Transcending an aesthetics of coloniality: reimagining relationships with colour as a decolonial praxis

by Ceara Ione Webster

Autoethnographic reflective note: Before I get into this paper, hi hello wagwan? This is not necessarily a ‘good’ paper, but is one I loved writing because it demanded a lot of reflection from me. I have tried to add in more definitions for context and rephrase certain elements to make it easier to read. That said, it might be hard to understand unless you live inside my head. I hope it is, at the very least, just interesting to read. Enjoy the chaos, art, and decolonial effort below!

A beginning 

Descend with the painter into the dim tangled roots of things, and rise again from them in colours, be steeped in the light of them. 

(Gasquet, reporting remarks made by Cézanne in Batchelor, 2000: 34) 

In The Luminous and the Grey (Batchelor, 2014), Batchelor notes that some artistic approaches position colour as a secondary feature, an addition or supplementary factor added to a work of art. Others regard it as primary, where the world (the world Batchelor refers to is in The Wizard of Oz) is colour and, over time, is rendered progressively more grey, devoid of luminosity. The focus of this exploration could be said to be primary as it centres colours. To achieve a reimagined relationship with colour, we must first descend (or retreat inwards to reflect by looking within and beyond the self) together through lightness above ground and through the darker shades of brown and grey into the soil together – i.e. observe and unpack the current structures of coloniality in which we exist. Then we pick apart the delusional hegemony of colonial aesthetics. Only then can we arise into, or exist within (to avoid hierarchical language), an alternative worldview that celebrates colour. 

This paper proceeds by outlining exactly what colour is and then locating colour within the processes of coloniality which rest upon and perpetuate “chromophobia” (Batchelor, 2000). To trace this chromophobia we examine how it manifests in art, as a part of the appropriation and force of an “aesthetics of coloniality” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013), and in the body. We then explore how this chromophobia is manifest not just in the European coloniser of the ‘past’, but in the phenomena of racism and colourism today – both between and within racial groups as internalised instances of racism and colourism (Fanon, 1952[2021]; Selvon, 1956[2006]; Okazawa-Rey, 1987; Phoenix, 2014; Nagar, 2018; Campion, 2019; Yadon & Ostfeld, 2020). This journey into the roots of colourism and racism as manifestations of chromophobia is necessary so that we (you, the reader, and I, the author) can sit with these realities. This setting, only once established, will enable the creation of art that attempts to reimagine relationships with colour that simultaneously thinks beyond, and remains cognizant of, the realities of racism and colourism that coloniality has embedded in art and inside the body. This paper is a praxis, combining colour theory with the decolonial practice of destroying and rebuilding relationships, in this case, with colour, their aesthetics, their force, and the beauty of their diversity. 

What is colour?

Colour “is a variation in the spectral power distribution of light as discriminated by the human visual system. It is a qualitative perception of light” (Hanson, 2017: 5, emphasis added). Biologically, as humans age, the lens of the eye yellows causing blues to dull; spatially, simultaneous contrast can cause colours to be influenced by one another (Hanson, 2017). Simple colour tests have generated a broad response range from the same observer at different times and between different observers, and people can perceive colour slightly differently depending on if they are observing it with their left or right eye (Hanson, 2017: 3). In terms of chemistry and physics, the presence of “various phosphors in fluorescent lighting means that the colour of their illumination changes imperceptibly cyclically 100 times a second” (Hanson, 2017: 3). So, while this does not necessarily change the perception of the colour, it illuminates that colour is never in a form of stasis, it is always moving. Blue-green visible light (to humans), for instance, has a wavelength of light that is 530 millionths of a millimetre (nm) and has a frequency of 566 million million oscillations per second (Hanson, 2017: 5) and what we perceive to be white light is actually a “mixture of different wavelengths” (Hanson, 2017: 5). For this paper it is enough to end here and state that humans are limited and can only see a certain proportion of wavelengths that we translate into colours. Our perception is influenced by colours’ proximity to one another, lighting conditions, having typically functioning cones and rods, and a myriad of other factors. Colour is, subsequently, qualitatively perceived and variable, limited by physics, biology, and also by culture.

Coloniality and its aesthetics

Building on that final point, we can observe how culture has influenced the perception of colour stemming from and beyond the inception of European colonialism. Particularly, through an “aesthetics of coloniality” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013) which results from, and contributes to the proliferation of, chromophobia. Coloniality is the continued “patterns of power” that were birthed from colonialism, maintained in “books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day” (Maldonado-Torres, 2007: 243). 

Coloniality includes an aesthetics of coloniality (Calvo-Quirós, 2013). The aesthetics of coloniality, as defined by Calvo-Quirós, is comprised of “ processes by which the West utilizes aesthetic theory to validate ethnic and racial oppression and segregation through discourses around taste, art methodology, and the deployment of color” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 76). It emerged when European imperialism intersected with Enlightenment thinking to generate a “unified project of aesthetic conquering” that asserted an “aesthetic ethos about the Other” to maintain the “epistemic perpetuity of European…dominance” (Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 81). Maintaining an aesthetics of coloniality was done through the registering of mixed people in “‘el libro de color quebrado’”, the book of people of broken colour (Carrera in Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 83). This aesthetic segregation inscribed colour as an identifier that visually solidified inequities to avoid aesthetic miscegenation (Calvo-Quirós, 2013). This does not just apply to the physical segregation that was based on colour, but that “possessing or conquering the Other means also to control their aesthetics and…acquire their color palette” (Cavlo-Quirós, 2013: 90). In essence, appropriating that which has been subjugated.

Indeed, we began with Cézanne and, while this paper uses his words to fuel a decolonial work, we must not be naive to the influence of such artists within the colonial enterprise. Cézanne also exhibited this appropriation of art from tribal cultures, which came to be reframed as “cubism, surrealism, symbolism” (Anzaldúa, 1987: 68). For Calvo-Quirós this exemplifies an attempt to utilise aesthetic theory to legitimise ethnic and racial segregation (Calvo-Quirós, 2013: 91, 112).  This paper therefore looks at some European theorising on colour that reinforced particular relationships to particular kinds of colours. Of particular note for this paper is the subsequent emergence of chromophobia from assumptions and disseminated associations about colours. These are explored below in the next section.

Colour as a force: chromophobia in art and society

According to Batchelor, “colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture” being “systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded” (Batchelor, 2000: 22). Like other prejudices “its loathing, masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable”; as such it plays on an anxiety of corruption through colour (Batchelor, 2000: 22). This anxiety of corruption through colour is called chromophobia. Colour becomes a reminder of the uncertainty of life and the ‘impurity’ of us all. There is no better nor worse colour, shade, hue, saturation, luminance of human skin when born. Yet it matters because colour still intervenes in the colonial project of purification. Colour threatens purity and because of that it is rendered dangerous to the “higher values of Western culture”; colour becomes the corruption of culture (Batchelor, 2000: 23) and it’s constructed danger fuels, and draws from, the fear that births it.

Colour is a “permanent internal threat” (Batchelor, 2000: 23) so what is there left to do but segregate that which threatens not just other bodies through its subversive existence, but that threatens the very fabric of High culture? This was the view of prominent artists and architects, with Charles-Edouard Jeanneret stating colour was “‘suited to the simple races, peasants and savages’” (Batchelor, 2000: 41). When colour was used in Western art, the goal was to “conform, subordinate, control” the colours that the colourist deployed (Batchelor, 2000: 28). Colour, then, is rendered an aesthetic slave to the colourist master. 

