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"Critical Theory and the Philippine Condition: A Decolonial and Feminist Contention"

Kelly Agra | 10 May 2023

While the critique of Eurocentrism is noteworthy and important, it should not exhaust what it means to decolonize political theory. Our hope is to advance and pluralize the project of decolonizing political theory by suggesting ways of generating political theory from and for the non-European world, that is, by imagining political theory of a truly global reach.
- Adom Getachew and Karuna Mantena (2021, 361) [emphasis added]

With the development of critical traditions beyond Frankfurt School Critical Theory—e.g. critical race, intersectionality, post-, anti-, & decolonial theory—global efforts to decolonize critical social theorizing (De Sousa Santos 2014, Allen 2016, Bhambra 2021, Mills 2017) have at the same time emerged. This research reaffirms these efforts, but through an endorsement of the pluralization of the anticolonial project (Getachew and Mantena 2021). Alongside scholars of colour, we aim to contribute to a critical social theory from and for the Global South. The research project: “The Philippine Conditions: Threads of Critical, Decolonial, and Feminist Contentions”, our take-off point, but also object of analysis in light of such aim is the Philippine society.

Picking up the threads of the Filipinisation and indigenisation movement in the Philippine social sciences—most prominently in the fields of History (Constantino 1970, Salazar 1985), Philosophy (Mercado 1974, Timbreza 1982), Psychology (Enriquez 1976, Rogelia 1982), and Anthropology (Covar 1991), then weaving these with the global epistemic-cultural movement against the coloniality of structures, systems, and institutions of knowledge and power (Fanon 1963, Spivak 1988, Gandhi 1997, Mignolo & Walsh 2018, Bhambra & Holmwood 2021), we propose to decolonise critical theorising in two steps.

First, through a process of subtraction or critical unweaving, we subtract our forms of critique from the colonial network of power that continue to dominate our epistemic and social structures, norms, and practices. For the Global South, this entails exposing the ineffectiveness of Euro- and Anglo-centric modes of thinking and critique in addressing the Global South condition, but also demonstrating how contributory they could be to the cultural-epistemic subjugation of, patriarchal domination within, and capitalist exploitation of resources of the Global South. This step in our decolonial work is part of our resistance to the “whiteness” (Mills 1997) of critical theory and our intellectual activism against our colonial, racial, gendered, and capitalist “miseducation” (Woodson 1933, Constantino 1959), that continue to undermine the global struggle for “epistemological justice” (Bhambra 2021).

Second, through the process of conceptual transformation or reparative reweaving, we reconstruct new and reaffirm alternative modes of thinking and critique that are not only generated from and responsive to our local and lived realities but are hopefully better and more just at a global level. This means that while discarding aspects of our inherited concepts, categories, or frameworks that lead us to misperceive their value and (in)significance, we nevertheless salvage aspects of them that may be emancipatory—creatively repairing and transforming them so they may be made responsive and relevant to the experience of and problems confronted by differently situated subjects.

After this double process of decolonisation, however, we suggest one more step. We, in addition, bring the indigenisation and decolonial work into critical dialogue with intersectional feminist critique with the aim of expanding its reach and recalibrating its attention to contexts. I use the term intersectionality here in its broader sense, not restricted to the narrow understanding of it as simply suggesting that different forms of oppression come together and pile up. It asks NOT of ‘where the nexus where multiple oppressions meet?’, but of the multiple structures and systems of power that cause and sustain certain forms of oppression: ‘how are they connected to one another, and how can we untangle and weaken them?’ Intersectionality theory is not a one-size-fits-all critical framework, nor one that endorses an ‘oppression olympics’. Its guiding thread is to assert the urgency to widen and pluralise the critic’s diagnostic lenses and acknowledge how every site of oppression has its own degree of complexity and that differing subjectivities and identities within this site get affected differentially. To this extent, it alerts us to the need to increase our degree of caution against offering blanket proposals to ameliorate forms of injustice and helps unveil how one site might actually be ‘a site among many sites’ within a network of domination.

