On Disavowal as an Act of Love

In an interview on decolonial love in the Boston Review, Junot Diaz reflects about the sites of critique saying, “if a critique … doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction.” What does that mean? For those of us doing work about/with colonized and otherwise marginalized peoples, it is imperative that we consider seriously the ways in which our own theoretical, critical, and interpretive choices implicate and challenge the structures of domination that interest us so much. In other words, critique needs to start where we’re at and where we’ve been — it needs to start with a look inward at the ways in which we have shut down or failed to open up the channels of response-ability.

So how does this take me to disavowal?

When I re-started working on my book, about four or five years ago, I approached the project from a different set of perspectives compared to my dissertation research. Back when I was a grad student (and a lot less gray), I was moved by the intellectual currents of the time and my place … which basically meant that I was enamored with postmodernism, poststructuralism, post-Marxism, and probably any other “post” I could get my hands on. I started my project on the New York Young Lords by taking the critical and theoretical heuristics I had been using with my prior project (on ballots as “sublime object” of democracy) and basically started reading the Young Lords through their optics.

That move was a mistake. It may have allowed me to make some “interesting” arguments (yes, the scare-quotes are purposeful) about how the Young Lords enacted certain radical democratic sensibilities and imagined new forms of citizenship, but those arguments were misguided. Perhaps worse, those earlier arguments — which structured my dissertation, my first Quarterly Journal of Speech essay on the Young Lords garbage offensive, and some other writings — enacted a form of violence by forcing the Young Lords into a Western/Northern theoretical apparatus that occluded what they were up to. My actions reproduced coloniality and I disavow those arguments.

Some other aspects of my earlier scholarship were probably fine, I think. In that same garbage offensive essay, for example, I advanced a set of arguments about social movements and the importance of doing work that examines the intersections of verbal, visual, and embodied discourses — and I stand by (most of) that stuff today, partly because I think the “hegemony of textualism” (Conquergood) is rooted in a modern/Western/colonial bias. But the other stuff — the Eurocentric paradigms about discourse and democracy that motivated my research — I disavow. Decolonial love requires that we generate response-ability and listen to the cries of the dispossessed, in all of their fugitive communications, so that we might bear witness to their challenges to the logics and rhetorics of modernity. Even better if we can seize the opportunity to speak with them in challenging those structures of domination. You can’t do that if your only way of seeing and hearing and feeling and speaking is located squarely within the colonial matrix of power / knowledge / being.

 


 

This post was motivated by the reflexive turns I took when re-approaching my project on the New York Young Lords. I’m indebted to the students and faculty in the Communication Studies department at the University of Denver for giving me the opportunity to discuss these thoughts in October 2014. I’m also motivated to post *at this moment* given the many conversations I keep having at the National Communication Association’s 100th Annual Convention about the aforementioned garbage offensive essay (and my disavowal of key parts of it). Finally, some of my observations in this post appear (and are expanded upon) in my forthcoming book, The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation (Temple University Press, 2015).