The cognitive empire is underpinned by gladiatory scholarship. The cognitive empire invades the mental universe of its targets. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his book, Decolonizing the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, depicted the cognitive empire as that “metaphysical” formation which operates through the detonation of cultural bombs at the center of a people’s universe and through the removal of hard disks of previous knowledge and memory so as to download into their minds the software of another knowledge and another memory. Consequently, the cognitive empire renders its target intellectually and academically empty in order to impose its own knowledge. The cognitive empire’s gladiatory forces are always ready to spill blood in pursuit of a particular epistemology. At the present conjuncture, the cognitive empire and gladiatory scholarship are consistently encountering decolonial scholarship propelled by decolonial love. Decolonial love privileges intellectual and academic modesty and humility, which enable listening to one another and openness to a plurality of ways of knowing and sensing the world. But gladiators are still on the offensive. They still claim to know it all. They continue to listen only to themselves. With this positionality, they are always quick to draw swords with the aim of obliterating any other way of knowing that is not in consonance with the prescriptions of the cognitive empire.

Gladiators are always on the academic offensive to demolish the protagonist. They lack academic and intellectual humility, which is an essential prerequisite for continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning. Usually, the high pedestal on which gladiatory antagonists stand consists of fidelity to objectivity and positivism. But with resurgent and insurgent decolonization, decolonial protagonists tend to exude decolonial love in their academic and intellectual engagements. This is how they deflect the possibilities of blood on the floor. The decolonial positionality is that all human beings are born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems. This positionality automatically undercuts the “God complex” in gladiatory scholarship. The second pillar of decolonial scholarship is to readily accept that, as scholars, we are social and political beings; we are always situated. One of the interventions of decolonial scholarship is to posit that our dominant knowledge systems are becoming exhausted. This is exhibited by their inability to respond speedily and adequately to numerous modern problems, including the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Once these propositions are put on the table, gladiatory scholarship becomes desperate. Often, gladiatory scholarship resorts to the personal, if not to naturalism and essentialism. If this strategy fails, gladiatory scholarship tends to drag modernist concepts backward in its endeavor to sustain the ridiculous thesis of the naturality of contemporary global power structures. Thanks to the soft power of decolonial love, when combined with erudition, it stands its ground and appeals to a large audience tired of this asymmetrically structured modern imperial, colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal power. What is achieved through deployment of decolonial love is that knowledge can be exchanged without blood on the floor. The secret is to listen to one another. The moment to learn to unlearn is upon us. It is a window into relearning, a rejection of all fundamentalisms.

What Counts as Knowledge?

The theme under discussion is decolonization. This resurgent and insurgent theme in the world of knowledge is indeed haunting the republic of letters. It has taken academics and intellectuals back to the drawing board of knowledge. Old questions are becoming new:

  • What is knowledge?
  • What is the place of identity in knowledge?
  • Who is a knower?
  • Where do we think from?
  • How do we know what we know?
  • Does geography matter in knowledge?
  • Does knowledge have a biography?
  • Does ideology play any role in knowledge?
  • Is knowledge political?

I recently attended a presentation by an African scholar. The protagonist was a black African from Africa researching and writing about Africa and African people. This is not to be confused with Africanists, those who research Africa from somewhere else. The protagonist was very passionate about the issues of colonialism/coloniality and decolonization/decoloniality. The presentation underscored the “afterlives of colonialism,” the continuation of colonialism beyond the dismantlement of direct administrative colonialism. He compared it to the concept of the “afterlives of racial slavery,” which survived liberal notions of abolition and emancipation. While I found all this fascinating, the antagonist was raring for a challenge rather than an exchange of ideas.

Beyond Protagonists and Antagonists: Toward Decolonial Love

The antagonist was well chosen. The questions he posed seemed to have been prepared a day before the protagonist even delivered his presentation. This is where the cat came out of the bag. Even though most of the questions were addressed in the presentation, the antagonist could not abandon his prepared notes and asked them all the same. One wondered whether the antagonist was listening at all to what the protagonist was saying. All this is part of resilient gladiatory scholarship, characterized more by egopolitics than by the exchange of ideas. Listening is in short supply within gladiatory scholarship. Reflexivity is very difficult. The God complex disables it.

The antagonist was trying to turn a seminar into a theater of war. There was so much effort aimed at belittling and caricaturing what was said by the protagonist. Fortunately, the protagonist saw through all these politics of gaslighting and stuck to the substance of what was under discussion. During an emotionally charged seminar, the protagonist introduced the concept of decolonial love and explained that it informed his terms of scholarly engagement. In line with decolonial love, the protagonist deflected personal attacks and responded to the antagonist very respectfully, while still succeeding in demolishing the very premise of the questions and indeed unmasking Eurocentrism and coloniality in the questions themselves. In this way, he avoided blood on the floor of the seminar room.

