On the Postcolonial and the Universal ?

« Certains universalistes font comme s’ils représentaient l’humanité, au nom d’hommes traités comme des êtres sans langue, sans lieu et pour finir sans histoire […] vous faites comme si la critique d’une conception particulière de l’universel se réduisait à la contestation de l’idée même d’universalité. »
Seloua Luste Boulbina, « Lettre ouverte à Pierre Nora », Médiapart, 10/17/11.

1Léopold Sédar Senghor and his alter ego he called “my more-than” brother (mon plus-que frère), his friend Aimé Césaire, devoted all their lives to this idea that to be genuinely, authentically, preoccupied with the question of the universal, is to make sure that all the different cultures, all the different faces of the human adventure, harmoniously converge towards what the poet-president called, after philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the “civilization of the universal”. This implies that no single civilization should impose its “universality”, and that true care for the universal means attention to the particular. Césaire wrote and published in 1956 a thunderous letter of resignation from the French Communist Party essentially because, among other reasons, its universalist conception of the liberation of all, depending essentially on the emancipation of the “universal class” that is the proletariat, seemed to ignore the demand of those who had precisely been colonized in the name of the Universal. The question can be now posed: is the postcolonial antiuniversal? Shouldn’t we rather say that only in a postcolonial world can the question of the universal truly be posed. This question is not just coming from the past. It has a renewed topicality in France with what can be called the “querelle du postcolonial”, marked in particular by the publication of books such as Lean-Loup Amselle’s L’Occident décroché or Jean-François Bayart’s pamphlet entitled “Les Études postcoloniales, un carnaval académique”. These books present themselves as a reaction to the arrival in France of “postcolonial studies” in the wake of the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris. The reaction is to say that postcolonial studies as the academic face of multiculturalism is a “machine de guerre” (Deleuze), a war machine against the universal, against science. So I want to address that very question here as a preface to a project of editing a special issue of the journal Critique on that topic. Let me formulate the question using the words of Franco-Algerian philosopher Seloua Luste Boulbina who, on October 17, in the French online newspaper Mediapart (founded by Edwy Plenel, former Director of Le Monde) published a “Lettre ouverte à Pierre Nora,” in which she wrote: “You speak as if the criticism of a particular conception of the universal were to be reduced to the contestation of the very idea of universality.” [1]

2In my presentation I want precisely to show that the postcolonial world in which we live is an ipso facto “criticism of a particular conception of the universal” but in the name of “another idea of universality”. What Immanuel Wallerstein has called “a more universal universalism”, a truly collective, planetary universalism” (European Universalism, The Rhetoric of Power, 2006). (Interestingly ends on Senghor’s advocacy for “civilization of the universal”).

3On May 7, 1935, at the kulturbund of Vienna, Edmund Husserl gave an important lecture under the title Philosophy in the crisis of the European humanity. The text of what is simply referred to as “the Vienna lecture” was later revised and published as Philosophy and the Crisis of the European Man. [2] On that date, Adolf Hitler had been in power in Germany for two years and the process that would lead eventually to World War II was on the march. Because of those circumstances Husserl’s lecture took an air of “a manifesto, in the true sense of the word” – to quote here the preface to the text written by Dr. Stephan Strasser – a manifesto for the European Idea, for a Europe which was thus summoned by the philosopher to recollect herself, to be herself again, to put herself back on her trajectory, or rather on the trajectory which she is, which is her unique identity, comparable to no other.

4According to Husserl, that trajectory manifests itself as “an extraordinary teleology, which is […] innate only in our Europe” and which is “most intimately connected with the eruption or the invasion of philosophy and of its ramifications, the sciences, in the ancient Greek spirit.” [3] Of course, Husserl explains, there is but one single humanity, which he describes as “a single life of men and of peoples, bound together by spiritual relationships alone”. Such a precision is important: humanity is not the result of some zoological addition, as right-wing French author Alain de Benoist has written in his Europe Tiers-Monde même combat. Men and people seem to “flow each into the other” as if they were the waves of a same ocean.

