An historical examination of South Africa’s biodiversity conservation and it’s link with persistent development inequality.

by Hannah Williams

South Africa (SA) is an infamous country for two very contrasting attributes: one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the third most biodiverse (Posel and Rogan, 2019; Wynberg, 2002). Over half of SA’s population live in poverty, 70% of whom live in rural areas entrenched in colonial and apartheid legacy (Aliber, 2003). Alongside economic, spatial and social inequality, SA hosts between 250,000 to 1,000,000 endemic species (Wynberg, 2002). The diversity of ecosystems and habitats, in addition to extreme inequality, promotes an ongoing challenge for the South African government, trying to balance iodiversity conservation with the nation’s social, political and economic development agenda. Despite the African National Congress (ANC), in the post-apartheid era, declaring their commitment to both issues within the ‘1996 Constitution of the Republic of SA’ (section 24 and 27), the possibility of achieving these in harmony remains practically questionable, especially alongside a governance regime where neoliberal development and economic growth has become hegemony (Hart, 2014; Kepe, 2009).

By following the political progression of the nation from colonial independence in 1934, through the National Party’s (NP) apartheid regime, to the current ANC neoliberal development project, the essay explores the complex nature of racial inequality. This demonstrates how inequality is entrenched in historical, political, spatial and economic forces. Focussing on the establishment of South African National Parks (SANPs) as the main practice of biodiversity conservation, the essay will draw upon the Kruger National Park (KNP), one of the oldest and largest reserves, to provide contextual and empirical evidence. Consequently, the dynamic links between biodiversity conservation and racial inequality will be exposed (Büscher, 2016; Kepe et al., 2004; McCarthy and Prudham, 2004).

First, analysing the influence of colonial rule and apartheid policies on racial land segregation, the rise of ‘fortress conservation’ will be examined. Following this, the post-apartheid neoliberal project of the ANC will be critiqued, analysing the implications of a neoliberal ideology on nature and society. Finally, examining SANPs as part of the ANC development project will expose biodiversity conservation’s continuation of historical racial segregation. This will conclude that neoliberalising nature, as part of a development growth-centric policy, continues and exacerbates racial inequalities founded from colonial rule.

‘Fortress Conservation’ in the apartheid regime:

SA’s independence from Britain in 1934 was followed by promotion of Afrikaner nationalism, white supremacy and Afrikaner ideologies. This resulted in the governance of the NP from 1948 to 1994, instating racial segregation policies and marking the start of the apartheid regime. Through a variety of structural policies against non-whites: Group Areas Act 1950, Population Registration Act 1950, Bantu Authorities Act 1951, Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953 and Bantu Self Government Act 1959, SA became a nation that was institutionally and systematically racist with structural, economic, spatial and social segregation dependent on race and class (Clark and Worger, 2013). The range of spatial policies forced rural black South Africans from their lands into peripheral Banustans, to transform ancestral land into national parks as part of the SANP project (Cock and Fig, 2000). As a result, black South Africans, 70% of the population, owned only 13% of land, resulting in forced overcrowding, increased degradation and erosion of the Banustan’s land (Cock and Fig, 2000). In contrast the whites, 30% of the population, had control of 80% of agricultural land, exacerbating poverty, social dislocation and driving environmental racism (ibid.). This history of racism, land and resource dispossession formed a country of hierarchies, boundaries, borders and power structures, overcoming all realms of society (Hart, 2014).

“In the African version of wildlife conservation history, the experience has been that game reserves are white inventions which elevate wildlife above humanity and which have served as instruments of dispossession and subjugation” (Carruthers 1995: 101).

Racialised land and resource dispossession marginalised non-white communities from land of significant ‘importance’ or value, for biodiversity or agricultural potential (Kepe et al., 2005). This had significant economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts creating a ‘fortress conservation’ regime, excluding local communities despite their indigenous knowledge and non-exploitative behaviour. This was justified by the Afrikaner rationale that local people degrade and exploit natural resources and consequently cause biodiversity loss and land degradation (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020). The dependence of the local communities on the natural resources was not considered, exacerbating poverty, economic and social inequality with devastating impacts on livelihoods and culture (ibid.). The ignorance of ancestral land rights, with colonial ideology of dominance and possession rendered black rural livelihoods as mere objects within the reserves. As a result, local people were forced to adopt colonial agricultural methods by white Afrikaners, seen as a way of civilising them, reducing the multiplicity of local livelihoods and appropriating indigenous knowledges and skills. The dominance of the nonlocal, colonial epistemology centred conservation efforts on the survival of certain species, rather than posing questions around quality of life and rural livelihoods (Harvey, 1996).

Fortress conservation, the construction of barriers and patrols authorised by the SANP, was largely driven by the white elite and external NGOs, maintaining conservation as a practice which supported and benefited colonial states and white landowners through tourism, scientific research and trophy hunting. KNP, otherwise known as ‘Fortress Kruger’ is one of the most mediated parks globally, critiqued for its impermeable separation of race and class, with the internal space a romanticised white fortress containing unspoiled nature and wildlife, acting as a “modernist form of symbolically enclaved space” (Carruthers, 1995: 67). Access to KNP by black South Africans was minimal, with poverty and lack of access to motor vehicles making it highly inaccessible. Additionally, visitors to KNP were forced to stay in an external facility in Balule, resulting in only black labourers allowed ‘inside’. The further marginalisation and forced loss of livelihoods and their disrespect towards ‘unproductive’ conservation, resulted in green militarisation and a new guerrilla warfare between poaching and hunting driven by black rural poverty and negative attitudes towards conservation (Büscher, 2016; Fabricius and de Wet, 2002).

