KNOWLEDGE & EDUCATION
KNOWLEDGE & EDUCATION
Our dominant knowledge systems, primarily established in the Age of Discovery, are dually problematic: they center whiteness & maleness at the expense of others’ perspectives and they center rationality at the expense of a more holistic approach to knowing. SISTAH zine explores how we can give soul to knowledge production below.
A Strategy for Sensuousness: the Practice of Love in Politics
Love as a political practice is consistently erased and undervalued in public policy and activism. A love ethic is, however, essential for myriad positive changes in our societies. The erasure must end. For this piece, SISTAH zine was honoured to hear from the inimitable Minna Salami, author of ‘Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone’ and founder of the blog MsAfroPolitan.
There is not, nor has there ever really been, an ongoing public discourse about love as a political practice in our society. This is peculiar because, in one sense, love occupies a primal position in our lives. Though simultaneously, maybe it is not. Erich Fromm, the German sociologist and humanistic philosopher, writes that “the principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible.” So, maybe it is no surprise that in societies where capitalism is unfettered, we neither discuss nor practise love in public life.
However, as love is a real need in every human being, time should be invested in delineating what it means and how to practise it, especially in the public domain. As bell hooks articulates in ‘all about love’, “remaining open to love is crucial for our survival.” Therefore, it is deeply unsettling that weaving a love ethic into public life is not at the forefront of our politics. Yet, the politicisation of love remains a task that is constantly refrained from.
On the politicisation of love, we can draw waves of inspiration from writers like bell hooks and Minna Salami. Their works, ‘ “All About Love” and ‘Sensuous Knowledge’, respectively, dovetail one another so beautifully to articulate ideas and strategies on the practice of love in public life and politics. It is this guidance that our societies require, now more than ever.
Bell hooks delineates a “love ethic” we should adopt without question. “A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and live well.” Prefacing our actions and interactions in the public domain with such an ethic is to recognise love as a social phenomenon, not simply individual-exceptional. This is the politicisation of love that we require. Conceptualising love as a social phenomenon, as bell hooks does, should lead us to act in a way that properly recognises, and invests in, the interdependence between each one of us. “When we love, we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust.”
It is so easy to dismiss or ridicule discussions of love, but it is undeniable that emotions are completely formative in how our society operates. Right now, capitalism deifies emotions like greed and selfishness. The emphasis on the primacy of the individual comes at the expense of us as a collective, our interdependence. This individualism informs our actions, our interactions and our public policy. So, to instead underpin them with emotions associated with love, with love itself, would be deeply impactful.
Society today defers to the absence of love. We could instead challenge ourselves to embrace it, to each undertake a personal revolution in our values.
Minna Salami is, today, doing some of the most important theorising on the practice of love in politics. How we adopt a language of love, and a love ethic, is a question on which Minna Salami has myriad wisdom to impart. We were humbled to be able to speak with Minna Salami and, of course, few could articulate the practice of love in politics better than her. On practicing love, she said:
“We have to refuse to be co-opted by current power structures. And it's very difficult to do that because current power structures shape our way of thinking and being and interacting with ourselves, others and with nature in really subtle ways quite often. So, to practice love, to encourage a more loving society, is counterintuitive. It means being really vigilant when we are being called to support things that are destructive and unloving.”
To actualise love requires us to think:
“whenever we are in a situation where we make a conscious choice, we can choose to bring more love and wisdom to the world or bring more division and confusion. I'm simplifying but the vigilance I'm referring to is important. Individually and collectively, we will never reach perfection, it's an ongoing process of thinking when making a choice: which direction do I want to go towards?”
This actualisation of love is also inherently linked to acting collectively:
“it's also really important to understand that none of these questions are only about us as individuals. The first step to creating a more loving society is to recognise it's a project that everybody needs to take part in. By everybody, I mean as many people as possible. We need as many people as possible to act lovingly, truthfully and conscientiously. Even if everybody thought that way, by 5% more, we would start to see a shift because people would not be willing to turn a blind eye to things happening and just be more aware.”
