On Gladiatory Scholarship

In the sands of the arena, gladiators embodying colonial and decolonial modes of thought are locked in academic combat, exchanging blows of disciplinary conquest, identity and self-styled objectivity versus self-awareness and epistemic revolution. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, describing such a combat, reignites important questions and sets out to open our eyes to the battle lines, and the weapons that are available to defeat gladiatorial scholarship – the moment to learn to unlearn is upon us, he writes.

By Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

The arena

Blood on the floor of the seminar room was avoided – thanks to the power of decolonial love! The gladiators once more prepared to clash … swords drawn … but not yet crossed. The antagonist was on the offensive, standing on a high pedestal that consisted of fidelity to objectivity and positivism. But, across the arena, the protagonist exuded decolonial love, which had been his weapon of choice from the beginning. This is how blood on the floor was avoided. ‘All human beings are born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems’, the protagonist posited; ‘we must avoid a “God complex” in our scholarship’, he continued; ‘as scholars, we are social and political beings, we are always situated’, he added. Warming to the combat, the protagonist continued: ‘it seems like our dominant knowledge systems are becoming exhausted, so they are not enabling us to rise speedily and adequately to numerous modern problems including the current Covid-19 pandemic’. Gladiatory and egoistic scholarship became desperate. For the antagonist, resorting to personal attack did not work … resorting to naturalism and essences did not hold … dragging modernist concepts back to before Modernity sounded ridiculous. Thanks to the soft power of decolonial love, combined adeptly with erudition. Because knowledge can be exchanged without blood on the floor – the secret is to listen to one another. The moment to learn to unlearn is upon us; it is a window to relearning. No to all fundamentalisms. Like Mao, one can just say: the situation is excellent.

What counts as knowledge?

The theme under discussion was decolonization. This resurgent and insurgent theme in the world of knowledge is indeed haunting the republic of letters. It has taken academics and intellectuals back to the drawing boards of knowledge. Old questions have returned, demanding new answers from us:

  • What is knowledge?
  • What is the place of identity in knowledge?
  • Who is a knower?
  • Where do we think from?
  • How do we know what we know?
  • Does geography matter in knowledge?
  • Does knowledge have a biography?
  • Does ideology play any role in knowledge?
  • Is knowledge political?

The presenter was an African scholar. Should I use the name ‘protagonist’ because there was a pre-arranged ‘antagonist’? The protagonist was a black African from Africa researching and writing about Africa and African people. Not to be confused with Africanists – those who research Africa from somewhere else. The protagonist was very passionate about the issues of colonialism/coloniality and decolonization/decoloniality. The ‘afterlives of colonialism’, the continuation of colonialism beyond the dismantlement of direct administrative colonialism, was underscored. It was compared to the concept of the ‘afterlives of racial slavery’ which survived liberal notions of abolition and emancipation.

Beyond protagonists and antagonists: towards decolonial love

The ‘antagonist’ was well chosen. From the questions he posed, they seem to have been prepared a day before the ‘protagonist’ could even deliver his presentation. This is where the cat came out of the sack. Even though most of the questions had been addressed in the protagonist’s presentation, the antagonist just could not abandon his prepared notes and asked them all the same. One wondered whether the antagonist was listening at all to what the protagonist was saying! All this is part of resilient gladiatory scholarship characterised by ego-politics more than by exchange of ideas. Listening is in short supply within gladiatory scholarship. Reflexivity is very difficult. The ‘God complex’ disables these.

The antagonist was trying to turn a seminar into a theatre of war, an arena of gladiatorial combat. Much effort was expended, aimed at belittling and caricaturing what was said by the protagonist. Killing softly was attempted. Thank God, the protagonist saw through all these politics of ‘gaslighting’ and stuck to the substance of what was under discussion. In the midst of this emotionally charged seminar, the protagonist introduced the concept of ‘decolonial love’, and explained that it informed his terms of scholarly engagement.  Armed with this shield of decolonial love, the protagonist deflected personal attacks and responded to the antagonist most respectfully, but still succeeding in demolishing the very premise of the questions, and indeed unmasking Eurocentrism and coloniality in the questions themselves. In this way, blood on the floor of the seminar room was avoided.

Of sceptics and generations of scholars

This was before the outbreak of Covid-19. Physical presence was still the mode of conferencing. By the time the protagonist entered the door, the small seminar room was already packed. Those who packed it are called ‘participants’. The ‘participants’ are always of various opinions and persuasions. There were ‘sceptics’ of course among them. While scepticism is necessary for critical thought/scholarship, it has to be informed by facts, not ego. Eurocentric sceptics often dismiss scholarship informed by decolonization/decoloniality as nothing but identity politics. In France, they have upped their game: they dismiss critical race theory, postcolonial theory, decolonial thought, and feminist intersectionality thought as importations from the US. These critical interventions are said to exist to undermine French universalist thought and civic republicanism. In France, the conservatives have become desperate and extreme in their crusade against critical liberation thought emerging from battlefields of history and born of struggles against racism, enslavement, genocides, colonialism, racial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. This extremism sees critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and decolonial thought as ‘Islamo-leftism’ – whatever that means. Efforts are made to causally link terrorism and critical thought. This is how desperate the situation is!