5But it is also the case that when things are properly examined, humanity is seen to divide itself into plural humanities which present “typical differences” that have nothing to do with the nation-states that were then witnessed to glorify murderous identities. Beyond such nation states, Husserl reminded the Europeans, there is the history and the destiny of the particular humanity that Europe is, particular because of a unique telos that erects her as a model after which the rest of humanity has every reason to conform itself while if she fully understands and does not forget who she is, she will find no reason to alter herself in some cultural contact. In Husserl’s text it is as if the moving plea to Europe on the edge of self-destruction beseeching her to remember “the inner affinity of spirit that permeates [all European nations] and transcends national differences”, and to recapture the sense of “a fraternal relationship that gives us the consciousness of being at home in this circle”, would be more convincing if the feeling of its own excellence was stated in contrast and opposition to the others.

6Thus, Husserl writes, taking as an example the imperial relationship that existed then between European (British) and Indian humanity: “This [consciousness of being at home] becomes immediately evident as soon as, for example, we penetrate sympathetically into the historical process of India, with its many peoples and cultural forms. In this circle there is again the unity of a family-like relationship, but one that is strange to us. On the other hand, Indians find us strangers and find only in each other their fellows. Still this essential distinction between fellowship and strangeness, which is relativized on many levels and is a basic category of all historicity, cannot suffice. Historical humanity does not always divide itself in the same way according to this category. We get a hint of that right in our own Europe, therein lies something unique, which all other human groups, too, feel with regard to us, something that apart from all considerations of expediency, becomes a motivation for them – despite their determination to retain their spiritual autonomy- constantly to Europeanize themselves, whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, will never, for example, Indianize ourselves.” [4]

7I have quoted at length this passage because it is, I believe, the core of the “Vienna lecture” and I will make the following remarks :

  1. Husserl expresses a very peculiar aspect of the colonial project. What is in question is to “europeanize” the rest of the world (“more or less”, Husserl makes the precision, which means: inasmuch as it could participate in a “telos” unique by essence). But this is not Jules Ferry’s discourse: this is not the triumphant accent of the “civilizing mission”, of a self- assured imperial project. The spiritual figure “Europe” (for Husserl, America as well as the British dominions are part of “Europe,” while the Gypsies, endlessly wandering throughout geographical Europe, are not) is simply offered in its excellence as a model. As Emmanuel Levinas writes, to cultivate and to colonize are now separated. What was happening in Europe did not incite to triumphalism and at the same time the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles of the “non-European humanity” were already announcing the end of colonial empires: the postcolonial was already in the horizon.
  2. My second remark concerns the possibility for the ‘European Man’ to understand what is not the European Man. Two different directions of thought are possible here. One is the affirmation of Europe’s anthropological vocation which means that, from the vantage point of its own transparency to itself, it has the capacity to understand other humanities better than they can ever understand themselves. The other direction is the Levy-Bruhlian notion of a radically other “mentality” that can never be penetrated by “our” logic and our understanding. By using the categories of “fellowship” and “strangeness”, Husserl adopts here the second direction.
  3. The choice of India as an example is important. First, because India is the colony par excellence, being the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Second because Husserl has in mind here that Indian philosophies are attractive for some European thinkers, Schopenhauer for example, an attraction to which a sense of “Indo-european” kinship is not foreign. But against such inclinations to “indianize” as a consequence of “studies on Indian, Chinese, and other philosophies” that convey the notion that other systems of thought could be considered “different historical formulations of one and the same cultural idea” [5], Husserl insists that, even if the Greeks themselves evoked foreign influences on their own thought, the “purely theoretical attitude” that defines the European telos is to be found nowhere else. If appropriation is a form of translation, it can only go from the universal to the particular or the subaltern (we know that the passage from the universal to the particular is called subalternation in logic). Statements that deserve to circulate only follow the direction from the universal to the subaltern. Therefore India, too, is “strange to us”.
In sum, Husserl’s view is that a world attached to the universal is a world in which it is essential that Europe should cease to give the impression that it has lost its orientation by compromising in forms of alteration (indianization, for example) that could be compared to today’s “multiculturalism”. It is by remaining true to the direction set by its telos that it will play its role: the other humanities, sensitive to that “something unique with regard to us” will feel naturally, “apart from all considerations of expediency”, as Husserl says- inclined to orient themselves after the European man.

