stakeholders of these contracted providers. 

The Sealord Deal, a.k.a the social illusion of commodified fish is a flashpoint in understanding this dynamic of neoliberal Māori development. As the fishing company, Sealord, was about to be sold and the government funded a Māori consortium to purchase half of it as part of a settlement of Māori commercial fisheries claims. Elizabeth Rata explains, “The Sealord Deal was the first major example of the relationship that has been established between the emerging tribal-capitalism and the established Western form of Pakeha capitalism, a relationship brokered by the comprador bourgeoisie. This commercial agreement between the Maori tribes and Brierleys, Incorporated established the tribes as major participants in the nation’s fishing industry.” 

As of 2013, iwi are said to own approximately 50% of fisheries quota through corporatized iwi organizations and other companies. This increasingly commoditized and fungible relationship between the state and corporatized iwi has exacerbated class relations and problematized internal iwi dynamics. In his article Māori Indigeneity and Commodity Fetishism, Steven Webster relays a damning example of this relationship, 

“a representative of the corporate Waikato-Tainui iwi stands and speaks out indignantly to remind the locals that many of their inland relatives owe their jobs in the meat-processing plants to the bargaining power of Waikato-Tainui Fisheries Ltd. in the settlement with Talley’s Group Holdings only a few years ago. He adds angrily that the iwi fisheries company also subsidizes their marae with cash from the fish. But then Huka, a locally well-known imposing young woman stands up in the audience interrupting him, and muffled groans are heard all around her. Her waikauri (tattooed) face quivers. She begins quietly by stating that this marae receives neither fish nor their lousy subsidy, adding in rising volume that this is because the real iwi here on the harbor had told his corporate iwi in the city that they could stuff their arrangement with the government right up their tero! Lowering her voice in disdain, she adds that their fisheries company didn’t even know how to fish and instead had leased the whole Waikato-Tainui fisheries quota — along with all the inshore quota of the harbors over which they had no mana at all — the very livelihood of her parents and their ancestors for generations! — leased to Japanese ships with Taiwanese crews whom the real fishers of these harbors had never even met! Instead, here they were hosting him, a mere corporate clerk, on their marae. Here she pauses to turn her backside toward the speaker, clearly threatening a whakapohane. The judge intervenes hastily to call an adjournment; Huka’s whānau kaumātua (elders) hurriedly stand up all around her so her display cannot be seen, and heave sighs of relief.” 

It is concerning how the liberal politics of decolonization are being enacted as state ideology — to detrimental effects on its citizens both Maori and not. On ideology Smith writes “belief in the ideal that benefiting mankind is indeed a primary outcome of scientific research is as much a reflection of ideology as it is of academic training,” but it is ridiculous and insane to not recognize Smith’s evident ideological influence. I’d argue against the concept of racialized sovereignty, from a perspective of proletarian internationalism. I’d say it might not be all that it’s cracked up to be, yunno. 

Who Needs An Education If It’s Colonial?

“You don’t believe you can really replace Western Knowledge with African Knowledge. You have to find a way of making them talk to each other.” 

— Jonathan Jansen, The Problem with Decolonization

HBO Max’s 2021 Gossip Girl reboot is a stunningly un-self-aware deconstruction of its source material. Ahead of the premiere, the showrunner earnestly tweeted that there would be “No slut-shaming. No catfights.” Despite famously being the beauty of Gossip Girl. This is a key irony of the postmodern moment: Images of women are bimbofied. Hyperreal. Female cruelty as entertainment. Real Housewives, The Kardashians, yadda yadda yadda. Taking up this normative role, desiring the most feminine construction (R.I.P. Kanye’s mum) shouldn’t go hand-in-hand with demanding a re-evaluation of female aesthetics, as it leans into the modernist project. . . but yet. 

The successor ideology of the new Gossip Girl is pervasive. Unions, housing protests, are plot points for elite teens to flirt. Impressing one another with their ‘progressive politics,’ it seems that the characters’ intentions would be shallow. Though the show continues to assert that ‘no, they actually do care!’ At the same time, consciousness of their own celebrity has them uninterested in genuine learning. “Who needs an education when you’re famous for putting on your makeup” as one teacher observes in the pilot. An uncritical mirror of the culture, Gossip Girl 2.0 parallels decolonial discourse in its fascination with intersectionality, social justice, identity politics, and anti-racism. “Who needs an education if it’s colonial?”

