From Postcolonial to Decolonial:
Examining Complicites in Transnational Queerdom and Imagining Decolonial Futures
In 2009, R. Raj Rao, India’s famous LGBT activist and author of The Boyfriend, claimed regarding Indian academia: “It’s strange how the academic fraternity that has always been quick to accept all kinds of literature — Marxist, feminist, Dalit — had a huge reservation when it came to queer literature. For years, the Board of Studies refused to let us start the course saying that ‘Indian students do not need it’. Finally we clubbed it with Dalit literature and started it under the genre of Alternative Literature.” While Rao is correct in exposing the reluctance of academia in accepting queer literature as worthy of analysis, his solution—of clubbing queer literature with Dalit literature—assumes not only how these literatures are aesthetically or politically similar, but also that the marginalization of queerness in the South Asian postcolony is similar to caste-based violence. His argument grossly ignores how postcolonial queer literature, while dealing with subversive subjects who do not fit into heteronormativity, often draws on lives of middle-class or middle-upper class characters; it also ignores how queer and feminist South Asian literature is often classist, casteist, and complicit in neocolonial notions of gender and sexuality. Rao’s dangerous claims regarding the lumping together of queer and Dalit literatures demonstrate how subaltern issues have been appropriated to lay claims to sexual oppression, while reproducing class and caste-based hegemony. Keeping in mind this dangerous conflation of “queer” with “subaltern,” my paper explores decolonial sexualities by recognizing postcolonial queer complicities in the violence of globalization. How do we create decolonial sexual futures, how do we de-link our current understanding of our sexualities from colonial logics, and how we re-imagine our remembrance of the past all the while remaining cognizant of the complicity of postcolonial representations and frameworks in neocolonial impulses? At the heart of my paper is the debate between postcolonial or transnational queer studies, and decolonial queer theory.
While postcolonial scholars in South Asia and Latin America have recognized the importance of critiquing post-colonial (with a hyphen) institutions that uphold nationalism at the expense of subaltern communities in the postcolony, scholars like Spivak have also emphasized how the subaltern is always caught in the traps of representation, and therefore, cannot speak herself. Spivak’s seminal essay on the subaltern is nowadays a taken-for-granted approach in postcolonial studies, one that warns us of trying to find a “pure” or “authentic” subaltern expression. But if all postcolonial scholars can do is look for and expose postcolonial complicities, how will we recognize a decolonial politics? After all, not all postcolonial subjects are equally complicit in participating in neocolonial institutions: what about the genders and sexualities of those who do are not part of the machinery of transnational capitalism, who are not present within academia, who may not have access to or interest in the “global queerness” circulating in the cloud, who are sexually subaltern in the current moment? My paper insists that thinking about the decolonial possibilities suggested by these subaltern gendered and sexual positions is as important as recognizing complicities of bourgeois postcolonial subjectivities. A recognition of past and present complicity in order to envision decolonial queer futures suggests the possibility of a generative prefigurative postcolonial politic.
While I define postcolonial as implicated within the cultural hybridity and nationalist violence of the post-colonial moment, I adopt my understanding of decoloniality from Sylvia Wynter. Decolonial thought, according to Wynter, entails coming up “with a way of getting the above across, without falling into the traps laid down by our present system of knowledge” (Wynter, 18). As I examine the tension between postcolonial queer representations and decolonial queer expressions, I want to acknowledge my own positionality as a queer scholar-in-the-making, having traveled to U.S. academy from a postcolonial nation that is fraught by a British colonial history and trapped currently in the U.S-led neocolonial war on terror. I locate myself as someone who is simultaneously privileged and marginalized because I come from a place that is colonizing regions (Balochistan and Afghanistan), even while it is being colonized by the war on terror. As someone who often finds themself inhabiting privileged positions of access while also being part of multiple contradictory discourses of colonialism, postcolonialism, and neocolonial terror-talk, I situate myself as a hybrid subject whose interest in decoloniality stems not from my personal lived expression, but from a desire to acknowledge my complicity in transnational queerdom. This desire goes hand in hand with an urgent need to de-link my memory of the dominant colonial narratives that I am embedded within as I inhabit spaces of hybridity.
