Multi-layered Selves: Colonialism, Decolonization and Counter-Intuitive Learning Spaces

Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti, Vancouver
October 12, 2016

As I wondered about the best way to write this text, two related events caught my attention. First, I received a call for publications with the title “After De-colonizing…What?” issued after an extremely productive (albeit difficult) 2015 gathering in Portugal on the theme of ‘Eco-versities’. In the same week, in a different context, I was gifted a wooden USB stick with the word ‘decolonized’ hand stamped on it. Both events attest to the fact that the word decolonization is becoming a popular way to describe changes people want to see in society.

Different people use the word to name changes in processes, thinking or institutions that they feel are unjust or are causing harm to themselves or others. Therefore, decolonization has come to mean many different things in different contexts, and, although this is to be expected, Indigenous scholars have taken issue with certain uses of the term [i]. In any case, it is very important to ask questions about what assumptions, politics, and theories of change inform the analysis of colonization and the invocation and desire for decolonization in each context of use.

…there are very different understandings of colonial violence, of what the job of decolonization is, and of what it takes to get the job done.
For example, in the first event I mentioned, the question “After De-colonizing…What?” can be interpreted by assuming a number of things; for instance, that there is consensus about what colonialism is, what it has done, how it is reproduced, who and where we are within it, how things could change, and when it is over. It seems to assume that decolonization can be a point in time (e.g. I was colonized, now I am decolonized), rather than a lifelong and life-wide process. It seems to assume that we can — and that it is desirable — to articulate and determine what comes after decolonization even before decolonization can happen. And it also seems to suggest that the question itself is located in an already decolonized space, that colonialism is not at work in the question itself, and that it is “time to move on” to more “concrete” things rather than keep on discussing the problems “of the past.” What the question does not convey is that there are very different understandings of colonial violence, of what the job of decolonization is, and of what it takes to get the job done.

Decolonized USBIn the same way, the “Decolonized” USB stick mentioned before works as an icon of past and present colonization while, ironically, announcing its end. On the one hand, it represents an attempt to raise awareness about the endurance of colonialism; it attests to the fact that colonialism is not something that happened in the past, and that there is a need to decolonize “today.” On the other hand, despite using critical language, the USB stick can be interpreted as supporting a colonial economy and way of being, while giving us the stamp of approval we are taught to seek and to consume. Symbolically, it turns decolonization into a brand literally stamped into the wood structure of the stick, associating it with ideas of sustainability and activism mediated by an individualist consumerist techno-culture (that, some would argue, represents colonialism itself). It feeds and is fed by our desires to look, feel and be seen as doing “good”, especially on our Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, while the business of colonization goes on as usual.

I have tried to imagine scenarios that could have made the message stamped on the USB stick seem reasonable. The manufacturer could have used electronic materials and manufacturing processes not associated with exploited labour, dispossession, destitution, and unsustainable extraction in its production. The files stored in the USB stick could have been developed using open source software and contain everything we need to know about living “off the grid.” The USB could have been laden with a Trojan horse virus that will put a halt to a destructive global economy or reveal data that would compel us to look for different ways of co-existing on the planet. This could be a magic stick that could erase our colonial history or make people not be attracted to consumption. The files could have been created to help us question whether meeting any or all of the criteria described so far would merit the stamp “decolonized.” The USB stick illustrates that, if driven by aspirations for innocence, decolonization is also a colonial desire.

Difficult Learning
Both events indicate that creating learning spaces that require us to move beyond the desire for self-affirmation and engage in difficult, complex, and agonistic conversations is not easy. We tend to want change to happen on terms that do not jeopardize our perceived entitlements, securities and self-images. For example, we may claim we have been “enlightened” in one breath and in the next, reproduce a colonial violence, finally feeling defensive when someone points that out. This is particularly difficult for those of us who are engaged in various forms of activism, critique, and alternative practices, as we would like to be seen as the ones who have risen above the colonial imaginary, becoming the role models of decolonization and able to teach others about it.