Of Skeptics and Generations of Scholars       

This was before the outbreak of Covid-19, when physical presence at conferences was still the primary mode of intellectual exchange. By the time the protagonist entered, the small seminar room was already packed. Those who packed it are called “participants.” The participants are always of various opinions and persuasions. There were, of course, skeptics among them. While skepticism is necessary for critical thought/scholarship, it has to be informed by facts, not ego. Eurocentric skeptics often dismiss scholarship informed by decolonization/decoloniality as nothing but identity politics. In France, they have upped their game. They dismiss critical race theory, postcolonial theory, decolonial thought, and feminist intersectionality as importations from the US. These critical interventions are said to exist to undermine French universalism and civic republicanism. In France, the conservatives have become desperate and extreme in their crusade against critical liberation thought emerging from the battlefields of history and born of struggles against racism, enslavement, genocide, colonialism, racial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. This extremism sees critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and decolonial thought as “Islamo-leftism.” Efforts are made to causally link these ideologies to terrorism. This is how desperate the situation is.

There are also African skeptics. Some believe that the question of decolonization is archaic, that the continent has passed through this phase. Decolonial thought is often dismissed as Latin American and not relevant to Africa, as though liberation thought from Latin America must be ignored. One can easily sense a generational element in some forms of African skepticism. Most of the African skeptics belong to what Thandika Mkandawire would categorize as first- and second-generation African scholars. They often say that their generation dealt with the question of colonialism and decolonization long ago and that it is now settled. The reality is that colonialism was never an event; it has always been a power structure with far-reaching consequences. The “episodic” school underestimates this character of colonialism. At least Kwame Nkrumah in his book, Neo-colonialism: The last Stage of Imperialism, recognized “neocolonialism.” The “epic” school also recognized the “afterlives of colonialism.” So, the arrogant, end-of-history mentality’s claim to have settled debates on colonialism and decolonization is part of gladiatory scholarship and its egopolitical dismissal of that which is haunting the postcolonial world. May the beautiful soul of Thandika Mkandawire rest in peace. He was never a gladiator! His generosity of spirit and humility remain salutary.

Born from the context of colonialism and educated in Europe and North America, the first generation of African scholars had limited options besides imbibing Eurocentric thought. This was the only game in town and was seen as the only school of thought. To be fair to the first generation, against all odds and colonial seductions, it developed anticolonial and anti-imperialist consciousness from inside the belly of the beast of colonialism. The first generation actively participated in the very creation of African nationalism. Therefore, the first and second generations participated in or witnessed decolonization at close range. But epistemically, the first generation was subjected to radical assimilation of Eurocentric standards, notions of excellence, and protocols of what rigorous scholarship looked like.

While most of the second generation of African scholars completed their undergraduate education in Africa, they tended to pursue their postgraduate studies in Europe and North America. Inevitably, like the first generation, the second generation is immensely proud of their access to and reception of what they consider rigorous international scholarship. A latent skepticism of the scholarship of those who studied locally (inside Africa) is noticeable and feeds into gladiatory scholarship. This is why the third generation is judged in terms of its lack of so-called international exposure, which is used to lower its standing in scholarship.

Of course, facile generalization about the first and second generations must be avoided. These generations are made up of giants on whose shoulders the present generation stands. Think of Kwame Nkrumah, Claude Ake, Dani W. Nabudere, Ruth First, Julius Nyerere, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Chinua Achebe, Cheikh Anta Diop, Théophile Obenga, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, Mahmood Mamdani, Samir Amin, Patricia McFadden, Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Thandika Mkandawire, Issa G. Shivji, Walter Rodney, Adebayo Olukoshi, Archie Mafeje, Ibbo Mandaza, Shadrack Gutto, Bernard Magubane, Ifi Amadiume, Rudo Gaidzanwa, Ngwabi Bhebhe, Es’kia Mphahlele, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinweizu Ibekwe, Sam Moyo, Helmi Sharawi, Toyin Falola, Peter Ekeh, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Ali A. Mazrui,  Bethwell Ogot, and the list goes on. These and others not mentioned constitute the finest crop of academic and intellectuals who laid a very strong foundation for current decolonial thought, theory, and scholarship. Among purveyors of gladiatory scholarship, they are mainly those whose scholarship needs the support of ego, as well as rank and age, to survive from the margins.

Gladiatory Scholarship and Its Features

Gladiatory scholarship is characteristically Eurocentric and egoistic. It is born of the colonial logics of war, the will to power, and “discovery.” Consequently, in gladiatory scholarship, the academy is turned into a site of warfare. Disciplines exist as colonies. Professors are disciplinary conquerors. One has to create boundaries around a chosen field of research. Next, one must cultivate that field and defend it from others who try to trespass upon it. To fence off and create a border around a field of research is to develop an academic “tribe” with a particular language. It may be termed sociology, anthropology, or something else. Lack of familiarity with the language is a basis for exclusion.

