Hybridity in decolonisation of higher education

The way decolonisation processes are conceptualised and framed determines the nature of alternative futures that any decolonial debate envisages. This volume approaches the discussion of decolonisation of higher education in Africa with an emphasis on hybrid forms understood not as complementary binaries but as simultaneous multiples. From the very outset, the notion of hybridity entails and acknowledges the existence of multiple and diverse cultures and knowledge bases. In decolonial higher education, acknowledging this multiplicity aims at forging alternative futures that accommodate these heterogeneous epistemologies. The concept of hybridity was comprehensively discussed in cultural theory foremost by Homi Bhabha (1994) who in turn was influenced by Said (1978), in developing the idea of the ‘third space’; i.e., the location where hybridity becomes evident. Applied to scientific knowledges, from the 1990s to the millennial turn — the decades dominated by discourses of multiculturalism and borderless mobility — hybridity has been celebrated for its cosmopolitanism and usefulness in transcending Eurocentric modernity (Mitzutani, 2009, p. 2). In unsettling this self-referential narrative, Bhabha clearly explicates the problematic self-understanding of whiteness as an ‘unmarked’ entity representing progress and modernity untouched by the colonial encounter (Mizutani, 2009, p. 5).8 Instead, he advocates taking ‘the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world [...] as the paradigmatic place of departure’ (p. 31).

Far from being an irreversible historical matter of fact, the idea of hybridity points to the optimal space in which Fanon’s ‘wretched of the earth’ and their former colonial masters should position their common destiny. Rather, hybridity is in fact the logical consequence of the ‘cross-fertilisation’ of two heterogeneous or even antagonist actors on the colonial scene, or ‘agonistic space’ to borrow Lyotard’s (1978) words. Accordingly, the notion of a ‘third space’ points towards this fatally intermingled future at the cross-roads between the endogenous and the exogenous, the particular and the universal, but more importantly between the local and the global which are all dimensions situated in provincially anchored power relations. Beyond epistemic nativisms and pathological fixations upon imagined identities, the ‘colonial encounter,’ even in light of its subsequent violence, has transformed the colonised and the coloniser. They are bound to refer to their common future as human beings in this space in-between where their entangled future is defined forever.

Zooming in on this so-called ‘third space’ as a productive transcultural contact zone can assist in balancing out the unhealthy tendency of some voices in the decolonisation debate to be absorbed by Afrocentric narratives and ethnocentric readings of epistemic lineages that demonize Western epistemologies and romanticize endogenous knowledge bases. Bhabha’s hybridity can be read as an alternative conception of the future where the challenges of cultural hegemony and the Eurocentric history of the Global South are readdressed. Hybridity is as an ideal space of symbolic interaction ‘in-between’ different individual identity dimensions as well as ‘in-between’ heterogeneous identity factions. According to Bhabha, ‘this interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy’ (1994, p. 5).

Nevertheless, this utopian longing for a heterogeneous togetherness — similar to the South African idea of the Rainbow Nation (Turner, 2019) — negates material and political differences that are so vitally put forward in discourses of decoloniality. The concept of hybridity has also been criticised by a number of scholars as a neocolonial discourse complicit with transnational capitalism, cloaked in the hip garb of cultural theory (Chow, 1993; Dirlik, 1994; McClintock, 1995; Young, 2006). ‘By stressing the transformative cultural, linguistic, and political impacts on both the colonized and the colonizer,’ Mabrol (2016) points out —while suggesting that Bhabha was misread— ‘has been regarded as replicating assimilationist policies by masking or “whitewashing” cultural differences’ (p. n.a).

While acknowledging the critiques on hybridity in the decolonisation debates, we would like to emphasise the potentially reconciliatory function of the concept among diverse sources of knowledges and innovation as an important venue for the revival of African thought on a global scale. Hybridity is discussed as a process of intercultural dialogue that recognises the existence of not only diverse epistemologies but also the possibility of forging alternative hybrid systems. As argued by Bronfen, E. & Marius, B. (1997). hybridity is neither a peculiar feature nor a to-be-averted danger of globalisation but the basal foundation of any culture. Transferring that thought into the context of this book, hybridity is not a ‘peculiar feature’ of African studies or the African university, not a ‘to-be-averted danger’ in a decolonised utopia but a ‘fundamental foundation’ of it. Therefore, it is not the aim of this volume to introduce hybridity into decolonised universities but to lay it open and carefully re-appropriate it in a productive and just way. We attempt to bring the notion of hybridity back into the debate, with the assertion that it has a solid and practical potential that can enable genuine contemporary decolonisation within globally operating institutions of higher education. We furthermore argue that hybridity can be productive in highlighting aspects of temporality, mutuality, and anti-essentialist understandings.

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