More notes for discerning travellers

A little while ago I wrote a blog, Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller. It was a fictional travel guide, but with all points speaking to historical realities.

What is it about a certain “European” sensibility? Not all people who live in European countries have it, of course, but this sensibility seems to define in the main what it means to be essentially “European”). I want to ask: what is it about a sensibility that can never, ever, look at itself, for itself, and in relation to what it does to others?

We all know that the European enlightenment was supposed to be built upon the pillars of self-reflection and accountability in thought and politics. It is funny, then, that the “European” so rarely seemed to be able to hold him/herself to reflexive account especially over European colonial pasts.

It continues.

I swear, if I believed in such a cosmology called “Modernity” I’d be calling the “European” a backward, traditional native ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror to start the process of socialization and “childhood development”.

But I don’t believe. So I’ll just have to call this sensibility by more mundane descriptions, such as un-reflexive, un-accountable, un-relational.

Example (twitter response to my Travel Notes blog):

Feb 25

@X @RobbieShilliam The intellectual’s version of Boko Haram.

Ok, that just made me giggle. Must have seen my dreadlocks. I was tempted to add that response to my Travel Notes. It almost carried on writing itself.

And then this response:

  1. X    Feb 28

@RobbieShilliam Would it be any different if someone wrote on Asia and Asians (or Africa and Africans) for European discerning travellers?:)

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏   Mar 1

@X yes it would. This is specifically about Europe and it’s colonial pathologies, one of which is avoidance of its pathologies!

  1. X Mar 1

@RobbieShilliam But it sounds as if European were intrinsically greedy and evil, and the rest were noble human beings dedicated to goodness

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  Mar 1

@X I didn’t say anything about the rest. Your projection. All the statements have truth behind them.

All quiet on the Northern front.

Until just now (same tweeter):

  1. 2h2 hours ago (19th April)

BBC News – South Africa anti-immigrant violence: Hundreds held http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32372501 … Who is to blame on this, @RobbieShilliam? 😉

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  2h2 hours ago

@X why ask me? I am not a south Africa expert.

  1. X 1h1 hour ago

@RobbieShilliam Sadly, racism and xenophobia are not exclusive of white people: they are a human (and ape) disease. No need to be an expert!

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  57m57 minutes ago

@X that’s your obsession X not mine. I never said those were exclusive to white peep. Ask yourself why u are defensive. 

Over the last eight years, one experience I have constantly had, mostly in the academic world it has to be said, is people from a very strong “modernity” (read, partially, “European”) perspective (variously articulated) consistently interpreting my work as “essentialist”, “nativist”, “racialist”.

All my work in this time period – ALL of it – is about cultivating deep relationality required to heal the wounds of colonialism. Isn’t that a global concern?

I have to ask myself: why can’t these people see my relationality? It’s not a matter of me writing badly. I own up to when I do that. But this is on a different level. It’s a wilful un-reading.

Case in point: I finish a paper which is engaging with but sympathetically criticising the Communist Manifesto on the grounds of its use of the slave analogy but at the same time consigning real-living enslaved Africans to the distant past of political economy. I finish by saying (pithily, I admit), “Forward, then, to a Manifesto coloured human”.

Respondent: Is worried about my engagement with Marcus Garvey in the paper. What do I want to replace the Manifesto with? (Computer code: do you want to replace class with race, Marx with Garvey?) My last sentence!!! LAST sentence!!! THE LAST SENTENCE!!! I don’t want to replace it at all. I want to reckon with it fully. Is that unclear? Did I say, “forward only to Marcus Garvey?” Or, “Forward to a new manifesto written by blacks only for blacks… in black ink, on black paper”?

Neither is it about people agreeing with me. There are plenty of grounds of disagreements and I really don’t mind them – I usually love them and learn from them. But it’s beyond disagreement through a dialogue. There was no dialogue!

As Gurminder Bhambra puts it in this blog, I have engaged with the Hegels, Kants, etc, the intellectual folk of the “European” culture. But their avatars never engage with my folk. They have an epistemological stereotype in their head – Fanon will tell you where they got it from – and then they respond to a stereotype.