This is not just observable in the art and art theory of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the twenty-first century body that fuels persistent colourism. Stereotypes associated with light-skin – being “more feminine, refined, or delicate” or overly feminising men (Hunter, 2005: 119) – bring great intra-group conflicts between light and dark-skinned Black peoples, and Black and Black-mixed friend groups (Hunter, 2005; Campion, 2019) and intra-familial colourism, where dark-skinned girls are shamed by their lighter-skinned family members (Comas-Díaz, 1994[2010]). 

Intra-group conflicts show colourism transcends a binary of white-black conflict and can be internalised within non-white individuals. Studies have confirmed the presence of colourism from India to the US, Britain, and Latin America in areas as wide ranging as arranged marriage skin colour preferences, determining political attitudes, media censorship of the darker-skinned, and personal internalised beliefs about beauty (Nagar, 2018; Lawrence, 1977; Okazawa-Rey, 1987; Phoenix, 2014). In the latter case, such internalised colourism becomes increasingly painful to deal with because it becomes “psychically difficult to live ‘within a ruling episteme that privileges that which they [the dark-skinned woman] can never be’” (Cheng, 2001: 7 in Phoenix, 2014: 98), according to globalised beauty standards that uphold racialised beliefs about beauty. 

On the body, this can involve cosmetic surgeries that change “‘ethnic features” (like wide-set noses, thick lips, and single eyelids) to make them more “European or Anglo” (Hunter, 2005: 14). Since 2005, we have seen an inverse of the trend of thinning one’s lips to filling them and the glorification of tanned skin. This appropriates select exoticised features of the Other. This is because “beauty is an ideology” whose “standards serve the interests of dominant social groups” (Hunter, 2005: 5, emphasis added). Here we continue to see an aesthetics of coloniality involving the disparaging of the Other’s undesirable features and an appropriation of the overtly exoticised ones. 

These standards of beauty are able to produce internalised self-hatred. In this way, life imitates art. The novel by Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners, captures this particular real impact of chromophobia. Selvon wrote the character Galahad, who arrived from the Caribbean in London during the Windrush Generation. After experiencing the hostility of racism, he looks at his hand says: 

“…‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know. Why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, you know, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world!’” (Selvon, 1956[2006]: 77). 

To take some artistic license with the scientific definition of colour, this is what comes to represent the spectral power of colour in the theoretical sense. The loaded meanings that have become associated with various shades of skin and the way that colour moves people – to subjugate the Other, to aspire towards the beauty of the light-skinned person, to actively resist an aesthetics of coloniality – demonstrates just how powerful colour can be and is globally, both in art (as literature and beyond) and in skin. 

Decolonial praxis: reimagining colours in art and skin

So, how do we undo this chromophobia? The first step is to note our contribution to colonial structures like the aesthetics of coloniality that enable chromophobia. I am what is called a “mixed-race” or “multiracial” person (I have argued elsewhere these categories insufficiently account for the experiences of people with multiple heritages. Instead, I would refer to the ‘mixing’ body elaborated on in the paper: Webster, C. I., 2020. Off grid: the role of spatialising experiences on identity recognition in mixing bodies. Unpublished) and I am yellow/olive-brown, medium-light-skinned. Subsequently, I am involved in processes of colourist stereotypes. Confronting that reality is uncomfortable, which is why it is important to do. Only by being in discomfort and acknowledging it (being deep in Cézanne’s tangled roots) can one then move towards unpicking one’s own colonial indoctrination. I aim to pick at these strands through painting a celebration of the diversity of colours in skin. This will hopefully construct an alternative way of perceiving (feeling, emotionally and physically, and seeing) colour. This is not necessarily chromophilia, but it privileges colour’s diversity and power. Though abstract, it remains fundamentally informed by the empirical realities of chromophobia and its effects. 

This unpicking is decolonial, beginning with “epistemic de-linking: from acts of epistemic disobedience” (Mignolo, 2009: 15). I aim for my piece to epistemically disobey ingrained colonial aesthetics of colour use in art. This particular piece is just the removal of a couple of bricks in the architecture of coloniality on its own. However, it is also an interruption of the idea of the modern civilised subject and, in this interruption, it can perhaps reveal the “particular staging of modernity” (Bhambra, 2014: 116) and contribute to the larger “destruction of the coloniality of world power” (Quijano, 2007: 177). 

Figure 1. Black as Default: reimagining colour

This painting (Figure 1) is one in a series called Black as Default. The aim was to explode colour into a nexus with no obvious periphery or centre against an inverted backdrop. Before one begins painting itself, it is usual to prepare the canvas. This involves either covering the canvas with a coat of white paint or applying gesso which smooths the surface. This is encouraged because cotton or linen canvases come with natural texture and colour variance depending on the harvest (Upper Canada Stretchers, 2017). The canvas can be bleached to lighten the natural colours of the linen (tan-grey) and cotton, and application of gesso is still then encouraged to avoid having a rough surface that may soak up too much paint (Upper Canada Stretchers, 2017). This rush to whiten the canvas sat uncomfortably in me. Canvases already come in a default white and this need to purify it so it was worthy of the art it was to wear suggested that natural whiteness was unacceptable. The canvas, like the body, has demands made of it to fit a politics of beauty that leans towards the ‘light’. To subvert the white and primed backdrop (Figure 2) was to subvert an aesthetics of coloniality and politics of beauty, aiming to honour the origins of the brown-black of our ancestral skin that remains inside us all. 

Figure 2. Subverted backdrop. Appreciating the beauty of a darker, as opposed to the lighter, default

Originally, I wanted the piece to feature the spectrum of skin shades from dark-skinned to light-skinned similar to the PERLA Colour Palette (Figure 3). This colour palette has skin tones ranging from 1-11 (from lightest to darkest). From this I drew the inspiration to use the piece to question the absolutist dualism between the ‘black’ person and the ‘white’ person. Unfortunately, the PERLA system still hierarchicalises (numerically and vertically) skin tones. I wanted to illuminate more complexities of the skin which involved mixing outside of the umbers, blacks, and titanium whites, otherwise I risked perpetuating the traditional colour scales of Le Corbusier and Oznefan. 

Figure 3. The PERLA Colour Palette (PERLA, n.d.)

These are: the major, dynamic, and transitional scales (Batchelor, 2000: 48). The major scale contains ochres, reds, white, and black among others (the latter two, interestingly, not pluralised) which is said to constitute a “‘strong’ and ‘stable’” scale with “‘unity’” present across all “‘great periods’” (Batchelor, 2000: 48). By contrast the dynamic scale is “‘disturbing’” containing “‘agitated’” colours like vermillion, citron yellows, oranges (Batchelor, 2000: 48). The transitional are also subordinate to the major. Similarly, Goethe believed “savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours…animals are excited to rage by certain colours…people of refinement avoid vivid colours” (Goethe, 1840[2015]: 55). This selective (racist) amnesia forgets some of the most barbaric acts of rage and cruelty were committed by the ‘refined’ person, due to their own chromophobia. This constructed “rageless, fleshless, colourless whiteness” is an attempt where the “illusion of culture without corruption [through colour] can be acted out as if it were real” (Batchelor, 2000: 112). So, instead, I steep my work in colours of all ‘scales’ because varying colour is a political act that continuously corrupts the ideas of purity, leaning into the “ambiguous, uncertain, and unstable” (Batchelor, 2000: 100). 