We enter debates to “win,” using moral high grounds, self-righteousness, or even self-blame to re-center ourselves in the struggle for voice and for the power to (continue to) define the direction of the process. The claim of awareness of oppression becomes a claim to innocence that re-centers the needs, entitlements and investments of those who are claiming it. We may even say we want to learn from discomfort, but when it actually happens, when we lose epistemic privilege, we feel wronged and fight to re-gain that privilege again.

Facing the magnitude of the task of enabling a world without colonial relations requires more than a change of narratives, convictions or identities.
When we protect our personal and collective investments and perceived entitlements, we tend to project our expectations of outcomes and outputs, and when these expectations are not met, we get upset and frustrated with those who got “in the way.” We have been taught to seek consensus and validation and to resent the productive discomfort of learning from dissent. We tend to overlook the complexities and paradoxes in our contexts, as well as our own contradictions. We tend to polarize, to antagonize, to vilify, to victimize, and to romanticize, looking for a moral space beyond critique for those with whom we identify and ourselves. In this context of mistrust, struggle for power, and protection of perceived entitlements, it is difficult to disagree without hurting each other. And since vulnerabilities are not evenly distributed, it is important to remember that people born into non-normative bodies are often (again) made responsible for a heavier load of work in spaces for difficult learning.

So, where do we go from here? Facing the magnitude of the task of enabling a world without colonial relations requires more than a change of narratives, convictions or identities. It requires an interruption of harmful desires hidden behind promises of entitlements and securities that people hold on to, particularly when they are afraid of each other and of scarcity. It requires listening without projecting our ideas of ends and means. In order to take us to the point where we really want to exist differently, we need new, provisional and transitional frames that can help our conversations move in different ways without over-determining its direction: like a bridge that should not be confused with the path itself, which is foggy and does not give us a clear picture of the horizon. These frames should take us to the edge of what is intelligible to us, they should help us de-center, disarm, discern and disinvest in harmful practices and desires. Sitting at that edge, we can look differently at what has sustained us so far, notice the ways in which these things prevent us from ‘being’ differently, and, perhaps, accept an invitation towards what, right now, may seem impossible.

Art can do this. The story I share next attempts to do the same. In proposing a transitional frame, it invites us to move from epistemic certainty (knowing through fixed categories), to epistemic reflexivity (tracing the origins and limits of knowing), then, perhaps, to (onto)epistemic openness (experimenting with other possibilities for being/knowing without grafting them into what we are familiar with). It asks us to consider colonization and decolonization, care and responsibility across four different realms of existence; four different ways we can experience ‘being’; four different layers of ‘sensing’ the world, acknowledging the limitations of ‘sense-making’ in each layer.

Multi-layered Selves
The first layer is where “I” experiences the world as “me”. “I” exists in a temporal and temporary body, with a unique chemistry and physiology, responding to the world from a particular dynamic constellation of affects, desires and narratives that are grounded on particular collective ideas of what is real, knowable, and ideal.

The second layer is where “I” experiences the world through the interface between “me and you”: the in-between spaces and collective imaginaries of common territories, causes, identities, ideologies, and struggles. In this layer, multiple senses and languages are used to negotiate boundaries, belongings, alliances, communities and collectivities. In both layers, “I” is an individual, is separate, but is also interconnected with others.

So far, so good. We are used to these two layers: They are the DNA of our modern institutions and forms of subjectivity. Through our socialization and education, these modern institutions place a grid of meanings, relational practices, sensibilities and aspirations upon these two layers. For example, in our modern experience of these two layers, it is “common sense” to place human agency and cognition at the centre of the world. Therefore, it makes sense to try to engineer identities and societies in the same way that we engineer airplanes. It makes sense to see individuals, institutions and communities as independent, autonomous and sovereign entities. It makes sense to expect human knowledge to drive human evolution. It makes sense to evoke individual or communal interests to create different types of economies. It makes sense to treat the environment as a resource at the disposal of human progress. It makes sense to rely on moral reason to decide how nations should be organized, how we should live together and how cultures should be ranked according to their stage of modern development. It makes sense to identify and eliminate ‘evil’. It makes sense to promise security, prosperity and progress for all through bordered nations, un-bordered capital, and techno-scientific utopias.