8Compared to that world oriented by and towards the universal, the postcolonial where Europe does not set the tone is therefore defined as dis-oriented. Thus Emmanuel Levinas in Humanisme de l’autre homme gives a picture of the postcolonial as “[a] saraband of innumerable and equivalent cultures, each of them finding its justification only within its own context”, the consequence being for him: “a world, that is admittedly dis-occidentalized, but also disoriented.” [6] From the colonial to the postcolonial one goes from a world where Europe finds in its anthropological vocation the justification for its capacity to understand the others better than they ever understood themselves and therefore to provide orientation for the rest of humanity, to a world in which “provincialized” Europe is henceforth part of a “saraband” where dis-occidentalization is synonymous with disorientation. The reason why Levinas’ French word “désoccidentalisation” has to be translated as “dis-occidentalization” rather than “de-westernization” is of course that the author’s play on the opposition occident/orient in the French “désoccidentaliser/désorienter” is to be kept. What is lost in such a passage is the universal, the very idea of a meaning that could be valid beyond one given context of cultural forms. And this is not simply a loss in translation: it expresses the very impossibility of trans-lation, of a circulation of enunciations (énoncés) in a world that has been fragmented, where meaning has been dis-located precisely, because it is now recognized as always dependent on the location of its enunciation.

9Is it inevitable that the discourse which presents itself as caring for the universal must construct itself as a denunciation of the multicultural and what it considers a substitution of the “politically correct” to Levinas’ demand that ethics be free of any “cultural allusion or alluvium” [7]? Recent works devoted to “postcolonial studies” in France, especially those by Jean-Francois Bayart and Jean-Loup Amselle, have answered “Yes” to that question. Jean-Loup Amselle, in particular, interrogates the “unhooking” from the West which is, according to him, the aim of postcolonial and subalternist studies. Thus the first lines of his L’Occident décroché [the West unhooked] repeat the theme of the equivalence between dis-occidentalization and disorientation, when he speaks of “a world upside down” witnessing a supposed “crumbling of the West with the concomitant, competing raise of thoughts, of philosophies which dispute to Europe and America their intention to dominate the world, which means, according to those who have for them nothing but contempt, questioning their pretention to universality.” [8] For Amselle, if such a contestation has undeniably had a decolonizing effect in the period that led to the independences, “the prevailing situation in this beginning of twenty-first century is nevertheless very different from that of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the present context of “clash of civilizations,” or rather in what looks more and more like a crusades conflict, strategic essentialism has become a problematic notion as the affirmation of a radical otherness can be perceived as the ferment of all fundamentalisms. In the world in which we are now living in, apparently open but in reality perfectly compartmentalized, we must abandon any definition or assertion of identity that restrains the circulation of enunciations through cultural boundaries; in other words, one that makes those boundaries exist as such by reinforcing them. By leaning on some of the French Theory philosophers to give praise to the fragment, thus rejecting any overarching discourse, Spivak has exposed herself to being someone who ratifies a fragmented view of the world, which will only give ground to all sorts of fundamentalisms .” [9]

10This passage can be read as the core of the book L’Occident décroché, in which Jean Loup Amselle criticizes G.C. Spivak as an emblem of the postcolonial, in the name of a universal defined as the possibility for enunciations to cross cultural boundaries without being swallowed up by the “contexts” evoked by E. Levinas. It can be said that to translate the concept of “strategic essentialism” as a “praise of the fragment” misses the fact that it is precisely a relational notion that does not exist but as a response, in the form of a resistance, pragmatic and ultimately evanescent, the way Sartre has written a propos the essentialism of Negritude that, like Eurydice, it is bound to disappear in a world where the other term of the relation is in the process of disappearing as well.

