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Can Recognition be Decolonised?

by James Fraser on August 16, 2018

Europe’s colonial encounter with the Americas has profoundly influenced modern conceptualisations of the political subject. As argued in an article ‘Amazonian Struggles for Recognition’ in  Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Europeans started from a point of non-recognition of Native Americans – they were either too innocent or too evil, too degenerate or too weak to be considered human and civilised. Renaissance travelers such as Jean de Léry (1536–1613) saw them as innocently Prelapsarian (before fall of Man), representing a lost Eden. Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), conversely, saw only savagery, degradation and moral and biological corruption. Early in the colonisation of the Americas, debates raged over the status of Native Americans, whether they should be recognised, and if so, as what kind of being? Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) was famously the first European to assert that Native Americans had a soul and were therefore human. These reports and debates influenced Enlightenment philosophers, from Kant (who advanced a hierarchy of races) to Rosseau (the noble savage) and Locke (only European plantation agroecologies produce value). All elaborated their thought in relation to the Others of the New World (and elsewhere in what is today called the ‘global south’).

Bartolomé de las Casas by the artist Constantino Brumidi, 1876

The concept of recognition was developed by Hegel, who first coined the phrase ‘struggle for recognition’ (kampf um anerkennung) and whose thinking on such questions was probably influenced by the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), as Susan Buck-Morss has argued. Hegel’s theory of recognition has psychological, social, ethical, political and legal dimensions. We all need recognition from others throughout our lifecourse to flourish; to actualise our manifold potentials. The success of individual self-realisation is necessary for a good society. Hence such intersubjective recognition is the form of ethics itself – as the philosopher Robert Williams puts it:

“Hegel identified recognition as the threshold of the ethical, namely, when the other comes to count; he went on to identify mutual-reciprocal recognition as the condition of possibility on which ethics and ethical life depend. Without affirmative self-recognition in [the] other, ethics and ethical life would be impossible.”

Yet society is shot through with misrecognition – this is well captured in James Holstoe’s idea of ‘differentiated citizenship’ – societal groups are marginalised along intersectional lines of gender, class, age, ethnicity, disabilities and so on. People belonging to these groups do not have equal recognition in most societies, i.e. women, the working class, people of colour, people in wheelchairs. So, a good society requires political recognition of groups who suffer discrimination, and this is normally the outcome of social struggles, which have as their goal the legal inscription of certain rights which enable the flourishing of individuals belonging to these groups, through the recognition of their particular needs.

This final ‘legal’ form of recognition, by which governments and/or international treaties recognise the rights of particular subjects, is a key aspect of citizenship which can therefore be seen as “the right to have rights,” as Hannah Arendt observed. When it is used in both academic, media, and colloquially, recognition tends to refer to this ‘legal’ dimension of the concept. Yet, I contend that the intersubjective dimension of recognition, which has been necessary for human flourishing much longer than legal recognition has existed, is equally important and thus should be placed on an equal footing in discussions on this topic.

What is the relationship, then, between colonialism and recognition? Colonialism created and perpetuated misrecognition on an industrial scale—this needs no further explanation. But the end of the colonial period did not result in the recognition of marginalised ‘subaltern’ groups—e.g. Peasant, Afro-descendant and Indigenous peoples—in postcolonial societies. Latin America, for example, has continued to be characterised by racialised social structures with politics and business dominated by Euro-descendant white elites, hugely unequal land tenure—across Latin America 1% of the biggest farms now control more than half of the productive land – and whose economies have retained their colonial character as exporters of primary commodities. A fundamental emancipatory horizon was opened by ILO convention 169 in 1989 – now ratified by 23 states – which recognises “indigenous and tribal peoples” by extending various rights to them, including the right to “traditionally occupied” land, and crucially, the right for groups to self-identify as indigenous. In addition, various nations, such as Colombia (1991) and Brazil (1988) promulgated new constitutions that extended rights and recognition to subaltern peoples.

