Territories of Theory: Post-Colonial Irritations of my Theoretical Practice

German version published as:
Jörissen, B. (2019). Territorien der Theorie: Post-koloniale Irritationen meiner bildungstheoretischen Praxis. In U. Stadler-Altmann & B. Gross (Eds.), Beyond erziehungswissenschaftlicher Grenzen. Diskurse zu Entgrenzungen der Disziplin. (pp. 57–62). Opladen: Barbara Budrich.
Translated using deepl.com, with a few manual corrections.

Get a PDF (german preprint & english version) on the Downloads Page.

Educational theory sees itself to a large extent, albeit in very different understandings, as a critical project. In this context, the topos of alterity (of the foreign, of the other) has gained increasing importance – following either critical-theoretical figurations (the non-identical) or positions of difference theory (différance). As the colleagues Bilstein, Ecarius and Keiner (2011, 7) state, “when thinking about education we cannot avoid considering cultural diversity and difference, the complexity of life worlds” – and this is because the global world is an unbounded one (ibid.).
Paradoxically, however, the trace of the exclusion of a very concrete “other” runs through the discourse of education theory, insofar as postcolonial perspectives are noted with considerable delay, and then also rather marginally (cf., however, Göhlich: in Jörissen/Zirfas 2010; Balzer 2014; Mecheril 2014; Knobloch in Hummrich/Pfaff/Dirim/Freitag 2016).
In view of the traditional forms of German memory work and coming to terms with its past, this state of affairs can at best be explained, but cannot be justified. If “postcolonial thinking and argumentation is not only an intellectual fashion, but the only access to world and national history appropriate to the age of globalization” (Brumlik 2016), then an end to the current practice of not acknowledging postcolonial educational and educational theoretical positions must be emphatically called for.
This applies, on the one hand, to the indexed questioning of the structural genesis and differentiation of modern educational theory in colonialist nation states, especially with regard to aesthetic education, the authors of which – possibly, this would be a subject of examination – conceive themselves as subjects primarily within the framework of a colonial project in their familiar paternalistic-pastoral self-understanding. A prominent example:
“The gift of liberal principles becomes betrayal of the whole when it joins a still fermenting force and reinforces an already overpowering nature; the law of agreement becomes tyranny against the individual when it is linked to an already dominant weakness and physical limitation and thus extinguishes the last glowing spark of self-activity and property. The character of time must therefore first rise from its animal degradation, escape the blind violence of nature and return to its simplicity, truth and abundance – a task for more than a century. Meanwhile, I freely admit, some attempts may succeed in individual cases; but nothing will be improved in the whole, and the contradiction of behavior will always prove against the unity of maxims. In other parts of the world, mankind will be honoured in the Negro, and in Europe it will be dishonoured in the Thinker.” (Schiller 1838, 28).
This writes the European thinker Friedrich Schiller, in the important seventh of his letters on aesthetic education. Yet the postscript is conspicuously unnecessary, an appendix that exposes the whole. The powerlessness (later revealed as such) of the idea of purely aesthetic reconciliation in the sign of art is supported by the colonially constructed Other and its supposed naturalness; typical of this is the simultaneity of devaluation and infantilization on the one hand, envious projection of one’s own repressed desire on the other (Hall 1994).
This leads (me) to the question of whether not only education, as Bourdieu (1982) pointed out, decisively produces exclusions through its distinctive function, but whether our thinking about education, our theories of education, in other words, in their depth structure show, as it were, patterns of thought that ultimately – indirectly – owe themselves to colonial world relations. The question is irritating, because the suspicion expressed in it is admittedly far-fetched. Geographically speaking, it is even very far-reaching; I bring it here from South America, from sub-Saharan Africa and from Oceania. My example does not quote the well-known names of postcolonial theory formation, but derives from everyday academic practice in the globalized world, from encounters with colleagues from the field of arts education. These colleagues (cf. Akuno et al. 2015) deal with the so-called “Berlin Theses” on arts education, which were drawn up by fifty European experts as a European position for the arts edu World Conference in Seoul in 2010. The reactions of the global South are clear.
Thus Gloria Zapato Restrepo attests to South American music pedagogy that it invisibilises indigenous and local traditions and at the same time establishes an elitist highly cultural educational practice “still ignoring not only the ancient traditions and knowledge of the original inhabitants but also the process of hybridization and the actual practices of the population” (Zapata Restrepo in Akuno et al. 2015: 93), not least in the course of the import and dissemination of Orff’s Schulwerk on this continent. Paradoxically, Orff’s music pedagogy sees itself as a reform pedagogical, holistic, creativity oriented and above all open to the future project. Nevertheless, in the South American translocation as a colonial export success, it turns into the opposite; the Schulwerk becomes a vehicle for the production of subalternity.