There are also African sceptics. Some believe that the question of decolonization is archaic: the continent has passed through this phase!  Decolonial thought is often dismissed as ‘Latin American’, not relevant for Africa … as though thought on liberation must be ignored if it’s from Latin America! One can easily sense a generational element in some forms of African scepticism. Most of the African sceptics belong to what Thandika Mkandawire would categorise as the ‘first’ and ‘second’ generations of African scholars. They often say their generation dealt with this question of colonialism and decolonization long ago: it is now settled – what else can one tell them about it? The reality is that colonialism was never an event. It has always been a power structure with far-reaching consequences. The ‘episodic school’ underestimated this character of colonialism. At least Kwame Nkrumah noticed ‘neo-colonialism’. So, arrogance and an end-of-history mentality of claiming to have settled the debates on colonialism and decolonization are nothing other than part of the stuff of gladiatory scholarship and its ego-politics of even dismissing that which is haunting the ‘postcolonial world’. May the beautiful soul of Thandika rest in peace. He was never a gladiator! His generosity of spirit and humility remains salutary.

But, born inside the belly of the beast of colonialism and educated in Europe and North America, the ‘first generation’ had limited options besides imbibing Eurocentric thought.  This was the only game in town. This was delivered as the only thought. To be fair to the first generation, against all odds and colonial seductions, it developed anti-colonial and anti-imperialist consciousness inside the belly of the beast of colonialism.  The first generation’ actively participated in the very creation of African nationalism. Therefore, the first and second generations participated in or witnessed decolonization at close range. But epistemically, the first generation had been subjected to radical assimilation of Eurocentric standards, notions of excellence, and all protocols of what rigorous scholarship looked like.

While most of the ‘second generation’ they did their undergraduate education in Africa, they tended to go for postgraduate studies in Europe and North America. Inevitably, like the first generation, this cohort is very proud of its access and reception of what is considered to be rigorous ‘international’ scholarship. A latent scepticism of the scholarship of those who studied locally (inside Africa) is noticeable, and feeds into gladiatory scholarship. This is why the ‘third generation’ is judged in terms of lack of the so-called ‘international’ exposure.  This is used to lower its standing in scholarship.

Of course, facile generalization about the ‘first’ and ‘second’ generations must be avoided. Because these generations are made up of giants on whose shoulders the present generation stands. Think of Kwame Nkrumah, Claude Ake, Dani W. Nabudere, Ruth First, Julius Nyerere, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Chinua Achebe, Cheikh Anta Diop, Theophilus Obenga, Valentin Y. Mudimbe, Mahmood Mamdani, Samir Amin, Patricia McFadden, Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Thandika Mkandawire, Issa G. Shivji, Walter Rodney, Adebayo Olukoshi, Archie Mafeje, Ibbo Mandaza, Shadrack Gutto, Bernard Magubane, Ifi Amadiume, Rudo Gaidzanwa, Ngwabi Bhebe, Es’kia Mphahlele, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinweizu Ibekwe, Sam Moyo,  Helmi Sharawi,  Toyin Falola, Peter Ekeh, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Alfred Babatunde ‘Tunde’ Zack-Williams, Ali A. Mazrui,  Bethwel Ogot, and the list is not complete. These and others not mentioned constitute the finest crop of academic and intellectuals who laid a very strong foundation for current decolonial thought, decolonial theory, and decolonial scholarship. But the purveyors of gladiatory scholarship are mainly those whose scholarship needs support of ego as well pulling of rank and age to survive.

Gladiatory scholarship and its features

Gladiatory scholarship is characteristically Eurocentric and egoistic. It is born of colonial logics of the paradigm of war, the will to gain power, and the paradigm of ‘discovery’. Consequently, in gladiatory scholarship, the academy is turned into a site of warfare, a circus of war. Disciplines exist as colonies; professors are disciplinary conquerors – one has to create boundaries around a chosen field of research. Next is to cultivate that field and defend it from others who try to trespass on it. To ring-fence and create a border around the field of research, there is the issue of developing an ‘academic tribe’ (a particular language). It may be termed sociology, anthropology, or something else. Lack of familiarity with the language is a basis for exclusion.

In gladiatory scholarship, winning arguments is an end in itself – not a means to an end. Wrestling characterises gladiatory scholarship. Poking holes in another scholar’s work is privileged over seeking to understand what other scholars are providing. Reviewing another scholar’s work often degenerates into writing oneself into another’s work. The aim is to dismiss the work under review and affirm one’s own ideas.  Writing one’s book into another’s book rather than reviewing what one is given to review is a common disease of gladiatory scholarship: its intention is to destroy rather than to engage with another scholar’s ideas. In gladiatory scholarship, there is very low appreciation of other ways of knowing. What the intellectual and academic gladiator does not know is always deemed to be wrong, shallow or unscholarly.

