Decolonial Aesthesis: From Singapore, To Cambridge, To Duke University

I always ask my students, grad and undergraduate, for the mid-term “exam”, to write a letter to whomever they wish. It should be an educated person who is a little bit familiar with the topic, or not necessarily. The question is to explain “in your own words” (and not to hide behind textual commentaries or statistics), your understanding of the concepts and issues discussed in the first part of the seminar.

This Spring, I taught a seminar on Decolonial Aesthetics. Or better yet, decolonial aesthesis. Aesthesis is a Greek word, as we know, it refers to senses, sensibility. There is a common sensibility among many people around the globe. The sensibility that comes from the experience of coloniality, that is, of being considered less or deficient human beings. Who consider them/as such? The One who control discourse and has the authority to define the human. Western aesthetics contributed to that. If you do not believe, read Immanuel Kant´s Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime. From the colonial wound inflicted by Western aesthetics (because of course aesthetics is not a universal entity or way of being and sensing) comes decolonial aesthesis. The intellectual force and creativity today is coming from that sensibility, decolonial aesthesis, not only in ¨art¨ but in all spheres of life. By mid-term, students had to explain their understanding of “coloniality and decoloniality,” how colonial/imperial aesthetic works, what a decolonial understanding would be in the formation of decolonial subjectivities-that is, of decolonial aesthesis.

Michelle K., from Singapore, wrote a letter to herself when she departed from Singapore to go to Cambridge.  Now she, when writing this letter, she was a Duke University, North Carolina, US.

The letter was already published in the catalog of Be.Bop 2013

I provide you here with the typescript version

To my eighteen-year-old self, on your departure for Cambridge

September 21st, 2003

In three days, you will encounter a fish knife for the very first time. You will not know what it is, but everyone else will. You will watch, and imitate.

You will not know how to eat — how to cut cheese, hold a wineglass, to dissect pheasant. You will not know how to dress, in the mandatory bulky black robes, or how to put your hair up as the other girls do. You will not know how to walk, high heels unsteady on ancient cobblestones. You will not know how to talk, of their celebrities, their politics, their favorite operas, their units of measurement, their terms of endearment.

In class, in Front Court just off the famous Wren Chapel, you will learn that you do not know Latin. Claudia, from Poland, knows Latin. She also knows Polish, but hates speaking it with the young Polish woman who cleans her rooms. We’re in England now, she says.

Julie, from Ireland, speaks with a perfect Standard English accent. So do Jonah from Manchester and Dr Davis, from Wales. So do Emma, from Oslo; and Adrian, from Belgrade; and Patrick, from Berlin. So do you. Joshua, also from Singapore, speaks with a thick Singaporean accent. Nobody speaks to him, because nobody understands him, except you.

You never learn Latin, but you learn to fake it well enough to give the prayer before the Fellows in the dining hall. It’s an honor, you’re told. You shape the vowels carefully with your tongue: Oculi omnium in te sperant. The eyes of all look upon thee.

You study versification. Versification is the study of form in poetry. You learn that we all speak in iambs, like the Greeks. You write poetry, and learn the proper names for what you do: this is enjambement, this is anaphora, that is isocolon. You learn to paint with the textures that make up Britain: limestone, pipesmoke, lambswool, tweed; reckon, rubbish, brilliant, dodgy, quid.

At the International Students Gathering you will be told that you are interesting. You are foreign, you are a learning experience for others, you are exotic. People will ask where you come from. Singapore. Oh! they say – chewing gum is illegal there, isn’t it, and they cane people for vandalism. Don’t they also cut off the hands of thieves? No, you say. Oh, they say. Are you certain?

Every day you will walk by King’s Chapel and every day be astounded by the sublime. There is something sacred, it seems, in the smooth stone and stained glass, in the altitudinous arches against the northern sky. Even the sky looks different here – a truer sky blue. The plants are a different green, milder than the ferns of the humid tropics, and more elegant. The trees are deciduous, quadrilingual.

In the chapel you will hear Allegri’s Miserere and in the sharp highs and tumbling-bell cascades of gowned choir-boys come to know a different God than the one you met with guitar music in your old Sunday School. You will read Milton, and see His beauty. You will read Eliot, and see His wisdom.

You will travel. You go to Athens, and you go to Rome. You go to Paris, London, Vienna, old cities rich with marble and history. You see the rock where St Paul preached, the hall where Mozart played, the house Jane Austen lived in. You see the beds of heroes, the halls of two hundred kings and queens.  You see places that matter. Nothing in your country is more than two hundred years old.