Tia Reihana argues epistemologically. She refers to the complicity of European educational theory with processes of marginalization and colonial othering. She consistently demands kaupapa Māori as a norm, not as a “different” position: “Within Aotearoa/New Zealand there are distinct traditions aligned to Western European values of arts and culture in education. For Māori, these epistemologies embedded in particular historical perspectives have provided a long association with the marginalization of maori knowledge. […] It is however imperative to remember that for Māori within a paupapa Māori environment we are no longer positioned as other […] rather, that we are the norm within our own constructions of art and culture in education.” (Reihana in Akuno et al. 2015: 94). The Eurocentric handbook on the cultural other is reversed, where the supposed other declares himself or herself the norm as the subject of his or her speech and thus turns over the only supposedly “post”(?) colonial horizon of reference. “When considering development of the individual and modern societies, a kaupapa Māori paradigm extends upon declarations of the Berlin Theses to encompass the collective. The individual is seen as an extension of whanau (family), hapu (sub-tribe) and iwi (tribe). These relationships are the foundations of how Māori communities interact within a wider society” (ibid). Māori communities are here the subject of education, because the individual can only be understood from this; this is his future.
Emily Akuno finally states that the Eurocentric-individualistic educational model is simply irrelevant. It may solve problems elsewhere in the world, but not in Kenya. Perhaps not in many other parts of the world either: “This lifelong, context-specific arts education embeds a holistic and communcal approach to the development of the individual, so paradoxically it both embodies and renders unnecessary the concept of education as a distinct philosophy of learning built on the notion of a distinct individual […]” (Akuno et al. 2015: 90).
This is not far-off theory: All three positions are based on the pedagogical practice of colleagues with whom we have regular contact, just as we do with other colleagues. They reject individualistic educational concepts, and explicitly or implicitly also target reform pedagogical and critical varieties – Akuno vs. Kant, Reihana vs. Humboldt, Zapato Restrepo vs. Orff. The colonial echo chamber no longer wants to answer us; the mirroring by means of the other fails; those who articulate themselves are not well suited as projection surfaces. It is obvious that what we describe and practice in terms of educational policy, theory and practice is no longer accepted as the center and normal form of socialized humanity. With whom exactly, I ask myself, do we actually speak when we pursue educational theory? Do the indigenous concepts of our subject as such have geographical boundaries? Who would we like to receive an answer from, and perhaps not from? Somewhat irritated, we find ourselves as “the other,” the other for South-South identities that “we” are not. Educational theory and practice would do well to no longer orient ourselves on a theoretical counterpart of the Mercator projection; so much on the topic of “self-world reference”.
The subject-centered drama of the educational process – the hero’s journey of losing and regaining oneself, coping with the individual biographical crisis, achieving more comprehensive frames of orientation that allow the complex subject even more flexibility, etc. – is based, one might assume, on a permanent setting/settlement of the individual – his philosophical setting and presetting in enlightenment and new humanism. These would be quite different “forgotten connections” in educational theory and practice. The formation (“Bildung”) of “the subject” generally presupposes this already; as a mere question of trouble-free and efficient early childhood education and halfway functioning schooling. However, it is slowly becoming established to understand the genitivus subiectivus as genitivus obiectivus, and thus the “formation of the subject” as its production from social practices (Alkemeyer/Budde/Freist 2013), and to ask about its conditions.
I propose that, behind this supposedly theoretical “setting”, a material settlement be sought, a territorial practice of subjectivation. Already Horkheimer and Adorno (1969) recalled that the subject (historically) emerged from violent acts of its territorial struggles. Territorial possession eventually becomes a precondition for self-empowerment in the form of a “settled”, enclosed form of subjectivity. From this perspective, the modern Western fiction of the subject’s unity, i.e. its “identity”, is essentially connected – in terms of spatial theory – with the ideological but also the political containment of the subject, which has forgotten its nomadic origin. Displacement, on the other hand, should be remembered as a norm against whose background settlement is presented as an “energy-intensive” state that has to be recreated time and again. Combining the future with a habitus of territorial ownership is a strategy of naturalizing this state.