Smith writes, 

“Under colonialism indigenous peoples have struggled against a Western view of history and yet been complicit with that view. We have often allowed our ‘histories’ to be told and have then become outsiders as we heard them being retold. Schooling is directly implicated in this process. Through the curriculum and its underlying theory of knowledge, early schools redefined the world and where indigenous peoples were positioned within the world.”  

Such skepticism towards metanarratives has threatened conventional epistemological premises of truth and knowledge. Decolonialism doesn’t want to better ‘history’ it wants to break it down into ‘histories.’ Any source of knowledge outside the mainstream is valorized ipso-facto of its exteriority. How can one teach — or learn anything — if ‘education’ becomes ‘educations’? Of course no curriculum should be forever implacable but the rhetoric of decolonialism is not one which aims for improvement. Researcher Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert describes advocates of decolonization “as shareholders in the epistemological relativism of post-modernism — and they reap its corrosive rewards.”

This corrosiveness is hidden in moral attachment to political positions. Smith reveals her moral positioning in her discussion of history as a concept,

“We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. Wrong. History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized and ‘Othered.’ In this sense history is not important for indigenous peoples because a thousand accounts of the ‘truth’ will not alter the ‘fact’ that indigenous peoples are still marginal and do not possess the power to transform history into justice.”  

Sehgal-Cuthbert goes against this view, 

“​​Epistemological relativism rests on the presupposition that the meanings of any knowledge claims are context specific, i.e. they make sense only within a given linguistic community and its historically specific social context; hence the claim that if an account of the natural world makes sense to those living in a post-colonial community, it follows that Western academics are in no position to say that this knowledge is less rational, and therefore inferior to, knowledge produced in their colonial institutions. With no epistemic criteria for judging one form of knowledge over another, any differences in the value and status attributed to knowledge and knowledge procedures from different cultures can only be the effect of prior relations of political and economic inequality. In this outlook, power trumps knowledge every time.”

Smith’s position of epistemological relativism replicates the power system she bemoans. Through this criticism Smith’s goal is academia’s atonement for its perceived inequalities. Truly, it’s an evangelical perspective that exposes her preoccupation with her own salvation. Everything must be about domination because if it’s not it threatens the entire foundation of decolonization.

This critique of history, contested histories, the postmodernist discourse on history — the splintering of a historical narrative = no history. The lack of emphasis on one broad history, leads to a history of the world that misunderstands causations and connections — a history that is divorced from reality in the opposite direction of what decolonization claims. What about the legitimacy of an oppositional approach to decolonization?

Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori Scholars at the Research Interface, published earlier this year by Otago University Press is a manifesto of complaints, personal stories from Māori academics lamenting the racism of the tertiary sector. Of course it is published by a university! This echoes the columnist Joanna Williams’ enlightening point that “in practice, students campaigning for curricular change often find they are pushing at an open door.” And of course, all the scholars herald indigenous studies departments and their various proliferations as wānanga and NGOs. For as much as they loathe the ‘institution’ they still demand to access its benefits. 

A review of Ngā Kete Mātauranga claims “it will be a well-loved book, like Decolonising Methodologies.” Its writer, Tara McAllister glorifies her own perceived marginalization employing the framework of Ngā Kete Mātauranga to validate her spurious criticisms: “I believe it is a right of all Māori students to have access to Māori supervisors and lecturers, who not only look like them but think like them. . . the lack of cultural safety provided by universities and the everyday violence within their walls – an experience many Māori scholars will relate to. The type of violence that continually chips away at our resilience and attacks our wairua.”

To which I quip back with a quote from Williams, 

“promoting the view that walking past a statue on the way to class inflicts real psychic harm suggests black students are uniquely vulnerable and lacking in resilience. This assumption carries over into another argument driving the move to decolonize the curriculum: the racist and patronizing view that black students can only learn if they see themselves, in a most basic, biological form, represented in the curriculum. This is to suggest that black students can only learn ‘black knowledge’ or, in other words, that black students can’t learn Kant or Shakespeare.”

