Decolonization of Imagination

3 Feb-7 Feb., 2019

Seminar session for Decolonization of Imagination (DI), an international research school, organized by student journal DOXA (and INCO) with the support of Higher School of Economics and Oxford Russia Fund. Moscow, RU 3 Feb-7 Feb., 2019. Talk on Xenofeminist Epistemologies: Materialist Optimism for a Big World

Under the premise of ‘decolonising imagination’, I think we need to be cautious with the term ‘decolonising’ for our context here, since it has become a fashionable term (especially in my field of contemporary art) applied to a host of things, and I’m afraid we may be trivialising its actual and historical significance in addressing ongoing decolonisation struggles that are alive and active today. Although in our hegemonic conditions of geopolitical operations today, everyone is structurally dominated by a certain economic logic, the struggles amongst various peoples and their conditions of existence is definitively not equivalent. I’m originally from Canada, a settler colonial nation, and the ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples does not compare with the general conditions of domination that govern modes of life for the rest of the nation’s people – and these struggles cannot be homogenized, or lumped together even if we need to find ways of figuring solidarity across various struggles. I think part of solidarity building demands we uphold these differences and specificities with regards to modes of oppression – for which I’ll be talking about the idea of a ‘Solidarity without Sameness’ in my talk a bit later on. As I see it in this context, the term ‘decolonising’ comes to stand in for a general experience of domination, particularly the oppression of a neoliberal ethos, but I prefer to frame this as an exercise in ‘depetrifying imagination’, so as not to flatten modes of oppression as if they exist on a plane of equivalence, when evidentially, they do not.


Today it’s rather easy to be critical, or even cynical about the condition of the world, and despite the ways in which ‘optimism’ is often nothing more than an empty promise, I think we need to construct difficult ways of being optimistic to foster the energies required to confront the multiple crises facing us unequally. Common sense holds that optimism and nihilism are antonyms. Yet like many antonyms, rather than the terms being antithetical to one another, there is a functional co-dependency between the two modes of approaching the world. Let me explain. There is an important connection between nihilism and reasoning argued by Ray Brassier, in that reasoned thought “must assume nothing as its productive condition”.[1] What does it mean to ‘assume nothing’, and why would this be understood as ‘productive’? To assume nothing means that the sets of givens we take as undisputable truths of the world (particularly social ones), cannot be blindly accepted as real, necessary or good without the activity of reasoned justification; an activity, moreover, that is always social. To reason entails the presumption of no predetermination, whether that concerns what is currently accounted for in the world (epistemology), how it is narrated (history), the direction its going (prehistory), nor our human centrality within it – it is simply the iterative practice of thinking in and with a material world.[2] While the productive condition of assuming nothing seemingly opens up an overwhelming cosmos of instability from the perspective of human experience (one heavily reliant on habits of activity, so in this regard, nihilism is entirely inefficient); this is precisely how it creates space for the construction of, or access to, novelty. Where once things were believed to be fixed absolutely, this understanding of nihilism creates openings to contingency, leading Brassier to frame it “…not [as] an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity.”[3] The premise here, is that to be a materialist optimist today, that is, an optimist with material ambitions beyond hopeful thinking, we require this productively destructive capacity of reason to demonstrate certain properties of the given as contingent, and therefore subject to transformability, conceptually and materially. In this regard, optimism becomes dependent on nihilism for the creation of reasoned re-openings to the world, it depetrifies imagination.

[1] Ray Brassier, “Reason is Inconsolable and Non-Conciliatory,” (Suhail Malik, Interviewer) in Realism Materialism Art, eds.: C. Cox, J. Jaskey, S. Malik, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015), 213–230.
[2] Suhail Malik qtd. in “Reason is Inconsolable and Non-Conciliatory”.
[3] Ray Brassier, Nihilism Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, (New York: Palgrave, 2007), xi.