Knowledge, Culture and Method Thoughts on Colonialism and Decolonization

Much had happened since the Indigenous-Palestinian Solidarity Conference in November 2019. From a global pandemic that has highlighted the vastly discriminatory nature of state allocations of resources, to the impacts of who and how different populations are policed. At a time of unprecedented global stress, the death of George Floyd in May 2020 reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and spurred comparisons to both Black deaths in custody in Australia, and the killing of Iyad Hallaq in Jerusalem a week later.

Perhaps what is indeed obvious is the power of culture to both bolster the state as well as to contest it. The current debates around colonial statues and memorials best exemplifies the power of culture and the ways in which public consciousness is being mobilised both for and against the state. In fact, the braided relationship between projects of modernity and the ongoing interconnected and active structures of settler colonialism, is often overlooked in our understanding of the contemporary political context.

The legacies of the Enlightenment quest to understand the world led to new modes of colonial knowledge production. It is no coincidence that Joseph Banks – who went on to have a significant scientific career as a botanist—travelled aboard the Endeavour on Captain James Cook’s first scientific voyage (1768-1771), where the east coast of what has since been called Australia was charted. Likewise, Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798-1801), marked the beginning of a renewed European colonial interest in the Middle East. He took 167 scholars and scientists as part of his efforts. The production of knowledge created new paradigms for European understandings of the world. The narrative of “discovery” applied as much to territory as it did to knowledge.

In considering the ramifications of both Banks’ botanical work and Napoleon’s league of scientists, both ultimately produced multiple forms of knowledge. Scholarly knowledge of the new discoveries permeated academic circles that were vested in the Enlightenment narrative, thus creating much debate. Such knowledge was also of value to the states that had commissioned these expeditions, whether for trade (in early attempts to build the Suez Canal), or for the development of penal colonies (that provided solutions to the domestic problems within the United Kingdom (UK), arising from industrialisation, enclosure, domestic dissidence, and the loss of colonial territory in North America). Such knowledge also had broader implication for the public in Europe, as it created a culture of popular imaginaries of those in “far-off” places.

This matrix of knowledge is in many ways highlighted in fields like photography in and of Palestine that often encompassed a confluence of scholarly discourse, state information gathering, and popular imaginaries, a repeated pattern in the working life of photographers like Charles Wilson of the British Royal Engineers, Antonin Jaussen of École Biblique, or John Whiting of the American Colony. This shows the multiple levels in which culture operates, but also on inspecting the close and long-term relations to Arab communities of the latter two examples, the ways in which even sympathetic western knowledge production might ultimately be to the detriment of indigenous communities to whom such knowledge was supposed to contribute.

Particularly valent here is the concept of “biblification”, which is a process that has been defined in relation to the photography in Palestine, where imaging focused on ancient biblical history while erasing Palestinian modernity. While this has typically been applied to Palestine, it also had significant broader transnational implications.

One example is the supposed discovery of the site of biblical Sodom by the French archaeologist Louis Felicien Caignart de Saulcy in 1851. Though the discovery would later prove to be false, the impact was indeed significant. John Frost—Chartist who had been transported to the penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land for his part in the working-class emancipationist movement’s Newport uprising in 1839—returned to Britain with new gusto. By 1856, his speeches across the North of England were each attended by up to 20,000 people. His aim became to abolish the transportation of convicts, arguing that a new Sodom had been built in virgin lands. The couching of political criticism in biblical terms once again underscores questions of culture, effectively legitimising class critique within the dominant British cultural paradigm. The effective marriage of scholarly knowledge and western-Christian morality had significant ramifications for the ways in which colonial peripheries would be remediated in cultural terms to the colonial centres of Europe.

Another pertinent example is the specificity of the term virgin lands. It hints at a particular perspective of culture, that is; the destruction of a primal vision of Eden. Such terminology, even in its context of political contestation, shows a fundamental lack of cultural understanding at the crux of colonialism. In evoking Eden, Indigenous Nations were presumed to be populated by those who lived in a state of naïve ignorance similar to the world before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, albeit counterposed against industrial Britain with its colonial knowledge that had produced this new Sodom.

For a new generation, the Indigenous-Palestinian Solidarity conference was the first time that a forum formally linked the two separate, but parallel struggles for indigenous sovereignty. Frameworks of British imperial networks and the impacts of British colonialism very concretely link contemporary Australia to Historical Palestine. A shared experience of settler-colonialism has created similar losses of land, knowledge, and culture, thereby creating a conference space of much empathy and solidarity. However, for academics, methodology is a fundamental question. It governs how we conduct research, collect and analyse data, and ultimately how and for who we produce knowledge, thereby putting aside what questions of what knowledge is produced in. Given the academic nature of conferences and the problems associated with academic culture outlined above, one of the strengths of the conference was its interdisciplinary methodology and the forum it had created for academics, artists, and activists. In considering rubrics of culture, such a methodology created a space for multiple modes of knowledge to be shared.

In an era where discussion about culture wars and rubrics of decolonisation dominate public debate, the importance of addressing different aspects of culture is fundamental. The international debate around colonial statues and memorials, for instance, is underscored by vital questions including colonial repatriation, subaltern histories, revitalisation and legitimisation of indigenous knowledge, and questions of colonial reparation. This requires a fundamental and broad-based shift in the popular imaginary to trigger processes of decolonisation. The symbiotic processes of biblification, modernity, and settler colonialism, have normalised colonial knowledge production. Therefore, we require intersectional and syncretic methodologies to address the enormous process of decolonisation.

The structure of BPS allowed for a novel triangulation of art, activism, and academia, that represented a cross-section of industries that bear the burden of dealing with culture from its production, across its contestation, and towards its interpretation. This combination is necessary to counter histories of colonial knowledge production through academia, state information gathering, or popular imaging. The BPS model gave an equal footing to these triangulated fields that effectively legitimised different voices and modes of knowledge.

This non-hierarchical attitude towards cultural production allowed activists, artists, and academics to inhabit the same space, but also to operate within their respectively fields of cultural production. For the culturally marginalised, this environment (much like Frost’s fusing of academic knowledge and religion), also had a side effect in the use of one form of knowledge to legitimise another.

[1] I would like to thank Chrisoula Lionis for her valuable contributions and feedback to this paper. I also like to thank Suzannah Henty and Gary Foley for inviting me to participate in the Black/Palestinian Solidarity Conference.

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