The decolonial work reveals the colour of skin, while it may range from a darker place to a lighter one, is not a simple spectrum. Black mixed with various amounts of white does not produce a beautiful spectrum of skin colours. Our descriptions of skin colour are farcical. They deliberately misunderstand the beauty that is the complexity of skin colour. I wanted to recognise the composite parts, hence colour choices of raw umber, titanium white, mars black, permanent rose, yellow ochre, ultramarine, and cerulean blue. Skin tones are not just the blanket colour we call them: black, brown, white, they also contain undertones which can be pink, yellow, or neutral. These can display blue or blue-green veins or shield veins from view. The groupings of colour on the canvas (Figures 4 and 5) display the elements of skin colour, pulled apart and magnified. Colours slide into and over one another (ochre and white in Figure 4, raw umber and ultramarine in Figure 5) and also break apart upon the canvas texture (Figure 5). They are in contention and complement, mixing together, and maintaining their own character.

Figure 4. The intermixing and texture of colours

Figure 5. Painting color quebrado, the breaking apart of colour to reveal its composites

Compositionally, this paint exchange takes place on a circular canvas (Figure 1) to avoid inadvertently hierarchicalising any colours. Moreover, colours occupy no particular central or periphery space. They all cross boundaries that could constitute a ‘focus’ on one colour over another. The paints themselves are acrylics. These were used specifically to ensure that pigmented colours could be displayed luminously (vividly) over a dark background. Materially, acrylics are a form of polymer. They are malleable and dry quickly so once they are on, they are there, which demands decisiveness in their use. The plasticity of the paint was chosen to mirror the plasticity of skin, in that skin colour changes naturally over time through tanning and environmental adaptation. So, though this painting is static, the plastic qualities of its materials mean that, like skin, the colours continue to move over time depending on one’s perception of colour and the reconfigured relationship to colour and what affect it inspires. Texturally, the background was painted smooth so that the colours on top could be applied with a palette knife. This was so the palette knife could create peaks of colour (see the peaks of mars black in the lower left hand corner of Figure 4). A netting was applied over the wet paint and pressed into the paint to create texture for those who cannot see the colour of the painting, but could feel the textures instead (see appendix, Figures 7 and 8). This does not represent the real texture of skin, but alludes to it in celebration of a variety of colours and textures of skin: skin that is plastic, like acrylic, that stretches, darkens in the sun, and lightens in the winter when the sun sleeps. 

Ultimately, this work is decolonial because it seeks to upset the beliefs about colour formed due to the following of the basic equation for colour (in this case, red): 

 x is red iff for any observer p: if p were perceptually normal and were to encounter x in perceptually normal conditions, p would experience x as red” (Matravers, 2001[2011]: 188). 

This forms a belief that x is red “(which will, for example, persist when the experience has ceased). I need not be experiencing the redness of a ball to believe that it is red” (Matravers, 2001[2011]: 189). Recall Maldonado-Torres’ definition of coloniality. Coloniality, like belief, supersedes experience under colonialism. As beliefs underpin a grammar for understanding colour, they also underpin a key part of coloniality about what colours of skin represent and the chromophobia born from these delusional beliefs about the (im)purity of colour. Art can be complicit in this belief generation and perpetuation in its service to, and manifestation of, coloniality. This work has attempted to refute such established beliefs. 

Reflections 

To finish this paper (but by no means its work), it is important to return to our beginnings. An aesthetics of coloniality involves using colour to subjugate the Other through the demonising of colour or appropriation of colour palettes. This occurs in art but also in the body, particularly in the generation of a politics of beauty that privileges the characteristics of the light-skinned European. Our biophysical perceptions of colour are determined by the oscillations and wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and it can move us, affectually, to rage and to hatred which manifests as chromophobia. It moves people politically, from the segregation of the pure white and the color quebrado to internalised-self hatred and aspirations of white beauty. 

However, this paper has reimagined the corrupting force of colour by appropriating “corruption” from the colonial discourse and instead using it to celebrate the melding together, the union, and acceptance of colour as it is in the world in unexpected forms, ways, and waves. It is an attempted decolonial move toward an empowered ‘chromo-sovereignty’ (Calvo-Quirós, 2013) of the self and community in body and art. A resistance which recognises coloniality’s past and present, yet refuses it a place in our futures apart from the lessons it can teach us. Colour’s complexity is not a spectrum of grey or brown, but is luminosity, oscillation; bodies steeped in movement and force: dull to lustre and back again. Colour is Power. 

References 

Anzaldúa, G., 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: the new Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. Batchelor, D., 2000. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books Limited. 

Batchelor, D., 2014. The luminous and the grey. London: Reaktion Books Limited. 

Bhambra, G. K., 2014. Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues. Postcolonial Studies, 17(2), pp. 115-121. doi: https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.966414. 

Calvo-Quirós, W., 2013. The politics of colour (re)significations: chromophobia, chromo-eugenics, the epistemologies of taste. Chicana/Latina Studies, 13(1), pp. 76-116. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43941382. 

Campion, K., 2019. “You think you’re Black?” Exploring Black mixed-race experiences of Black rejection. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42(16), pp. 196-213. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2019.1642503. 

Comas-Díaz, L., 1994[2010]. LatiNegra: mental health issues of African Latinas. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 5(3-4), pp.35-74. doi: https://doi.org/10.1300/J086v05n03_03. 

Fanon, F., 1952[2021]. Black skin, white masks. London: Penguin Books. 

von Goethe, J. W., 1840[2015]. Theory of colours. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Hanson, A. R., 2017. What is colour?. In: J. Best, ed. Colour design: theory and applications. Duxford: Elsevier Science & Technology, pp. 3-21. 

Hunter, M. L., 2005. Race, gender, and the politics of skin tone. London: Routledge. 

Maldonado-Torres, N., 2007. On the coloniality of being: contributions to the development of a concept. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), pp. 240-270. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380601162548. 

Matravers D., 2001[2011]. Art and emotion. Online: Oxford Scholarship Online. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199243167.001.0001. 

Mignolo, W. D., 2009. Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and de-colonial freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(7-8), pp. 1-23. doi: 10.1177/0263276409349275. 

Nagar, I., 2018. The unfair selection: a study on skin-color bias in arranged Indian marriages. SAGE Open, pp. 1-8. doi: 10.1177/2158244018773149. 

Okazawa-Rey, M., Robinson T. & Ward, J. V., 1987. Black women and the politics of skin color and hair. Women & Therapy, 6(1-2), pp. 89-102. 

PERLA, n.d. PERLA Color Palette. [Online] 

Available at: https://perla.princeton.edu/perla-color-palette/ 

[Accessed 01 May 2021]. 

Phoenix, A., 2014. Colourism and the politics of beauty. Feminist Review, (108), pp. 97-105. doi: 10.1057/fr.2014.18. 

Quijano, A., 2007. Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), pp. 168-178. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380601164353. 

Selvon, S., 1956[2006]. The lonely Londoners. London: Penguin Books. 

Upper Canada Stretchers, 2017. Cotton vs. linen: which canvas is best & why. [Online] Available at: https://www.ucsart.com/learn/blog/cotton-vs-linen-which-canvas-is-best-why [Accessed 01 May 2021]. 

Yadon, N. & Ostfeld, M. C., 2020. Shades of privilege: the relationship between skin color and political attitudes among White Americans. Political Behaviour, 42, pp.1369-1392. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09635-0. 

