Joćo M Paraskeva
Curriculum Epistemicide: Towards an Itinerant Curriculum Theory
Routledge, New York, 2016. 282pp., $160 hb
Reviewed by Lucas Van Milders
Lucas Van Milders is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent. The title of his thesis is Against Epistemicide: Towards a Decolonial Hermeneutics of Autonomy.
The hegemony of the modern Western Eurocentric platform has reached its irreversible end. This timely premise propels Joao M. Paraskeva's highly insightful yet occasionally densely argued volume on the implications of this end for critical pedagogy and the curriculum. This work builds on his earlier Conflicts in Curriculum Theory. Challenging Hegemonic Epistemologies (2011) which made an important contribution to curriculum theory by providing a critical intervention into the field’s history: an analysis of the colonial matrix of knowledge production that has strongly affected the field of curriculum and pedagogy. In the present volume, Paraskeva seeks to expose the dynamics which have supported this matrix as epistemicide: the murder of knowledge. The ambitious nature of this enterprise stems from the fact that Paraskeva seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the epistemicidal nature of the Eurocentric curriculum. The alternative to the latter heavily leans on a decolonised Marxism and is argued to remain effective as a curriculum theory without relapsing into the hierarchical and exclusionary theory that gave rise the epistemicidal curriculum. Although there is a risk of losing argumentative scope in such an interdisciplinary plethora of perspectives and debates, Paraskeva succeeds in offering a robust critique of, what he argues to be, the epistemicidal and eugenic dynamics of the Eurocentric curriculum, as well as an insightful analysis of what an alternative could look like. The most effective tool for this is ruthless critique. As Antonia Darder strongly argues in the volume’s foreword, ‘nothing short of liberatory ruthlessness can free us from the eugenic dominance of the Western modern Eurocentric epistemological perspective’ (x).
Critiques of the curriculum are a timely matter, with popular campaigns like Why Is My Curriculum White? and #RhodesMustFall addressing the colonial matrix of knowledge production in Westernised universities. Whereas the latter acts as a protest movement that deploys the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes as an illustration of the white supremacist character of many campuses, departments and curricula, the latter explicitly takes aim at the eugenic nature of pedagogy and curricula which are criticised for not adequately reflecting issues of diversity, equality and discrimination. Although Paraskeva does not nod towards these developments, his argument nonetheless provides these movements with plenty of theoretical and argumentative substance when he introduces ‘the epistemicide that is going on on a daily basis in schools and the dangers of perpetuating the invisibilisation of non-Western knowledges from educational and curriculum policies and practices’ (11). In other words, these movements ought to be understood as a direct response to an epistemicide in the curriculum that excludes particular, non-Western knowledges. This reinforces the decolonial character that runs through both these movements, as well as Paraskeva’s critique of the epistemicidal curriculum. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the latter is presented as a direct resonance of one of the key decolonial thinkers who advanced the very idea of epistemicide: Boaventura de Sousa Santos. In the latter’s Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide, epistemicide is described as the murder of knowledge. As Santos writes: ‘Unequal exchanges among cultures have always implied the death of knowledge of the subordinated culture, hence the death of social groups that possessed it. In the most extreme cases, such as of the European expansion, epistemicide was one of the conditions of genocide’ (93). Santos’s work almost functions as the backbone of Paraskeva’s entire argument, a dynamic which often makes it hard to distinguish the essential contribution of Paraskeva from his substantial references to Santos’s work. Yet one should not forget that this as much an analysis of epistemicide as it is a work on curricula, and this point is made forcefully in the first chapter where Paraskeva offers an excellent overview of recent developments in Critical Pedagogy. Starting from the so-called Golden Moment in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when critical pedagogues understood that notions of ideology, power, hegemony, identity, and discourse had an essential role to play in debates about the curriculum and pedagogy, Paraskeva argues that this post-structuralist surge refrained from explicitly engaging the Cartesian model of modernity upon which the entire pedagogical and curricular framework was founded. The lack of cognitive plurality in these debates adequately illustrates the need for incorporating issues of cognitive diversity and justice. By arguing that critical engagements with the curriculum urgently need to engage in a struggle for social and cognitive justice, Paraskeva effectively embeds the entire debate on curriculum in a broader, decolonial struggle. Engaging this Cartesian model is therefore essential since ‘the Western epistemological legacy is profoundly connected in what some scholar call the coloniality of powers and beings, which is essential to understand what we call curriculum epistemicides. Welcome to the decolonial momentum’ (46).