The idea that a [insert ethnicity here] student at a university suffers through “everyday violence” is a relativist position that undermines the definition of violence. To again quote Jansen, “the language of critique [is] not enough to get students through the substance of a discipline.” Williams goes on, “the presentation of all black students as victims of the past masks real inequalities in the present.’” The inaccessibility of graduate study, let alone undergraduate, means that the vast majority of students are those with the financial ability to study. It is humorous, the absolute refusal to acknowledge class. Which is why I find it difficult to empathize with Ngā Kete Mātauranga and its precedent: two open letters demanding investigation into the structural and casual racism of New Zealand tertiary institutions — of which one signatory is listed as a member of the “pagan community.” While it’d be idiotic to deny the existence of racism within the tertiary sector, these concerns stem out of a bourgeois tragedy. These academics, with their venerated positions, lack the oppression which the culture necessitates for them to be valid; as Williams exposes, “In fact, the apparent relativism that appears to underpin the decolonize movement is disingenuous. All knowledge is not considered equal. Truth, when no longer universal, is perspectival. And in today’s university, some perspectives are more worth hearing than others.”

In her essay The Theory of Neotribal Capitalism, Elizabeth Rata diagnoses the dilemma these academics have met: “the Maori comprador bourgeoisie, whose commodity is knowledge, share many similarities with the Pakeha new class, and indeed emerged within the same education location. Just as for the Pakeha new class is to control access to the knowledge commodity through a system of professionalization, so too, do the knowledge brokers of the Maori comprador bourgeoisie control the knowledge commodity through a system of control based upon exclusion/inclusion criteria” 

Unable to reconcile their place within the hierarchy the Maori comprador bourgeoisie have assuaged all notions of class analysis in favor of a cultural theory that is self-interested and self-promoting. This culminates in such buzzphrases as ‘decolonization of the mind’ and the insistence of promoting citations of people of color just for the sake of it — all divorced from material circumstances. To indulge further in cynicism, one could argue that these calls to decolonize the curriculum, are predatory marketing ploys to bait in a wider array of students into taking on more debt — because they’ll be ‘seen and heard’ here.

Decolonization is foremost a false concern of elitist knowledge production. A student blog post from the University of East Anglia is a further case study in this bourgeois tragedy:

“[Decolonization] asks difficult and necessary questions such as: how does coloniality affect who is (not) in this space? How does violence rooted in colonial racial hierarchy manifest at the university? Who is considered to be part of ‘the canon’ or essential reading? What counts as knowledge or scholarship? How do we challenge extractive research practices? Who is cited? Here, we recall Métis scholar Zoe Todd and [Sara] Ahmed’s calls to attend to the politics of citation.”

Decolonization is an agent of capitalism, requiring us to take a blowtorch to all that is solid. Asking that we deconstruct knowledge; deconstruct truth via centering and/or decentering ‘voices.’ What is required is a knowledge base, not quicksand. We must scrutinize all ideas as ideas. Merit shouldn’t be applied based on a foundation of do-gooder ‘inclusivity.’ An approach which lacks an introspective analysis of power dynamics will only ever herald the logic of commodification. A fracturing, a fragmentation. Decolonization wants a decentralization of resources. The lack of universality, the lack of a core, that can only weaken the systems of society upon which we all rely. It is no surprise that Donna Awatere would join a political party championing a pseudo anarchocapitalist model of the world. Decolonization is decolonized of meaning.

To conclude, I think of a comment on under Williams’ article, “The biggest tragedy is that students will leave university [more] ideologically possessed and bigoted than when they went in. How did we arrive at a situation where we are narrowing minds rather than expanding them?”

Decolonize the Internet!

“Identity politics itself has just got to stop. It was important once. I was a rebel against the WASP hegemony in American culture. It was suffocating. I was raised in the 1950s when WASPs controlled corporations, education, politics and so on. Identity politics was necessary once. We asserted gay rights with the Stonewall rebellion of 1969. We asserted women’s rights with the rebirth of second wave feminism in the late 1960s. But this endless preoccupation with a fragmented identity, we must return to the authentic 1960s vision which is about identity coming from consciousness, which transcends gender, which transcends all these divisions of race and ethnicity. Consciousness itself. There’s no sense of that any longer.”

 — Camille Paglia, Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

In September 2020, it was leaked via social media that Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s contract at the University of Waikato would not be renewed. Her fans (mainly the previously mentioned Tara McAllister) were outraged. Claiming this was to do with the aforementioned structural racism, the subject of the open letters Smith helped pen. Smith however, chalked the decision up to business-as-usual bureaucracy, alongside Covid-19 belt-tightening, stating “they need to tone it down on Twitter.” 

