Elisabetta Corrà’s response to our call surprised us. Her contribution did not focus on the instrumentalising of post-colonial critiques but on the links between colonialism and species extinction – and at the same time an interpretation of the Humboldt Forum as potentially a first museum of the anthropocene, where post-colonial stances combine with other areas to shape something new. As we were unsure if we’d understood the author correctly, we asked her to comment on the call for contributions. Both her submitted text and the answers can be read as complementary narrative threads in the published version.
The collapse in biodiversity colours the wild spaces of our world. Climate-induced changes in fauna and the northward shift of flora are becoming ever more evident. In Europe most people have never experienced the taiga, the tundra or Congo’s tropical forests. This loss of biodiversity goes through the body like a ghost. So-called ‘western’ society often seems to be busy with something else. Many of us have poor knowledge of it. But few would lay the ongoing sixth mass extinction at the doors of Europe. We ignore how and why we’ve arrived at this point, the faiths in religion, politics and science that took us here. In 2021, the opening of the Humboldt Forum drew a line between before and after in post-colonial discourse. Welcome to the world’s first museum for the anthropocene. The site that paints the end of biodiversity and the ideology of ‘civilisation’ (Homo sapiens’ special niche) that accompanied the ‘age of discovery’, whose outcome was colonisation.
What if the Humboldt Forum’s importance lay in the possibility of putting in the public space an apparatus of historical contradictions that continue to shape the ‘western’ consciousness? What if the Humboldt Forum were an opportunity to do away with traditional narratives, disassembling them one piece at a time and returning them to us in a radical restitution?
Is post-colonial critique an asset for institutions like the Humboldt Forum? I don’t think so. Setting aside the fact that we could talk for years about the commodification of everything, we have to make a Heideggerian leap. An institution designed to open up colonialism to the public must be rooted in post-colonial critiques. In this moment, we need to welcome its potential to be a transformative discourse. This is the discourse that questions and dismantles the usual narratives. Frictions, like fictions, are facets of the truth.
Colonialism’s claims on the globe has shaped our current ecology. Not only has colonialism plundered nations and civilisations. Reaching deep into Africa, Asia and the Americas, it altered forever the ecological balance of these continents. The ways in which Europeans exploited natural resources are still being felt today.
Talking about the restitution of African artworks, for example, is like discussing the environmental effects of colonialism. The links between contemporary environmental exploitation and colonial management are striking. A good example is wildlife conservation. The fate of ecosystems could be a metaphor for colonial genocides. In its voyage through the anthropocene, the Humboldt Forum merges issues relating to colonialism, post-colonialism and our biosphere. Humans and other animals, forests, birds and oceans have been treated as resources. An original discourse will always be incomplete: it should allow space for differing conceptions. Post-colonialism can perhaps now be viewed in terms of a history shared by humans and other animals – hierarchies working in synch on all of us. This attitude was at the heart of European expansion since the birth of the so-called age of discovery. In his book ‘The Nutmeg Curse’, Amitav Ghosh gives an example of this: “Like a planet, the nutmeg is encased within a series of expanding spheres”. The global exploitation of the nutmeg was characterised by genocide and theft of natural resources on the Banda Islands. This destruction was designed by the invading powers to be a public demonstration of a reckless and irresistible power: “A core myth of the foundation of Madeira, one of the first extra-European islands colonised, was a seven-years’ fire by which this densely wooded landscape was cleared for settlements”. As Olufemi Taiwo put it, “extraction, violence, empire: all these perennials of human history tend to march together. The global marketplace is fixated on growth in ways that have led to an era of depredation, depletion and, ultimately, disruptive climate change”. As the coming sixth mass extinction will show.
Complexity must give rise to critique. Calling the Humboldt Forum a symbol of white dominance is reductionist and banal. This stance fetishes critical jargon as a way of avoiding current challenges. As Jacques Lacan put it, the future is making something with your wounds. The alternative is to be trapped in the past, preserving it for the sake of outmoded notions of ‘justice’.
The Humboldt Forum’s Berlin location betrays its role in this vandalism, this new post-colonial drive. The colonial enterprise’s crimes against humanity were absorbed by the following generations. Colonialism helped to create today’s globe-spanning factory. Europeans did it. Europeans planned it. Europeans thought it. The Humboldt Forum explores the Europäische Sonderweg. It arouses disturbing and conflicting emotions. But keeping alive the intellectual conflict between institution and public, protecting contradictions from banal solutions, might be a wonderful tool. Controversy helps in creating a true sense of responsibility among all of us towards the threat of extinction. The wounds of colonial power are our common inheritance. Achille Mbembe carves out accurately, that humans live within social and political-economic contexts that carry deep historical weight. Historically evolved capitalist conditions are now turning into a globalised landscape. The black, colonial past, according to Mbembe, is now becoming a global present: “The systemic risks experienced specifically by Black slaves during early capitalism has now become the norm for, or at least the lot of, all of subaltern humanity”. In other words, the anthropocene is where colonialism, post-colonialism and ecological destruction converge in an unprecedented human-created breakdown.