Who is accountable? Who is self-reflexive? Who is seeking to cultivate relations? If I decide that I don’t want to waste any more energies on a conversation with a wall, then I guess it will be my “essentialism” that will have been the cause of my retreat.

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9 Responses to More notes for discerning travellers

  1. Reblogged this on // Olivia U. Rutazibwa and commented:
    When ‘rings a bell’ is the mother of all understatements… 1-2read!

  2. Joanna says:

    I have read your post with great interest, and I would love to read your paper on the Communist Manifesto. Strikingly, Marx and Engels do not refer at all to transatlantic slavery in this text. When they write about the importance of the “colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally” for the aggressively advancing bourgeoisie, the absence of any references to transatlantic slavery and slave trade is conspicuous, The only slaves mentioned in the Manifesto are the slaves of antiquity (“in ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves”) … And yes, better not to waste any time on conversations with people who don’t want any genuine dialogue.

  3. Joanna says:

    And to me it is not in the least surprising that people you call “Europeans” are so seldom ready to critical reflection on Europe’s colonial past … European Enlightenment was far less “enlightened” than plenty of people believe, and thoroughly poisoned by slavery and racism. Hume, Kant, Voltaire and Lessing were openly and rabidly racist. Kant even wrote about the best way to whip Black slaves in his “Physical Geography” … I would say that many of today’s “Europeans” are the spiritual and intellectual sons and daughters of Kant, Voltaire, Hume and Lessing.

  4. (Robbie, this is the same commentary included a few days ago in ‘The Disorder of Things’):

    I agree with you, Robbie, that there is a kind of European citizen “ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his/her particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror”. Indeed, I do know quiet a few! But change “a kind of European” for “a kind of African”, “a kind of Asian” or “a kind of American” and you would also be right. What I mean is that this is a human (not a European) feature. All humans are basically the same: exactly the same hardware, with only cultural software making the difference (and not that big!).

    You seem to put the blame only on Europe. Take into account that European or Western cultural stance must somehow be different because since 1492 Europe (namely, the West) has been calling the shots in the world and, obviously, views and collective imageries cannot be the same: it’s absurd to expect slave owners/colonialists (and their descendants) and slaves/colonized (and their descendants) to share the same ideological and cultural imagery. Those narratives from both sides have been passing on through generations (memory of slavery and colonization is not that old: southern USA was an apartheid regime until mid sixties!). Indeed, there is a dominant, conceited and dismissive Western cultural “sensibility” (nurtured by its very own “success” and hegemony, not very different –I suppose- to that of old Incas, Romans, Persians or Arabs), but at the same time there is a strong self-critical one (born in the political left, out of a feeling of guilt for the crimes comitted by forefathers).

    You hint that I am proyecting an alleged European self-cultural superiority (even a hidden guilt?) and you affirm that I am on the defensive. I concede, maybe you are right with the latter, but it’s only out of an itching for rigour and balance, because I don’t feel neither cultural superior nor guilty for being European, I don’t build my identity on “Europeaness” and personally don’t mind whatever be said about it (I don’t even take as an offense an attack on alleged Christian, Spanish or Canary characters because I feel free from nationalism and religion, fortunately!).

    But why don’t you admit that maybe you are also behaving in a defensive way? I promise you that mine is not a “wilful unreading” but a search for loopholes in your (thoroughly read) points. I want to show you that it’s not fair to attribute me (and to attribute many other Europeans) self indulgency, not accountability and inability to see your relationality.