The concept of hybridity has been central to postcolonial literary studies ever since Homi Bhaba popularized his notion of the interstitial space of enunciation. While hybridity can have a strategic anticolonial politic, Bhaba emphasizes how the colonized subject’s identity and iteration is always influenced or somewhat contaminated by the colonizer. Other postcolonial scholars who work not on the Anglophone post-colony but also on Latin America and the Black diaspora like Nestor Garcia Canclini and Paul Gilroy have also rendered popular an understanding of hybridity in postcolonial and diasporic studies. No matter which geographic region these scholars are positioned in, or what colonial history they are writing out of and about, their insistence on hybridity stems from a need to disavow cultural purity politics. In their conception, cultural expression always exists in the borderlines or oceans or interstitial translation, and can never exist out of dominant power.
There is a generative cynicism pervasive in postcolonial discourse about the possibility of discovering decolonial expression; and even though this cynicism is necessary in a world where folks are, as Shotwell argues, displacing their settler colonial responsibility under the guise of decolonial work (26), it usually stems from a certain position of privilege in regards to participating in global ontological and epistemological networks. But what about the Afro-Surinamese women who engage in mati work, who are not imbued in queer internet cultures flowing from the west to the rest, who are marked as much by their class as they are by their sexual practice? Is Gloria Wekker’s ethnographic study on mati work an argument for returning to an essentialist expression of “pure” non-western sexual expression, or is it about allowing audiences in the west (or in the educated academic postcolonial worlds) to see how a sexual expression outside of Euro-American sexual epistemologies can and does exist so that we can practice prefigurative politics?
Even though Wekker’s framework is situated firmly in the postcolonial, the women who engage in mati work point to a decolonial sexual politic, the kind that Sylvia Wynter adumbrates in her conception of Man/Human. I locate Wekker’s work as a postcolonial ethnography because of her self-reflexive positioning of her own frameworks of sexuality. Wekker makes clear to us that as she spoke to Juliette, her “ideas and values as a Europe-centered lesbian sharply clashed with her (Juliette’s) mati world” (51). While Wekker asked Juliette if she is mati, Juliette responded by saying that she does mati. According to Wekker, these “different phrasings, signaling identity versus activity, are significant, because they bespeak two different models, a dominant Euro-American and a working-class Afro-Surinamese model, of how sexual subjectivity is envisioned.” (13). The linear, teleological autonomous subject of queerness who imagines oneself in the individualist, fixed identity framework, a framework rooted in Enlightenment, is missing in Wekker’s study of working-class mati-practicing Afro-Surinamese women.
What Wekker finds when she explores mati work (albeit through a postcolonial framework) is a decolonial practice of sexuality. Decolonial because it resists the “master model of globalization which is deeply embedded in the various binaries that modernity has spawned” (224); decolonial because it defies Euro-American understandings of what Human is, of what human can be outside of the epistemological limitations of Wynter’s Man1/Man2; decolonial because it gives us an alternative sexual epistemology that, like the work of Sylvia Wynter, works toward “the possibility of undoing and unsettling – not replacing or occupying – Western conceptions of what it means to be human.” (McKittrick, 2). While discussing Sylvia Wynter’s decolonial thought, Rinaldo Walcott tells us Sylvia Wynter’s “attention to genres of the human conveys the ways in which a specific and overrepresented ethno-class produces knowledge that is, for example, “normally” antiblack and antigay, and which is then internalized as “normal” by the subgenres of the human who inhabit that knowledge system” (191). The women practicing mati work embody the praxis of Wynter’s decolonial thought because they do not inhabit this “normal” knowledge system.