“The colonial notion of pristine wilderness and human exclusion was sectional and exacerbated national divisions along racial lines. Rather than being a means of nation-building, the parks worked against national unity to reflect and maintain the privileges of the white minority.” (Cock and Fig, 2000: 23)

Ongoing colonial acts, and the racist class-based segregation of the NP’s apartheid regime resulted in increasing resistance and ongoing, exacerbated inequalities through conservation practices. As a result, there was increasing resistance with responding police and military brutality (Hart, 2014). Additionally, political oppressive forces on a nation scale resulted in a deep economic crisis, with extreme labour shortages, high black unemployment, and economic failure, framing the nation’s “state of emergency” (Williams and Taylor, 2000: 21). This highlights how oppressive historical policies rendered biodiversity conservation a colonial, racist and unequal practice in the form of ‘fortress conservation’.

Neoliberalising nature and the South African transition:

In response to the ‘state of emergency’, the changing governance from the NP to the ANC in 1994 saw dramatic political, structural and ideological shifts, resulting in the birth of the ‘rainbow nation’ and post-apartheid SA (Hart, 2014). This ideological shift involved an enthusiastic commitment to neoliberal ideology, inspired by the success of other country’s development across the globe and the work of the World Bank. The neoliberal development project was driven by Mandela and Mbeki’s conservative macroeconomic policies up until 2008, this resulted in the “institutional separation of society into an economic and political sphere”, believing in the constructive role of privatisation, capitalism, liberalisation, state building and regulation reform for driving development activity (Hart, 2014; Williams and Taylor, 2000: 22). Their macro-economic policies included Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), and Reconstruction and Development programmes articulated in the Government of National Unity’s (GNU) White Paper (Williams and Taylor, 2000). This national restructuring was part of the negotiation to end apartheid, a call to achieve political equality whilst driving the economy’s growth.

As neoliberalisation is the “fashioning of socio-cultural and political dynamics in commodification, commercialisation and marketisation”, market-based reform homogenised nature governance, in line with international and global ideologies of conservation regulation (Castree, 2008a: 155). This ignored local, regional and national specificity creating tension between local communities and colonial conservation agendas (Benjaminsen et al., 2008). For example, under the rhetoric of GEAR policies, nature was neoliberalised as an economic development opportunity, through strategies such as eco-tourism, trade and hunting (Castree, 2008a). Additionally, land reform in relation to conservation was framed as a positive desegregating practice, with expanding conservation areas, new models, new opportunities and improved relations between stakeholders (Fabricius and de Wet, 2002). However, the idealistic promises of GEAR to have equitable land return to local communities held significant challenges with high tensions around contrasting agendas and framings of nature’s value (Kepe et al., 2005). For example, the restructuring of the land and economy remained racialised with white capital remaining untouched with no redistribution of wealth on the GNU constitution (Ashman et al., 2011). Furthermore, historically relocated communities often refused to accept the land restitution opportunity, given stigma, lack of financial opportunity beyond ecotourism, and inappropriate unsustainable livelihood options within the parks (Garland, 2008).

As the project of neoliberalising nature by their instrumental, economic value, is a process conducted by the political and economic elite, the rural poor are further marginalised, with economic valuations not sharing the same epistemology and ontology as the local communities (Büscher, 2008). The creation of 17 national parks in the post-apartheid regime, encloses and captures resources, excluding and appropriating rural livelihoods associated with nature. These parks, in a neoliberal framing, aim to represent the complexity of SA’s biodiversity, a process through which “invaluable and complex ecosystems are reduced to commodities through pricing” (Heynen and Robbins, 2005:2 in Castee 2008b: 140). This results in nature
being fully controlled by the state and the free market, rendering nature and biodiversity vulnerable to the logics of capital (Castree, 2008b). Neoliberalising nature, thus, rationalises biodiversity, questioning the trade-off between nature and development, and the subsequent tension between development and
conservation ideology. Whilst neoliberalism makes conservation compatible with development ideology, it is at the sacrifice of relational and intrinsic value of nature and the local subsistence communities living alongside.

The failing of neoliberalism and the South African crises:

Neoliberalising nature reproduces environmental injustices, critiquing the ANC’s neoliberal hegemonic project to be a “façade” which masks inequalities (Büscher and Dressler, 2012: 369). With the growth of an elite bourgeois society, and the ongoing dispossession of the blacks and middle-lower class, economic and social dispossession of marginalised community’s continues (Ashman et al., 2011). As neoliberalism in this period was strongly idealised as a constructive project there is a notable lack of critique, specifically around how the project fitted with local and national specificity (Holmes and Cavanagh, 2016). Whilst land reclaim and land reform acts aim to reverse spatial segregation in protected fenced reserves, they remain unclear, exacerbating conflict between local communities and conservation with political forces ignorant to the unequal socio-economic and spatio-historical processes ongoing in SA. Additionally, the tension between the two objectives of the actors is worsened by land reform and legal protection remaining biased to western colonial ideology and objectives of external interventions, maintaining the characteristics of colonial fortress conservation from the apartheid era (Kepe et al., 2005).

Poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation are high up on the post-apartheid constitution, yet discussions of access and participation to conservation reserves remain infrequent in conservation and poverty discourse (Crane, 2005; Kepe, 2009). There are two dominant discourses present in current conservation; the hegemonic discourse of specific species survival from internal/external NGOs, government departments and scientific research (influenced by wider global conservation agendas), or the alternative discourse around people-nature relationships expressed by social scientists, human rights and poverty alleviation stakeholders (Büscher and Dietz, 2005). As the former remains dominant, social inclusion and participation remains a lower priority to biodiversity and development foci (Crane, 2006). For example, in 2005 only 12% of black South Africans had visited the KNP (Kepe, 2009: 875). This demonstrates how protected areas are still largely regarded as white only, or a tourist domain, probing the assumption that ecotourism is the leading solution for de-racialising conservation (Crane, 2006). In development discourse, ecotourism aims to include black local communities in protected area schemes, however in practicality the communities lack the capacity to receive maximal benefits, faced with considerable challenges in mobilising investors and attracting tourists, restricted by incompatible worldviews. Furthermore, encouraging black communities to participate in agendas such as ecotourism within these reserves can have unintended consequences on the livelihoods of the local people (Benjaminsen et al., 2008). The power dynamic between white and black communities in ecotourism and conservation areas is critiqued as a form of welfare hand out (Kepe, 2009). This power exchange between white and black communities is a colonial exchange which should be regarded as uncomfortable in future and ongoing conservation development (Büscher and Dietz, 2005).

In order to address the ongoing challenges of biodiversity conservation, a “fundamental transformation” is required to overhaul the limits to achieving sustainable, holistic growth alongside the ANC’s hegemonic project (Cock and Fig, 2000: 32). As discussed previously, systemic and institutional restructuring are occurring, with a focus on partnership with communities and co-management becoming a fundamental part of SANPs future (Garland, 2008). In the KNP, an agreement between the local indigenous Makuleke community with conservationists was struck after two years of negotiations, in the attempt of harmonising the needs of rural people with conservation agendas (Cock and Fig, 2000). This also coincided with a wider attempt to deracialise the distribution of jobs in the reserve, increasing the representation of black South Africans in higher skilled managerial roles, with 50% of directorates now black South Africans (ibid.). The agreement resulted in the reclamation of 22 thousand hectares to the Makuleke community. Whilst it is a significant achievement that locals have been able to reclaim their ancestral land, there remains a reluctance of black middle and lower class to engage in conservation. Power relations will need monitoring, to ease tensions between conservation, human rights and development stakeholders. Making biodiversity conservation more socially, economically and politically justifiable remains a principal challenge which will require institutional capacity, political will, and community cohesion (Cock and Fig, 2000; Kepe, 2009).

“The transformation of the South African National Parks from an institution of colonial to community-based conservation is part of the wider project of transforming South Africa into a just, democratic and non-racial society” (Cock and Fig, 2000: 34)

The dominant discourse of the powerful elite, in combination with the ANC’s hegemonic neoliberal project, masks the underlying oppressive forces behind biodiversity conservation, acting as one of the greatest threats to indigenous communities today (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020). Historical segregation, and the dominance of neoliberal ideologies have considerable implications on individual epistemologies and ontologies, re-determining the “common sense way many of us interpret, live in and understand the world”, becoming ingrained into local subjectivities (Harvey, 2005: 3; Holmes and Cavanagh, 2016). As a result, conservation practices value nature as an economic asset which is prioritised over the lives of the local people, exacerbating the inequalities present between the lower, middle and upper classes and white and black segregation. Attention to race in conservation discourse remains centred in the past, with little concern and awareness of the ongoing entrenched oppressive forces, now silencing a problem that was previously salient in political debate. Neoliberalism in the South African context, is arguably a failed development ideology, contributing to the South African crises (Castree, 2008a; Castree, 2008b.)

In conclusion:

Biodiversity conservation has been exposed as a significant factor for the reproduction and continuation of racial inequality, with dynamic links made evident following the progression of conservation practice alongside political transformation from the apartheid regime to present day. Fortress conservation, curated and policed by the white elite, was born during the apartheid era of spatial and racial policies, forcibly excluding rural black communities from areas of high biodiversity value to be turned into fenced national parks. This resulted in a binary between white, elite, conservationists/landowners and black marginalised livelihoods which became entrenched in individual subjectivities and framings of biodiversity conservation. As a result, values and motivations associated with biodiversity, the practice of conservation and the possible livelihoods associated were disparate between the black and white communities, leading to a highly conflicting, militarised, hierarchical power relation.

The neoliberal development project of the ANC from 1994 provided initial promise for racial segregation within SA, at a time of high salience and political will to reverse the oppressive forces of the previous government ruling. Through a range of land reform and restitution policies, in combination with a surge in community-based conservation strategies such as eco-tourism, accessibility and participation of black communities in national parks and conservation practice improved. However, the restructuring of the ANC soon became hegemony, with neoliberalisation of nature having severe consequences on previously marginalised, impoverished communities. The growth centric ideology favoured the economic value of biodiversity above the livelihoods of the local people, framing nature as a means for economic development. Whilst neoliberalising nature makes it compatible with the nation’s development agenda, it is done so at the sacrifice of relational and intrinsic value of nature and local subsistence communities. This exacerbates environmental injustice, with established efforts at reversing land and racial segregation acting as fruitless solutions incompatible with the ontologies of rural livelihoods.