What does decolonising critical theory mean to a Filipino critical theorist?

Beyond the self-referential critique of Anglo-Eurocentrism and beyond the identitarian aim to assert what is “Filipino”, the Philippine decolonial objective is to highlight how “colonial thinking” remains central in the Philippine psyche not only due to the social-epistemic condition we are in globally—e.g. how the political and economic superpowers of today also hold dominion over the politics and economics of knowledge—but specifically due to the neocolonial education and culture that continues to be cultivated in the Philippines. The Philippines, after decolonising itself from its European colonial past, still had to contend with an American neo-colonial present. The historian Renato Constantino referred to the American epistemic colonisation of the Philippines as the “miseducation of the Filipino” (1970 / 1982). Through neocolonial miseducation, he writes, the Filipinos have become an “uprooted race” (432) and “un-Filipino Filipinos” (437). They have learned to esteem their foreign overlords and regard the Filipino mind as subservient to them (444). They have viewed centuries of colonialism “as a grace from above rather than as a scourge” (437).

This situation resonates with the epistemic domination that thinkers such as Mohandas Gandhi, Carter Godwin Woodson, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Charles Mills have diagnosed in a colonised mind. Adom Getachew and Karuna Mantena describes this as a psyche characterised by an enthralment with the West, desiring “to emulate its values and institutions” (Getachew and Mantena 2021, 373). Such “enthralment” can still be observed in the Philippines, where a premium remains to be placed in what is foreign, from abroad, white, and with what is written or spoken in Western languages. The majority of the Filipino people still consider these elements to be the cultural symbols of prestige, wealth, education, class status, and intellectual superiority.

Against this background, decolonising critical theory for Filipinos would mean subtracting their forms of critique from hegemonic categories, rules, and standards of knowing. I emphasise, however, that this form of subtraction does not mean subtraction from any influence from the West or the Global North. This is not only a naive way of thinking, such a task is also impossible. What such critical unweaving refers to instead is the articulation of a counter-critique of the ways in which we reproduce the relegation of our ways of thinking as inferior to Anglo-European thinking, and of our local concerns as inconsequential, because of the misleading view that they are not “universal”. This is then coupled with the transformative task of reweaving critical social theory that is generated from and attentive to the lived realities of the Philippine condition. Rather than merely engaging in abstract theorising and only secondarily attempting to identify areas in our material condition where such theories may apply to or become relevant, the kind of critical social theorising that we uphold is one that is born out of and mobilised by the exigencies of our concrete situations, and one that seeks to combat the very suffering or injustices that we observe and/or ourselves experience, including their corresponding ideological backups. In this second task, we take our cue from scholars such as Robin Celikates (2018), Linda Martín Alcoff (2018), and Patricia Hill Collins (2019) for whom activism and resistance are not divorced from critical theorising; but also, from thinkers such as Uma Narayan (1997) and Getachew and Mantena (2021) who remind us that we can creatively transgress inherited ideas and categories and invent alternative ways of using, fusing, and transforming, rather than simply rejecting them altogether.

What is the feminist dimension of this project?

Through feminist critique, we further unravel how the philosophical institution, as well as the ways in which critical theory has been practised in the Philippines, have, in our view, been reproducing identity-based forms oppression. For instance, in Marella Ada V. Mancenido-Bolaños’s and Darlene O. Demandante’s editorial for the “Women and Philosophy: An Initial Move Towards a More Inclusive Practice of Philosophy in the Philippine Context” (June 2020), special issue of Kritike: An Online Journal of Philosophy, they reveal how the status of women philosophers in the Philippines remain to be far from ideal. Recent developments such as the formation of the Women Doing Philosophy (WDP) group shortly after the journal’s publication, the review of the gender balance in membership and officership in the largest philosophical organisation in the country, the mainstreaming of gender concerns in philosophical conferences and seminars, and taking action on gender inequality in faculty hiring, tenure, promotion, and administrative assignments in some universities—while they show stronger and more active efforts to combat the patriarchal forces undergirding philosophical institutions in the Philippines, they now at the same time clearly expose the historical marginalisation of Filipino women philosophers. A feminist critical theorising thus insists on breaking away from the limiting and limited ways in which critical social theory may be marginalising the concerns of minority groups.