Your Marxist friend is repulsed by the splendor of Vatican City. You somewhat agree, but still you buy an overpriced rosary from the Vatican gift shop. Your people don’t pray with rosaries, so you don’t know what to do with it. Still, it is a valuable thing – made of plastic, to be sure, but stamped with the official insignia. The keys to the kingdom.

You go to the opera. You go to museums. You learn the names of the masters, you learn their styles — the long slim forms of Botticelli, the bright grace of Raphael, the abs on the Michelangelo, the curves on the Titians — pink cheeks and white faces. You see hall upon hall of kouroi, men in the proportions of gods, with smooth blank eyes. You see beauty in the rich thickness of oil paints, in the huge splendid canvases, the gold frames, the high ceilings. You are happy and gratified and impressed. No one from your country ever made such things. You do not think to ask why.

Your friends ask you about visiting Singapore. What’s there to see there? they ask. We don’t have much culture, you say.

You direct a play. You would have liked to act instead, but there are no Chinese women in Chekhov’s Russia. There are no Chinese in Ibsen’s Norway.  There are no Chinese in the Germany of Carl Jung or in Chicago in the 1950s. There are no Brits either, but that doesn’t seem to matter.  In three years of theatre you will see two black faces on stage. One is Othello. The other is a maid.

You see The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. We are gentlemen of Japan… / On many a screen and fan We figure in lively paint / Our attitude’s queer and quaint / You’re wrong if you think it ain’t! The emperor likes decapitation. The heroine’s name is Yum-Yum. It is a comedy. You laugh.

You study Shakespeare. You study tragedy. Ancient tragedy is the fall of a great man due to an unfortunate fault. Modern tragedy is the confrontation of a brave man with his own existential terror.  Other things are tragic, but you don’t hear too much about them. You meet Willy Loman, Primo Levi, Nora Helmer, but it’s hard to pay attention. Sophocles speaks too loudly. Oedipus is king.

You study moral philosophy: Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Kant. You learn to read them with blinkers on, mining them for the things that matter. You learn to write the way they do – assertive, arrogant, to-the-point. Men do better in exams, you are told, because they write this way. You must be confident. You must write like a man.

You study the Romantics. You learn what nature looks like: white cliffs, high moors, rolling hills, spring air, green meadows; here and there a Roman ruin, here and there a shepherdess. What’s there to see in Singapore? your friends ask. We don’t have much nature, you say.

You go bird-watching. There are several thousand bird species in the UK alone — robins, garnets, ravens, terns. You learn the names of trees and flowers — lilacs, magnolia, primrose, rosemary for remembrance, hyacinth for constancy, poppies, which mark the War Dead.It seems these flowers have a history that your flowers don’t. Poets write about them; they have meanings in books, and value in the flower shops.

No one writes about the ixoras that grew in your old neighborhood — dense stubby shrubs with blooms no bigger than a wink, but beloved for the single drop of nectar you could suck from the stems. Or about the hibiscuses, brilliant and brash with their long dangling stamens; or the bouganvilla, common, roadside-dusty, with their paper-thin petals. Or angsanas, with their space-ship seeds. Rain trees like vine-strewn umbrellas. Franjipanis. Pong-pongs.

Three short years later you will stand in a queue; neat rows of black robes and mostly white faces. When your turn comes you will kneel at the feet of an old man in a five-hundred-year-old chair. He says something in Latin you won’t care what it means. He gives you a scroll. You smile. You graduate.


All this is not a warning or a complaint about how unfair life will be for you. After all, you will not be unhappy; or if you are, you will not really notice. No one will be cruel to you, no one will be unfriendly, and you will learn many things. You will enjoy yourself, more or less; and you will make friends, acquire ‘social polish’, a confidence in speaking, the tools to make yourself heard.

These are all good things. They are the things that you went to Britain to acquire. But I am writing to you to make you see what you will be at pains not to see: that as you acquire them, there will also be parts of you that are lost. And I am writing to tell you that your gains are not innocent — that they come with the baggage of coloniality.

You will deny this at first, because you and your country are modern and free, and you will see your choice of university as precisely the expression of that freedom and ability. To think otherwise will seem almost absurd: you are at Cambridge; how could you possibly be oppressed?

But coloniality didn’t end in 1963, when the British let your country go. It is not just the business of unfortunate Third Worlders in distant lands, still floudering in corruption and poverty because they lacked the vision and the statecraft of a Lee Kuan Yew.

Coloniality continues, in fact, whenever bright young men and women from all over the world decide to cap off their educations by going on pilgrimage to pinnacles of Western civilization; when they dedicate themselves to the Western canon and walk in the shadows of gothic cathedrals and imperial facades, and learn that this is the good life.