Following the history of SA alongside the progression of biodiversity conservation in practice and ideology has demonstrated the role of oppressive politics in shaping and driving racial inequality. Given the severe unequal history of fortress conservation, the institutional, cultural, social and economic damage is significant. The neoliberal hegemonic project, following this regime, hid the continuation of racial segregation and impoverishment behind agendas framed as ‘accessible’ and ‘inclusive’ yet in actuality, inequality remained due to ontological tension between the powerful elite and the rural poor. In order to overcome the unequal nature of biodiversity conservation, now entrenched in actor’s subjectivities, a radical transformation is required beyond small scale restructuring policies. Until this is achieved, conservation will remain an elitist racialised project which exacerbates racial inequalities.

References

Aliber, A. (2003) Chronic poverty in South Africa: incidence, causes and policies. World Development, 31, 473–490.

Ashman, S., Fine, B. and Newman, S. (2011) The crisis in South Africa: Neoliberalism, financialization and uneven and combined development. Socialist Register, 47.

Benjaminsen, T.A., Kepe, T. and Bråthen, S. (2008) Between global interests and local needs: Conservation and land reform in Namaqualand, South Africa. Africa, pp.223-244.

Büscher, B. (2008) Conservation, neoliberalism, and social science: a critical reflection on the SCB 2007 annual meeting in South Africa. Conservation Biology, 22(2), pp.229-231.

Büscher, B. (2016) Reassessing Fortress Conservation? New Media and the Politics of Distinction in Kruger National Park, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106:1, 114-129, DOI:10.1080/00045608.2015.1095061

Büscher, B. and Dietz, T. (2005) Conjunctions of governance: the state and the conservation-development nexus in Southern Africa. Journal of Transdisciplinary Environmental Studies, 4(2), pp.1-15.

Büscher, B. and Dressler, W. (2012) Commodity conservation: the restructuring of community conservation in South Africa and the Philippines. Geoforum, 43(3), pp.367-376.

Carruthers, J. (1995) The Kruger National Park: a social and political history. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

Castree, N. (2008a) Neoliberalising nature: processes, effects, and evaluations. Environment and planning A, 40(1), pp.153-173.

Castree, N. (2008b) Neoliberalising nature: the logics of deregulation and reregulation. Environment and planning A, 40(1), pp.131-152.

Clark, N. and Worger, W. (2013) South Africa: The rise and fall of apartheid. Routledge.

Cock, J. and Fig, D. (2000) From colonial to community based conservation: Environmental justice and the national parks of South Africa, Society in Transition, 31:1, 22-35, DOI:10.1080/21528586.2000.10419008

Crane, W. (2006) Biodiversity conservation and land rights in South Africa: Whither the farm dwellers? Geoforum, 37(6), pp.1035-1045.

Domínguez, L. and Luoma, C. (2020) Decolonising conservation policy: How colonial land and conservation ideologies persist and perpetuate indigenous injustices at the expense of the environment. Land, 9(3), p.65.

Fabricius, C. and de Wet, C. (2002) The influence of forced removals and land restitution on conservation in South Africa. Conservation and mobile indigenous peoples: displacement, forced settlement, and sustainable development, 10, p.142.

Garland, E. (2008) The elephant in the room: confronting the colonial character of wildlife conservation in Africa. African Studies Review, pp.51-74.

Hart, G.P. (2014) Rethinking the South African crisis: Nationalism, populism, hegemony (Vol. 20). University of Georgia Press.

Harvey, D. (1996) Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford: Blackwall.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Heynen, N. and Robbins, P. (2005) The neoliberalization of nature: governance, privatization, enclosure and valuation. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 16(1), pp.1-4

Holmes, G. and Cavanagh, C.J. (2016) A review of the social impacts of neoliberal conservation: Formations, inequalities, contestations. Geoforum, 75, pp.199-209.

Kepe, T., Saruchera, M. and Whande, W. (2004) Poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation: a South African perspective. Oryx, 38(2), pp.143-145.

Kepe, T., Wynberg, R. and Ellis, W. (2005) Land reform and biodiversity conservation in South Africa: complementary or in conflict?. The International Journal of Biodiversity Science and Management, 1(1), pp.3-16.

Kepe, T. (2009) Shaped by race: Why “race” still matters in the challenges facing biodiversity conservation in Africa. Local Environment, 14(9), pp.871-878.

McCarthy, J. and Prudham, S. (2004) Neoliberal nature and the nature of neoliberalism. Geoforum, 35(3), pp.275-283.

Posel, D. and Rogan, M. (2019) Inequality, social comparisons and income aspirations: Evidence from a highly unequal country. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 20(1), pp.94-111.

Williams, P. and Taylor, I. (2000) Neoliberalism and the political economy of the ‘new’ South Africa. New political economy, 5(1), pp.21-40.

Wynberg, R. (2002) A decade of biodiversity conservation and use in South Africa: tracking progress from the Rio Earth Summit to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. South African Journal of Science, 98(5), pp.233-243.