We could at least have known this earlier, because one of the “classics” of educational identity theory (George Herbert Mead), probably the most badly damaged in current pedagogical reception practice (despite the efforts of Joas and others), registered the decidedly precarious status of the “self” in his late “Philosophy of the Present” (Mead 1932) in recourse to the philosopher Whitehead (Stengers 2014). The only place where identity can be created is in the present. Mead already showed that the present “in” which we live is indeed a “real” effect of collective fiction. He does not conceive the subject as a subject, but as a temporal “trajectory”, as a spatial-temporal phenomenon that can only receive and achieve a “present reality” in the collective space of social encounter.
First of all, therein lies the insight that the subject is to be understood as not being fixated (once created, always present), but as being present in fluid temporal processes. It is the point between a flowing past (which can take the form of a biography) and a projective structure towards the future (which can appear as a linear career, but also as a cyclical identity process). And even as this point, it can only “realize” itself socially. Secondly, this refers to the fact that “subjectivity” exists only as an iterative repetition of such presences (for the present is constantly passing away): the setting/settlement of the subject must always be produced iteratively (i.e., ritualized). This requires a cultural, performative gesture (which differs significantly in nomadic and sedentary cultures) that prepares this place.
In the territories of established science, we reserve this place for ourselves as subjects of a theoretical, scientific practice, within the framework of experienced and thoroughly powerful conceptual gestures, which we – not necessarily others in this manner – at the same time understand as critical.


  • Akuno, Emily/Klepacki, Leopold/Lin, Mei-Chun/O’Toole, John/Reihana, Tia/Wagner, Ernst/Zapata Restrepo, Gloria (2015): Whose arts education? International and intercultural dialogue, in: Mike Fleming/Liora Bresler/John O’Toole (eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of the Arts and Education. London: Routledge, pp.79–105.
  • Alkemeyer, Thomas/Budde, Gunilla/Freist, Dagmar (2013): Selbst-Bildungen: Soziale und kulturelle Praktiken der Subjektivierung, transcript Verlag.
  • Balzer, Nicole (2014): Spuren der Anerkennung: Studien zu einer sozial- und erziehungswissenschaftlichen Kategorie, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
  • Bilstein, Johannes/Ecarius, Jutta/Keiner, Edwin (2011): Einleitung, in: Johannes Bilstein/Jutta Ecarius/Edwin Keiner (Hrsg.), Kulturelle Differenzen und Globalisierung: Herausforderungen für Erziehung und Bildung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, S.7–12.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre (Januar 1982): Die feinen Unterschiede: Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.
  • Brumlik, Micha (17. Oktober 2016): Denken der Stunde. Achille Mbembe befragt im Rekurs auf seine Lebensgeschichte die afrikanischen Entwicklungen seit der Entkolonialisierung, in: taz, S. 15.
  • Göhlich, Michael (2010): Homi K. Bhabha: Die Verortung der Kultur, in: Benjamin Jörissen/Jörg Zirfas (Hrsg.), Schlüsselwerke der Identitätsforschung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, S.315–330.
  • Hall, Stuart (1994): Rassismus und kulturelle Identität. Ausgewählte Schriften 2, Hamburg: Argument Verlag.
  • Horkheimer, Max/Adorno, Theodor W. (1969): Dialektik der Aufklärung: philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.
  • Jörissen, Benjamin/Zirfas, Jörg (Hrsg.) (2010): Schlüsselwerke der Identitätsforschung, Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag.
  • Keiner, Edwin/Schaufler, Sarah (2013): Disziplinäre und organisatorische Grenzen, Überschneidungen und Neuformatierungen, in: Norbert Ricken/Hans-Christoph Koller/Edwin Keiner (Hrsg.), Die Idee der Universität – revisited. Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag, S.269–301.
  • Knobloch, Phillip D. Th. (2016): Die Konstituierung der Vergleichenden Erziehungswissenschaft im kulturellen Kontext von modernity/coloniality, in: Merle Hummrich/Nicolle Pfaff/İnci Dirim/Christine Freitag (Hrsg.), Kulturen der Bildung: Kritische Perspektiven auf erziehungswissenschaftliche Verhältnisbestimmungen. Wiesbaden: SVS-Verlag, S.19–28.
  • Mead, George Herbert (1932): The Philosophy of the Present, Prometheus Books.
  • Mecheril, Paul (2014): Subjektbildung: Interdisziplinäre Analysen der Migrationsgesellschaft, Bielefeld: Transcript.
  • Schiller, Friedrich (1838): Sämmtliche Werke in zwölf Bänden. Zwölfter Band., Stuttgart und Tübingen: Cotta.
  • Stengers, Isabelle/Chase, Michael/Latour, Bruno (2014): Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Harvard University Press.