The intellectual and political legacies of the Enlightenment endure in our times, whether we aspire to orient ourselves by them or contest their claims. In the face of feudality and subservience to authority, the Enlightenment intellectuals enunciate ideals of equality and rights as a way out of domination towards freedom. However, as has been pointed out by scholars of postcolonial and Holocaust studies, the Enlightenment’s promise of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason has ironically resulted in domination by reason itself. Instead of progress and emancipation, it has brought colonialism, slavery, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Against this background, Dhawan’s talk engaged with the challenging question ‘What went wrong with the Enlightenment?’ and traced the ambivalent consequences of the European Enlightenment for the postcolonial world. The postcolonial critique of the Enlightenment is caught in a performative contradiction in that the vocabulary of critique is inherited from the target of its critique. Her talk addressed this double bind and the challenge it sets up for politics in the postcolonial world.
Nikita Dhawan is professor of political science at the Leopold-Franzen University Innsbruck and Director of the Frankfurt Research Center for Postcolonial Studies, Cluster of Excellence ‘The Formation of Normative Orders’, Goethe University Frankfurt. She has held visiting fellowships at Universidad de Costa Rica (2013); Institute for International Law and the Humanities, The University of Melbourne, Australia (2013); Program of Critical Theory, University of California, Berkeley, USA (2012); University of La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain (2011); Pusan National University, South Korea (2011); Columbia University, New York, USA (2008). Her publications include: Impossible Speech: On the Politics of Silence and Violence (2007), Decolonizing Enlightenment: Transnational Justice, Human Rights and Democracy in a Postcolonial World (ed., 2014), Postkoloniale Theorie: Eine kritische Einführung (2014; with Maria do Mar Castro Varela).
The lecture is part of the ICI Lecture Series ERRANS. The English verb ‘to err’ has largely lost its positive connotations. It no longer invokes wandering, rambling, or roaming, and is now understood negatively in relation to a prescribed path or goal. To be sure, errors are acknowledged to play an important role in the pursuit of knowledge and happiness, but usually only to the extent that their recognition allows for their elimination, correction, and avoidance. Recognizing that a critique of ideals of productivity, success, goal-orientation, and determination is necessarily paradoxical, the lecture series takes the shifting meanings of ‘erring’ – connoting the violation of norms as well as the activity of wandering – as a prompt to explore the critical potentials and risks of embracing error, randomness, failure, and non-teleological temporalities, and to do so across different disciplines and discourses.
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