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Art & Theory
Interview with Walter Mignolo, part 1
by La Tronkal

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Second period of the colonial power matrix
Walter Mignolo* interview by La Tronkal**

Quito, August 13, 2009

Christian León: Bearing in mind that in contemporary society social reproduction is more linked to communication, emotion and image, why do you think the modernity/coloniality project - an effort you have been a part of for over a decade - has given greater priority to discursive practices, the coloniality of language, literature and knowledge, rather than corporal and visual approaches?

Walter Mignolo Well, due to the background of the modernity/coloniality group, the project has its origins in the social sciences. Aní­bal Quijano is a sociologist, as is Edgardo Langer, and the project arose out of the relations between Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein. Moreover, in South America there was the school of liberation theology and philosophy and for us Enrique Dussel’s work was fundamental. We were then joined by sociologists such as Edgardo Lander in Venezuela; philosophers like Santiago Castro Gómez, pedagogy along the lines of Paulo Freire, such as Catherine Walsh’s approach; in Ecuador semioticians such as myself, who were working on discursive analysis and literacy issues; sociologists such as Agustí­n Lao Montes and Ramón Grosfoguel who are followers of Wallerstein but closer to Quijano’s line. They were joined by Nelson Maldonado-Torres, with a background in philosophy and the study of religions; all three from Puerto Rico and residing in the US. Javier Sanjinés from Bolivia and Fernando Coronil from Venezuela joined the project, as did Arturo Escobar from Colombia; all three also live in the US. The group was formed serendipitously, as they say, because a bunch of people discovered Quijano, discovered the concept of coloniality and linked it to the counter modernity of Dussel, who is a philosopher like Santiago Castro Gómez. The reason why the visual was not a question is because the group was initially formed aroud disciplines based on alphabetic writing. That is, there were no artists, dancers, performers, painters, video makers or filmmakers in the group. And at that time no one was working on the visual. Furthermore, the visual was not as influential ten years ago as it is today. Personally, in The Darker Side of the Renaissance (1995) I myself worked with 95 visual images but, like Ms. Teste, I did not know at that time that I was doing “visual studies”as the dictum goes. And I worked on cinema during my years at the university, but it was just cinema, not “the visual.”That is to say there was cinema, there was photography, but they were like separate worlds. That is when we, as well as your group also began to discover that coloniality is linked to the visual. That’s why we say we’re in the second period of the colonial power matrix.

Marí­a Fernanda Cartagena: How do you view the relationship between thinking and seeing in the modernity/coloniality project?

WM: It’s the same issue. Let me put it like this: thinking is manifested in the extension of the hand (well writing is also an extension of the hand, but since it is said to the “representation of speech”it appears not to be an extension of the hand), through physical means: sounds (drums); visual signs such as smoke signals for distance communication, graphic outlines on stone or paper, sculptural images or outlines that depict a face, a tree or an animal. In the final analysis, reading is an issue of visuality: we look at the Internet screen, we don’t listen to it but the thing is that there’s a false distinction between viewing and writing, due to the emphasis placed on writing in the Renaissance, the belief that alphabetic literacy is a superior semiotic system which went hand in hand with the creation of grammar in imperial languages and the devaluation of other visual forms of writing, like Chinese or Aztec or Maya writing systems. A graduate student in Art History, Kency Cornejo (who is working on the coloniality of seeing) once asked me: Walter, how can we speak of the coloniality of seeing? I think this is one of the things we’re pondering. I remember having read about and discussed the birth of photography, the question of the eye, etc. but that was one thing, coloniality was another. It seemed there was a sort of unconscious barrier in connecting the visual with the issue of coloniality —we were trapped in not “seeing”that writing (alphabetical in this case) is a matter of visuality.

So going back to your question. In the final analysis your question is a semiotic one and we could rephrase it like this: what relationship is there between thinking and the materiality of the semiotic systems in which it manifests itself? And in turn, in what way do the semiotic systems at our disposal facilitate or limit the articulation of our thoughts?

But then there’s another issue that is not semiotic but political and epistemic. I don’t mean to say that the semiotic aspect does not involve epistemology: what I mean is that speaking of semiotics (or semiology) solely in terms of sign systems hides the coloniality of seeing (in the broad sense that I just explained): everything that is “seen”, from words to images, and everything that is “heard”, from words to thunder, Beethoven, the Beatles or the Zampoña. The coloniality of seeing and hearing are particular ways of controlling sounds and images to establish cultural and esthetic hierarchies and shape subjectivities to bring them in line with imperial cultural and esthetic values. And here is where we need a totally different concept of aesthetics/aiesthesis (aesthetic coloniality or the coloniality of aesthetics) that help us understanding how visual and sensory signs form and manage subjectivities. Maira Estevez Trujillo work’s on torture and Guantanamos, for example or Dalida Benfield's dossier in WKO on "decolonizing the digital” are very relevant cases. The concept of aesthetics/aiesthesis we inherited from eighteenth century Europe, particularly from Germany needs a fundamental decolonial redoing.

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