(If you are reading this text [using the technology of alphabetic literacy], this must be all very familiar. However, the next layers problematize and set limits to the very act of sense making. As such, they require a stretch of the modern imagination beyond its sensorial and cognitive limits; please bear with me.)

The third layer is where “I” recognizes that her skin does not delimit her body: that the skin is just the outer coating of a body-organ that belongs to a larger conscious body that cannot be known, apprehended or controlled. “I” recognizes that flesh extends beyond the human form and linear time to the air, the land, the sky and everything else around her. This is where “I” recognizes that there is “me in you: that my body is made of other bodies, that the same stuff that makes my body makes your body too, and that the force that animates all these processes and bodies is one and the same. In this layer, “I” sensorially recognizes that we are all viscerally connected: viscerally in the sense that we are part of the same metabolism, that the joy, pain, shame, survival and well being of this collective body affects everything and everyone. Since “I” realizes that she carries the whole spectrum of human ills and wonders within her, she feels infinitely responsible for her participation in balancing this system, and for the well being of fellow participants. In this layer, “flesh”, broadly conceptualized, seamlessly connects everything: I am not separate, I am interwoven.

va-2The fourth layer is where “I” disappears in formlessness, beyond time and space, beyond materiality, experience, or human consciousness. “I” realizes that it also exists in “nothingness”, in the mystery of pure energy and possibility: “I” is also the very formless force that creates everything. In this layer, there is “neither me nor you” and there is all of it at the same time: “I” is one, two, many, all, and none.

The first and second layers are layers of separability, the third and fourth, of entanglement. Depending on which layer we are operating from at any minute of the day, our relationships to thinking and knowledge can be very different. The first and second layers tend to be oriented towards practicalities of time and space, towards what is known through experience, has been tested and can be predicted with some level of success. In the grid of modernity, in the first two layers, we are socialized to equate thinking with reasoning grounded on separability.

The third layer tends to be oriented towards the weaving of relationships, seeing one’s well being as implicated in another’s as we see ourselves as part of each other. In this layer, we feel each other’s pains, we also feel the pain of the land and any harm done to another is sensed as harm done to oneself. In this layer, reasoning is not only thinking, but sensorial perceptions: we “reason” with multiple organs in multiple spaces.

The fourth layer, the realm of vision and dreaming, is the one that can be accessed intentionally by altered states of consciousness that take us beyond embodiment, space and time. This kind of reasoning often demands practices of discipline and restraint. These practices require individual intellects and identities to be bracketed for sensorial openings to experiences not constrained by normalized rationalizations of self and of the world. Although we see very differently within different layers, we can’t think our way out of a layer into another. The move between layers is not about more advanced thinking, but about a shift of locus (or frequency) of being.

Back to Colonialism
Colonialism is a systemic force inseparable from our modern desires for property, security, control, choice, comfort, affluence, autonomy, and/or progress. It furtively manifests itself even when we are critical of it and when we say we are working against it. Colonization is a theft of layers, an impairment of being where entanglement cannot be sensed or recognized. Within these fences, care and responsibility are dependent on convictions. In practice, these convictions become moral-utilitarian personal choices that are mobilized to affirm colonial relationships and subjectivities, disguised as moral and benevolent behaviour. Colonization strips care and responsibility away from the visceral command that operates before will, a visceral command that is not a rational choice.

Colonization is a theft of layers, an impairment of being where entanglement cannot be sensed or recognized.