Yet until now, post-colonial critique has usually been confined to ethnography, sociology and African studies. Ecologists know about nothing more than what they experienced during their research trips to Cameroon, Gabon or South Africa. Even more precarious is the attention of the public, who prefer the stories told by the Louvre or the British Museum. As a result, a widespread silence dominates much European discourse around post-colonial issues. But post-colonial critique is a radical questioning of the nature of ‘Europe’ as a concept rather than just a political or diplomatic quarrel. What do we mean by European civilisation? Do Europeans think of themselves in ways attuned to the challenges of our era? How do we become aware of ‘western’ identity?
‘Western’ doesn’t primarily refer to capitalist economics. Exclusive reference to economy prevents post-colonial critics from reimagining the plantation’s barbarities. Western means ‘typical of Europe’ in the eyes of the Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino: “Western is the structure which tells us who we are”. At the roots of colonialism, there’s a specific way of thinking about the world, a particular interpretation. Europe is a vocation, a direction, an intellectual settlement. In Severino’s view, Europe is an episteme (Greek for “knowledge stable and indisputable”): a confirmation of the understanding of nature in absolute certainty, to assuage the pains and sorrows of our existence. It’s the source of logic, science, technology. The trading networks stretching across the oceans and the expansion in scientific knowledge were later manifestations of this ancient idea. The ‘western’ world is organised around the effort to create a secure existence for (some) people by conquering the natural world – the world “as a resource”, writes Ghosh, a factory where the prevailing ideas are “the physical subjugation of people and territory, the idea of conquest, as a process of extraction”.
We realise how colonialism has devastated our planet only by comprehending so-called ‘western thought’. If the post-colonial critique limits itself to a condemnation of global capitalism, its outcomes will be modest. The risk is to confine decolonisation within the civil activism of groups who have suffered the most from centuries-long imperial (and usually white) dominance. This isn’t enough, considering the scale of the social inequalities that habitat extinction and climate crises impose on these groups. A collective consciousness of decolonisation is needed.
Criticising only the restitution issue, as Bénédicte Savoy did, has its limits. A huge range of human experience has been neglected in many of the critiques of the Humboldt Forum. But excluding ecology and research into extinction is not the answer.
I view the post-colonial critique within the Forum as a work in progress to confirm the mission and the vision we’re all engaged with. It’s a stimulus, a never-ending wake-up call telling us that the painstaking work of understanding is rooted in our relationships with our time, our species, our nations, our people and the people we’ll never know. Such a place, a site that can confront the intimate brutality of civilisation, is not only possible – it’s an urgent need.
The Humboldt Forum should be viewed through a deep-historical and ecological lens. Deep history, or ecological history, allows us to interpret the colonial past in a multi-faceted way. The histories of nations and people merge into the history of faunas and habitats. These stories help us shed light on the struggles for human and civil rights. A museum of the anthropocene would show these links clearly as its main task. This implies that past wounds cannot be removed, cancelled, or hidden by good intentions. The consequences of extinction and genocide cut across particular time periods and are still with us. They’re doomed to stay. In this respect, some argue that Europeans and Africans have different stances. But together we encounter and endure the aggressions of the past. “Colonial is the baptismal font of our modernity”, Achille Mbembe said.
Only in this way, by accepting the global wounds inflicted by colonialism, can a renewed ethical framework be feasible in post-colonial critiques.
A museum dedicated to colonialism must acknowledge the irreversibility of these wounds. Only this warning can help us move beyond Eurocentric ways of thinking, and could open the path to a new space of rights for every denizen of Earth. Capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and technology’s realigning of reality are tools for objectifying our planet. An alternative is vital. Then, in Emanuele Severino’s words, “there’ll be a chance to think about what brings the burden of the Western identity, and of the history of the entire world. We have to interrogate ourselves.”
Elisabetta Corrà is an environmental author based in Italy with a strong focus on the sixth mass extinction. After a long-period experience as a free-lance at LA STAMPA (leading Italian newspaper) working on the decline of global biodiversity, especially in Africa, she founded her own research project, TRACKING EXTINCTION (https://trackingextinction.com)