Decoloniality in Geography: The Legend of Humboldt and the Residue of the Enlightenment

by Shaun Terry

Last week, an issue that we talked about was what Foucault described as “our impatience for liberty.” It seems to me that Dettelbach’s analysis of Humboldt speaks to this concern. Today, Humboldt is remarkable both for the innovations that he made, as well as his tendency toward Romanticism and toward wild conjectures (the eudiometer here comes to mind). Humboldt seems to have fashioned himself as a hero; as such, his rush to discoveries was not well moderated by patience or prudence. Relevant to the rest of this week’s readings, the patience and/or prudence that may have been missing were conspicuously (although, normally, for Humboldt’s time) absent in their treatments of non-European peoples.

Sidaway’s writing reminded me of an earlier discussion that we (as a class) had on the importance of historiographical analysis of geography as a discipline. If it were not clear before, I think that Sidaway makes a strong argument that this kind of analysis can help us to consider the biases in the discipline and to try, in ongoing and in future works, to account for those historical biases, and especially, the distortions and exclusions that might result from those biases. As Sidaway points out, even intentional attempts to criticize the products of these biases can have difficulties escaping them. Livingstone, in Sidaway’s view, glorifies Western exploration and geography, while failing to acknowledge so many non-Western contributions. This suggests that the West and the non-West are never completely separate, even if the story privileges one over the other. Perhaps, as Pratt seems to point out, they even construct each other mutually, as the conception of difference for the sake of exploitation of the non-West necessitates the flawed narratives referred to in Sidaway.

I take from Pratt’s definition of “planetary consciousness” that part of her argument lies on the notion that modernity does not, in the end, recognize a periphery to its center. Instead, everything is subsumed under modernistic epistemological frames (tangential, but perhaps helpful, is to think of how science’s relationship, under modern Christian theology, came to be thought of as congruent with God’s design [only for this to later seem to lead to some secularistic tendencies]). In this way, the whole world is subject to measurement and mastery, waiting to be exploited in whatever ways it might, even under protest, eventually allow (is not this measurement and mastery exploitative in the first place?). This seems to be governed by a kind of modernistic and tautological ethics by which whatever modernists do is right because it is modern and, therefore, progressive. Humboldt’s role (as well as others’ roles) in these transatlantic “progresses” was (were) direct and appears to have been complicated by these issues of modernity.

I find that Mignolo’s essay is helpful to me for thinking about coloniality and decoloniality. I find that the interior-exterior paradigm is helpful (p. 20), especially as Mignolo thinks of us as operating within modernity in order to try to analyze modernity. It seems to me that decoloniality often adopts a strategy of trying to analyze the interior from a position that is exterior. This could seem complicated, but my understanding is that this is sometimes accomplished by interrogating the terms that lie at the center of our modernistic thinking.

Also, the way that Mignolo highlights the importance of the Americas in developing capitalism made sense to me, as well as the development of what he calls “Creole double consciousness” (pp. 31-7). I also liked the way Mignolo ties these things together by looking at how the concepts of the Western Hemisphere and the North Atlantic are imposed. It seems to me that it is this imposition that is often at the root of the problem. Although one might argue that abstraction often produces problems, it seems to me that it is one thing to abstract in a way that foregrounds contingency and it is another thing to abstract in ways that impose atemporal absolutes, universals, and essentialities. I think that, when Mignolo talks about everyone’s inevitable, necessary responses to the “‘Westernization’ of the planet” (p. 51) it is this imposition with which Mignolo is taking issue.

Dettelbach, Michael. The Face of Nature: Precise Measurement, Mapping, and Sensibility in the Work of Alexander von Humboldt.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Vol. 30, No. 4. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science. 1999. 473-504.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Mignolo, Walter. “Coloniality at Large: The Western Hemisphere in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 1, No. 2. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. 20o1. 19-54.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge. 1992. 1-143.

Sidaway, James Derrick. “The (re)making of the western ‘geographical tradition’: some missing links.” Area, Vol. 29. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. 72-80.