11Anyway Amselle contradicts himself as he both asserts that postcolonial discourse is an offspring of the anti-essentialism that characterizes French Theory philosophies such as Foucault, Derrida’s, or Deleuze’s, and a manifestation of the fundamentalism and centrism of the fragment. L’Occident décroché presents the postcolonial as the image of a world in which what is called the “Occident” (one should be here consistently anti-essentialist and not put on “metaphysical lenses” as E.Said said in using that category as well) has secreted itself the discourse questioning its own universality, and now finds itself, as a result, surrounded by what he calls the “tricontinental thought” (an avatar of the centre/periphery distinction) which is but diverse ways of stating centrisms and fundamentalisms. Thus I found myself presented in the book (in the excellent company of my friends, Gayatri Spivak, Mamadou Diouf, Mahmood Mamdani, Thandika Mkandawire, and others) as an “orientalized afrocentrist”, which is apparently a hybrid of African and Islamic centrisms.

12If I allow myself to mention what is said about my work in L’Occident décroché, it is to insist on the way in which, in a very essentialist manner, Amselle characterized as anti universalist everybody who writes from (“from” is to be understood geographically and thematically) the space he constructed as that of the “tricontinental thought”. [10]

13I do think that the universal should be claimed. I do not think that the postcolony is a saraband or a world of separated provinces once Europe also has been provincialized, in the way the Copernican revolution had decentered our earth and projected it into space as a planet among the other planets. Like Amselle, in fact, I believe that enunciations should cross cultural boundaries and circulate, but that is simply to believe in translation. The demand for the circulation of enunciations is an empty one because what is not explained is which regime of enunciation? Where are the enunciations from? By who are they enunciated? Etc.

14Amselle evokes two aspects of the universal, one associated with the name of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the second with the name of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu. About Kwasi Wiredu, Jean Loup Amselle reminds us of that author’s firm belief in the existence of universals making intercultural communication always possible. Wiredu, he rightly says, insists on the translatability of all cultures and on the existence of common principles and values such as non-contradiction, induction, categorical imperative and morality.

15These two examples, to which he adds a reference to Rasheed Araeen and Dipesh Chakrabarty, are meant to manifest the resilience, so to say, of universalism and “the desire to preserve socio-political analysis against an exclusively populist or culturalist approach”, even among the postcolonial thinkers that Araeen, Chakrabarty or Wiredu are considered to be.

16The work of Zizek which Amselle refers to is a contribution that author gave to a volume with the very “postcolonial” title of Unpacking Europe, in which he presents what he calls a “leftist plea” for universalism and Eurocentrism. [11] In his contribution, S. Zizek presents universalization (rather than universalism) in opposition to globalization, the latter having to do with the policing activities that global capitalism puts in place (organizing markets or conducting military interventions), while the former is the unsettling of the order thus established “on account of the empty principle of universality, of the principle of equality of all men qua speaking beings, what Étienne Balibar calls égaliberté.” [12] So Zizek can state that “true universalists are not those who preach global tolerance of differences and all encompassing unity, but those who engage in a passionate fight for the assertion of the truth that engages them.” [13] The question to raise here is: one can certainly agree with Slavoj Zizek, and I do subscribe to the statement, but why does it necessarily follow that a plea for universalization should be the same as a plea for (leftist) Eurocentrism? His answer is that because the “democratic politicization” that is claiming égaliberté is uniquely European: “the potential of democratic politicization [is] the true European legacy from ancient Greece onwards.” [14]

