Written by Heba Alnajada
On April 3rd 2017, the Global Metropolitan Studies Center at UC Berkeley held a two-day symposium. Entitled Ten Years of Global Metropolitan Studies Center at Berkeley, the symposium gathered former directors such as Ananya Roy who presented an inspiring lecture that put into question the eurocentricity of the urban experience and how this constraints our understanding of both the global south and the global north. She claimed that the task of decolonial urban studies and Global Metropolitan Studies is to work simultaneous to post-colonial theory and critical theory. And that in order to challenge the whiteness of urban studies we need to take seriously the question of race as an organizing principle. Calling for epistemic decolonization, she says, we need to break with David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre and have epistemic diversity by reading more W.E.B Du Bois and other black radical thinkers.
The symposium also brought together presentations by GMS alumni. Cities from both the global south and the global north were presented. It was clear, in most of them, how intellectuals who think at peripheries of the modern world think in terms of complexity and entanglements and how there is no universal language of decolonial thinking. The different epistemologies presented aimed not at reproducing universals but putting things together again. In one presentation by Gautam Bhan from the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, the South was perceived as an ethos of inquiry. This calls us to push away from a diagnosis of the vulnerability of the South, to scale in from global peripheries to city peripheries, and to look at nuances and complexities from place. More so, he challenged who we read and the canonical split created by structures of knowledge. He also raised a central question to the project of epistemic decolonization: Is the university is the right site?
Another interesting presentation was given by Sergio Montero from the Universidad de los Andes. By questioning why Bogotá became a model and putting things together again he found that this was due to a new logic to the development project, which is philanthropism. He also found that New York and Washington served as nodes of the knowledge production about Bogotá and that in this transportation of the Bogotá model few organization are from the global south. Unsurprisingly, though, some presentations did end up reproducing universals and did think from the modern world. In the concluding discussion, alumni, current and former directors, affiliated faculty, and current students discussed what kind of knowledge can produce insurgencies? And where can knowledge be produced from a decolonial perspective? Does this form of insurgent knowledge need to come from neither academics nor whites?
To me some questions remain: how do we, as scholars in the westernized university, critically read radical thinkers such as W.E.B Du Bois, Frants Fanon, and Aime Cesaire. How do we critically read post-colonial thinkers against the grain of white thought? Particularly, in a world where the condition of life is not [post] colonial, in a world where hierarchies of humanity, power, and knowledge still exist and operate.