Notes on: Ese-osa Idahosa, G., & Bradbury, V. (2019). Challenging the way we know the world: overcoming paralysis and utilising discomfort through critical reflective thought. Acta Academica. 52 (1): 31 – 53. DOI:

Dave Harris

[Academics meet activists and find it difficult to get their reflections accepted --one response is avoidance or 'soft reflexivity'. Their response is to focus on critiquing Whiteness -- much more acceptable. Another good but brief bit is the possible evasiveness and malicious egalitarianism of 'positionality'. This is what happens when the new petty bourgeoisie (academic fraction) have symbolic violence done right back to them!]

Reflexivity can be counter-productive and become subject to Western practice again instead of 'disrupting power asymmetries'(31). The trick is to make it productive not self-indulgent or paralysing. We need to confront paralysis, discomfort, contradiction and their accompanying emotions. These are important and should lead us to re-examine assumptions embedded in pedagogy, scholarship and their motives for engaging in the world. This [context] is as important in reflexivity and critical thought if we want to decolonise. It should not be 'a tick box exercise' but should inform 'our whole process, our being, our practice beyond academia' (32), resisting the tendency in academia to package ideas and avoid messiness.

They use their own reflections and coded them, some other academics have also experienced the tensions in 'transformation discourses' while being black and foreign in the Academy, especially in South Africa. Their whole positionality needs to be questioned, their role in knowledge production and change, how they experience discomfort fear and isolation, paralysis as they move between different fields and subfields [with a reference to bourdieu and Wacquant]. Reflexivity is required to avoid dogmatism, but it takes critical and soft forms. Putting the self in the process avoids the academic tendency to externalise.

They are aware that their own alienation could have led to stagnation and silence. Reflexivity and its emotions can also reproduce 'oppressive structures, cultures and practices' as well as transformation (33). In particular the emotions and feelings need to be interrogated to avoid self-indulgence or paralysis.

Reflexivity means embodiment 'a personal and internal and constant consciousness', reflecting learning, unlearning and in particular dismantling legacies of oppression involved in knowledge production and practice, at both personal and political levels. It requires critical consciousness of systems, structures, rules and assumptions that have reproduced Eurocentrism, at all levels. It leads to hypersensitivity to multiple ways of knowing and understanding the world, and being in it. It also becomes part of academic life and thus risks being 'a token gesture', a soft or superficial form that will reproduce oppressive structures. The soft and critical forms operate on a continuum and depend on context, requiring 'constant self-evaluation'(34).

Soft reflexivity operates at a surface level, a recognition of injustice but no necessary engagement with it, seeing it as a matter for the other, resisting any discomfort for oneself. One can rationalise, package up and categorise ideas and make them distanced from action [playing a theoretical game]. This might be seen in the All Lives Matter discourse and the way it manages Black Lives Matter, by adding in other challenges and weakening the focus on black oppression [ a right-wing version of positionality?] .

Instead we should focus on our own privileges [which include 'raced, classed, gendered and heteronormative privilege'— close to dilution here? A general problem with positionality] To overcome paralysis. We can begin with individual reflections and difficulties, then look at similarities and differences in these and reveal 'contradictions, similarities and ruptures' (35). Paralysis and discomfort might end as 'important conditions for decolonial practice' after all.

Vanessa is mixed race, Filipina/Englishwoman working in the UK but she began in New Zealand working with Maori and felt initially uncomfortable at a welcoming ceremony as somehow less affected by colonialism. She was grateful to be included but felt she had not had experience of colonisation like the others so she worried about whether she could speak for them and generally what her role might be. She felt responsible for colonialism as a British student and was unsure about what to do in her academic career. She decided to proceed with work for indigenous self-determination but has felt 'utterly lost, questioning whether I should even be focusing on this at all' (36). She's tried to see this as a result of the 'system that seems to treat Eurocentrism likely' and that has produced alienation. She has felt constant contradiction wanting to advocate indigenous rights but afraid that she has simply perpetuated Eurocentric idealism.

Grace is a black Nigerian woman, and began in South Africa and experienced student protest in 2015. She was worried about essentialising race and racial identity as a universal mechanism and as a justification for transformation. She was worried about 'positioning the African identity as homogenous without examining the contextually diverse nature of "African" cultures and identities' (37). She denied that white men could not contribute to transformation but this was unpopular — she was told that she had herself been colonised and was 'complicit in my oppression' (38). She was aware of the danger of being used as a white apologist and wondered if she was complicit and if she did reinforce the oppression of black people in South Africa. She wondered if she had the right approach. She still felt there was 'something wrong about a centralising and universalising discourse' but felt worried that she 'had internalised the very ideology I was arguing against'. Tension and paralysis was the result.

The accounts show the difficulties of positionality for academics, working in knowledge production and examining legitimation processes. The issue of legitimacy is central and who can advocate transformation, what role can outsiders and insiders play? They both experienced resistance which raise difficult dilemmas about 'power/knowledge production', and these dilemmas had actually produced stagnation rather than positive contributions.

Eventually they did question their roles and recognised the contradictions and discomfort, initially through the 'ethics' of research and a 'responsibility to "get it right"' [solve immediate problems?] (39). Grace also questioned herself and realised that she had contradictions between her [academic] knowledge of the world and her experience, brought into focus by the response she received. In effect she was in danger of a 'fervent refusal of colonial recognition', a possible internalisation of ideology. She experienced herself as a triple person, in Fanon's sense — responsible '"for my body, for my race, for my ancestors"' (40).
The question is how to move past essentialisms without reproducing oppressive tendencies. A more personal level, where should one place oneself within these debates, to participate, but not be complicit in re-inscribing structures of power.