Appendix – The Process 

Figure 6. Colour in process: mixing of titanium white and raw umber

Figure 7. The setup, featuring palette knife, canvas, water, netting, and acrylic paints. 

Figure 8. Texturing the skin colours of the canvas. 

“I don’t care if you recycle”: Why we need to rethink environmental responsibilities.

by Emilia Hermelin

Introduction

Earlier in 2019, climate activist Mary Annaïse Heglar wrote an article in which she stated; “I don’t care if you recycle” (Heglar, 2019). Heglar explains how she, due to being active within the environmental movement, often listen to people ‘confessing’ their environmental ‘sins’ to her – how they still buy products wrapped in plastic, still consume meat regularly or still do not recycle. Heglar is concerned by such ‘confessions’ and argues that we need to stop believing that responsibility for environmental pollution lies within the actions of a singular individual. Instead, her argument suggests that there is a need to reveal societal structures that enables environmental exploitation. She argues that when responsibility for the environment is individualised, individuals are in fact made to “[carry] the guilt of the oil and gas industry’s crimes […]. And that that blame paves the road to apathy, which can really seal our doom” (Heglar, 2019). 

Heglar’s statement “I do not care if you recycle” will be my entry point into a deeper inquiry concerned with the targeting of individual behaviour within environmental policymaking. Prompted by her argument, this essay will examine how such policies may at times allow systems of power to be absolved from guilt and responsibility for environmental damage and exploitation. The text will begin by looking at how environmental policy can be seen to have turned focus onto individual behaviour in the early nineties. Of particular concern is how policymakers have largely centred their agendas around changing consumer behaviour by promoting ‘sustainable consumerism’ within a ‘green economy’.

The second section will look at arguments for and against eco-labelling and sustainability certification, which have been said to allow consumers to ‘vote with their wallets’ (Brown, 2001). However, I will argue alongside evidence from the wood and paper industry that suggests that simply providing consumers with a sustainable option does not enable real change. Partly because individuals do not have enough purchasing power to impact this type of industry. 

The third section will explore the extent to which neoliberal politics have influenced discourses that puts the individual consumer at the centre of environmental responsibility. Attention will be paid to how neoliberalism has contributed to projects of ‘individualisation’ (Maniates, 2002) that has been suggested to fragment the social tapestry and makes it hard to imagine a reality outside of capitalist frameworks (Fisher, 2009). I will argue that there is a need for policymakers to consider how this has contributed to the production of citizens as consumers, and that if we want to decrease environmental exhaustion, we may need to reconsider this discursive and political trend. The final section of this text will look at how individualisation of environmental issues has enabled governments to govern “at arm’s length” (Hobson, 2004, p.121). The discussion will at this point turn to consider the role that states play and how the concept of the “Green State” may be able to support the green movement. 

Changing Behaviour: Environmental Policy and the Individual

Facing the ever-more imposing challenges of climate change, policymakers have since long recognised the need to engage the public in order to mitigate environmental damage. Some of the first UK policies focusing on changing individual behaviour emerged in the early nineties, in the form of the government’s Sustainable Development Strategy (Lucas et al., 2008). The document introduces three main strategies for changing behaviour; 1) by informing the public about environmental issues, 2) introducing new environmental regulations, and 3) using taxes and charges to discourage damaging behaviour (ibid.). Throughout the last decade, the UK has seen a variety of public awareness campaigns based around this strategy, such as “‘Are you doing your bit?’ (OECD, 2002) and “Recycle Now”. The campaigns have largely focused attention around consumer behaviour and sustainable consumption. This follows a recognition of the fact that “[m]ost individuals in the developed world currently consume beyond sustainable levels” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.244).

In 2018, the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs published their Resources and Waste Strategy (UK, DEFRA, 2018), which introduces new policies that support further development of a Circular Economy, with the aim to “redesign value chains to support flows of materials in circular systems” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.237). The plan argues that in order to curb environmental degradation and resource exhaustion, we must adopt a better strategy for producing, choosing and reusing products. A major part of this strategy would be to change consumer behaviour by providing better information about sustainable product choices, encourage reuse of products and by promoting conscious end of use disposal, such as recycling. The plan can be seen to centre responsibility around the individual consumer, from the purchasing moment to discarding. It relies on the individual to make sustainable consumer choices by prioritising ‘Eco-labels’ and rejecting environmentally damaging products. 

Nationally and internationally, the goal has been to decouple economic growth and environmental impact. In 2011, “The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) made “green growth” its […] slogan” and “the 2012 United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development focused on the ‘green economy’ as its response to the consumption sustainability dilemma” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.235). In both cases, “green growth” and “green economy” have at their core an interest in reducing environmental “bads” whilst protecting economic growth. Which, if successful, could be a “win-win for the economy and the environment” (ibid). 

However, despite efforts, little has changed in terms of resource consumption (Hobson, 2004). In fact, throughout the nineties figures for both fossil fuel consumption and waste production went up (ibid.). More recently, international emissions from aviation has more than doubled (UK, Department for Transport, 2018), and in 2016 the total figure for waste generation went up by 4.2% (UK, DEFRA, 2019). Such figures suggest that at “the individual level […], the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable consumption have done little to promote changes to individual consumption practices” (Hobson, 2004, p.130). The government response to figures showing little uptake in sustainable consumption practices has been to suggest that there still exists a lack of information and environmental awareness amongst consumers. However, there now exists a considerable body of critique that argues that there are other reasons as to why we see significant limitations to what “green consumerism” can achieve.

Green Consumerism: Evidence from the Wood & Paper Industry 

“Green consumerism” fits the “green economy” model and has been said to allow consumers to ‘vote with their wallets’ (Brown, 2001), a concept that suggests that paying more for environmentally sustainable commodities encourages producers to invest in developing such products. These types of market-based approaches are said to put “pressure on upstream actors to implement more sustainable practices” (Konefal, 2012, p.336). However, significant evidence shows that policies endorsing eco-consumerism are limited in what they can achieve; not least because, even though 30% of the population reports that they care about companies sustainability record, only 3% reflected this in their purchases in 2000 (UK, DEFRA, 2005). 

In the case of wood and paper production, eco-labelling in the form of sustainability certification has faced extensive challenges, even though some positives have been recorded in terms of forest management (Dauvergne & Lister, 2010). Firstly, it has been difficult to establish trust and acceptance for certified forest products. Partly due to opinions amongst consumers still being divided over what counts as a sustainable product. Secondly, on the production side, producers have expressed fears that certification standards “would create a harmful trade barrier and unfair market disadvantages” (ibid., p.136). Thirdly, even though consumers often report that they would like to buy more sustainably, the reasons for choosing a certain product are a lot more complex and need to consider social, cultural and personal factors (Jackson, 2005).

Last, but certainly not least, consumers who do choose sustainable options do not possess sufficient purchasing power in order to have a significant effect on deforestation rates (Dauvergne & Lister, 2010). Further, “markets for [Certified Forest Products] remain very small as a result of a low level of participation by the industry’s biggest consumers—ICI organizations” (ibid., p.146). This suggests that, even though individual purchases of certified products might send positive signals to producers, it is not reasonable to suggest that this alone can have a sufficient effect on global sustainability.