It’s cute that Smith finds Twitter discourse distasteful. It is, after all, a beast she helped create. Clearly in response to her contract not being renewed, Smith wrote a poem for art and culture blog The Pantograph Punch. The first stanza ends, “And the woman who was raped became a warrior.” The second stanza ends, “And the successful executive became a warrior.” Perhaps some might find that a distasteful connection. Now, while the mission statement of Decolonising Methodologies is commendable, Smith’s ‘poetic’ style directly influences the downstream hyperbole that ‘activists’ like McAllister engage. It’s a trope to cite the famous line from Smith’s introduction: “The word itself, ‘research,’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.” She writes like a hypochondriac: “the pessimistic view is that we are dying and that the legacy of the presence of indigenous peoples on earth will be obliterated.” Smith’s position as an intellectual lends validity to the damaging ‘decolonial’ rhetoric of abstracted online discourse. It’s the rhetoric of a Munchausen’s, this needless worrying. What is the point of living in a world being so scared and anxious? And trying to terrify others, too?

The most visible example of this being Decolonize This Place (DTP). They are most well-known for protesting against the hiring of a white curator of African art at the Brooklyn Museum and the vice-chairmanship of the Whitney Museum’s board member Warren Kanders, who owns a manufacturer of tear gas. “Facilitated” by a vague collective named MTL+, of which the most prominent members include a media studies PhD candidate and an NYU adjunct — another validating example of Rata’s [insert ethnicity here] comprador bourgeoisie. DTP’s charter is a riddle of pious platitudes: indigenous rights, black liberation, Palestinian nationalism, de-gentrification and socio-economic inequality. Though functionally all DTP seems to do is bother underpaid and under-resourced staff at various museums and occasionally subway stations. They’ve been lambasted for histrionic tweets such as, “And wondering what to do in solidarity in the meantime? Find targets nearby, Find where these Zionist fools live, and where there offices are, and act!” Downloadable PDF posters on their website read: “OUR UPRISINGS ARE QUEER TRANS BLACK BROWN INDIGENOUS IMMIGRANT PALESTINIAN AND GLOBAL” and “FUCK THE POLICE. FEED THE PEOPLE. FIGHT THE POWER. FEEL THE POWER. FUCK THE PIPELINES. FUCK THE PRISONS. FREE THE PRISONERS. FUCK THE PILGRIMS. FUCK THE POLITICIANS. FUCK THE PROFITS. FUCK THE PROPAGANDA. FUCK THE PRESIDENT. FOR THE PEOPLE.” among others. My personal favorite is the “Decolonial Operations Manual,” the endnote of which reads, “[t]he work reflected in these pages, condensing years, helps us breathe. It is only possible because of a deep politics of friendship.” Their Instagram presence also curries in moot trends, “the only good fascist is a dead fascist.”

Former Labour party MP, Marxist historian and director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Tristam Hunt critiques DTP’s practices

“there’s a multiplicity of narratives around the decolonization question. Whether it’s the Rhodes Must Fall campaign led in universities and thinking about the curriculum, or what comes out of New York initially and is now moving around lots of institutions, the Decolonize This Place movement. And on the one hand this is around curriculum and it’s around the provenance of items and collections; on the other hand it’s about housing costs in Brooklyn and it’s about pay levels of staff and it’s about hiring practices. And it seems for me as a historian, words matter and meanings matter and when you’re talking about decolonization, how you embed housing prices in Brooklyn as part of that seems to broaden the context, often unnecessarily. Decolonize This Place in their initial demands of Brooklyn Museum also had very specific demands about any interaction between the museum and the state of Israel. And again, that seemed to me to move the conversation away from thinking about the colonial origins of collections and that history to a much broader political conversation — which is totally fine and interesting but again has broader ramifications.” 

You have to question this edict to decolonize national institutions — is this a conversation the nation, the taxpayers is genuinely invested in. If that’s the demographic these institutions are supposed to represent the interests of, is decolonizing the collection doing that? Hunt continues, 

“I still maintain the importance of museums as global collections. In an era when we’re seeing more nationalism and more chauvinism and more particularism, the stories museums tell are the stories of multi-cultures, of exchange, of adaptation, of interaction. The story of the object, the story of the material culture is a multi-layered account of races, ethnicities, peoples creating works of wonder and beauty. And we have to be clear that some of those were done in different power relationships which we need to expose and analyze but we also need to ensure that diversity within the collections in an age of nationalism and chauvinism and populism is held onto. 