Sustaining gladiatory scholarship are colonial ways of knowing, and at the centre of this arena is resilient civilizing mission mentality. The gladiator is always the teacher; all others are pupils. Inevitably, there is always fundamentalism in gladiatory scholarship. There is epistemic deafness. This is an inability to hear other scholars. There is also epistemic racism and epistemic xenophobia. This takes the form of dismissing all other knowledges from the rest of the world except that from Europe. Behind the scenes there is ceaseless looting of others’ ideas, only to present them as the gladiator’s original thinking.

In gladiatory scholarship, there is always very strong paternalism. This takes the form of listening to those who belong to my generation and think like me. My generation is always the best. All others are engaged in pseudo-scholarship and pseudo-science. All other generations which come before mine and did not go the schools and universities that I attended and where I studied must be looked at suspiciously. They were not there where I was, hence they can’t know as much as me.  There is a lot of effort spent on infantilizing other generations’ scholarship. There is patriarchy and sexism in gladiatory scholarship. Works of women scholars are generally ignored. There is uneven citational politics in gladiatory scholarship. African scholarship is often ignored and never cited. If scholarship informed by critical race theory, postcolonial theory, decolonial thought, and intersectionality is not outrightly dismissed as subjective … it is just ignored. Pretend it does not exist. Let’s write as though it does not exist. Invisibilize it. Don’t give it attention. Push it to the margins. Don’t include it in curriculum. Exclude it.

The consequences of gladiatory scholarship reveal themselves in their most detestable forms in assessments and examinations. Some universities still see no problem in inviting a scholar to be an ‘opponent’ in the public ‘defence’ of doctoral theses. These two words ‘opponent’ and ‘defence’ reveal the paradigm of the war tradition informing gladiatory scholarship. The other consequences are negative assessment of the student’s work, whereby the examiner just looks for what is wrong with the student’s work and ignores all that is correct, using the former to make a judgement and to give a mark. Gladiatory scholarship instils fear in its victims. It is intimidatory scholarship. But there is now turmoil in the kingdom of gladiatory scholarship and the situation is excellent for epistemic freedom. Claims of objectivity are always the refuge of gladiatory scholarship.

Beyond objective scholarship and towards a decolonization of knowledge

Thought from nowhere! Knowledge from nowhere! Theory from nowhere! I am, therefore, a scholar. My scholarship is: neutral, objective, unsituated, truthful, universal, and scientific.  In this scholarship, there is no room for the personal, emotion, ideology, and politics. There is no room for geopolitics and body-politics. In this scholarship, I totally hide myself and indeed you can’t see me. Why hide yourself and pretend to be a god who cannot be seen? What is the logic behind concealment of self in knowledge generation and dissemination?  This hiding and concealment is belied by a simple fact that we all write our names on the book covers we write. Our journal articles and book chapters always carry our names. Perhaps those who use pseudonyms have tried even harder. But a pseudo-name is a form of identity all the same. So, there is identity in knowledge generation. There is the wish to be known as the authors of our works. We always wish to own our work, hence we affix our names to it. This means there is always us in our work. We can’t hide and conceal ourselves successfully.

The veteran educationist and intellectual Paulo Freire urged us to reveal ourselves. Decolonial thought urges us to reveal ourselves. Feminist and womanist scholars urge us to reveal ourselves. What is there to hide anyway? We are human beings. We are social and political beings. We are spiritual beings. We are many things at once. Can we successfully hide from these identities as we generate knowledge? Can we suspend ourselves, banish ourselves from ourselves for the sake of producing objective, truthful, universal, neutral, and unsituated knowledge relevant across time and space? There are no ways to do this, it is impossible.

We research and write as ourselves. Our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, spirituality and other vectors of our identity constructed as they may be, we cannot escape from them as we generate knowledge. They are in us and are us. Those who pretend to be able to escape these identities are simply more capable than others of hiding them and then denying their existence. By revealing ourselves we come nearer to the truth and reality of being human in the first instance. This nearness to truth and reality is delivered more forcefully by decolonial thought: it is an epistemic perspective which is unmasking us and revealing us so that we stop lying to ourselves and avoid myths of objectivity and neutrality. Our gift from decolonial scholarship includes coming to terms with such realities as: ego-politics of knowledge, body-politics of knowledge, and locus of enunciation of knowledge. An epistemic revolution is on offer, where a new agenda that is beyond exhausting one another over disciplinary knowledge is unfolding, and where a new focus on troublesome existential problems is the focal point of knowledge generation.

Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Professor and Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He is a leading decolonial theorist in the fields of African history, African politics, African development and decolonial theory.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.