Even though the industry has seen a development in “technological efficiency of production and consumption there is a major debate in the literature about whether these efficiency initiatives have reduced overall negative environmental impacts“(O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.237). It is then evident that the notion of “green consumerism”, in its individualised form, fails to provide real change in practice, and may in fact further contribute to damaging discourses and perceptions of what an individual purchase can achieve. We need to consider that market-based approaches have no power to change the system they exist within. Rather, they function within the constraints of capitalism; an economic system that has been recognised as being the “main engine behind impending catastrophic climate change” (Foster et al., 2009, p.1085). Konefal (2012) has therefore suggested that “in turning to market-based approaches [the sustainability movement] has become captured by the market” (ibid., p.337). 

Individualisation, Neoliberalism and the Environment

“When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society” 

(Maniates, 2002, p.45)

In order to “illuminate the possibilities and limitations of contemporary environmental politics” (Coffey & Marston, 2013, p.180) we need to consider underlying discourses which may be influencing and shaping decision making. Particular attention has been paid to neoliberalism and its extensive influence on policy making (ibid.). It has been said that “neoliberalism seem to be everywhere” (Peck & Tickell, 2002, p.380). Yet, at the same time it has been argued that neoliberalism largely remains invisible in our daily lives (Monbiot, 2016). This dichotomy suggests that defining aspects of neoliberalism has become invisible due to the normalisation of its functions and effects.

Arguably, neoliberalism is difficult to pin down as the word itself works to describe a complex set of processes that have spatio-temporal variations (Peck & Tickell, 2002). However, the consensus within literature debates seem to highlight three main areas of change taking place in the 1970s to 1980s. Firstly, a change in global economics and trade. The term neoliberalism is often “understood to refer to the process of opening up national economies to global actors such as multinational corporations and to global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank” (Larner, 2003, p.9). Secondly, a societal change from “the traditional industrial culture that went before it” (Gardener & Shepphard, 1989, p.44), to a culture where new identities emerged “associated with greater work flexibility” and “the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption” (Hall cited in Southwood, 2011, p.8). Lastly, a political shift which saw policies within the United Kingdom pushing for lessening the demands made on the state by promoting privatisation and deregulation.

It is easy to then reveal a set of common themes for neoliberal projects. One is the positive promotion of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’. Although seeming enchantingly democratic and desirable, such freedoms arguably have a negative side, especially in the case of environmental policy and regulation. This is due to the way in which it continues to allow corporations the freedom to act without restraint, while rarely having to face the repercussions of their acts (Monbiot, 2016). This is evident when reading the CDP Carbon-Majors Report (Griffin, 2017) which shows that since the industrial revolution, just 100 fossil fuel producers have been responsible for over half of the worlds GHG emissions without facing any major consequences.

Further, embedded within this type of neoliberal projects is a certain type of individualism, often promoted and reinforced within public policy and political discourse. This is exemplified by Margaret Thatcher who once claimed that there is “no such thing as society, only individuals and families” (as in Patterson, 2005, p. 377). Neoliberal Thatcherism frames the individual as responsible for their own lives and fates; “If individuals fail to achieve particular goals in the market, it is their fault; the individuals are victims of their own irrational behaviours or have some deficit over which they have no control.” (ibid). 

In a neoliberalist society, ‘freedom’ seemingly becomes synonymous with alienation; from the production of commodities, from society and local communities, from politics and policy, and not least from our environment. This kind of alienation is implied by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism (2008). Fisher argues that we live in a state of “capitalist reality” where it is easier to “imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (ibid., p.1). He argues that this is in part because, if unregulated, capital expansion has infinite potential and the “burning up of Earth’s resources is [seen as] only a temporary glitch” (ibid., p.18). This fetishization of economic growth demands that citizens continue to fulfil their main role as consumers. This is evident within environmental policy, where the question tends to be what to consume, rather than whether or not to consume it in the first place. Michael Maniates (2002) therefore argues that in order to address environmental responsibility, we need to return to seeing ourselves as citizens first and consumers second. The work of policymakers may then arguably have to do the same work.

Citizens and the “Green State”? Calling for Structural Change  

When the focus of environmental policymaking remains firmly rooted in a neoliberal idea of expanding individual consumption choice, it arguably “reduces individuals’ ability to make other, more important choices” (Hobson, 2004, p.121). It encourages individuals to take the problem of environmental exhaustion and pollution in ‘their own hands’ – a discourse that Heglar (2019) calls “not only preposterous; it’s dangerous” (ibid.) as it suggests that the world altering environmental issues that our generation is currently facing is down to individuals failing to ‘tweak’ their consumption habits. Kersty Hobson (2004) highlights how this allows governments to promote sustainability at “arm’s length” due to the way it passes responsibility for consumption patterns on to the consumer. Hobson (2004) continues to argue that we need to rethink the relationship between citizens and the state and division of responsibility between the two. She suggests that although citizens are responsible for paying tax and contributing to society, “the government has the responsibility to facilitate and enable citizens to make sound choices by providing strong services within a climate of mutual trust and healthy democratic dialogue” (ibid., p.133).

The lack of action on behalf of the state, and continued individualisation in the face of environmental issues leads to a “depoliticization of environmental degradation” (Maniates, 2002, p.47). Perhaps, then, we need to “re-think the political again” (Swyngedouw, 2013, p.6) and consider what a political system based on environmental concern could look like. We know that the climate crisis is already here; the UK government officially recognised this by declaring a state of climate emergency in Spring 2019. Yet, few seem willing to really “stir the pot” and commit to act on such an emergency. It has been argued that is seems as if we live in a state of post-politics, where everything can be discussed and politicised, “but only in a non-committal way and as a nonconflict. Absolute and irreversible choices are kept away […]” (Diken & Lautsten, 2004 as in Swyngedouw, 2013, p.6). 

Some writers therefore argue that perhaps environmental policy should no longer be limited to government policies (Jänicke, 1997), seemingly suggesting a “declining relevance of the state” (Duit et al., 2016, p.2). However, I would like to argue along with writers who suggests that within the current global structure it might not yet be possible to reject the idea of the nation-state completely. Rather, we should look at how the state could take on a new role as an environmental “steward”, centring regulatory ideals around the concept of an “ecological democracy” (Eckersley, 2004, p.2), creating what has been referred to as the “Green State”. This follows the arguments that states are currently best equipped to provide the framework and structure needed to create far-reaching, global change for the environment; “the green movement needs the state […] if it is to move closer toward its vision of a socially just and ecologically sustainable society” (ibid., p.11).

Concluding Remarks 

At the time of writing, newspapers and social media pages are starting to fill up with disappointing reports from the 2019 COP25 meeting in Madrid. As countries fail to agree on Article 6 from the Paris Agreement (UNFCC, 2015) that guides ambitions for reducing GHG emissions, some people say that “governments have turned their backs on raising ambition, at a time when we need more than ever to heed the scientific warning” (Mathiesen, 2019). Further, many express the urgency in addressing how such failure continues to see “the people who have contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most while those who have gained the most from emitting greenhouse gases will suffer the least.” (Irfan, 2019). 

I have argued that decisions to target individual behaviour within environmental policy is therefore largely misguided. This is not to say that individual behaviour does not need to change in order to adapt to a changing climate – it does. But individuals should not be made to carry the entirety of the problem on their shoulders whilst governments and organisations carry on “business as usual” and keep an “arm’s length” away from any real commitments for change. I have argued that we have reached a point within global and national politics where we need to rethink the role that states play, and have suggested alongside Robyn Eckersley (2004) that we need a state that recognises how it is “implicated in ecological destruction” (ibid., p.5). Perhaps this could be in the form of Eckersley’s ambitious “Green State”, where ecological critique informs decision making. 