    I admit that Europeans has inflicted a BIG damage on people from other continents, beginning with Portuguese and Spanish in America. But I am not going to flog myself for it because, as I said before, I am NOT guilty (by the way, I come from Canary Islands, whose population is a mix of European -not only Spanish but Portuguese, French, Italian, Flemish, British, Irish and so on-, Berber -Guanches natives-, Blacks -African slaves-, Jewish, Indian, Korean, Lebanese…). That damage was inflicted by humans from Europe (regarding slavery, with the invaluable aid from African tribal chiefs selling their own people) out of greed and search of power: the very same human motives that could have led the Africans to enslave Europeans (as Otomans used to do in the Balkans) or the Americans to conquer Europe if the historical and socioeconomic circumstances had been different. By the way, don’t forget Arab slave trading in the Indian Ocean and Europeans enslaved by North African Barbary states for ransom… And do not be tempted to blame it on capitalism (although, indirectly, it certainly influenced making European economy strong enough to face the challenge of conquest and submission of other peoples). Did capitalism encourage Roman, Persian, Mongol or Arab conquests?…

    Apart from recognizing that European societies have caused a big damage to others (mainly, to Africa), I acknowledge that Western countries have a debt for having profited from the monstrous crime of slavery (and colonization) and its long-term imprints (although not guilty, I admit that I have profited from that in some way or another). A way to pay off this debt is through extensive acceptance of immigration (nowadays Europe is a multiracial reality) and generous cooperation (not only economical but political) for African development. It’ll never be enough, and I am fully aware, but what else can be done? (once discarded the option of Westerners comitting mass suicide…). Imagine we could get rid of capitalism by decree (if such a thing was possible!): that wouldn’t make any difference as far as underlying human motives (greed and hunger for power) persist. The keys within our frontiers are integration, education and law (to assure convivence and severely penalize any kind of manifest racism or xenophobia).

    I appreciate your work and I don’t want you to retreat dialectically. Do you really think I am reasoning like a wall? You say: “All my work in this time period – ALL of it – is about cultivating deep relationality required to heal the wounds of colonialism. Isn’t that a global concern?” Of course, Robbie, but how to heal it effectively? Stigmatization and resentment is not the way because it doesn’t untie the knot. Let me say you that I see a hint of paranoia (I can fully understand it, anyway!) in your view. And you would commit a mistake in not taking many Europeans as crucial allies for that (shared) goal of healing.

    Of course, world is not -and will never be- perfect. We must be conscious (I follow an Evolutionary Psychology approach) that humans are territorial apes and that Gaussian bell curve always apply: you’ll always come across bigots, racists, thugs and so on, no matter their race, nationality, religion or cultural background. Any sort of mesianism or naïve believe in utopia (in a perfect armonic world inhabited by perfect humans) is unrealistic (and, when “accomplished”, usually transmutes into the worst dystopia). This realistic disbelief will not prevent us, of course, from working for a better world through integration, education and law: I think we have made some progress in the last 200 years, don’t you?

    I don’t know what exactly “Modernity” is, but I’ll stand (and you too, I suppose) for whatever means freedom to lead your life no matter your ideas, religion (or non religion), race, gender and sexuality. This is a sort of ideology, indeed, but not properly a Western ideology (unless we render alphabet a semitic cultural artefact and potato a Native American product). Do you really think this view is an expression of eurocentrism? (I won’t stop using alphabet and eating potatoes!)…

    I keep following your very interesting articles and open for any conversation (and criticism).

    Let me include a post of mine, written in Spanish, about my view on Africa: http://picandovoy.blogspot.com.es/2014/02/el-drama-de-la-violencia-en-africa.html

  5. I cannot resist the temptation to leave at least a short reply to Nicolas Fabelo’s long comment. Me, I absolutely don’t see any “hint of paranoia” in Robbie’s comments; and let me emphasize that I am white and from Poland – a country which was never actively involved in the Transatlantic slave trade and has never owned colonies in Africa, the Caribbean or Latin America. I have noticed so many times that when a Black person talks about white supremacy, racism etc., some whites are quick to suggest that his/her thinking is somewhat “paranoid” …

    As you see, Nicolas, I am white and I am not at all unpleasantly surprised by Robbie’s comments (I even think that Robbie is too kind for European Enlightenment). When you mentioned “African tribal chiefs who sold their own people”, I just cringed. First of all, they were not “tribal chiefs”, but kings, queens and other powerful rulers. Have you heard about the Yoruba kingdoms or the kingdom of Dahomey ? Their rulers were not some “tribal chiefs”, and very many African and other Black people are sickened when whites use the terms “tribe” and “tribal” while speaking of Africa. Why do so many whites think that everything in Africa is “tribal” ???