So what is this decolonial momentum? One of the cornerstones of decolonial analysis is an essential differentiation between colonialism and coloniality: whereas the former indicates the period of colonial imperialism where Western powers colonised large sections of the non-Western world, coloniality, refers to the incessant continuation of these practices and dynamics of domination after the end of colonial administration (i.e. the era of decolonisation). This last point has been made eloquently by Ramon Grosfoquel, another decolonial thinker who has theorised about epistemicide. Following Grosfoquel, Paraskeva argues that it is the structure of the modern /colonial / capitalist world system which continuously reproduces these dynamics of domination: ‘Coloniality is the memory, the legacy of colonialism, yet it continues to be reborn through neoliberal hegemony as a pervasive colonial power that has strong epistemological ties’ (57). This task is a fundamental one which reaches deeper than most post-colonial critiques. The latter namely remain wedded to Western forms of thought, as evidenced by the almost exclusively reliance on post-structuralist thinkers in the work of post-colonial scholars like Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak. By incorporating the Western Left into the same epistemology that continuously reproduces Eurocentrism, Paraskeva keeps his focus resolutely on the fundamental dynamics of this epistemology which are propelled by an epistemological eugenicism that is incapable of tolerating different epistemologies. The only outcome is then total annihilation or incorporation of non-Western epistemologies into the Eurocentric curriculum. This disciplinary classification is illustrated late in the text, when Paraskeva is analysing the way non-Western references are curated into the curriculum. What is to be understood as the driving engine behind these dynamicsis the cult of positivism. Again, quoting Grosfoquel: ‘the underlying myth of the Westernised academy is still the scientificist discourse of ‘objectivity’ and neutrality’ which hides the ‘locus of enunciation’ of the speaker; that is, who speaks and from what epistemic body-politics of knowledge and geopolitics of knowledge they speak from in the existing power relations at a world-scale’ (69). A truly decolonial struggle is therefore one of epistemic disobedience: to learn to unlearn and relearn. For Paraskeva, this consists of looking beyond provincialised Europe.
What lies beyond Eurocentrism, Paraskeva repeatedly argues, is in no sense a romanticised return to indigenous knowledge. A commonly held assumption in decolonial scholarship is that, even though the modern project has reached its irreversible end, this does not mean that the project can be reversed. It is rather a task of thinking the end of modernity through different non-Western epistemologies, of which Paraskeva provides two examples: African and Asian-Arab epistemological frameworks. He elegantly uses these illustrations to reinforce previously made assertions. Accordingly, the third chapter provides an analysis of African philosophy and epistemology indicates how the post-colonial moment never really arrived, and emphasises the importance of decolonised Marxist theory in the work and anti-colonial activism of Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and Amílcar Cabral. The fourth chapter then, presents an engagement with Arab philosophy and science which exposes the tragic loss of history whereby the rich, developed, and sophisticated history of Arab thought debunks the myth that Western epistemological hegemony came out of nowhere and never saw any rival epistemologies. These two chapters thereby present the two main themes that run through the entire volume. On the one hand, Paraskeva unpacks the idea that the western understanding of the world should not be equated with the understanding of the world, and that alternative epistemologies offer a plethora of possibilities to resist the cult of positivism that constitutes Eurocentrism. On the other hand, he argues that there are effective ways of resisting this epistemicide which consist of decolonising the Western canon without degrading other, non-Western epistemologies. These two currents are conjoined in the last three chapters of the volume where Paraskeva seeks to draw the contours of Itinerant Curriculum Theory (ICT): an alternative, non-epistemicidal way of theorising about the curriculum which crystallises out of the engagement with decolonial scholarship.