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Derrida, Deleuze and difference in the Sumak Kawsay debate

by Dylan Inglis

As governments worldwide struggle to find alternatives to unsustainable modernist models of progress, a glimmer of hope flickers by way of the integration of the Andean cosmovision-cum-concept of Sumak Kawsay – under the denomination Buen Vivir [living well] – into Ecuador’s national constitution. An alternative cosmology which confers rights to the more-than-human and is based on axioms of responsibility and reciprocity, Sumak Kawsay (SK) swims against the general global current of neoliberalist individualism and its integration into policy has provoked much debate over its semantic and epistemological contours. It is demonstrated that the calls to preserve a faithful working understanding of the Andean philosophy in theory and policy are in delicate (perhaps incommensurable) tension with contrasting accusations that defending a certain version of the concept runs the risk of re-creating romanticised or archaic essentialisation of indigeneity. I take Cuestas-Caza’s (2018) article on epistemic communities in the Sumak Kawsay debate as an example of how scholarship can enrich discussion on issues of meaning and the legitimacy of knowledge but can also contribute to impasses in the academic episteme around the legitimacy of research and knowledge about Sumak Kawsay. As the moralistic nature of such work is totalising and often destructive, I instead follow recent speculative scholarship (Alonso González and Macías Vázquez, 2015) in suggesting the potential force of a turn to ontology in the Sumak Kawsay debate. Viewing the notion of ‘difference’ as key in this context, I outline how the scholarship of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida can offer a reappraisal of ontological difference. Pursuing post-structural difference reasserts the responsibility of academic work to suspend judgement around the integrity of interpretations of Sumak Kawsay and instead stretch the uneasy aporia of the incommensurability of these debates. Rather than staying debate based on static essences and binary structures, a post-structuralist view of difference points to the immanent multiplicity and absence of being and shifts interest from the identity of Sumak Kawsay as an essentialisable floating concept, to a view of it as a dynamic assemblage whose transformative potential should be maximised.

Sumak Kawsay

Although humans have always altered their environments, current global consumption rates are endangering the very life systems upon which humans depend (Daszak et al., 2000). Growing recognition of the limits to ‘progress’ has precipitated political allegiance to sustainable development, which allies improvements in quality of life with the recognition that these improvements must respect the finiteness of natural resources (Parris and Kates, 2003, Sachs, 2012). Nonetheless, it is widely recognised that pledges towards sustainability uphold a notion of progress incommensurable with maintaining the health of natural systems (Banerjee, 2003). It has been posited that ways of understanding ‘the human’ and ‘nature’ in asymmetrical binary terms is at the core of the socio-environmental crisis, and a slew of alternative projects have emerged since the 1970s that re-work this binary, with degrowth and feminist movements adopting strong anti-modernity discourses, although these movements have seldom been embraced in mainstream politics (Demaria et al., 2013, Warren, 1990; Escobar, 2015).

One notable exception in the political arena is Sumak Kawsay and its adoption in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution (Conaie, 2007). Translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay has its roots in non-Western Andean cosmologies based upon principles of communitarian, ecological and cultural harmony (Gudynas, 2011). Also defined as ‘living in plenitude’, Sumak Kawsay must thus be understood bearing in mind the cosmovision and political project of indigenous populations based on an intense reciprocity of kinship between human and more-than-human beings (Macas, 2010; Viteri Gualinga, 2002). This means that the Ecuadorian constitution confers rights to nature alongside the rights of Ecuadorian human subjects and thus gives legal standing to environmental health and equilibrium (Martinez and Acosta, 2017; Estermann, 2013). Although the lack of a political voice has historically furthered the marginalisation of autochthonous Andean populations in the Ecuadorian constitution, a combination of the impending environmental crisis, pledges from foreign actors to assist monetarily in Ecuador’s protection of natural resources and a wider discontent with the unkept promises of modernity and progress, have culminated in Ecuador becoming a symbolic standard-bearer for the protection of nature (Acosta, 2015). Sumak Kawsay is also a post-colonialist venture: following a history of violence and marginalisation of indigenous populations, recognising local ways of knowing hopes to restore justice to indigenous populations and foster social equality (Santos, 2015).

However, despite early euphoria around the political attention afforded to Sumak Kawsay, academic research has highlighted contradictions between the maxims of Sumak Kawsay and the devastating extractivist agenda of the Ecuadorian government (Beling, and Vanhulst, 2014). It has been argued that in translating the way of living of Andean people into a part of the national constitution, Sumak Kawsay has become something else altogether, and that rather than underpinning care and reciprocity, it has been used as a smokescreen for a business-as-usual approach on the part of political leaders (Hollender, 2012). Thus, it has been posited that Ecuador is engaging in ‘cognitive extractivism’ of certain aspects of Andean cosmology and appropriating it to gain and retain political power (Simpson and Klein, 2017; Vanhulst and Veling, 2014). Academic research has also identified problems on a conceptual level, with Fierro (2009), for example, criticising political and academic efforts to equate Sumak Kawsay with Western philosophies of self-realisation such as Eudaimonia, which makes the human subject the core centre of concern and thereby invisibilises the Sumak Kawsay’s emphasis on communitarianism and relationality with the more-than-human (Ryan and Martela, 2017; de Zaldívar, 2013).

Another conceptual problem highlighted in relation to Sumak Kawsay revolves around the issue of essentialism and binary difference (Acosta, 2013: Gerlach, 2017). The idea that there is an essence to the concept of SK is a core assumption that anchors debate, and it is suggested that the retention of the ‘original’ meaning of the term in policy is crucial to avoid surrendering the concept’s identity to an unfaithful or over-diluted application in mainstream neoliberal government (Bretón et al., 2014). Yet, over-ardent fidelity to the ‘indigenous essence’ of the term is problematic on various levels, most notably because it reproduces a staunch binary between Western and Indigenous epistemes (Radcliffe, 2017). There is no simple divide between cosmologies in Ecuador, and the loose categories of indigenous and non-indigenous populations can rarely be simply drawn. Emphasising the primacy of indigenous knowledge and definitions over Western re-appropriations is an important part of social-justice movements (Valverde, 1999), but is haunted by the risk of re-creating the indigenous ‘other’ as existing in a pre-Modern vacuum, rather than as a highly heterogeneous group of people that challenges simplistic notions of indigeneity (Hornberger and Coronel-Molina, 2004). This essentialisation of the origins of Sumak Kawsay and indigenous Ecuadorians has disdainfully been labelled ‘pachamamismo’ by some local academics, as it serves as a warning of the dangers of prioritising indigenous knowledge and an over-zealous search for origins in Sumak Kawsay (Recasens, 2014). More recently, the seminal criticism levelled by Cuestas-Caza (2018) against the political and academic appropriation of Sumak Kawsay challenges the legitimacy of much of this scholarship on the grounds that the authors’ linguistic background and conceptual interpretations contradict the ethos of SK.

