Decolonial Thinking with Rolando Vázquez

The End of the Contemporary?

In March of this year, the sociologist Rolando Vázquez was invited to Berlin to reflect on “decolonizing time” as a way of thinking beyond Western modernity. C& spoke to him about terminologies, alternative approaches to history, and about how he created a decolonial space for thinking at the Festvial MaerzMusik* at Berliner Festspiele.

Jeannette Ehlers 'Whip it Good’ 2017. Photo: Aukje Lepoutre Ravn. Courtesy the artist.

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We want to leave the question of the end of the contemporary

as one leaves a trace, a testament;

in the hope that it may attain its moment of recognition

and that it stays for us as a memento,

a mnemonic grounding and orientation

to continue walking with one another,

this grammar of time,

in the movement of precedence,

towards the eclosion of decolonial worlds of meaning.


C&: You recently held a workshop about the “End of the Contemporary” and the decolonization of time. What’s your approach on tackling Western-centric time regimes?

Rolando Vázquez: One of the essential problems of the contemporary is its temporality. It has implied the negation of multiple pasts, of multiple histories; it has been implicated in coloniality, in the erasure of other worlds of meaning. In the workshop we were not concerned with the notion of a ‘post-contemporary’ but rather with the possibility of moving towards ending the contemporary, towards opening up to the multiplicity of histories that have been suppressed by it – suppressed by its normative power and its control over the fields of legibility.

C&: When you and some fellow researchers talk about the end of the contemporary, where exactly are we right now?

RV: Some of the critics of modern temporality have shown that “the other” has been denied a space in the present. Thinkers like Johannes Fabian argue for diversifying the present, so that it can become a space where various experiences and aesthetics can coexist. This is indeed a very valuable strategy. However, from the decolonial perspective we want to challenge the very constitution of the “contemporary”’ and its notion of the present as the field of legibility and recognition.

Being aware of the modern/colonial divide and the colonial wound, underlies the importance of overcoming the normativity of dominant spaces so that the histories that have been silenced can find a space of reemergence, of dignification. The colonial wound as a geo-genealogical position gives us a positionality that is distinct from that which governs the contemporary. In the workshop we explored the normative force that the contemporary has. We saw, for example, the paradox of certain artists being indeed accepted in dominant contemporary spaces while at the same time experiencing that the deeper meaning of their work goes unrecognized. Their work tends to get reduced to the specific “superficiality” and legibility of the contemporary. Fabián Barba spoke about those tensions – in a system that calls itself radically open while actively excluding experiences. We do not just state the end of the contemporary on a discursive level but…

C&: … also ask how that can be put into practice?

RV: The “end of the contemporary” has to deal with particular practices and mechanisms of power through which the contemporary has established itself as a field and systematically diminishes and marginalizes other movements towards the real – movements that don’t belong to the Western genealogy of perception and reception.

C&: The term decolonial comes up a lot these days but its use often seems unclear. A lot of institutions seem to think it’s time to talk about decolonizing their collections and programs. I am quite skeptical in terms of how far this really reaches into the systems and institutions. After all, what happens after the support for and funding of all those critical approaches ends? What happens after the trend fades?

RV: That is another issue we addressed. We are concerned that the decolonial is becoming a trend, sometimes used as a synonym of deconstruction, sometimes being collapsed into the postcolonial. In many accounts there is almost no distinction anymore. We have been systematically introducing the distinct questions that decoloniality brings through the long-standing scholarship in the field and through our groups’ events here in Europe: the “Black European Body Politics” curated by Alanna Lockward and the “Decolonial Summer School” coordinated by Walter Mignolo and myself. These are the spaces in which we became a collective that does not obey disciplinary or institutional barriers but shares a decolonial ethos. Together we cover a large spectrum of experience and embodied thought that gives a lot of certainty to our aesthetic and thinking practices.

Each one of us has different strategies for resignifiying hegemonic means and symbolisms. We also see the need for creating not just strategies of contestation but autonomous spaces. We were very grateful for being invited by Berno Odo Polzer to create this workshop at MaerzMusik. The workshop became an autonomous space for us.

C&: Let’s come back to the definition of the decolonial.

RV: Well, I don’t think I can give a definition but I can explain where the term comes from and what it means for me. The modernity/coloniality framework originated in Latin American thinking. The philosopher Enrique Dussel, for example, explained that there is no concept of Europe as we understand it without the colonies. He helped to locate the beginning of modernity in the beginning of colonial times, symbolically marked by 1492. It was the time when Europe understood itself as the center of the world. This means that the conditions for Europe to become the dominant model civilization cannot be separated from its colonial expansion. Europe constituted itself in a relation of negation to the other. The decolonial is a response to that.

Critical thinking in the West remains mostly intra-modern. The decolonial brings a critique from the outside. Walter Mignolo has shown that there is no modernity without coloniality, that there is no Renaissance without enslavement, that the West has controlled the locus of enunciation and has controlled every representation of the world. There is no history of progress or the development of civilization without the history of enslavement, of extraction, of domination. You cannot separate Europe becoming the center of the world economy from the plantation. So, this is fundamental for us: to see that coloniality is not an aberration of modernity but its constitutive underside.

C&: Is there a feminist perspective?