“Only when we accept that our wants are limited and can be satisfied will we finally enjoy an abundant world” (Kallis 2019). To what extent do you agree with this statement, and why?

by Adam Smith

Introduction

As technoscience and rationality have emerged as the dominant languages of environmental policy and management, there has been a consistent effort to define the limits of contemporary societies in these terms (Lovbrand et al. 2015; Dryzek 2013). One such example is Rockstrom et al.’s (2009) demarcation of planetary boundaries – a balance of 9 variables necessary for ‘safe operating’ amongst volatile biophysical systems. Essentially, these approaches identify abstract and quantifiable limits, framing climate change as a material-economic/scientific problem of restraining or offsetting certain outputs (pollutants), so that the flawed element is seemingly nature’s faltering abundance (Kallis 2019). This fails to account for the ethical, political and cultural dimensions of the problem – where the systems of production and consumption which threaten this ‘natural harmony’ are not inherent, but situated within a particular historical and political context (Castree et al. 2014). Scientific notions of limits therefore enact a nature-culture dualism, obscuring the subjective lens with which human politics views externalised environmental problems (Latour 2004). Through this separation, the limitless pursuit of growth endemic to capitalist politics can be ideologically preserved despite its contradiction to the natural order, because by definition, human society has transcended nature.

Kallis’s statement is therefore a declaration for “decolonizing the imaginary from growth” (Kallis and March 2010, p360-1) – to utilise the radical potential of wants to re-embed human society within ecological balance. For degrowthers, the self-limitation of wants is a free choice in line with a higher principle, ‘frugal abundance’, dissolving the notion of scarcity by socially restraining human desires for perpetual growth towards (or beyond) a limit (ibid.; Latouche 2012). This essay will argue that wants are an important aspect of political change – but desire is emergent amongst material-economic, cultural and institutional relations, which means that creating abundance through wants depends on their ability to create new institutional arrangements. I will firstly situate wants within a Deleuzian politics of desire, to refine how capitalist politics engenders wants through intertwined material-economic and political relations of production and subjectification. Secondly, limits will be discussed in their relation to the de-politicisation of environmental matters through ‘post-politics’ (Swyngedouw 2011), the emergence of a consensual sphere of techno-managerial governance which excludes certain perspectives from making valid contributions to policy. I will then discuss the potentiality of new wants as “think[ing] the possibility of real alternatives” (Harvey 2000, p156), focusing on how grassroots movements articulate new worldviews within politics.

Wants

“Desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology” – Deleuze and Guattari 1988, p348

Although multi-scalar analyses have emerged as a key epistemology of geographical research, there is still a tendency to speak of the different ‘levels’ of life; from the all-encompassing planetary imaginary to localities and individualised social/political subjects (Katz 2004). In such a hierarchal framing, while there may be some dialecticism between say, individual wants and macropolitical governance, ultimately, problems are compartmentalised within certain spheres which are ‘better equipped’ for particular subjects (Castree et al. 2014). Different aspects of environmental management are bounded within various disciplines that see little mutualism in their strivings, where scientists feel hindered by the imposition of political-ethical concerns from the humanities, and inversely, social researchers feel like their work is overlooked in favour of natural-scientific knowledge (Bulkeley 2019). Scholars have highlighted the potential of multidisciplinary approaches, particularly in addressing the ‘knowledge-action gap’ (Hulme 2020) whereby there is a surplus of information on how human activities damage the environment, but making change is difficult because any particular scientific fact can cast multiple plans of action – as seen in the diverse stances of ecomodernism, ecosocialism, degrowth, and so on (ibid.). To enrich action, we need critical understanding of limits and our relationship with them – where and how should limits be posed, on who and why? Compartmentalising where valid knowledge can be created is harmful it gives uneven authority in negotiations, meaning we are not fully considering our options and thus, we are not synthesising actable principles (Beck and Mahony 2018).

Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) metaphysics denies separations, conceiving of categorisations and boundaries as socially emergent from the coding and de/re-coding of diverse entanglements (relations, processes) between things (subjects, objects, concepts). Essentially, a thing has content (e.g. objects occupy physical space, concepts occupy ideological domains) and a form (the coding of how a thing differs from other things). The substance of things is therefore constructed through the relation of content and form, not literally where the two elements can be neatly disentangled, but rather, in the manner of continual reiteration, whereby the inclusion or exclusion of content can require a new code for describing the form of the thing, or a new understanding of a thing’s form requires a shifting of its bounds (ibid.). Capitalism is a driver of this endless ‘de/re-territorialization’ because it perpetuates by appropriating new domains (discovering new resources, or more efficient methods of extraction), and heterogeneously reiterating relations through the (re-)coding/valuation of objects/subjects involved (Harvey 2018). Furthermore, a system of production is inextricably a system of subjectification – for each process of value-extraction engenders a particular subject for its purpose, with particular obligations, desires, social & political relationships, and worldviews (Read 2008). Subjectivities are therefore formed amongst this ever-changing terrain. These perpetually shifting notions permeate within, and distort, the thought of subjects, meaning wants are never a static nor individualistic matter. Rather, they are calibrated through the social, through discourses of truth and goodness – simultaneously conceiving of the present and the future, history and modernity, the individual and collective, the local and the global (Foucault 1978).