But questions of ‘recognition’ remain extremely fraught right across the postcolonial world. Scholars working in Latin America, such as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Nancy Postero and Charles Hale see recognition as a form of ‘neoliberal multiculturalism,’ wherein subaltern peoples are acknowledged in an essentialised and superficial manner, granted whatever rights that don’t interfere with the reproduction of capital, or are compelled to commodify their identity and difference as a way of subsuming them to capital. Scholars working in Canada, the United States, and Australia –  where the descendants of European settlers and indigenous peoples have remained largely distinct, have levelled even more powerful critiques, often rejecting the very idea of recognition as irretrievably bound up in coloniality.

From the viewpoint of Brazilian Amazonia, the area of my most sustained field engagements, things become more complicated because there is often no clear divide between natives and settlers. This vast region, like elsewhere in Latin America, is mainly inhabited by “new kinds of people” who combine Indigenous, European and Afro-descendant heritages, whose existence challenged and continues to challenge (post-)colonial hierarchies based on clear distinctions between discrete racial categories, leading to the colonial perception of creolized people as evil. This is evident not only in the proliferation of mostly pejorative terms across Latin America during the colonial period trying and failing to pin down this diversity (e.g. zambo, cholo, caboclo), but also much closer to home in the discipline of Anthropology – which has yet to resolve its deep imbrication in coloniality, as the current scandal surrounding the journal Hau attests. In Amazonia, this is exemplified in Anthropology’s blinkered focus (with a few notable exceptions) on “indigenous” peoples, who now make up only a fraction of the people in the region, inadvertently reinforcing othering and orientalist stereotypes.

The outcome of this European colonial gaze is that outsiders tend to see Amazonians as “indigenous” people, and those who are deemed either less or non “indigenous” are out of place, and unworthy of recognition. In reality, the question of who Amazonian forest peoples are involves telling a much more complex story, involving a temporally layered process of hybridisation, including peoples of European, African and Native Amazonian descent and their intermingling. Amazonian forest peoples want recognition from postcolonial states, capital, and NGOs, in order to be able to continue living autonomously. They want recognition of their ways of life, farming, fishing, hunting and harvesting forest products, the agroecological knowledges and practices of resource management which underpin them, and most of all, of the ancestral territories wherein these activities take place which are necessary for social reproduction and which are also a kind of identity.

So, can recognition be decolonised? Not according to Audre Lorde (1934-1992), an iconic feminist and civil rights activist, who famously put it thus: “For the masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” There is perhaps no other philosopher who better represents the “masters’ tools” than Hegel, who placed himself at the “end of history” – a long (Eurocentric, of course) march to freedom. Attractive to right as well as left wing thinkers, this teleological idea’s most well-known iteration is in Fukuyama’s now much derided announcement of the “end of history” after the fall of communism, that is, capitalism governed by liberal democracy is the ultimate way to organise society in terms of the maximisation of individual freedom. And Hegel displays the same racism as other enlightenment peers including Charles Darwin. However, Hegel’s “masters tools” have been deployed effectively by Simone de Beauvoir to challenge patriarchy, and by Frantz Fanon to challenge the role of race in colonialism. This, the Philosopher Karen Ng asserts, in chapter six of the recent volume Creolizing Hegel shows that ‘the masters tools can indeed be repurposed toward emancipatory aims.’

In my new article, I build a theory of decolonial recognition combining Axel Honneth’s idea of recognition as love, rights and solidarity with the Jamaican anthropologist David Scott’s late-Foucauldian reworking of Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s thought gives us hugely powerful insights into the subjectivity of colonised peoples and the harm that the negative colonial construction of subaltern ‘race’ does to their relation to self. Fanon also provides us with a stark warning about the assimilative and co-optive lure of recognition on the colonisers terms. We can interpret the singer Michael Jackson’s attempts to ‘whiten’ himself as being an example of what can happen when a colonised subject has internalised the coloniser’s negative image of him, and who attempted to become more like the coloniser as he self-realised throughout his lifecourse.