    Secondly, I noticed so many times that very many whites try hard to put as much blame as possible on Africans themselves when it comes to the Transatlantic slavery, and use such expressions as “selling their own people” etc. They do not mention the powerful pressures exerted on African states by Europeans. African rulers could not simply “opt out” of the Transatlantic slave trade. Such rulers as Dom Afonso I, King of the Congo (1506-1543; as you can see, Nicolas, he was not some “tribal chief”. And by the way, he was Christian and very open to European culture) tried to stop the slave trade – to no avail (see e.g. the chapter “Paradigms of the Euro-African Connection” in Chinweizu’s book “The West and the Rest of Us”).

    Walter Rodney wrote in “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”: “To ease their guilty consciences, Europeans try to throw the major responsibility for the slave trade on to the Africans. One European author of a book on the slave trade (appropriately entitled ‘Sins of Our Fathers’) explained how many other white people urged him to state that the trade was the responsibility of African chiefs, and that Europeans merely turned up to buy the captives – as though without European demand there would have been captives sitting on the beach by millions !” (p. 81, Pambazuka Press, 2012). Rodney described something I see all the time, and I am so tired with it.

    Last but not least: I know plenty of Europeans who believe that they know a lot about literature, but have never read a book by an African author and don’t see any reason to explore African literature. I know plenty of European intellectuals who would be very surprised if someone had asked them to name an African thinker or writer. No African intellectual could ever afford to cut himself/herself off in this way from European culture, as if it were of absolutely no importance … And it is because Europeans and other whites have been inculcated for so long “disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil”, as WEB Du Bois put it with unrivalled brilliance in “The Souls of Black Folk” (chapter 1, “Of our spiritual strivings”). Of course, there are countless lovers of “black” music, but many of them are openly racist (the poet Philip Larkin – a great lover of jazz – was an excellent example); and somehow many of the white enthusiasts of jazz or hip hop never mention any Black authors when they talk of literature or philosophy … These people love “black” music, but associate Blacks only with music, dance, sport etc. – never with the world of books and intellect.

  6. My reply became much longer than I had planned – I apologize for not being more concise …

  7. Hello, Joanna:

    OK, change “tribal chiefs” for “kings”, “emperors” or whatever you want to call them: the fact is that Transatlantic slavery wouldn’t have been possible, to that extent, without their participation. This is an indisputable -and very sad- fact.

    Indeed, Poland was never involved in the Transatlantic slave trade and has never owned colonies in Africa, the Caribbean or Latin America. But I suppose you are not trying to hint that Poland is morally “better” than others… It could have been rather different if Poland was located by the shore of the Atlantic Ocean or off the coast of Africa. Anyway, ask Jewish people and Russian about Polish “goodness”… 😉

    What I meant to say was that there are no “guilty” nor “innocent” peoples. Never! The evil is to blame on humans, not in Spanish, Polish, Jewish, Africans or Yanomamo. Once again, I remind you of Arab slave trading in the Indian Ocean (Mauritania formally abolished slavery in 1981, but in fact it persists, disguised as domestic service) and of Europeans enslaved by Turkish or by North African Barbary states.

    Of course, as I had written earlier, “there is a dominant, conceited and dismissive Western cultural “sensibility” (nurtured by its very own “success” and hegemony, not very different –I suppose- to that of old Incas, Romans, Persians or Arabs), but at the same time there is a strong self-critical one (born in the political left, out of a feeling of guilt for the crimes comitted by forefathers)”. I fully acknowledge it, and I agree with you when you say that “Europeans and other whites have been inculcated for so long disdain for everything black”. But it’s the same (human) sad story: hegemonic cultures tend to build arrogance and to promote feelings of superiority, supremacism, racism and other kinds of stupidity. For example, did you know that Liberian’s descendants from formerly enslaved African Americans usually look down on Liberian natives?…

    Pozdrowienia, Joanna!
    I want to remark again my interest on Robbie’s work: I keep following him.

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