Walcott point out how Man/Human (both Man1 and Man2) are imagined as heterosexual and cismasculine. Perhaps that is why Sarah Schulman finds that a queer optic is important to understanding colonial wounds. By using a queer methodology to demonstrate how Palestinian resistance to Isreali settler colonialism is misread as abuse when it is simply rightful conflict, she is also able to illustrate the abuse that the Israeli state perpetrates on Palestine, where biopolitical violence has become dangerously normalized. In their short essay for GLQ’s special issue on area studies, Jasbir Puar and Maya Mikdashi ask a provocative question related to Schulman’s methodological choices: “Does queer theory (still) require a sexual or gendered body or a sexual or gendered injury—particularly if part of the project of homonationalism is to produce and stabilize transnational, imperial, and settler colonial forms of sexual and gendered injury?” What Puar and Mikdashi seem to be asking for is a version of queer theory that does not flow from the West to the rest, that does not normalize colonial forms of sexual and gendered injury. The kinds of discourses that Wekker is writing against embody this sexual and gendered colonial injury; and this colonial injury is upheld not only by the heterosexual cismasculine Man/Human that Walcotts point to, but also to the queer Man/Human who is created based on the an Enlightenment model. This queer Man/Human, despite denaturalizing heteronormativity, reproduces neoliberal homonormativity. Puar and Mikdashi remind us that people of all genders in Palestine have been made available for brutalization and dehumanization because of very gendered and sexualized transnational discourses about Islam and the Middle East (7). If colonial violence is queered in the contemporary neoliberal moment, then resistance, or decolonial politics, need also to be queered. But this decolonial queer, as Horton-Stallings and Wekker demonstrate in their work, is markedly different from Euro-American (or globalized) version of fixed queer identity.
Another reason Wekker’s findings demonstrate a decolonial sexual practice is because the women she describes inhabit working-class positions. The reason many postcolonial writers maintain an active complicity in neocolonial queerdom is because of their bourgeois class position. In postcolonial regions, class privilege is not only related to education, economics, social life, and security. It is also related to one’s proximity to colonial institutions; after all, it is only the bourgeois who get to inhabit spaces such as colonial education institutions or Euro-American spaces on the internet. Speaking English, or French, or Dutch in the post-colony is inextricably linked to socio-economic privilege, and it marks not only one’s closeness to colonial legacies, but also one’s access and participation in transnational circuits of queer identity. The reason Raj Rao perpetuates a queer violence is because he speaks from a bourgeois, upper-caste position.
Marginalized class positions of racialized and colonized subjects, therefore, produce decolonial practice, allowing us to learn a decolonial framework from these subjects’ alternative epistemic models of sexuality. Horton-Stalling’s work on Funk (and by extension, fuck), demonstrates a decolonial sexual practice that suggests alternative epistemes. According to Stallings, “funk produces alternative orders of knowledge about the body and imagination that originate in a sensorium predating empires of knowledge” (6). The alternative orders of knowledge produced by funk intersect closely with class. The works of Stallings and Wekker delineate how class is closely implicated in decolonial work. The postcolonial recuperation of regimes of power perhaps lies in the dominance of bourgeois intellectuals and writers who produce literature in colonial language in order to be intelligible within the global queer regimes.
I want to point out that the scholars I cite here use decoloniality in different ways. While Wekker’s findings and Stalling’s cultural analysis show how the always-already existing/surviving body of black non-bourgeois subjects represents decoloniality, Wynter and Shotwell’s notions rely more on a decolonial politic of doing epistemic disobedience. While I, as a privileged queer person who is deeply embedded in transnational circuits of LGBTQ discourse, cannot practice the decolonial sexuality of mati-practicing women, I can nevertheless, de-link myself from normative rules to amplify the epistemic disruptions produced by visiblizing mati-work. I can de-privilege the fixed notion of Euro-American queerness, and privilege funk and mati. If I follow Shotwell’s trajectory, this decolonizing requires a deep commitment to understanding my own complicity in global queerdom, a neocolonial phenomenon that erases mati-practicing women as legitimate sexual subjects. Walter Mignolo insists that “decolonial healing requires building to re-exist rather than energy to only resist” (viii, intro). To re-exist, we need to not only resist and disrupt Enlightenment-based models of queer identity, but also to recognize how our identifications with identity-based models not only benefit us but also reify the colonial wounds inflicted by the episteme of Man/Human.