It is imperative upon us all to actualise these ideas in our own actions and interactions. We seek neither to deify love, nor suggest that a love ethic alone can transform the public domain and our public policy. We say, however, that it is essential to our conduct of public life to consider the political practice of love. In many ways, it is the gateway to myriad further changes that must take place to reconstruct our societies for the good.
Fromm, E. (2000) The Art of Loving: The Centennial Edition. A & C Black
hooks, b. (2001) all about love: new visions. HarperCollins, NY
Salami, M. (2020) Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone. Zed Books Ltd, London
IN CONVERSATION WITH MINNA SALAMI ON LOVE
Image courtesy of Thais Silva
DECOLONISATION: In Conversation with Dr. Cathy Elliott
Dr. Cathy Elliott is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the UCL Department of Political Science and teaches modules on international development and qualitative research methods. She works extensively on decolonisation and pedagogy. SISTAH zine was thrilled to discuss decolonising education, an issue we are acutely aware of as university students, with Dr. Elliott.
SISTAH: Could you tell us a little about when and how your interest in pedagogy and decolonisation of curricula arose?
DR ELLIOTT: I was very lucky in my undergraduate education in the ‘90s. Completely by chance, I took pretty much the only course at my fusty old, traditional, posh university that introduced students to feminist, queer and postcolonial theory, especially poststructural thinkers and theorists. Yes, you guessed it, I did French! It was really a life changing opportunity for me and changed the way I think about a lot of things – much to my family’s delight when I came home for Christmas. At least it was only Foucault and not the coronavirus we brought home from Uni in those days.
I had another stroke of luck a few years later when I started doing Open University courses on Social Policy and wandered, again by chance, into a programme run by Gail Lewis – a Black British academic – which strongly foregrounded race, gender and disability and made us do discourse analysis as part of the assessment. You can imagine that, by this time, I just assumed those ideas were what you always learned if you studied at university and that’s why I was so excited to return to academia aged 32 to do my Master’s in Politics. I went to another posh university to do that and then I realised how unusual my previous experience had been! I spent (more than!) half the time in an ill-concealed rage because I felt that I had to read and learn all the interesting stuff in my spare time! So, I became determined to give my students the opportunity, at least, to learn some of the things that had been most interesting and life-changing for me. Not all of them take that opportunity, but it’s nice to have it there.
SZ: How did you mobilise that interest into your work? Please tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on & are working on in this area.
D: A lot of my interest in decolonisation stems from my own research which focuses on how the project of knowing the world is related to colonial practices dating back to the British Empire. I also do my best to make sure that the syllabus I teach on my modules help students understand the importance of race and empire as well as gender, sexuality, disability and religion.
I’ve also done lots of work with students on anti-racism. This started with the JewCL project, where I worked with three Jewish students on an interview project to find out about student experiences of antisemitism on campus. The results were truly shocking and we turned it into a podcast (look for JewCL on your podcast apps) to disseminate the findings. We also worked together to write a paper and give conference presentations and I think it was a very enriching experience for the students, and definitely for me, to do a piece of research together like that.
I used the same methodology to run a project with first generation students (the podcast is on the same feed and is called NewCL). Most recently, I worked with a group of Political Science students to code all the compulsory reading lists and a random sample of elective module reading lists in our department to develop robust data on the identities (by race and gender) of the authors, whether they cover topics of race, gender, disability and sexuality and whether they cover theoretical approaches such as feminist, queer, postcolonial and even Marxist theories. The results weren’t great: in the year 2018/19 only 2.5% of readings on our syllabus were written by women of colour! But it’s important to know that, because it foregrounds why we want to make a change. I also wrote a journal article with that group of students, which is currently under peer review for publication.
SZ: The term used in SISTAH zine for our overarching theme is “liberation.” You expressed the fact that “liberation” is not necessarily a term that you like to use. Could you expand a little about that?
