The Said and the Imagined: Interrogating the Colonial Legacy of Language and Imagination

On the page, words, under the guise of neutrality, function to categorize subjects through humanization or “thingification,” a term coined by scholar Aime Cesaire.[1] This subtle, yet powerful system is always at work, its reach is vast, and its methods are left undetected or coded into conventional grammar, and therefore overlooked. Words then reinforce “racial imaginaries,” and limit the freedom of subjects whose humanity has been thrown into question by the processes of racialization and colonialism.[2] To break free of this, words must be used in a radical and creative practice that subverts the colonial a priori concepts attached. Only by laying bare the history and meaning of language can there then exist a “whole” non-European “I” that privileges imagination over racial imaginaries.To illuminate this history and make the point it is critical to look at the work of two scholars: Professor Anthony Bogues’ investigation into critical anti-colonialist thought as a site for radical visions of freedom and questions of being, and David GonzalezNieto’s paper looking at the importance of language in the construction of identity within a colonial framework.

Stepping back a moment, it is essential to explain the deployment of racial imaginaries in this paper. Looking at Bouges and Nieto’s work in the context of racial imaginaries makes real the abstract, yet tangibly urgent nature of both scholars’ interventions. The term racial imaginaries comes from the anthology, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine. In the introduction to the collection, Loffreda and Rankine, mixing casual conversation and literary critique, think about creative practices around race. This leads them to think about the ways in which racialization has nested itself covertly in the imagination, a private site in human consciousness and identity construction. They write on the ways white writers have used the safety of the imagination to avoid confrontation or dialogue with the non-white “I.” Loffreda and Rankine write that writers of all identities fall into the dangerous and limiting territory of “imaginative” neutrality. They write that these artists, “see the imagination as ahistorical, as a generative place where race doesn’t and shouldn’t enter, a space for bodies to transcend the legislative, the economic…”[3] The imagination is constructed through observing and communicating with the surrounding world. This is done through language. It is language that shapes the imagination. Therefore, it is language that builds and sustains racial imaginaries.

Language is the main site for human understandings of self and other. It is how the individual is able to separate the surrounding world from the individual’s existence. Communication is essential to this identity building. Through it, humans are given the infrastructure for spotting the self, and those similar, versus the “other,” which is not like self and therefore non-human. Scholar Frantz Fanon in his 1967 book, Black Skin, White Masks, emphasizes the urgency of communication, writing that, “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other.”[4] Ubiquitous, language becomes a mundanity inseparable from perception, and thus is often misinterpreted as neutral. However, it is anything but objective. David Gonzalez Nieto’s essay, “The Emperor’s New Words: Language and Colonization,” marks language as a “weapon for colonization” and traces its deployment as such starting from 1492, with the creation of the Gramática de la Lengua Castellana.[5] Written by Antonio de Nebrija 1492, the Gramática de la Lengua Castellana was the first grammar book on a modern European language. Nebrija, the writer, suggested to the then reigning monarch, Isabel, the Catholic Queen of Spain, that teaching the recently colonized people the Spanish language was a way to ensure the Empire’s rule.[6] The idea stuck, and language became the most powerful tool in the colonialists’ toolbox. To control the language of a people is to control how they see the world around them as well as themselves. By implementing a dominant language, the colonized people are forced into narratives where they are inferior. As the suppressed language is forgotten from the mouths of those who speak it and their children no longer recognize its sounds, the narratives of subordination and racialization become harder to break free from.

In Professor Bogues’ paper “And What About The Human? Radical Anti-Colonial Thought and Critical Thinking,” the question becomes: how to use language imbued with racialized meaning discursively to include the racialized subject. Colonialization and racial slavery relocated the abject subjects to a state of non-human existence. To describe this, Bogues conjures Fanon, calling this state a “zone of non-being.”[7] The state of “non-being” insists on the disillusionment of oppressed people, the total abandonment of imagination. Unable to identify themselves and their surroundings in familiar words, the “non-being” subjects can only “imagine” and exist through the dominant language’s racial imaginary, the colonialist’s rendering of the world. He interrogates existing Western radical thought, which ponders the human as a subject. However, the traditions of Western radical thought share the foundational truth that, “the human is a figure whose essence is already pre-ordained…”[8] It is here that Bogues makes his intervention. Taking concepts from Western thinkers such as Karl Marx, Bogues identifies their failure to extend the conversations of humanism to those whose humanity is not inherent, but rather has been removed, wiped way by violent and ongoing campaigns. Bogues points to Marx and Michel Foucault as intellectuals who wrote radical texts about the “subject or exploited worker” finding liberation.[9] Bogues’ suggests anti-colonialist thought as a discourse for the excluded to find liberation. This liberation in anti-colonialist thought is grounded in the act of transforming the imagination.[10]

Dominant language and Western thought regard the indigenous and racialized as non-subjects. Through language, the colonized and racialized learn racial and social hierarchies that negate their human existences. To escape this, creativity must be used. The “non-human” must envision self that has not previously existed, a self that defies “thingification.” While language does have an entangled history of colonialism, it must be pushed and shaped, stripped away and rebuilt, to make space for the non-European “I.”


[1] Bogues, “And What About The Human? Radical Anti-Colonial Thought and Critical Thinking,” 51

[2] Loffreda and Rankine, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind

[3] Ibid.,16

[4] Nieto “The Emperor’s New Words: Language and Colonization,” 231

[5] Ibid., 233

[6] Ibid.,233

[7] Bogues, And What About The Human? Radical Anti-Colonial Thought and Critical Thinking,”. 55

[8] Ibid., 59

[9] Ibid., 57

[10] Ibid.

Bibliography

Bogues, A. “And What About the Human?: Freedom, Human Emancipation, and the Radical Imagination.” Boundary 2 39, no. 3 (January 2012): 29–46. https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-1730608.

Nieto, David Gonzalez (2007) “The Emperor’s New Words: Language and Colonization,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: Vol. 5 : Iss. 3 , Article 21.

Rankine, Claudia, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2016.

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