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19th Transatlantic Students Symposium

The Return Of Hope:
Decolonization, Knowledge Production,
and the Politics of Care

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Oregon State University,
University of Warsaw,
Virtual Symposium, May 7-8, 2021


Program Description

This is not a hopeful time. Challenges abound: Climate change, political fragmentation, increased demonization of the political other, social strife, cultural and technological changes, and foreign policy challenges, even an increasing uncertainty over the future of democracy. It is easy to despair rather than to be hopeful. But hope is always a hope against hope. It does not arise automatically but needs to be cultivated and built. If we want hope to return, we need to work towards it, to change perspectives, and to create a true politics of care.

Such care needs to build on the awareness of our increasing connectedness in a global society, as the Coronavirus pandemic shows. A new global reality is challenging old established ways of both thinking and governing. Both are intimately connected, for, as the old adage goes, knowledge is power. What you know may make a difference in surviving, adapting to changed circumstances, and preparing yourself for the future. This holds true for individuals just as much as for cultures or nations, and it has been true since the dawn of history.

Throughout history, knowledge production and interpretation were advanced and delayed depending on those who held political power to allow such processes to happen, and more specifically, to happen on their terms. This created the complex layers of entanglement between knowledge and power and resulted in a hegemonic construct becomes coupled with colonialism.

The aim of our 2021 Transatlantic symposium is to examine the interrelationship between the production of knowledge and processes of (de)colonization. Specifically, the symposium aims to interrogate how we decenter or provincialize established master narratives (D. Chakrabarty), as well as terminology and methodology (L. Tuhiwai-Smith) in order to rethink power and positionality, and develop strategies towards a politics of care aimed at fulfilling the kinds democratic and humanistic promises which can transcend the narrow national interests that have challenged our world in the recent years if not decades. For that to happen, we will also need to transcend traditional ways of thinking about the world.

We will examine what is reductively construed as merely "Western" thought despite its global heritage. We will apply multiple critical lenses (such as globalization theory, critical epistemology, trans-national feminism, queer studies, Indigenous and Black sovereignty) which allow us to embark upon a different understanding of knowledge production, particularly knowledge produced under and for any colonialist project. This critique is aimed to help us work towards fulfilling the liberatory promise of a truly post-colonial, democratic and inclusive world that can stand up to the challenges posed by authoritarianism and power politics today.

But is it even possible to disentangle knowledge and power? How optimistic can we be about that? How is knowledge production intertwined with 'unconscious' or informal practices of information gathering? How can we integrate 'local' perspectives without constructing the 'local' as a fixed entity? How can we define transitions from colonial to postcolonial to non-colonial contexts?

There are schools of thought that believe that this connection between knowledge and power cannot ever be separated, that already the discourse is fraught with power relations (M. Foucault, J. Derrida). Knowledge and cultural values would be relative (following G.F.W. Hegel), rather than absolute and provable (following I. Kant). The result of such thinking would be the acceptance of alternative knowledges and sciences that would compete with each other for an ever more ephemeral truth (A. Sokal, J. Bricmont). The result would be nothing but division, separation, a global lack of communication and understanding, and a world of alternative realities perpetually at war with each other. For if there is no hope for neutral knowledge, for a shared truth and reality, what is there left to talk about? Should we not aim for being able to communicate in a democratic society (J. Habermas, H. Arendt)? If everything is dominated by power, what is there to be done to change it? Is not the point of philosophy to act (K. Marx)?

Such divisions in knowledge have always been useful politically for those seeking to rule by division rather than unity. "Divide and conquer" has been used historically by every group seeking to dominate another. This holds true especially in the fight between those considering themselves civilized, versus those they considered barbarians (Herodotus, L.H. Morgan, F. Engels). Colonization has always been justified by the insistence on the lack of civilized values, of science, of culture by those to be dominated. In order to overcome such historically entrenched political power divisions, the duopoly of civilization versus barbarism thus needs to be overcome. Decolonizing knowledge becomes a central action within those cultures and societies that have been historically oppressed and silenced through policies of erasure, dominance, colonialism, apartheid, genocide, and the Holocaust (H. Bhabha, E. Said, G. Spivak, H. Arendt).

The 19th Transatlantic Students Symposium will thus look at pathways to recover a history of ideas and knowledge that has shed its colonializing gestures of division. The aim is not to create yet another alternative reality, but to uncover the shared human history of knowledge, civilization, and culture. Following Kwame Anthony Appiah's unyielding impulse to discover the global within the local, we will aim to find a common ground that may allow for a renewed impulse for public policy to succeed in an ever-more interconnected world.

The multiple crises that are challenging every single country on the planet currently, and with it the global order, call for a new politics of care. Most recently, the Coronavirus pandemic has shown that the global and the local need to be considered together, that science cannot be negated without grave consequences, and that attempts to maintain and deepen divisions - whether they be ideological or political - are doomed to fail on a grander scale than ever before.

True decolonization in the transatlantic realm needs to reconsider the traditional sphere of transatlantic relations, and to refocus on the entirety of the Atlantic partners, both in the Northern and the Southern Hemisphere. Newly established video conferencing technologies can serve us well to create an even more inclusive group of young scholars from several continents united in reimagining a future focused on commonality rather than division, divided not by difference but united in hope.


Dr. Philipp Kneis, Dr. Allison Davis-White Eyes
PD Dr. Reinhard Isensee, Dr. Kristina Graaff (Humboldt),
Dr. Tomasz Basiuk (Warsaw)

Program Information

Complete Report on the 19th Symposium (06/07/2021)

Syllabus for Preparatory Class at OSU

see also: Latest Program Report

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