17Ultimately, the equivalence established by Zizek between universalism and Eurocentrism is simply the repetition of the same telos narrative. The simple fact that such a telos is now called égaliberté does not make the equivalence as such “leftist.” Nehru already remarked in his Discovery of India that he could not quite “understand” the assumptions upon which Eurocentrism rests: (1) “imagining that everything that [is] worthwhile has its origin in Greece and Rome”; (2) posing an “organic connection between Hellenic civilization and modern European and American civilization,” while it could well be said that “the spirit and outlook of ancient Greece were much closer to those of ancient India and ancient China than of the nations of modern Europe.” [15] As Nehru writes: “They all had the same broad, tolerant, pagan outlook, joy in life and in the surprising beauty and infinite variety of nature, love of art, and the wisdom that comes from the accumulated experience of an old race.” [16]

18A leftist narrative of telos qua universalism qua Eurocentrism would simply mean that any demand for égaliberté from non-European humanity would still be, implicitly if not explicitly, in homage to a Europe that gives a meaning to it as the heir of the unique political configuration that made such a demand possible in world history. Now, after the tragedy of October 17, 1961, when a demonstration in Paris of Algerians against ended in a bloodshed by the police of Prefet Maurice Papon, Algerian poet Kateb Yacine (1929-1989) wrote the following poem:


Peuple français, tu as tout vu
Oui, tout vu de tes propres yeux.
Tu as vu notre sang couler
Tu as vu la police
Assommer les manifestants
Et les jeter dans la seine. La Seine rougissante
N’a pas cessé les jours suivants
De vomir à la face
Du peuple de la Commune
Ces corps martyrisés
Qui rappelaient aux Parisiens
Leurs propres révolutions
Leur propre résistance.
Peuple français, tu as tout vu,
Oui, tout vu de tes propres yeux,
Et maintenant vas-tu parler ?
Et maintenant vas-tu te taire ?

20The reference to the Paris Commune and to a history of many French revolutions in the name of universal égaliberté is certainly not, in the words of Kateb Yacine, an acknowledgement of some French (or more generally European) unique telos: “leurs propres révolutions, leur propre résistance” is a reminder that elsewhere as well, resistance and revolution is also a “proper,” that the “musulmans d’Algérie,” as they were called, found within themselves, precisely within their being “musulmans d’Algérie”, the reason to protest and then found through Kateb Yacine’ s pen that in so doing they were reenacting, translating something universal such as the resistance of the communards, the people of the Commune. As Senghor put it: “each “exotic civilization” has also thought of itself in terms of universality.” [17]

21It all comes down to translation and the translatability that Kwasi Wiredu talks about. There is no universal language of enunciation. Paraphrasing Umberto Eco who famously said that the language of Europe is translation, it could be said more globally that the language of the universal is translation. To acknowledge that is to abandon the assumption that the exploration of a supposed universal grammar of the Logos needs to be conducted in the silence of the empirical languages that humans actually speak, while some of them, the European ones, especially ancient Greek and German according to Heidegger, can appear as its realization, in some respect. Maurice Merleau-Ponty is one of the first philosophers to have articulated this notion of translation as the task of caring, in a postcolonial world, for the universal. He insisted on the importance of a tiny piece by Husserl insisting that it be included in the collection of his works. That piece is a simple letter that Husserl wrote to Lucien Levy-Bruhl, dated March 11, 1935, as a reaction to his reading of the ethnologist’s Primitive Mythology, published that same year. What makes that letter so important according to Merleau-Ponty is that Husserl admits in it that the philosopher could not have immediate access to the universal by reflection only, that he could not do without the ethnological experience of the diverse or construct the meaning of other experiences and cultures by simply varying, in the imaginary, his own experiences. [18] In a word, there is not an already constituted universality, with the stability of a telos overlooking, from its own self assured exemplarity, anthropological proliferation and fluctuation (Levinas’ saraband of innumerable cultures). 1935: the same year as the Vienna lecture.