There are at least three inter-related dimensions of colonialism. The cognitive dimension of colonialism traps our imagination into singularities, especially a single story of progress, development and human evolution. This entrapment generates epistemic violence and “epistemicide” eliminating other possibilities of knowing/being. The political/economic dimension can be represented as a dynamic grid of inter-locked meanings, aspirations and relational and organizational practices sustained by exploitation, expropriation and destitution. The grid hides the harmful costs and destructive force of its architecture by giving us a deceptive sense of freedom, innocence and autonomy, and by promising unlimited possibilities for knowledge and justice, while severely restricting what seems realistic, desirable, tangible and intelligible. The existential dimension of colonialism manifests as a denial of unbound relationships [ii], fencing our sense of self and community within layers of separability (“me” and, at best, “me and you”). This denial is rationalized through notions of civilization, superiority and/or exceptionality. It generates indifference, de-humanization, and ultimately, can justify genocide.

va-3Tackling all three dimensions of colonialism together results in forms of resistance that are unintelligible within the grid. Similarly, attempting to undo it exclusively through the first two layers of separability results in paradoxical forms of resistance. This is because colonialism: (a) is rationalized as normal, just, and benevolent; (b) is clever, flexible, and adaptive, (c) is insidious, endemic, seductive, and “delicious” (when we are benefitting from it while foreclosing its costs); and (d) it co-opts resistance by over-coding our senses, our ideas of self, our desires, our perceived entitlements, our treasured securities, our possibilities for relationships, going far beyond just defining our “thinking”. Therefore, deeper analyses and shifts of convictions can help in our understanding of it, but ultimately, we cannot simply rationalize our way out of colonialism: when we declare we have achieved “decolonization,” we are often doing that from a standpoint enabled and sustained by colonialism itself. Our disenchantment with colonialism does not translate into disillusionment with or disinvestment in it. This is partly because, in the first two layers, we don’t know how to exist outside of it, and we are afraid of being “paralysed” by the process, afraid of the loss of epistemic and agentic privilege that colonialism provides, afraid of the loss of our sense of bounded individuality and community, afraid of life beyond the fences.

Within the existential fences of colonialism we tend to believe we are autonomous individuals that relate to the world through our thinking and knowledge alone. Language and knowledge cast a net of categorical boxes that capture and rank entities in the world around us, according to the grid. These boxes deprive us from experiencing relationships not mediated by meaning. We get sick within the fences of separability and bored with the categorical boxes, but we can only imagine and desire change within the grid itself: we want different content in the boxes without changing their frames, we want change that is recognizable, affirming and familiar; like saying you want change, but thinking only about a change of clothes: something lighter or warmer, trendier or easier to wash. Only those who have torn their clothes themselves are ready to strip down naked.

Changing frames and fences can be very uncomfortable, since it demands cleaning up, stepping up and growing up. This involves being present (to the collective pain), remaining in resonance (with the call for responsibility), practicing release (of attachments to boxes, false promises and perceived entitlements), and keeping ourselves in balance (with truck loads of patience, humility, compassion, generosity and radical tenderness [iii]). Who would choose to do this? Or . . . can we afford to continue not to?

Jacqui Alexander [iv] refers to the colonial enforcement of separability as a process of dismemberment. This dismemberment happens both at physical and psychic levels. She says that we all feel a yearning for wholeness (which we can find in the third layer), but that we confuse this (in the second layer) with a yearning to ‘belong’. The focus on belonging then makes us build more fences and make more boxes: of citizenship, of political/cultural/sexual orientation, of struggle, of relationships bound by expectations of convictions and identities in the struggle for power and promised entitlements (for voice, identity, recognition, representation, redistribution). This reproduces the very dismemberment that caused the yearning in the first place. New fences and boxes can give us some temporary respite from perceived (and real) threats, but they unavoidably reproduce the void and sickness of separation. Jacqui states that the yearning for wholeness can only be addressed through “that space of the erotic, that space of the Soul, that space of the Divine” (p. 282), all spaces of merger and entanglement.