In his preface for the recent anthology on decolonizing sexualities, Walter Mignolo outlines that Wynter’s Man 1 represents Patriarchy and Man2 represents heterosexuality. Mignolo argues that “Man2 was/is heterosexual, and because He was heterosexual He assumed that it was the way it is and it should be. He continued, with modification, the racial/sexual classification initiated by Man1” (xiii). Wekker echoes this when she tries to situate mati work within the realm of queerness without imposing a queer identity on the women she is talking about: “The particular Euro-American understanding of a person as a bounded, fixed, rational, and self-determining agent is produced and reproduced in and by modern political, legal, social, and aesthetic discourses. Subjectivity has, until recently, implicitly been envisaged along masculine line, thus leaving femininity no conceptual space but the nonmasculine.” (192). What Wekker discusses here is how we simply do not have a framework for understanding the sexualities of mati-praciticing women, because of our understanding of gender and sexuality is fraught by notions of Man1/Man2, notions that define what it means of be Human. Within the dominant, global, modern framework of what it means of be Human, mati-practicing women lie outside of humanity. Western queer identity and visibility politics—that rely on fixed identities and political imperatives to “come out”— reproduce a gay Man2. Even if this new, seemingly progressive Man/Human is not heterosexual, He nevertheless perpetuates colonial injury by rendering unintelligible anyone who lives/survives outside of the gay Man/Human framework.
According to Walter Mignolo, “re-existence means that you delink from the rules imposed upon you, you create your rules communally and, therefore you re-exist affirming yourself as a human being who does not want to be Man/Human” (viii). Of course, politically, I do not want to be Man/Human. But can this simple desire to de-link from a queered version of Man/Human, cannot de-link me from my complicity. Moving away from the limitations of postcolonial justice, Shotwell wants to create a decolonial inventory, one in which decolonial futures are possible. But to create these decolonial futures, she asks those of us who participate in settler colonialism, to remember and re-member our own violent pasts.
Although Shotwell is deeply interested in making decolonial futures, Donna Haraway points to the productivity of staying with a troublesome present. Haraway maintains that “staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as a mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (1). Instead of seeing her arguments about decolonial futurity as anti-thetical to Shotwell’s, I believe that we can combine the two—a desire for a decolonial epistemic future, and a need to “stay with the trouble” in the present—as co-constitutive political work that privileged queers must undergo. For Shotwell, a de-linking from participating in colonial wounds requires a self-critical remembering of the past. I can de-link from the queered Man/Human only by linking myself more to my history (of enacting as well as experiencing violence), and less to the benefits of being within Man/Human in the present.
One cannot move toward a decolonial future without de-linking memory from colonial histories that operate under western logics. For the postcolonial or third world intellectual, this epistemic obedience occurs when we link ourselves more to an understanding of our complicity. Postcolonial queers like myself, who are resistant to transnational queer assimilation but nevertheless complicit in it, and who are inflicted with colonial/neocolonial wounds but nevertheless part of certain bourgeois, westernized, academic spaces can envision and practice decolonial futures by staying with the trouble in the present, by recognizing alternative epistemic formations, and by embracing an un-learning of Western queer models by creating for ourselves alternative models—models that are already living and surviving outside of dominant colonial sexual epistemologies.
McKittrick, Katherine, ed. Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis. Duke University Press, 2014.
Shotwell, Alexis. Against Purity. (2016).
Schulman, Sarah. Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. 2016
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.
Wekker, Gloria. The politics of passion: Women’s sexual culture in the Afro-Surinamese diaspora. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Horton-Stallings, L. Funk the erotic: Transaesthetics and black sexual cultures. 2015.
Mikdashi, Maya, and Jasbir K. Puar. “Queer Theory and Permanent War.”GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22.2 (2016): 215-222.
Bakshi, Sandeep, Suhraiya Jivraj, and Silvia Posocco. Decolonizing sexualities: transnational perspectives, critical interventions. 2016.
Featured Image is taken from here.