22Merleau-Ponty has formulated for the postcolonial world the task of caring for an universal of translation: The universal is not any more the prerogative of a language, it is to be experimented and maybe ‘acquired’ through the lateral process of translation. The postcolonial universal, the non imperial universal is precisely that: lateral. Merleau-Ponty establishes an important distinction between the two figures of universality in the following terms: “the equipment of our social being can be dismantled and reconstructed by the voyage, as we are able to learn to speak other languages. This provides a second way to the universal: no longer the overarching universal of a strictly objective method, but a sort of lateral universal which we acquire through ethnological experience and its incessant testing of the self through the other person and the other person through the self. It is question of constructing a general system of reference in which the point of view of the native, the point of view of the civilized man, and the mistaken views each has of the other can all find a place—that is of constituting a more comprehensive experience which becomes in principle accessible to men of a different time and country.” [19]

23It is important, and this will be my final remark, to note that if lateral universal is to be considered as translation, that does not mean transparency and identification. On the contrary this is incessant testing, says Merleau-Ponty and the co-presence of many different views, in addition to the “mistaken views about each other” are clear indication that the task cannot be to aim at a universal grammar or to an operation of reduction to the same. The open ended process of translation that lateral universal requires, because my point of departure is the language that I speak which is one among many, demands that we avoid both fragmentation and reduction to the One. That way of caring about the universal in a world liberated from the assumption of a universal grammar and the narrative of a unique telos is the Chaos-monde we have to deal with to end with a concept of Edouard Glissant.


  • [*]
    Ce texte est issu de la conférence organisée par « Radical Philosophy » à Columbia University le 21 Octobre 2011.
  • [1]
    The complete quote: « Certains universalistes font comme s’ils représentaient l’humanité, au nom d’hommes traités comme des êtres sans langue, sans lieu et pour finir sans histoire […] vous faites comme si la critique d’une conception particulière de l’universel se réduisait à la contestation de l’idée même d’universalité.», Seloua Luste Boulbina, « Lettre ouverte à Pierre Nora », Médiapart, 10/17/11.
  • [2]
    Husserl, Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man, http://www.users.cloud9.net/~bradmcc/husserl_philcris.html.
  • [3]
    Husserl, Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man, http://www.users.cloud9.net/~bradmcc/husserl_philcris.html; p. 4.
  • [4]
    Husserl, Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man, http://www.users.cloud9.net/~bradmcc/husserl_philcris.html; p.5.
  • [5]
    Husserl, op. cit.; p. 8.
  • [6]
    E. Levinas, Humanisme de l’autre homme, Ed. Fata Morgana, 1972; p. 55-56.
  • [7]
  • [8]
    Jean-Loup Amselle, L’Occident décroché. Enquête sur les postcolonialismes, Paris, Stock, 2008, p. 7.
  • [9]
    Ibid.; p. 146-147.
  • [10]
    What Amselle calls “pensée tricontinentale” is the addition and convergence of African thought coming from Africa especially Codesria, subaltern studies associated with India, dependence theory associated with Latin America (he also evokes the dimension of what he calls amerindianocentrism p. 191). He thinks that the American University plays an important role as the locus of “tricontinental thought”, suggesting even that in some respect it is the re-localisation of certain francophone African academics (say Mamadou Diouf or myself) within the American university that compels them to fully embrace a postcolonial perspective, especially when they meet in those places Indian thinkers (say Gayatri).
  • [11]
    Slavoj Zizek, “A Leftist Plea for Eurocentrism” in Salah Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi (Eds.), Unpacking Europe. Towards a Critical Reading, Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2001; p. 1 12-130.
  • [12]
    Op. cit,; p. 112.
  • [13]
    Ibidem; p. 122.
  • [14]
    Ibidem; p. 129.
  • [15]
    In « The moment of Arrival : Nehru and the Passive Revolution » in Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World; p. 134.
  • [16]
    Quoted in “The Moment of Arrival…”; p. 134.
  • [17]
    On African Socialism; p. 68.
  • [18]
    Merleau-Ponty, “Le philosophe et la sociologie” in Signes, (1960).
  • [19]
    Merleau-Ponty 1964a; p. 119–20.