This dynamic can clearly be seen within the emergence of neoliberalised subjectivities. Neoliberalism refers to the broad field of ideologies – including privatisation, marketisation, individualisation of responsibility, de-regulation of systems, and market-based/led governance (Castree 2010); which affect both institutional arrangements and the way that subjects, individuated and responsible, engage with the world. Carbon footprints have become an everyday discourse which relates consumption and climate change. Specifically, this idea has several constitutive elements: 1) the interrelation of planetary and local scales; where everyday actions have global effects, ‘glocality’ (Pratt and Rosner 2006); 2) the discursive power of fungible carbon; in essence, making it seem that pollution in one area is part of a global challenge through abstracts of carbon equivalence – which denies the local specificity of pollutants and their effects (Swyngedouw 2013); 3) the individualisation of responsibility for pollution; where everyone has a carbon footprint (Malm and Hornborg 2014). Carbon footprints create an individuated subject responsible for their emissions, who should be driving systemic change through consumption, shopping knowledgeably and ethically (Pollan 2006). Through this, powerful actors are absolved from the disproportionate responsibility they deserve because all individuals are equally implicated in this glocal problem – problematising individual consumption rather than production. This subjectification therefore serves a particular mode of production – of mass-industry and monopolisation, which are unquestioned as part of this ‘environmentally-friendly’ notion; masking power dynamics which give institutional actors the ability to reshape production, distribution and consumption in a way that no individual consumer can (ibid.; Howard 2016). Instead, it is the consumer’s wants which are reshaped, where individuals are supposed to conceive of their own limits within a deregulated system.

Post-political limits

Consensus is the means through which the relationship between capital and environmental politics becomes neutral – where the underlying ontological and political pre-suppositions of institutions are so contingently agreed upon that they appear an objective fact (Kenis and Lievens 2014). This depoliticises the arrangement of power, making its function an uncontestable outcome of human and non-human nature (ibid.; Moore 2015). The resulting post-politics therefore enforces certain perspectives and ways of communicating as valid forms within the “technical, managerial and consensual administration (policing) of environmental, social, economic or other domains” (Swyngedouw 2011, p266), normatively or institutionally excluding dissent from decision-making. For example, in land disputes between indigenous peoples and globalised neoliberal megaprojects, science and rationality are already the default languages of discussion – so when an indigenous representative speaks of their ancestral and spiritual ties to the land, or emotional experiences of colonialism, these statements are not even admissible on the same level (Zhouri 2018). From the naturalised perspective of post-politics, these are subjective concerns in an objective matter – where ideas of connection to the land and the real presence of ‘earth-beings’, e.g. sacred, sentient mountains like Quilish, are not borne out of a different set of ontological and epistemological presuppositions about the world, but are just beliefs which distort objective reality (de la Cadena 2010). The result is the consolidation of institutional power, where certain parties are given more power to enact change, or more weight in discussion – whether it be due to their expertise giving them authority, or their position granting them privileged speech (Swyngedouw 2011).

Through the flattening of diverse environmental and political-economic relations into quantifiable notions, taking a fluid situation and bounding it, trying to consensually agree upon the exact moment the system slips into failure – limits emerge as a mechanism of subjectification (Latour 2014). Limits-thinking obscures the overflow of arbitrary categories, establishing divisions between biophysical domains, between natural scientific and social scientific enquiry, between ecological and societal impacts, ultimately missing the complexity and contingency of earth’s systems (Haraway 2016). This portrait of environmental politics diminishes potential to act because it frames the apocalyptic moment as objective and foreseeable, as if we are already doomed to fail because we are continually progressing to the boundary (Kallis 2019). Yet crisis presents governance with an opportunity to seize power, to regulate behaviour more closely so that new limits can be maintained (Moore 2015); a dialectic relation between the sovereign state and capitalism where they re-shift the terrain of what is available as a resource within a biopolitics of the environment (Smith 2011). While rationalistic assessments of the earth system may premise fixed limits, the systemic desire is to ignore, to surpass, to push boundaries – for “there is no profit in resources expended to prevent bad things from happening […] The profit is in expansion” (O’Connor 1998 p317). Because of the future-orientated perspective, the eroding of natural resource pools is taken as a non-problem because sustainability is not solely a question of realism (the rational-scientific truth) but also fictitious scientific advancements (e.g., potential techno-fixes), and human resilience and adaptability – presuppositions about human potential and its ability to surpass nature (Haraway 2016).

Environmental (post-)politics is already underwritten with anthropocentric stories of progress, where scientific rationalism has enabled humanity to transcend natural limits (Daggett 2020). When impulses of enclosure, privatisation and neoliberal growth have already colonised desires, change involves re-writing the story with consideration to what wants it engenders, and what limits it imposes (ibid.). No political arrangement can be free of an institutional influence; any climate change response seeks to create new subjectivities. Ecomodernists envision the maximisation of growth, while degrowthers value frugal abundance – both self-limiting in line with neoliberal capitalist notions and environmentalist notions respectively. Both see their cause as the true solution because their wants are articulated in reference to their own ontological-epistemological pre-suppositions (Foucault 1978); demonstrating that we cannot differentiate ‘coerced’ wants (i.e. desires shaped by power) from genuine self-interest because neither idea is more or less real so long as it is believed. Acknowledging that the valuation of wants is uncoupled from ‘reality’ but instead constructed amongst specific environmental, political and cultural arrangements demands pluralism and relativity within politics (Zylinska 2014). When there is no longer one universal truth or good which can be used to rationally qualify the efficacy of ideas, actions or institutions, it is impossible to objectively hierarchalise (Blaser 2013).