In gladiatory scholarship, winning arguments is an end in itself, not a means to an end. Wrestling characterizes gladiatory scholarship. Poking holes in another scholar’s work is privileged over seeking to understand what other scholars are providing. Reviewing another scholar’s work often degenerates into writing oneself into another’s work. The aim is to dismiss the work under review and affirm one’s own ideas. Writing one’s book into another’s book rather than reviewing what one is given to review is a common disease of gladiatory scholarship. Its intention is to destroy rather than engage with other scholars’ ideas. In gladiatory scholarship, there is very little appreciation of other ways of knowing. What the intellectual and academic gladiator does not know is always deemed to be wrong, shallow, or unscholarly.

What sustains gladiatory scholarship is colonial ways of knowing. At the center is a resilient civilizing mission mentality. The gladiator is always the teacher; all others are pupils.  Inevitably, there is always fundamentalism in gladiatory scholarship. There is epistemic deafness, an inability to hear other scholars. There is also epistemic racism and xenophobia. This takes the form of dismissing all other knowledge from the rest of the world except that from Europe. Behind the scenes, there is ceaseless looting of others’ ideas only to present them as the gladiator’s original thinking.

In gladiatory scholarship, there is always very strong paternalism. This takes the form of only listening to those who belong to your generation and think like you. One’s own generation is always the best. All others are engaged in pseudo-scholarship and pseudo-science. All other generations which came before yours and did not go the schools and universities that you attended and studied must be looked at suspiciously. They were not there where you were, and so they cannot know as much as you. There is a lot of effort spent on infantilizing other generations’ scholarship. There is also patriarchy and sexism in gladiatory scholarship. Works by women scholars are generally ignored. There is uneven citational politics in gladiatory scholarship. African scholarship is often ignored and never cited. If scholarship informed by critical race theory, postcolonial theory, decolonial thought, and intersectionality is not outrightly dismissed as subjective, it is just ignored. The practice is to pretend it does not exist. Write as though it does not exist. Invisibilize it. Don’t give it attention. Push it to the margins. Don’t include it in the curriculum. Exclude it.

The consequences of gladiatory scholarship reveal themselves in its most detestable forms: assessments and examinations. Some universities still see no problem in inviting a scholar to be an “opponent” in the public “defense” of a doctoral thesis. These two words, opponent and defense, reveal the paradigm of war informing gladiatory scholarship. The other consequences are negative assessments of students’ work, whereby the examiner only looks for what is wrong with the student’s work and ignores all that is correct and uses that to make a judgement and give a grade. Gladiatory scholarship instills fear in its victims. It is intimidatory scholarship. But there is now turmoil in the kingdom of gladiatory scholarship, and the situation is excellent for epistemic freedom. Claims of objectivity are always the refuge of gladiatory scholarship.

Beyond Objective Scholarship and Toward a Decolonization of Knowledge

Thought from nowhere! Knowledge from nowhere! Theory from nowhere! This is what makes a scholar. One’s scholarship is neutral, objective, unsituated, truthful, universal, and scientific. In this scholarship, there is no room for personal emotion, ideology, and politics. There is no room for geopolitics and body politics. In this scholarship, one totally hides oneself and indeed no one can see you. Why hide yourself and pretend to be a god who cannot be seen? What is the logic behind concealment of self in knowledge generation and dissemination?  This hiding and concealment is belied by the simple fact that we all write our names on the book covers we write. Our journal articles and book chapters always carry our names. Perhaps those who use pseudonyms have tried harder, but a pseudonym is identity all the same. There is identity in knowledge generation. There is a wish to be known as the authors of our works. We always wish to own our work, so we affix our names to it. This means there is always us in our work. We cannot hide and conceal ourselves successfully.

The veteran educationist and intellectual Paulo Freire in his books including, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of the Heart, urged us to reveal ourselves. Decolonial thought urges us to reveal ourselves. Feminist and womanist scholars urge us to reveal ourselves. What is there to hide anyway? We are human beings. We are social and political beings. We are spiritual beings. We are many things at once. Can we successfully hide from these identities as we generate knowledge? Can we suspend ourselves, banish ourselves from ourselves for the sake of producing objective, truthful, universal, neutral, and unsituated knowledge relevant across time and space?  No way—it is impossible.

We research and write as ourselves. We cannot escape from our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, spirituality, and other vectors of our identity—constructed as they may be—as we generate knowledge. They are in us and are us. Those who pretend to be able to escape these identities are simply more capable than others of hiding them and denying their existence. By revealing ourselves, we come nearer to the truth and the reality of being human. This nearness to truth and reality is delivered more forcefully by decolonial thought. It is an epistemic perspective that unmasks us and reveals us so that we stop lying to ourselves and avoid myths of objectivity and neutrality. Decolonial scholarship’s gift includes coming to terms with such realities as: the egopolitics of knowledge, the body politics of knowledge, and the locus of enunciation of knowledge. An epistemic revolution is on offer, where a new agenda that goes beyond exhausting one another over disciplinary knowledge is unfolding and a new focus on troublesome existential problems are the focal point of knowledge generation.