They realise that they should reconsider the politics of knowledge, especially its personal dimension, not just examining its abstract '"epistemicide"' [one of Santos's], but the personal choices of epistemology, the personal responsibility in knowledge production and the discomfort that can arise. The question of whose knowledge counts is a personal one. The abstract debates that go on about literature 'reveal that the reality on the ground is lagging behind the bubble of the academic sphere' (40 – 41). The different experiences show this. The issue is to legitimate 'a plurality of knowing' in the knowledge production process [you need to address assessment].

Reflexivity includes emotional and embodied processes not just thinking, but questioning assumptions 'on a personal, intellectual and social level' [they find a Santos quote that supports this, but only as a first step]. This means it will be emotional and messy, and have implications for identity and positionality 'not often voiced in academia' [how true].

[Then they slipped back a bit in to easy formulae]. We must subvert objectivity for subjectivity and recognise 'the transformative potential of agency' (42) [this would give up altogether her initial criticism of essentialism]. It might still lead to paralysis as people resist any alternative views in classrooms or meetings like they did with Grace. The result might be 'a persistent intellectual challenge that is "exhausting and potentially futile"', and further unease about identity, not to mention fear of going against the grain.

Others have noticed these paralysing feelings, with Maori, for example [refs on 42]. We must bring these issues to the fore and use them to explain 'conditions of social interactions that privilege one way of knowing and being over another'(42) [that is micro-politics] [there is still the intellectual's conceit that to understand something is to overcome it]. Somebody called Boal suggests that we reflect but not too much because we will get frightened. Another suggestion is to do a kind of soggy sociology of knowledge to show that even universalised and centralised ways of knowing are produced reproduced and transmitted [in other words to embrace relativism?] This will open up the possibilities of struggle [but naked struggle, and it is strange to find L Smith advocating this, because Maori would lose].

Paralysis and discomfort to raise the possibility of change and alternatives [for academics!]. Mostly [?] Indigenous knowledge has been managed selectively so as to make it compatible with colonialism, but critical reflexivity should break with that. However there will be discomfort and paralysis which might not 'necessarily lead to change' [itself] and there may be, for example 'structural constraints that prevent the individual from acting to transform' (43) [well done, at last!].

We should expect discomfort in everyday interactions because life is complex, emotional and embedded, but we must do dialogue to open history. There is still a danger of reflexivity 'being used as a token gesture', (44) in soft forms and 'a lot of academics engage in [this] today'. We should ask hard questions instead like what interests are being served by what we do, who benefits and who is silenced. We should thus move for example, beyond the ideas of reflexivity taught only in methodology courses, especially those which are fetishised, or suspect individuals who claim to be progressive because they have just reflected [in some SEDA file?]. 'The problem with this idea is that such reflexive processes "often mistake brief instances of self-evaluation with authentic practices of eflexivity" (Emirbyer and Desmond 2011:581)' (44). [The key seems to be whether you do experience discomfort loneliness and paralysis, and whether you do question your position within the University?.

The issue is therefore 'who owns decolonial practice?'. This has arisen partly because they have moved between different fields and subfields, disciplines and institutions and experienced contradictions and disjuncture is [they've also made the mistake of listening to the punters].

They do see the need to critique 'notions of objectivity derived from Western science' [which is unfortunately parodied] (46), to head towards more messy knowledge, and this well disrupt 'the normative frameworks that sustain Eurocentric order' [Santos again and others] [back to ridiculous academic idealism]. We have to do offer fundamental challenge of how we know the world including questioning disciplinary practices which can seem natural and self-evident, 'positivist knowledge claims', presuppositions which may 'lie at the level of the subconscious' which may produce universalised knowledge, and fetishised methodological rules.

We have to rethink the 'notion of the insider/outsider discourse' which involves legitimate knowledge on the basis that one belongs to the group, and so outsiders 'can never understand the experience of the other' (47). (See Kennedy) This affects lots of the debate in South Africa, apparently. E and D 2011 above criticise it — marginalised groups claim they cannot reproduce oppression, but they often merely replace one form of domination with another and exchange one powerful position with another. Instead, we must live with contradictions, and try to clarify assumptions and presuppositions, question whose experiences and knowledges of being foregrounded, and discuss the principles and mechanisms of legitimation and validation [great, but on what basis?]. We can start by asking 'what social, cultural and intellectual relations underlie the production of Eurocentric knowledge' (48) [but why stop there — which ones underpin indigenous knowledge as well?]. As usual, the main emphasis is 'a call to break from traditional academic processes' [very disappointing].

So they have experienced discomfort contradiction and paralysis but they now see this as essential, and they no longer avoid them. They have realised that they might well be the victims of powerful ideologies and colonial legacies [one of them sees their effects on 'political decisions based on colonial undertones (such as Brexit)' (49). Vanessa seems to have reached some equilibrium by deciding to criticise whiteness rather than comment on indigenous peoples experiences. They realise it is an ongoing process.

[It has just occurred tome that there is no consideration of the students they have taught who might have been equally stressed, and experienced discomfort and paralysis on hearing academic critiques of their views, based on their own experiences, which they had falsely universalised, the mugs. When this happens, the outcome is regarded as wholly good and educational, of course. The reaction is very occasionally discussed, usually in terms of some pathological behaviour such as dropout, more often through negative labelling and poor grades.]