It is in response to this that our decolonial work comes into critical dialogue with a two-pronged intersectional feminism: first, it uses critical theory in diagnosing and addressing feminist issues and concerns, but second, it goes beyond, if not also challenges, white privilege in feminism. While feminists of colour such as Narayan, Audre Lorde, or María Lugones have not technically referred to their feminism as intersectional per se, we consider them proponents of an intersectional critical feminism insofar as one finds in their works some of the most astute articulations of and challenges against white superiority within feminism. With them, we disentangle the racial, ethnic, colonial, and economic complexities of the living conditions of formerly colonised communities that are in most cases, also communities of colour, and bring into the surface the identity-based dimension of expectations, norms, and ideologies that structure these communities.

What aspect of Philippine society am I diagnosing?

In my work, I focus on the miseducation of the Filipino, and co-extensively, of Global South subjects. By miseducation, I refer to the reproduction of subjugating social relations, capitalist exploitation of resources, including labour, and the perpetuation of ideologies of social, cultural, and intellectual inferiority through educational institutions. In some Global South contexts, such as the Philippines, this begins with the non-recognition, dismissal, or erasure of indigenous and historically generated knowledge, and developing all the way to their forced replacement with knowledges that are off tangent to the living and social conditions of the community within which the educational institution is being established. Miseducation is a kind of education that engenders ignorance and apathy towards the welfare of one’s society, and consequently of oneself. In formerly colonised countries, this also takes the form of an education that ultimately serves the economic interests of the colonial power.

I see Critical Theory as complicit to sustaining miseducation when it refuses to be decolonized and intersectionalized. In its undecolonized form, Critical Theory pretends to be ahistorical, universally applicable, and unalert to significant contextual complexities. This gets worse when Global South subjects themselves uncritically import and oversubscribe to the theories and ideas generated in the Global North, and, when they fail to use critical social theory to address the crises that fundamentally confront them as Global South subjects. Meanwhile, in its unintersectionalized form, Critical Theory remains in the dark about and unadaptable to the different axes of oppression that differentially entrap intersectional identities and subjectivities, when it limits us to think only through the categories of labor, class, or capitalist exploitation, and wilfully unknow how these interrelate with colonial, racial, gender, or religious discrimination and domination, the practice of ableism, and of environmental destruction. Lest it betrays its critical promise and risks being miseducational, critical social theory of a truly global reach, I thus argue, must not fall short of being decolonial and intersectional not only in its conceptual analysis but also in its practice. For it is precisely when it remains silent and apathetic to colonial and intersecting mechanisms of power that it participates in reproducing global injustice.

[From Left to Right] Rowena Azada-Palacios, Pamela Joy Mariano Capistrano, Kelly Agra, Darlene Demandante, Lovelyn Paclibar, and Krissah Marga Taganas in the Philosophy and Social Science (Critical Theory) Conference, Vila Lanna, Prague, Czech Republic, 10-14 May 2023.

(Members of the research group on "The Philippine Condition: Threads of Critical, Decolonial, and Feminist Contentions", also including Raphaella Elaine Miranda and Ma. Cassandra Ysobel Teodosio). #CriticalSocialTheorists & #Feminists

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My research falls at the intersection of Critical Social Theory and Social Epistemology, but with specific attention to Decolonial and Feminist Critique. In my work, I develop the concepts of "(Mis)education" and "Epistemic Paralysis".

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