An ethics of limits

The question is therefore not one of liberating ‘true’ wants, but of how a plurality of wants are dealt within the institutional arrangement. What is our obligation to the wants of others? How do we mediate good action across multiple perspectives? A productive limitation of wants is not an authoritative one, but an ethical one – a recognition that our biological survival and cultural meaningfulness rely on mutually-constituted natural-cultural worlds, and therefore renders us responsible to our co-dwellers (Haraway 2016). For a subject to self-limit means that the political occupies all aspects of life, that any desire is assessed in reference to political and cultural codes – that there is a connection between individualised actions and the collective (Zizek 2000). Decolonising desire is not just the individual limiting their wants, it is to share their ethos with society, to universalise the recognition of their wants (ibid.). This therefore problematises the institutional and normative arrangements which restrain the potential of self-limitation. Seeing biophysical and cultural-political worlds as inextricably linked and fluidly bound requires a fluid politics (Latour 2004) – so that whether our misguided wants are in the form of scientific facts or political axioms, we are taught to question openly, to expect changing wants and changing circumstances. Such a politics is not “based on moral judgment and imperative, […] only on pleasure and self-respect” (Berandi 2011, p16), which means that statements and speakers cannot be rationally excluded from discussions, but instead, should be approached with empathy and solidarity. Institutions can only implement laws and rules which rigidly imitate moralistic determinations (Zylinska 2014) – they cannot experience fulfilment, obligation nor guilt, which makes them an awful basis for acting ethically. But institutions are assemblages of subjects, their power and their resources; the fundamental entwinement of production and subjectification means that shifting one perturbs the other (Deleuze and Guattari 1988) – opening space to want and consequently do otherwise.

For wants to make real changes to material-economic conditions, systems of subjectification that condition people to ‘freely’ accept environmental harm and cultural subordination must be undone. Subverting this order is not a matter of totality – for there is so much power and function coded into capitalist society that it is unrealistic to think that it can be shifted by ideology alone (Deleuze and Guattari 1988). Ideas cannot assure abundance and security; they can only set the basis for engagements with the world. For alternative ways of seeing and being in the world to take root, they must concretise resistance – rather than trying to prove themselves as equals to capitalism through discussions that are already biased, wants should crystallise alternative structures that demonstrate the real utilities of making things otherwise (Papadopoulos 2018). Grassroots action should experiment with knowledge, be open to critique and re-direction, and be based in ethical engagement (ibid.). This can be seen in practice in the contestation of industrialised food-systems, where marginalised actors are articulating demands in relation to the increasing incursion of globalised capitalism into their livelihoods (Finnis et al. 2013). New paradigms like agroecology mobilise indigenous and peasant understandings of farming to see agriculture as dependent on ecological assemblages – like mycorrhizal networks, a delicate symbiosis between fungi and plants to transport nutrients throughout soil (Sheldrake 2020) – to provide the basis of fertile land, and thus, see entwinement with natural processes as an inherent aspect of farming (Conway 2012). Practices like intercropping, the planting of multiple species on a single plot so that their different soil-uses and outputs sustainably enrich the yield, mean that farmers can decrease dependence on monocultures and artificial inputs, ensuring abundance for future generations by enriching the bases of soil fertility (ibid.; Sheldrake 2020). Furthermore, agroecology sees sustainable farming as embedded in both ecological and social networks; because peasant livelihoods are difficult when monopolised agriculture is increasingly enforcing the economic necessity of growing cash crop monocultures (Conway 2012; Finnis et al. 2013). Movements like la Via Campesina (2007) are already working to create solidarities, to resist the status quo, to normalise new farming paradigms, to articulate new wants which see synergy between natural and cultural worlds, to establish peasants and indigenous peoples as knowledgeable and competent actors within the political sphere.

Conclusion

Constructed amongst political, social and environmental relations, wants represent an ever-changing articulation of a subject’s bridging of the individual and the collective, presenting a radical base for political reformation. Limits are cast in relation to a particular framing of the world, to particular wants of its present and future. Ideas of externalised limits represent an underlying story of nature-culture dualism, whereby the environmental problem can be separated from the ongoings of human society. While limits-thinking may premise apocalyptic moments, the ability of humanity to transcend nature is taken as an axiom which means climate response can be future-oriented despite immediate pressure to act. Evidently, establishing limits does not equal ethical obligation to them. Kallis emphasises self-limitation of wants because it foregrounds ethical desire before action. Limits must compel us to stop certain behaviours, institutions or processes – to desire otherwise and perpetuate our wants into the collective. This means that neither wants nor limits can be depoliticised, i.e., left to the realm of rational economics and science, because wanting within or beyond limits is always a political and institutional matter.

Constructing a meaningful politics of desire requires unsettling institutional and normative exclusions of perspective – because wants are always embedded in an ever-changing social and ecological context which therefore requires a flexible political system. We must question how our contemporary systems limit discussions. For example, the UN deploys a notion of nationhood which does not include indigenous nations on the same level as ‘sovereign states’; endowing them the same representational authority as any non-governmental organisation (Liverman 2018). Furthermore, the peasants of diverse nations are represented by elite bureaucrats of their colonised nationalities, and only allowed to dissent through NGO representation. If the nation-state is historically a key driver of power centralisation and unsustainable intensification of industrial-capitalist systems (Daggett 2020), how can we hope to reform an environmental politics which privileges Westphalian sovereignty? We must find ways to assert new understandings of our worlds and futures. Grassroots action must demonstrate that competent and ethical management can exist outside of technocracy and bureaucracy, and that people can be experts outside of science and rational economics – so the radical contributions of excluded and marginalised speakers can erode entrenched hegemonies through action. Only when we generate actable principles through a politics of open and pluralistic discussions of wants, limits, subjectivities, and worldviews, will we all come to enjoy an abundant world.