D: This goes back to my interest in Foucault, who has been a big inspiration for my thinking. Foucault shows us that a lot of people think that power is always the force that says ‘no’ and stops us doing and being what we want to do and be. So, if we think in those terms, we imagine that if only we could be liberated from the oppressive power structures, we could live the lives we want. This is a very attractive thought for people who are living difficult lives. However, Foucault showed that – whilst power can be and often is oppressive – it is more often productive. Power relations do not only forbid us from doing what we want. They also create our identities, our capacities, our desires. For example, lots of women (cis and trans) really want to have skinny bodies or, let’s say, to have kids and stay home and care for them as an opportunity for meaning in their lives, when far fewer men would say they want these things. Those desires are real and make sense, but they don’t come from out of nowhere and they aren’t biological or essential. They are conditioned by the operation of gendered power relations: certain people are taught to want those things. Non-binary people might be particularly alert to this, because they know that the world is deeply organised into upholding the gender binary and creating sets of identities and desires that go with it. So, to me, the idea that we could liberate ourselves from power relations is a bit naïve because who are the ‘selves’ that we would liberate? I prefer to think about resistance – and as feminists and non-binary and trans people have shown us, where there is power (including the incredible power of gender thinking) there is also always resistance. That is what gives us the space to act.
SZ: Related to that, using the perspective you have gained from your work on decolonisation & pedagogy, could you explain whether & how, in your view, the terminology that we use has an impact upon the very issues they are being used to discuss? This question makes me think of Decolonising the Mind by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.
D: It’s so great that you’re reading these thinkers! Yes, I think that terminology not only shapes the world but also makes it. If you follow to the logical conclusion the point I am making above, you can see that men and women only ‘exist’ (as categories of people) because we have the terminology of gender. There are many different bodies, but the fact that we relentlessly categorise everyone into one or the other creates the situation of a binary gendered world. Similar things are true about race and sexuality and lots of other things too.
SZ: Could you explain how decolonisation of our curricula is linked to and important for the liberation of women & femmes?
D: Decolonising the curriculum means something quite specific that is different from just adding diverse authors to readings lists (though the latter is desirable too). Decolonising is about understanding the colonial history of the practices of knowledge that exist in universities and curriculums and taking steps to understand, challenge and even undo them. As such, it is not uncontroversial!
I think that understanding the colonial histories of the ideas we have that categorise people is the first step to dismantling those ideas. We can better resist if we understand both where the current contours of gender thinking comes from and also what work other people have done to resist it, so we are not always having to reinvent the wheel.
SZ: Engaging with academic staff and administrative staff about decolonisation and related matters in recent months at our university, we realised that so frequently it is women members of staff doing this work. Is that something that is representative of the reality? If so, how important is “who” is doing this work and how can it affect how successful it is?
What steps need to be taken to ensure everyone is involved in this?
D: Yes, we really found this with our curriculum project. We noticed that women and POC were much more likely to assign not only authors who were also women and POC, but also more likely to assign a broader range of ideas, approaches and topics.
Obviously, if everyone were more involved and committed, that would make our work of decolonisation easier. And you’re right, that if it is the people who tend to have less power and influence, who are maybe taken less seriously, who do this work (whether that is women, POC, non-binary and LBGTQ people and/or students), then the work will be taken less seriously. I have been struggling a lot to try to think of ways to bring other people onside, but there will inevitably be pushback, especially as the way the world is currently organised materially benefits a lot of people who do, by that token, have power. They are not necessarily going to look sympathetically on attempts to change it! My student evaluations often contain a lot of pushback against feminist and antiracist ideas, presumably (though anonymous) from cis, male and White students who understand on some level that these ideas may threaten a way of life that currently benefits them. (Whether it really does benefit them, or not, is actually a different question.)
Personally, I believe in taking your chance where you can and exercising the power you have access to. For me, I can exercise power in designing my own modules, in supporting students who want to see a change, in hiring colleagues who believe in a similar agenda and in working with anyone and everyone where there is an overlap in our vision for change. You don’t have to agree completely with someone to work with them and make a difference. You just have to find that one point of commonality and be open to changing your mind yourself, of course. So, I’m a big believer in trying to make broad coalitions, listen to people who don’t agree, involve people who might be with you on some aspects even if you disagree profoundly on others and do the practical work of making a change. That’s why I am so enthusiastic about studying and teaching politics, at the end of the day. All the above? That’s what politics is! I would encourage your readers to think about where they already have power in the world and exercise it to resist sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia and ableism where they see it.
IN CONVERSATION WITH DR. CATHY ELLIOTT ON