It continues whenever anyone anywhere in the world walks down a street and sees a billboard on the modern cathedral that is a shopping mall, and sees in that conjunction of power, wealth, and beauty an image of desire. In other words, it happens these days not by the strength of arms or the power of states, but by the captivation of the eyes, the training of the taste, by unwritten rules of thumb — that we all learn everywhere, without even knowing it. Coloniality is far from over: it is all over. It is perhaps the most powerful set of forces in the modern world.

That may sound strange to you, because the power of Cambridge – of Europe itself – seems today to lie in the richness of its history. But to be truly modern is precisely to have a rich and legitimate history that one can master, draw from, and transcend. It is to have a history that is valuable in the present, transactable as social capital in an economy of competitive relations; in clear contrast to other, ‘anthropological’ histories — ‘African’, ‘Oriental’ — that are outdated, unusable, primitive. Besides, modernity comes in many guises: in skyscrapers and banks, to be sure, but also in fish knives, in cathedrals, in the knowledge of opera, in savoir faire.

But modernity is not truly in the skyscraper or the bank or even the savoir faire. It is in the movement of a dangerous gift, transmitted from the West to the rest. Modernity says: we have the good, and we will give – or teach, or sell – it to you. Modernity is salvation through this gift from your prior self. It is Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company turning Temasek, the fishing village, into Singapore, the trade hub and aspiring metropolis. It is the magnificent edifice of Cambridge University turning Melissa, the girl who wore cheap pajamas sewn by her grandma to bed, into Melissa, the cosmopolitan, who graduated in a Hepburn dress and a fur hood.

Modernity is someone saying to you: look, we have made you better. And you believing it.

But why do you believe it? Why will your ignorance of the fish knife cut so deep? Why will your love of opera and your love of ixora be respectively crucial and inconsequential for your sense of sophistication and self-worth? It makes little logical sense, but coloniality doesn’t work that way.As you will learn, it works by the smallest and the largest things: from chit-chat to cathedrals. Another way of putting this is that the West has colonized not only knowledge, but aesthesis – every kind of sensing, believing, feeling.

What can you do, then? Coloniality cannot be un-done, any more than you can un-read Chaucer or un-see Caravaggio, and it is undeniable that these things have broadened your mind.

But the question is not how to retreat or how to prune yourself back to some pristine, native state. In fact, it is the opposite: how to recognize the narrowness of this so-called broadened mind — to realize that Europe is not the universe — and to take your sensing and knowing beyond those dominant ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To move towards a pluri-verse that gives dignity to both the girl in the pajamas and the one in the little black dress — and yet to do so in a way that, unlike Western liberalism, is not naïve about either the ‘equality’ of the two, or about how we got from the one to the other.

This means that it is not enough to simply read Confucious alongside Aristotle, or to turn from Uffizi to the Asian Civilizations Museum. That is part of it, certainly, but it doesn’t go far enough. In fact, merely claiming that ‘our’ art or philosophy is as beautiful or good as their Western counterparts only disguises the problem: it hides the issue of why we are in the position of having to make that claim in the first place (the question of coloniality), and it begs the question of what we mean by ‘good’, or ‘beautiful’, or even by ‘art’ or ‘philosophy’ (the question of imperial aesthetics).

The movement known as ‘decolonial aesthetics’ is aimed at asking exactly those two questions. It is the study of how Western aesthetic categories like ‘beauty’ or ‘representation’ came to dominate all discussion of art and its value, and of how exactly those categories were are used — in everyone from Kant to Conrad — to organise and control the way we think of ourselves and others: as white or black, high or low, rich or poor, strong or weak, good or evil.

And decolonial art (or literature, architecture, and so on) is art that enacts these critiques by exposing coloniality and its injustices and contradictions, often using juxtaposition, parody, irony, or simple disobedience towards the rules of art and polite society, so that the viewer or participant is not swept up in the sublimity or beauty that is the Western ideal, but in feelings of sadness, indignation, repentance, hope, and the determination to change things in the future.

You may not see much decolonial art at Cambridge, but, just as the colonial aesthetic works on us in myriad and subtle ways, so can performances of decoloniality, if we learn how to see them. So as you walk through the grand college gates, look out for the homeless man, who refuses to move from his corner no matter what important procession passes by.

Look out for the posters put up by the residents of Mill Road, in their campaign against the large-chain supermarket that would put the small Indian and Korean grocery stores there out of business. Think about the British Indian girl who wears a sari to class every day. And listen again to Joshua’s accent, and hear in it not failure to communicate, but a casual, everyday protest — a way of saying, I don’t have to sound like you to be worthy of being heard.

These things may be hard to spot amidst the distractions of tall spires and lofty aspirations, but they are there.

Walter Mignolo

Michelle K.