Knowledge, Asymmetric Power Relations and Us

By Henning Melber

Rather than summarising my chapter on “Knowledge Production, Ownership and the Power of Definition: Perspectives on and from Sub-Saharan Africa” in Building Development Studies for the New Millennium, I’d like to offer some additional thoughts I am dealing with since I wrote the piece. These thoughts are motivated by the view that that such asymmetries are not a matter confined to North-South relations and/or promoted by a specific group of “dominators” alone.

Asymmetric power structures penetrate if not constitute every society and the production and reproduction (transmission) of knowledge. Revisit for example the effects of the era of enlightenment as a midwife to the eurocentrism turning into the globally dominant reference system for centuries to come: By occupying the commanding heights in the process of what was euphemistically called the “civilising mission”, the power of definition -based on pseudo-universalist criteria – was seized, maintained and indeed turned into a universally dominant paradigm. Since then, the slogan that “knowledge is power” is taken for granted – but whose knowledge (and whose power)?

With the formal decolonisation of occupied territories since the mid-20th century, many of those who have seized power have displayed features and different variations of colonial mimicry dubbed by Ashis Nandy as The Intimate Enemy. So-called “post”-colonial societies not only reproduced certain mentalities and colonially induced cultures, but also imposed forms of social organisation. This included the institutionalised knowledge production, the recognised knowledge and its forms of transmission. Schools and other institutions of higher learning modified certain contents (among others by incorporating a patriotic history and heroic nationalist narrative) but did not fundamentally question knowledge in the singular rather than replacing it by knowledges.

A Pedagogy of Unlearning

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni recently urged to bring about a pedagogy on unlearning “as part of epistemological decolonisation which results in the removal of that colonial/Eurocentric hard disc of coloniality together with its software”. But this is easier said than done given the complexities of existing power structures – and more often than we realise, our own affirmative involvement is determined by the mere position we occupy and the role we execute, whether we like it or not. Therefore, it is necessary to throw a spanner in the current spinning wheel of popular demands for decolonisation.

Wahbie Long warns us of the all too uncritical affirmation of postcolonial theory. As he observes: “decolonisation seals us within a colonial imaginary in which the binaries of coloniser and colonised, white and black become impossible to displace”. For him, “decolonisation activists, by and large, do not seem to take issue with the instrumentalization of their education. … Instead of a materialist reading of the asymmetries of academic life, they support a decolonisation agenda that centres on the notion of epistemic violence” (his emphasis). Such discourse, however, “forms the ideological superstructure of an identity project”. The focus on epistemic violence risks to reduce – if not ignore -the underlying dimensions of material facts and realities. By denying appreciation of the mind of others, postcolonial theory “cannot provide the moral vision we need”, as Wahbie Long puts it.

Awareness of asymmetries does not eliminate the risk of reproducing them

Observing the radicalisation of student politics in South Africa in the wake of the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, Long refuses reconciling “to a theory whose practices would rehumanise some by dehumanising others”, a process in which “identity becomes the basis for political mobilisation as the possibility of universal comradeship disintegrates”. Such approach, however, has certain consequences, as Long writes: “Whether unable or unwilling to frame their struggle in terms of the universal values of dignity, security and equality, protestors have opted for the particulars of white privilege and black pain, practicing a form of identity politics”.

Concerns of that kind offer a useful warning. They relate to a suggestion I made in my book chapter on hegemonic global power relations and structural asymmetries in knowledge production in African realities: Namely that the declared awareness of the asymmetric North-South relations does not eliminate the risk of perpetuating these, even within the settings of groups who claim to be aware of them. Their re-positioning might risk to enter new pitfalls: Hamid Dabashi for example points out that so-called progressive political philosophical trajectories are by no means secure scaffolding that avoids falling prey to “the discrete charm of European intellectuals. But the same is true the other way round: cultivating the anti-European/Western counter narratives is no guarantee to effectively dismantle and remove the disparities of power applied.

These cautionary reflections resonate with Frantz Fanon’s conclusion in Black Skins White Masks: “I want the world to recognise, with me, the open door of every consciousness”. A search for a truly emancipatory interaction therefore requires a paradigm shift towards the plurality of experiences, practices, knowledges and theories. This requires to transcend not only geographical borders but also the plurality of other confines we have internalised, while paying respect and giving recognition to diversity in efforts seeking and establishing common ground. Unfortunately, this leads us to another challenge to end with: how do we recognise otherness without othering?

Henning Melber is President of EADI, Director Emeritus/Senior Advisor of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Senior Research Associate of the Nordic Africa Institute, both in Uppsala; Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences/University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and a Habilitation in Development Studies.

Image: Tony Carr