References

Beck, S. and Mahony, M. (2018). The IPCC and the new map of science and politics. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change9(6), p.e547.

Berardi, F. (2011). Ironic Ethics. Documenta (13): Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Blaser, M. (2013). Notes toward a political ontology of ‘environmental’ conflicts. In: Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge, p13-27

Bulkeley, H. (2019). Navigating climate’s human geographies: Exploring the whereabouts of climate politics. Dialogues in Human Geography9(1), pp.3-17.

Castree, N. (2010). Neoliberalism and the biophysical environment 1: What ‘neoliberalism’is, and what difference nature makes to it. Geography Compass4(12), pp.1725-1733.

Castree, N., Adams, W.M., Barry, J., Brockington, D., Büscher, B., Corbera, E., Demeritt, D., Duffy, R., Felt, U., Neves, K. and Newell, P. (2014). Changing the intellectual climate. Nature climate change4(9), pp.763-768.

Conway, G. (2012). One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Daggett, C. (2020). Energy and domination: contesting the fossil myth of fuel expansion. Environmental Politics, pp.1-19.

De la Cadena, M. (2010). Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond “politics”. Cultural anthropology, 25(2): 334-370

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Dryzek, J. (2013). ‘Looming tragedy: Limits, boundaries, survival’, in The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 27–51.

Finnis, E., Benitez, C., Romero, E. F. C. and Meza, M. J. A. (2013). Agricultural and Dietary Meanings of Mandioca in Rural Paraguay. Food and Foodways, 21(3), pp.163-185.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, Vol. 1: An introductionTrans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: making kin in the chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press

Harvey, D. (2000). Spaces of hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Harvey, D., 2018. The limits to capital. Verso books.

Howard, P. H. (2016). Concentration and power in the food system: Who controls what we eat? (Vol. 3). Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hulme, M. (2020). ‘One Earth, Many Futures, No Destination.’ One Earth 2: 309–311.

Kallis, G. (2019). ‘The Limits of Environmentalism’, in Limits: Why Malthus was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA., pp.49–74.

Kallis, G. and March, H. (2015). Imaginaries of hope: the utopianism of degrowth. Annals of the association of American geographers105(2), pp.360-368.

Katz, C. (2004). Growing up global: Economic restructuring and children’s everyday lives. U of Minnesota Press

Kenis, A. and Lievens, M. (2014). Searching for “the political” in environmental politics. Environmental Politics, 23(4), 531–548.

Latouche, S. (2012). La sociedad de la abundancia frugal [The society of frugal abundance]. Barcelona, Spain: Icaria.

Latour, B. (2004). Politics of nature. Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2014). On some of the affects of capitalism. [http://www.brunolatour.fr/sites/default/files/136- AFFECTS-OF-K-COPENHAGUE.pdf]

Liverman, D.M. (2018). Geographic perspectives on development goals: Constructive engagements and critical perspectives on the MDGs and the SDGs. Dialogues in Human Geography8(2), pp.168-185.

Lövbrand, E., Beck, S., Chilvers, J., Forsyth, T., Hedrén, J., Hulme, M., Lidskog, R. and Vasileiadou, E. (2015). Who speaks for the future of Earth? How critical social science can extend the conversation on the Anthropocene. Global Environmental Change32, pp.211-218.

Malm, A. and Hornborg, A. (2014). The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Review1(1), pp.62-69.

Moore, J. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso

O’Connor, J. R. (1998). Natural causes: Essays in ecological Marxism. New York City: Guilford Press

Papadopoulos, D. (2018). Experimental practice: Technoscience, alterontologies, and more-than-social movements. Duke University Press.

Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin.

Pratt, G. and Rosner, V. (2006). Introduction: The global & the intimate. Women’s Studies Quarterly, pp.13-24.

Read, J. (2008). The age of cynicism: Deleuze and Guattari on the production of subjectivity in capitalism. Deleuze and politics, pp.139-159.

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F.S., Lambin, E.F., Lenton, T.M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H.J. and Nykvist, B. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature461(7263), pp.472-475.

Sheldrake, M. (2020). Entangled life: how fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures. Random House.

Smith, M. (2011). Against ecological sovereignty: ethics, biopolitics, and saving the natural world. University of Minnesota Press.

Swyngedouw, E. (2011). Depoliticized environments: The end of nature, climate change and the post-political condition. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements69, pp.253-274.

Swyngedouw, E. (2013). The non-political politics of climate change. ACME Journal. 948-Article Text-2843-1-10-20150317.pdf

Swyngedouw, E. (2013). The non-political politics of climate change. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies12(1), pp.1-8.

Via Campesina (2007). Nyeleni Declaration. Selingue, Mali: Forum for Food Sovereignty. Available from: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/world/globaltrade/NyeleniDeclarationen.pdf/view [Accessed 1 March 2009].

Zhouri, A. (2018). Megaprojects, epistemological violence and environmental conflicts in Brazil. Perfiles Económicos, 5(1): 7-33

Žižek, S. (2000). The ticklish subject. The absent centre of political ontology. London: Verso.

Zylinska, J. (2014). Minimal ethics for the Anthropocene. Open Humanities Press.

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.