RV: Decolonial feminism has been fundamental for the development of the field. Maria Lugones shows how the power of the modern colonial system is not just about territories and resources, but also about our bodies. There are many other voices. Catherine Walsh, for instance, does some incredible work in the field of pedagogical transformation. All these trajectories of thinking and doing are often ignored when for example museums use the decolonial without giving reference to the decades of work behind it.

C&: So, where does modernity end for you? Or is it still on?

RV: Modernity is still on. In our field, the concept of modernity is being used in a particular way. And this leads to many misunderstandings when European critical thinkers read about it. We use modernity to name the Western project of civilization. It’s a name that the West gave itself. We want to unveil modernity as an important concept for locating the Western project of civilization and to make visible its power over life, over the life of people and the earth.

C&: Is this why you don’t use modernity as an adjective?

RV: The question for us is not modernism, nor is it about being or not being modern. Modernity has meant the control of the world by a Western genealogy of thought, of power, of aesthetics, of subjectivity, of all sorts of things… Modernity controls the discourse about itself, the visual discourse, sonic discourse, textual discourse… It produces a system of representation that constitutes itself as reality. And, very importantly, it covers up its violence, it erases its entwinement with coloniality. This becomes tangible in the commodity, the merchandise, right? The merchandise will show you the brand, its “coolness,” but it will hide the process of exploitation, the destruction that is behind it. You don’t want to see the people that are suffering to produce your clothes or the dispossession of lands and the monocultures depleting species and rainforests that are necessary for producing the cotton. So, the discourse has a function of erasing the erasure; of negating the negation. This is what I call the double negation of modernity. Decoloniality implies a process of humbling modernity, that is, of bringing modernity beyond the hubris of its self-representation.

C&: How does decolonial research point into new directions?

Western methodologies are about the representation of reality. A line of questioning that only reproduces in a mimetic way the dominant social and historical order. In contrast, decolonial research asks for what has been lost: what has been exploited, extracted, denied dignity, denied existence? All of them questions that don’t come from a Eurocentric perspective but from the perspective of those that have lived under coloniality. So the term coloniality already signals an epistemic shift. Following Adolfo Alban Achinte, we see the decolonial as a movement of re-existence. And that’s where we distinguish decolonial aesthesis from the contemporary. Decolonial aesthesis comes under the sign of the return: return of suppressed trajectories, of the histories and lives and experiences of people that have not been allowed to be world, to become a world-historical reality.

Patricia Kaersenhout, We Refuse- work in progress, mutulated history books, 2009, Courtesy the artist.

C&: In the work we do at C&, we would never talk about the practice as decolonial, that’s a label that people from the outside use. We would actually like to go beyond that. And perhaps it’s the same with artists that are much more specific about their work.

RV: The thing with the decolonial option is that it doesn’t try to be a new ideology or a new utopia taking over and becoming the new tag for things. It is an option that some collectives or people like us are using and offering as a tool that may or may not be useful for certain people. And as an option we need to locate it and we need to see its historicity, because then it has a right to exist in a humble situation – in uncovering its positionality, always allowing for other forms of legibility. However, the fact that the decolonial presents itself as an option does not mean that coloniality is relative; the awareness of coloniality is grounded in the historically lived experience of the devaluation of the life of peoples of the world and of earth.

C&: Definitely. That’s the main thing, to show that there are all these options that exist at the same time.

RV: Yes, although the risk is not recognizing that being an option is not the same as relativism. The option is not a postmodern position from which you can flow or have the privilege of choosing among performative fields etc. For example, there is no such thing as reverse racism because there is an uneven field; there is a modern/colonial history in which millions of people have died. And that is not a choice. You can’t choose the history that you’re a part of. But if you are on the side of privilege or on the side of racialization – you can use your positionality and express it in many ways.

C&: What do you think is the role Europe has vis-à-vis the decolonial?

RV: We think that the end of the contemporary opens a possibility of decolonizing Europe as well, that it is a possibility for Europe to move away from the position of abstraction, universality, of center, of newness. Europe can begin seeing itself through the eyes of the other. In my mind, Eurocentrism is a type of ignorance, a type of arrogant ignorance. The possibility of a truly intercultural dialogue requires the displacement of dominant positions from the center, to not just speak from the white male perspective that dominates the managerial position, the curricula, the writing, historical subjectivity, etc… The decolonial could be liberating for someone who is confined to this perspective, in the blindness of the position of privilege. The decolonial brings to the fore the conditions of oppression but also the impossibility for the privileged to live an ethical life in a system that is mounted on the consumption of others and the earth. Decolonial thinking is not only about the dignification of silenced relational worlds, but also about the contestation of privilege. It is a thinking that is offering itself as option – on the one hand to listen to the erased voices, and on the other, to reveal the historical positionality of those that have been placed in the default position as the norm. To me, those are the conditions of a possible transformation.

*Rolando Vázquez curated the workshop “Staging the End of the Contemporary” for MaerzMusik (16-26 March 2017) directed by Berno Odo Polzer. The participants were also leading thinkers of decoloniality: Fabián Barba Izurieta, Teresa María Díaz Nerio, Jeannette Ehlers, Patricia Kaersenhout, Hannes Seidl, Ovidiu Tichindeleanu, and Madina Tlostanova.