The contribution of Cuestas-Caza

While the critiques are numerous, Cuestas-Caza’s important 2018 article on the semantics and epistemology of Sumak Kawsay constitutes the intellectual springboard of this essay, informing the angle of my theoretical approach in three ways. First, the case made that scholarship under the banner of ‘Buen Vivir’ is more compliant in ‘epistemic neo-colonialism’ (Gudynas, 2011) or in the ‘intellectual liquidity’ of a worldview borne in the Quechua language led to me employing Sumak Kawsay to refer to Ecuadorian ‘living well’. Cuestas-Caza develops a rigorous epistemic categorisation of actants or positions on the issue, specifically suggesting that socialist-statist and post-developmentalist epistemic communities dilute the meaning of SK according to their dominant desires and narratives. But Cuesta-Caza’s approach was also heavy-handed in criticism, be it through reducing the multiplicity of academic scholarship into Sumak Kawsay into two largely pejorative epistemes, or through undermining scholarship using the term ‘Buen Vivir’. This latter point ignores the fact that most literature on the Andean philosophy has preferred to use the Spanish translation, and that the diversity of motives under which it was employed and varying conclusions drawn defy totalising simplification. Thus, the second way in which Cuestas-Caza’s article has affected my own work is that it has alerted me to the dangers of broad-brush moralistic judgement of scholarship on Buen Vivir. Adopting his vocable ‘episteme’, I believe that an ‘academic episteme’ composed of Western and Andean academia can be a fertile ground of debate and knowledge production about Sumak Kawsay and wield significant political significance (Haas, 2015). However, rather than focusing on the epistemological and semantic aspects most fiercely debated, I follow Alonso González and Macías Vázquez (2015) in looking for different theoretical angles to challenge the current epistemological impasse. This is because, for all their merits, such studies looking into Sumak Kawsay invariably draw upon previous scholarship, but – reflecting the authors’ own transcendental moral codes – re-organise the meanings and relations between the components of Sumak Kawsay and claim a new totality of ‘truth’, or the closest approximate to adequate and correct meaning. Such a stalemate in value terms is recognised by Jean-Paul Sartre as the barrier to all constructive debate, as actants’ conflicting value systems foreclose cooperative decision (Sartre, 1946).

Ontology and post-structuralism

In the face of this theoretical cul-de-sac, joining Alonso González, Macías Vázquez (2015) and Gerlach (2017), I advocate for a move to ontology or ‘from words to things’ (Husserl, 2012). The turn in philosophy from epistemology to ontology (that is, to the fundamental substances or aspects of being) has been made by many ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers in the face of the inadequacy of the dominant structures of thought historically shaped by Rene Descartes and Saussurian structuralism (Garber, 1992). Structuralist thought is underpinned by ‘Western metaphysics’, which entrenches differences between human essence and non-human essence and between the agential subject and the static object, therefore rendering humans as the all-knowing observers of reality from a neutral pedestal provided by their transcendental capacity for ‘reason’. Although alternative non-transcendental ontologies have been explored since Descartes (Spinoza, 1992), it was not until Martin Heidegger that Western thought committed to the study of being and ontology (Heidegger, 2014). For Heidegger, things are not defined by their essence, but by their intrinsic absence and thereby the irreducible relational formation with all other ‘beings’ over space and time (Berciano, 1992). This simple premise undermines metaphysical assumptions that things are stable and codable. Various post-structuralist thinkers deepened Heidegger’s work, and although they build upon the core principle of structuralism that ‘signs are defined by their relationship with other signs in a system’ (Saussure, 2011: 67), they emphasise the interminable play of signs by which meaning and being are forever suspended and unstable (Wiley, 2006).

In the second half of this essay, I will mine the re-thinking of ontology developed by post-structuralists Deleuze and Derrida, with specific focus on how their conceptualisation of ‘difference’ can inform the Sumak Kawsay debate. The concept of difference is chosen as the focus here because it is inextricably linked with how we interpret change and repetition and because its re-formulation by Deleuze and Derrida offers powerful new conceptual tools through which to reappraise the potential and future of Sumak Kawsay (Cisney, 2018). This approach will constitute a primary effort to parse Sumak Kawsay through the explicit introduction of post-structural difference, while also being the first ontological venture in the debate to wed the aporic finality of Derrida’s deconstruction of language with Deleuze’s materialist project of immanent becoming.

Derrida’s negative difference

Following Heidegger, Derrida understands all being as defined and composed by absence – that is, the essence or meaning of any thing is always deferred through differentiation over time and space (Derrida, 1982: 13). Derrida’s negative difference is perhaps best understood in the context of his deconstruction of transcendental philosophy and specifically through the conferring of primacy and vibrancy to speech over writing in Western thought (Garrison, 1999). In the asymmetric binary between the written and spoken word, writing has been framed as the cause of distance and miscommunication due to the way in which it fixes language, thus constituting an obstacle to clarity of thought and transmission of ideas (Derrida, 2003). This view chimes with the modernist view that meaning obtains its authority from its originary [past] being, and consequently differentiation from the essentialised form is seen as an undesirable loss of the identity of the thing or concept in question (Grillo, 2003).

This negative view of change and difference characterises the view of many academics on the origins and evolution of concepts because the debate is in large part informed by notions of binary between indigenous lived orality and Western written codification (Kamuf, 1991). Derrida counters such a binary, however, by attacking the insipient ‘logocentrism’ that defines it (Lamont, 1987), with logocentrism referring to the idea that concepts possess an essence independent of the semantic context of their relationship with other words and things (Wortham, 2010). Yet rather than absolute truth being locatable in language, Derrida emphasises that signs are constructed in dynamic relation, and are thus defined by novelty – not by their substance or stability – and by their ever-changing positioning in language (Moati, 2014). A word or concept always retains a ‘trace’ of the semantic meaning it has possessed in the ‘passed’ (passé), but this trace is itself always foregrounded by the absence of essence, rather than by the presence of any concrete, irreducible form (Derrida, 1994; xviii). Indeed, for Derrida, the systematic tracing of differences between signs in time and space is never-ending, and even if thorough study can allow one to better comprehend a concept’s conditions of existence, any resultant privileging of certain meanings never attains absolute truth, as any transcendental judgement is the fruit of an ultimately arbitrary conferral of a fictitious ‘absolute’ presence over time or space (Derrida, 2003: 367). This ‘moment of madness’ (Derrida, 1990: 968) where one traces a totalising line of representative difference is both disastrous and crucial. It can never be avoided, only delayed.

Derridean deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence is a powerful critique of the mystical authoritarian foundations conferred to essential origins of things and ideas (Herzfield, 2001: 70). One great virtue of Derrida’s appraisal of negative difference is that it does not culminate in a transcendental judgement, rather its finality is characterised by aporia – Derrida’s term for logical paradox (Derrida, 1993: 1). This aporia must be overcome through making an informed decision, but the focus on aporia in this approach can act as a catalyst for more stayed critical thinking which delays judgement, as well as kindling an ethos of theory premised by the impossibility of ever attaining absolute truths – thereby rendering the theorist more cautious with their conclusions. Nevertheless, and without forgetting the import of Derrida’s negative difference in the quest for amore stayed critique of ontology, I believe that the linguistic critique of difference can, and perhaps must, also be informed by a more positive project of immanent difference which may foster an unstable, speculative ontological foundation through which to re-think issues of representation. This will be provided by Gilles Deleuze’s materialist ontology of becoming.