“Boy “Behind The Mask” by the artist Sarah Weaver, 2008

Against this, Fanon contended that only a radical autonomy of self-recognition can be truly emancipatory. But this is where his approach falters – for Fanon, the move from alienation to self-realisation is a one step, one-way occurrence, the repressed essential self must throw off the shackles of oppression. But this is flawed for at least two reasons. First, decolonising one’s self is itself a process of self-making that will inevitably be a process that takes time, possibly a long time. Second, and more profoundly, there is no essential self waiting to be untethered – the self is dynamic and changes over time, with or without a (post-)colonial context. This is why David Scott suggests transforming the Fanonian colonised subject through an infusion of the late Foucauldian idea of ‘technologies of the self’ – who we are is an ongoing open-ended project of self-making or self-formation. This resolves the issue of Fanon’s essentialism, whilst acknowledging that the process of self-decolonisation takes time. This helps problematise categories such as “indigeneity,” by advancing a non-essentialist conceptualisation of recognition as a form of decolonial self-formation: identities are constantly being performed, they are neither solid nor permanent. Such an approach is important to undermine attempts by governments, corporations, NGOs or even anthropologists to ‘co-opt’ categories such as ‘indigeneity’, speaking for subaltern peoples and disallowing their self-identification.

It guards against essentialisms which mean that, for example, Indigenous peoples can only claim land if they perform an anachronistic “native culture” which supposedly existed prior to colonialism – foreclosing the myriad new ways of being and knowing that such peoples have developed as a way to continue living after the colony, as Elizabeth Povinelli has recently shown, with regard to Australia’s Aboriginal Land Rights act. This act was celebrated as:

“overturning a history of racism and xenophobia by recognising Indigenous land ownership…. [but] … Indigenous groups could make and win land claims if, and only if, they could demonstrate that they retained a specific kind of totemic imaginary…a trace from a period of time anterior to the violence of settler colonialism”.

As Povinelli concludes:

“The law of recognition—and I mean the network of bureaucratic discipline that stretches well beyond land claim legislation—used totemism to reverse engineer history. Major social and analytic accomplishments that allowed people to survive the present had to be presented as a dumb totemic repetition of the past”.

But this still leaves the question of what recognition actually is and this is where I bring in Axel Honneth’s normative theory of recognition as a social good, consisting in love, rights and solidarity. In the article, I argue that decolonial and non-essentialist technologies of the self must be linked to a universal normative horizon of recognition, legible to different states and international organisations, against which to hold individuals, states, companies and NGOs to account. Hence, the Fanonian colonised subjectivity is formed by the negation of love, rights and solidarity, that is, misrecognition. The subject requires legal and intersubjective recognition to positively incorporate love, rights and solidarity into their technologies of the self.

So, if suffering is linked to misrecognition of subaltern peoples and their oppression is dehumanising, we need such an understanding of what it is to be human, against which to evaluate injustice. This could help as a critique of liberal bourgeois conceptualisations of rights and justice – usually those deriving from John Rawls, which have limited emancipatory potential since they serve to buttress rather than transform existing social structures, which perpetuate inequality. This normative dimension of love, rights and solidarity could also assist subaltern struggles receive intersubjective recognition from other individuals and groups across society, since it clearly and intuitively defines what constitutes recognition and its inverse in easily comprehensible terms.

Finally, it provides a framing for the critique of existing practice whilst being legible to institutions, governments and global law.

James Fraser
James' research is on social and environmental dimensions of smallholder natural resource management in the humid tropics of Latin America and Africa. He focuses on two themes in particular: 1) local agro-ecological knowledge, and 2) social and environmental justice issues. These are investigated with theory and methods from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, geography and development studies.
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  • Austin
    August 16, 2018 at 9:43 pm

    Thank you so much for this!

    My only question concerns grounding this normative project. That is, is it purely an anarchic decisionism (akin to a Schmittian forcing)? Or is it a reframing and expansion of regional particularities? Something else? The reason I ask is that I would be concerned that such a reframing of recognition under the triad of love, rights and solidarity could fall into the category of nihilism: either the imperfect nihilism of Platonism, the passive nihilism of postmodernism or the activism nihilism of Nietzsche/Schmitt. But if somehow these three axioms were rooted in Being as such, then perhaps this criticism could be skirted. Of course, then the challenge becomes the relation between ontology and ethics (the is-ought problem). But maybe that’s something you can reconcile…? Or have worked through in the article or elsewhere?

    Really, thank you. Very powerful piece.

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