The origins of the V&A are embedded in British imperialism and colonialism. Hunt remarks that the idea of decolonizing the V&A is perplexing because you can’t. The colonial story is embedded within the entirety of the museum. It was literally founded in the Edwardian era. To decolonize, is to decontextualize that story. He clarifies his perspective is not one that mourns a loss in decolonizing, rather that a frame which says you have to decolonize this institution doesn’t understand that the history of colonization is totally embedded in the colonial story and the colonial experience. And within the colonial period there were a variety of exchanges across different power relationships, some were more positive than others, naturally. Hunt also notes that as there was inequity within these acquisitions of collection, inequity, too, is replicated in China and the Gulf states’ acquisitions through their gathering of extreme wealth and power. He asks, as a provocation, “in 150 years. . . will people say these collections were gathered at a time of growing Chinese imperial power and growing Gulf power and do we now need to think about them being returned to their countries of origin?” While DTP claims, “​​[h]istorically, art institutions have opened up as spaces of refuge. . . [and] claim to be political. . . It’s one of the places that we can think about decolonization. . . it’s a space where we can have a conversation. . .” it’s ironic that Hunt, someone who was genuinely engaged in a country’s political system, provides such a weighty analysis of DTP’s lack of political coherency and ambition. 

In a similar vein is the behavior of Tara McAllister’s sister and devout decolonist, Anna McAllister. Concerned by journalistic practices around an article about the online harassment of Maori women, McAllister co-penned an open letter to the news organization Stuff, complaining that the article had revictimized and heightened risk for its subjects in naming them, writing, “We stand together as Wahine Maori, in support of each other’s stories, and in solidarity against the continued violations of Wahine rights on our own whenua, whether they be at the hands of colonial supremacists or the media.” McAllister later tweeted, “At this point, I feel like Stuff will never hold itself accountable for its own actions. They will continue to pull the same racist, problematic shit, week in and week out. And at this point, every Māori person in that organization is complicit.”

After McAllister’s tantrum, Stuff subsidiary The Dominion Post (who published a print version of the article) issued a statement, including screenshots of an editor’s email response to McAllister. They wrote, “​​We stand by our report and our reporter — and our commitment to call out racism. Here is the editor’s response to the complainant (who is not the victim).” Editor Anna Fifeld clarified that Stuff had clearly operated within ethical bounds, the victim had agreed to be named and was not aware of McAllister’s correspondence with Stuff editors wherein she’d claimed the victim had been receiving violent threats — despite the victim saying otherwise to Stuff. McAllister retaliated by tweeting that Stuff had called her a liar. Though, Stuff never abused the consent of any of the subjects, having the story vetted by interviewees i​​nvites infringements on journalistic independence and as clearly stated in Stuff’s code of practice, “Interviews conducted by journalists are assumed to be on the record and able to be reported unless otherwise specified. Interviewees cannot retrospectively put interviews off the record.” All of the open letter’s demands are antithetical to standard journalistic practice. All of this amounts to McAllister damaging her own reputation for being an influencer who cried ‘racism.’ To quote Linda Tuhiwai Smith yet again, “If we write without thinking critically about our writing, it can be dangerous.” Though McAllister isn’t listening, she’s out for blood. 

It is this bastardization of decolonization online from which spurred the ‘protest’ against Dark Mofo and Santiago Sierra. In a saner world the merit of Sierra’s work wouldn’t be wiped away by a few Instagrammed claims of racism. There will always be cultural differences — this is healthy for society. But it is not still reasonable to apply a crude notion of north vs south or center vs periphery. It’s shallow and refuses to recognize progress and change, favoring a childish view of power structures. Class analysis should never displace cultural analysis. Of course distinct cultures will collide. There is no moralistic stance that can be taken on this. Conflict is natural. So, what does decolonization speak for and what can it realistically achieve when the genre has birthed such texts as Decolonize Hipsters, which “places hipsters at the vanguard of a movement that starts with gentrification but ends with gifting Trump the White House”? Nothing can emerge in the socio-cultural sphere without becoming swallowed up by globalization. Decolonization is not immune from this paradox; this is a reminder to not treat it as holier than thou.

— JJ Harper is a freelance art writer from New Zealand. He has a Twitter and a Substack.