The gifts of failure

We chose the word “gesture” for the title of our collective to underscore the fact that decolonization is impossible when our livelihoods are underwritten by colonial violence and unsustainability. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, our health systems and social security, and the technologies that allow us to write about this are all subsidized by expropriation, dispossession, destitution, genocides and ecocides. There is no way around it: we cannot bypass it, the only way is through.

Therefore, we have created a workspace where we can experiment with decolonial gestures that will undoubtedly and inevitably fail. How we fail is important. It is actually in the moments when we fail that the deepest learning becomes possible and that is usually where we stumble upon something unexpected and extremely useful. Failing generatively requires both intellectual and relational rigour.

Facing failure with accountability, honesty, humility, hyper-self-reflexivity and humor is not easy, but it is a practice that GTDF is trying to develop. In this practice, no one is off the hook. The first step in this direction is to expand our capacity and disposition to hold space for difficult and painful feedback without feeling overwhelmed, immobilized or wanting to be rescued. In this sense, coddling each other is a way of betraying each other in this process of learning together.

We have a list of 10 hyper-self-reflexivity questions and a list of 10 “potholes” in the road toward decolonization that we have mapped over the years. We use both lists in internal peer reviews of our artistic, pedagogical and cartographic experiments.

Potholes in the road toward decolonization (for people in low-intensity struggle)

  1. Having a critique of colonialism means that you are already decolonized.
    Saying you are doing it does not mean you are actually doing it.
  2. Seeing all resistance to authority as anti-colonial.
    Many forms of resistance are inherently colonial and/or imperial.
  3. Celebrating all attempts to disrupt colonial patterns as contributing to decolonization.
    Most attempts to disrupt colonialism are still grounded in colonial patterns.
  4. Extracting, selectively consuming and mis-interpreting Indigenous teachings.
    The perceived entitlement to access and mastery of Indigenous knowledges is a colonial entitlement.
  5. Imagining entanglement as interconnection with beauty only.
    Rather than seeing entanglement as entanglement with “shit” as well.
  6. Emphasizing entitlements and forgetting accountabilities.
    Attempting to transcend privilege without giving anything up.
  7. Expecting other people (especially Indigenous people) to shoulder the costs of your learning.
    Attempting to decolonize without considering the impact of your work on different Indigenous peoples.
  8. Confusing self-actualization with decolonization.
    Seeing individual free/creative self-expression as a decolonial gesture.
  9. Erasing distinctions between high- and low-intensity struggles.
    Positioning yourself on the basis of individual choice rather than structural location. Flattening uneven struggles.
  10. Assuming that being a victim of systemic oppression means that you are not complicit in colonialism.
    Although vulnerabilities are unevenly distributed, no one is off the hook. We are all implicated in  historical and systemic social and ecological violence.

Hyper-self-reflexivity questions

  1. To what extent are you reproducing what you critique?
  2. To what extent are you avoiding looking at your own complicities and denials, and at whose expense?
  3. What are you doing this for? Who are you accountable to? What is your theory of change? What would you like your work to move in the world?
  4. To what extent are you aware of how you are being read by communities of high-intensity struggle? Who (in these communities) would legitimately roll their eyes at what you are doing (i.e. find it indulgent and/or self-infantilizing)?
  5. Who/what is this (work) really about? Who is benefitting the most from this work? In what ways could this work be read as self-serving or self-congratulatory?
  6. Who is your imagined audience? What do you expect from this audience? What compromises have you had to make in order for your work to be intelligible and relatable to this audience? To what extent can these compromises compromise the work itself? Who are you choosing not to upset and why? How does integrity manifest in your work?
  7. To what extent is the politics you are proposing based on the modern grammar of exceptionalism, entitlements and exaltedness that characterize political engagements within modernity?
  8. How wide is the gap between where you think you are at and where you are actually at? Who would be able to help you realize that? Would you be able to listen?
  9. To what extent can you respond with humility, honesty, humour and hyper-self-reflexivity when your work or self-image are challenged?
  10. What would you have to give up or let go of in order to go deeper?

One Reply to “The gifts of failure”

  1. Hi there, thank you so much for sharing these. They echo many of my pondering and wonderings and is so helpful to have tangible questions to work with. I am interested in exploring other ways of knowing and how a process of asking might look when I move away from the frustratingly well trodden paths of analysis and ‘thinking brain’. I have also been sharing these with other friends and practitioners and considering ways to work through these collectively or via creative exchanges. In doing so, I wonder how to credit or include or share with your work so there is a fairer exchange?


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