It is here that the argument starts to stutter and the solid focus of the previous four chapters is impeded by attempting to do too much at the same time. Rapidly shifting from a chapter that seeks to further explore the way the West was able to assemble an epistemological history that renders other epistemologies as non-existent, to a chapter that deploys the Deleuzean notion of deterritorialisation as an effective mechanism to understand the itinerant nature of ICT, and then to a chapter that largely repeats the insights from decolonial theory once more, disjoints the argument to the extent that it is unclear what the strategic objective of these last chapters is. This a matter of execution rather than argumentation, as these three chapter further continue the volume’s quality of argumentation and excellent understanding of the strands of literature engaged. As such, the dynamics of epistemicide are further unraveled by, for instance, providing a detailed analysis of how the appropriation of Roman antiquity and Greek philosophy in the Renaissance constitutes the explicit moment when Western modernity assembled itself as the navel of the world (i.e. the birth of Eurocentrism). Through a rich engagement with key works such as Edward Said’s Orientalism, Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism, and, especially, Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Paraskeva debunks the myth that Europe or the West, as he puts it, came out of the blue. Yet this analysis seems to rehash the second chapter where decolonial scholarship was presented as the essential turn to take for curriculum theory. More so, the last chapter once more reiterates this when looking at different decolonial strategies such as border thinking, post-abyssal thinking, or transmodernity. This is unfortunate since the excellent quality of these analyses is impeded by the fact that they seem to be deployed arbitrarily throughout the volume and severely impede the structure of the argument. The latter point is illustrated by the sixth and penultimate chapter that intervenes in the decolonial analysis by offering a articulation of ICT. Despite this seemingly being an essential component for a volume bearing this name, its place in the overall argument is hard to justify.
Leaving these structural concerns aside, the question to be answered is: what exactly is ICT and how does it constitute an effective alternative to the epistemicidal and eugenic nature of the Eurocentric curriculum? In line with his Deleuzean strategy, Paraskeva argues that ICT essentially takes on ‘a rhizomatous approach that sees reality beyond dichotomies, beyond beginnings and endings; an approach that breeds from the multiplicity of immanent platforms and, from its centerless and peripheryless position, defies clean knowledge territories’ (196). In other words, it does not merely argue that we have to move away from the orthodox curriculum canon. It argues that we have to get rid of canonology entirely. By fusing together different epistemological perspectives without forging them into a unitary curriculum (which is what the Eurocentric curriculum essentially is), ICT seeks to create new places and spaces where questions can be asked about the geopolitical hierarchy of knowledge and the colonial and eugenic matrix of knowledge production. More so, it also seeks to exposes the linguicidal nature of the curriculum by incorporating forms of knowledge that are not advanced in the English language. This depiction is then further enhanced in the last chapter where different decolonial strategies are assessed in their compatibility with ICT. Essentially, this involves adopting the task of these strategies of decolonising the Eurocentric impulses of Marxism. Even though it is widely acknowledged that Marx provided insightful strategies for the decolonial struggle and offers ideas that have value beyond the Western context, the very fact that Marx wrote from a context where working class and factory owners belonged to the same ethnicity, clarifies the areas of necessary decolonisation, Paraskeva argues. The eventual outcome is one of post-abyssal thinking – a strategy articulated by Boaventura de Sousa Santos that starts from a critique of the abyssal nature of Western epistemology whereby a line is drawn around the Eurocentric understanding of knowledge and everything beyond it is rendered non-existent, invisible or absent in a non-dialectical sense. Post-abyssal thinking moves beyond this line by arguing in favour of a radical co-presence of different epistemologies. In the words of Santos, it is a general epistemology of the impossibility of a general epistemology.
In summary, Paraskeva offers a highly insightful contribution that attempts to fundamentally reshapes the debates on curriculum. Although more could be said about the strategy of practically implementing ICT, it nonetheless provides plenty of tools that could potentially help with such a task. Yet this might be the essential point to make: what insights could a pedagogue or teacher take from this volume? Arguably, it would go against the grain of the entire argument to codify a programmatic understanding of ICT, yet interweaving some examples of how a general epistemology of the impossibility of a general epistemology can effectively be operationalised would help teachers and pedagogues sympathetic to the argument in resisting the epistemicidal and eugenic curriculum. Despite this lack of examples, the volume is more interested in the theoretical dimensions of curriculum epistemicide and this is without a doubt where its strength stems from. There is a wide variety of debates, thinkers, theories, and disciplines that Paraskeva authoritatively embeds in his overall argument. The extensive references occasionally obscure the voice of the main argument yet this never affects the undeniable effect of presenting the reader with a richly resourced volume that incorporates a plethora of voices operating both within and outside Western epistemology: that the hegemony of the Western Eurocentric modern platform has reached its irreversible end.
20 November 2016