Deleuze’s immanent difference

Drawing upon Spinoza, Deleuze emphasised the monism and relational becoming of all things on earth. This immanent ontology is often contrasted with transcendentalism, as it collapses the subject-object divide and posits that all beings are situated on a plane of entities which cannot be fundamentally separated, with all possessing the ability to affect and be afforded the role of ‘subject’ (Bryant, 2008). Like Derrida, Deleuze focuses on the fundamentals of reality prior to representation, but the foundation for Deleuze is multiplicity. Through this lens, true difference is foundational to all being and thus always existent prior to essence. Although Deleuze concurs with Derrida in judging difference as ontological, the concept of difference-in-itself contrasts with Derrida’s difference-as-deferral and negative-differentiation because it constitutes a core concept on which Deleuze forms an affirmative ontology focused on the relational becoming of being rather than the impossibility of knowing the world, which is the theoretical conclusion held by Derrida (Sokoloff, 2005).

Deleuze’s immanent ‘difference-in-itself’ has revolutionary potential for thought (Cockayne, 2017). Firstly, rather than differentiating between process and product, a Deleuzian approach foregrounded by immanent difference posits that process is product (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977; 6). As such, the prevailing view in traditional Western metaphysics of reality as ontologically ‘static’ is replaced by the affirmation that being is constantly ‘becoming’ and would be better defined in terms of movement (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 385). Following this logic, the change of a concept could be considered as inevitable and potentially positive. Second, and in conjunction with the first consequence, immanent difference means that concepts are understood in terms of an irreducible multiplicity as opposed to any single transcendent sovereign form, with Deleuze claiming that the constant repetition of things entails the re-assembling of the assemblage of related things and meanings which compose them (Deleuze, 1994: 11). Therefore, this differential repetition brings the negation of the previous version and of its copy, ensuing the endless creation of novelty (Deleuze, 1994: 55). This diverges from critiques that judge the adequacy of a representation according to criteria of faithfulness to an ‘original’ version. As a result, the wriggly maxim proposed by Deleuze in his political project of immanent difference is to ‘maximise the force of bodies’, where a body is not defined by its form or essence, but by its relationship with other bodies and its capacity to create more forceful, vibrant confluences of energy (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 125).  

Post-structural difference in Sumak Kawsay scholarship

The exposition of difference in the work of Derrida and Deleuze provides analytical tools that can reinvigorate the debate round Sumak Kawsay, and Derrida’s immanent difference has the added advantage of presenting an alternative ontology which could further novel understanding and critical scholarship, imagining alternative meanings and criteria for success (Smith, 2007). It is a philosophy based primarily not on opposition, but on mapping new worlds (Boundas, 2006). Thus, in addition to exercising paradox in the Derridean line, post-structuralist appraisals can also be mobilised to map more powerful relationships that can maximise the affective capacity of politicised semantic-material assemblages like Sumak Kawsay. It is thus not a question of working for the reactionist protection of concepts or of installing sovereignty around language. Rather, the kind of power or affect advocated by Deleuze can be broadly represented by the distinction in French between ‘pouvoir’ and ‘puissance’, which both translate as ‘power’ (Pelbart, 2002). ‘Pouvoir’ is understood as force over human or non-human subjects and is broadly understood as finite. In contrast, ‘puissance’ is theoretically infinite as it is the process-product of relations between bodies (Phillipe, 2006). Therefore, whereas for ‘pouvoir’ to be claimed it must be subtracted by other actants, the force of ‘puissance’ is sourced from the coming-together and intensification of assemblages of bodies of all kinds.

Derrida and Deleuze’s rejection of structural sedimentation of thought based on form, essence and sovereignty of meaning undermines the most frequent debates about the successes and perils of the precarious socio-political project of Sumak Kawsay. In addition, both philosophers stress the intrinsic multiplicity of existence, be it through the essence defined by absence of being according to Derrida or through the irreducible multiplicity of intensities of Deleuze’s difference as immanent to being. I argue that Derrida’s oeuvre can challenge the modus operandi of the morally premised academic work that contributes to the semantic and epistemological impasse in scholarship about Sumak Kawsay. Derrida’s work is highly divisive in the social sciences and humanities and has often been discounted and rejected as nihilistic (Powell, 2006: 136) or applied in a ‘light’ model of deconstruction. This ‘light model’ approach has been adopted already by Hildago-Capitan and Cubillo-Guevara (2017) in the Sumak Kawsay debate, but arguably misinterprets the praxis of Derrida’s project, as it misconstrues the term Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ as mere synonym of ‘critique’. While such scholarship contributes to the debate, it is problematic in that by creating new transcendental typologies through which to understand Sumak Kawsay and then enacting moral judgement regarding them the authors make precisely the move that a more Derridean analysis would bemoan, by divorcing the sign from its semantic context and ‘floating’ it in a different analytical context underpinned by a specific approach of epistemological critique. In contrast, I believe that a productive post-structural critique of semantics and epistemological debates around Sumak Kawsay as outlined in this essay could benefit from pursuit of the uneasy aporia at the heart of a debate defined by incommensurability.

Conclusion – an ontological turn towards more synergetic scholarship

In conclusion, although issues of epistemology and semantics as described by Cuestas-Caza (2018) dominate discussions of Sumak Kawsay in academia, I have suggested that a re-appraisal of the ontological foundations of the debate through post-structuralist critique could engender more constructive and rigorous approaches to debate. The turn towards ontology through Deleuzian and Derridean notions of difference is advocated in the knowledge that the intricate socio-political context surrounding Sumak Kawsay perpetuates the need for debates on the semantic contours of Sumak Kawsay and the legitimacy of its employment in policy and public discourse (Quijano, 2010). The issue of legitimacy is at the core of the debate. Drawing from the corpus of two white, Western, bourgeois philosophers to further theoretical commentary on the nature of Sumak Kawsay may elicit critique, as Deleuze and Derrida’s projects emerged in the same lands and intellectual traditions that justified the attempted genocide of non-Western peoples and which inform the current manifestations of unsustainable consumerism and individualism that are accelerating degradation of the natural conditions of life. Nevertheless, greater focus on ontology implies more rigorous, affirmative notions of difference and may promote the much-needed suspension of implicit or explicit transcendental judgement based on a semi-arbitrary moral code. Therefore, Deleuze and Derrida’s post-structuralist thought beckons a potential alternative way of approaching the sensitive and saturated debate around Sumak Kawsay.

Debates around what constitutes the ‘true’ meaning of an indigenous concept in the academic and political arena can also be a highly complicated venture, as preservation of indigenous difference has been accused of being based on essentialism. An ontological turn in academic focus on the issue augers productive theoretical work, although in practice it will complement semantic and epistemological research undertaken in a contemporary context that is tensioned with conflicting interests and propelled by an underlying institutional push for concrete, measurable work. A post-structural focus on ontology reserves judgement on issues of legitimacy of definitions and applications of Sumak Kawsay or its relationship with indigenous people. Thus, rather than being premised on the protection of an imperilled concept, a turn to Deleuze and Derrida foregrounds the affirmative role of the theorist to map out new affective potentialities in the debate. Although the emphasis on generative force or ‘puissance’ as the monist material at the centre of such a project may appear overly abstract, it has the potential to direct scholarship to a more adventurous, innovative avenue of study by enabling the concept to gain traction through emphasising the primacy of difference. This approach is based on a staunch resolve to resist the moralistic circumpossession of theoretical exploration of the issue in scholarship that is based on preconceived moral codes and designed to transcend previous scholarship in rigour and pertinence. Rather, a post-structural approach will, in theory, delay the ‘moment of madness’ in positing one’s opinion about the ‘legitimate’ semantic and epistemology topography of Sumak Kawsay, and has the potential to re-map the entangled web of beings and meanings as possessing an inherent dynamism that is indicative not of despair, but of hope.

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