From this perspective, decolonization is the process of interrupting the satisfaction we have with the perceived enjoyments, securities and entitlements afforded by colonialism. It cannot be done by merely replacing convictions, issuing apologies, performing tokenistic gestures expecting redemption, affirmation or gratitude, or presuming reconciliation through alliance, inclusion or integration on colonial terms. Decolonization requires an expansion of layers of reasoning, of sensing, of being, of visceral care and responsibility. It is a process of undoing that is initially messy and agonizing as it demands that we confront our fears: of facing sanctioned denials; of confronting our own violence; of being overwhelmed by our collective pain; of having our personal dreams, rights and self-images annihilated as we lose our individual selves and moral high grounds in realizing we are one another. The practice of this kind of visceral relations and responsibilities grounds a form of agonistic politics that finds little use for declared convictions. However, having provisional, transitional and precarious vocabularies that can gesture towards these possibilities may be useful, and that is what this story has tried to accomplish.

Learning spaces that can support this process…prioritize de-centering over leadership; disarmament over empowerment; discernment over conviction; and disinvestment over revolution.

Counter-Intuitive Learning Spaces
Rediscovering our capacity to imagine beyond boxes, fences, posturing, certainties, and safety blankets, requires different questions and different vocabularies anchored in the uncertainty and precariousness of our entangled collective vulnerabilities. It requires a move from epistemic certainty (where we hold on to the boxes and fences that sustain colonialism, demanding a language that will “show us the way”), to epistemic reflexivity (where we get disenchanted and, ultimately disillusioned with the false promises and pleasures of our frames and fences), and to a (fleeting) state of onto-epistemic openness (where we experiment with other possibilities for being/knowing without grafting them into what we are familiar with). It is in this state that we learn to align all four layers, and start to perceive ourselves not as either separate or entangled, but as both separate and entangled in a non-dialectical way. In order to do that, changing our relationship to language and knowledge, to boxes and fences, is key: we need to recognize multiple layers of sensing, of reasoning, of knowing, what these layers can do, and how they are all partial and limited, insufficient and indispensible, how they open and/or close possibilities for existence.

Learning spaces that can support this process are counter-intuitive within the grid, as they emphasize the importance of complex existential questions instead of the search for (often simplistic) self-affirming solutions. These spaces prioritize de-centering over leadership; disarmament over empowerment; discernment over conviction; consent over consensus; pluriversality over univocality; and disinvestment over revolution. In these spaces participants are called to recognize that decolonization is a life-long and wide trans-generational multi-dimensional process without guarantees, a process that requires us to keep our eyes, pores, flesh and dreams wide open. These spaces require a commitment to depth of reflection and faith in our capacity to relate, to see ourselves in each other, in ways not mediated by agreements, identities, knowledge or understanding.  Within these spaces precarious vocabularies that “refuse” to tell us the “only right way” are key.  They can help us to clarify different positions (without ranking them), to trace our thinking back and forth (without (self)censorship), to face our paradoxes and contradictions (without shame), and to develop the stamina to walk together differently, welcoming both uncertainty and indeterminacy, without the option of turning our backs to one another. From the perspective of the first two layers, this will seem impossible to initiate or to achieve.

When I think about the urgencies of decolonization, I often remember that I don’t know how young people in my family will survive the inevitable crash of this destructive casino economy. I don’t know for how long they might have access to technology, employment, health care, freedom of expression, and/or safe water. I don’t know who they will fall in love and have children with. I don’t know who their great-grandchildren will be seven generations from now: whether their bodies will be normative, where they will fit in the social hierarchies that might exist in their time, whether they will conform or rebel. I ask myself: Seven generations from now, what will I have been responsible for? What do I need to do right now to nurture the possibility of a viable world for this family? What kind of politics, relationships, language and forms of existence are necessary to enact this inter-generational responsibility? And what if the “family” is not just the people I have blood ties with? What if, beyond notions of linear time, these great-grandchildren are already around me?

[i] See for example Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, available at

[ii] See Dwayne Donald’s “Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts” available at

[iii] Inspired by the “Radical Tenderness Manifesto” available at

[iv] See “Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred”, Jacqui Alexander, 2005.

Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti

Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti

Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti holds a Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change at the Department of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia. Her teaching and research focus on analyses of historical and systemic patterns of reproduction of knowledge and inequalities and how these limit or enable possibilities for collective existence.

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