Herman Wasserman – Dewesternization leads to Decolonization‽

ICA's Herman Wasserman and his guests discuss the world’s frequent overemphasis of the West, and how to shift focus to other narratives

Noshir Contractor: ICA presents.

​​The noise you just heard is the sound of the "interrobang." A non-standard punctuation mark, the interrobang’s appearance is its explanation: an exclamation mark superimposed directly on a question mark. The theme for the 2022 International Communication Association annual conference – "One World, One Network‽" – ends with an interrobang. The symbol simultaneously celebrates and problematizes the "one-ness" in the modern age of global communication. This podcast series features episodes hosted by the six co-chairs of the conference theme. In this episode, co-chair Herman Wasserman hosts a discussion with a panel of hand-selected guests about the world’s frequent overemphasis of the West and how we can shift our focus to other narratives. Herman Wasserman is a professor from the University of Capetown in South Africa. He’s a media studies professor and a former journalist. He is currently a visiting research scholar at the University of Houston. Here’s Herman.

Herman Wasserman: Goodday. My name is Herman Wasserman. I'm joined today by leading scholars from and working on the Global South. I’m now going to ask each of them to briefly introduce themselves and say something about their work. Shall we start with you, Audrey?

Audrey Gadzekpo: My name is Audrey Gadzekpo. I am a professor at the University of Ghana in the Department of Communications Studies, and I do a lot of work around gender and media and governance, and climate change. And more recently, issues relating to Covid and health.

Herman Wasserman: Shall we go next to Sean, Sean Jacobs?

Sean Jacobs: I’m an associate professor of international affairs at The New School in New York. My work is mostly around the intersection of politics and popular culture, and in 2020 I published a bookon post apartheid media politics

Herman Wasserman: Then Raka.

Raka Shome: I'm a professor and an endowed chair in the department of communication at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. I have worked on postcolonial media and communication studies.

Herman Wasserman: Thank you Raka, and welcome again to all of you to today's discussion. On the one hand, the rise of digital technologies has often led to celebratory discourses in which the affordances of the Internet, mobile phones, and social media bring with it new potential for everything from participatory democracy to the revitalization of journalism to the creation of new possibilities for social interaction. But there have also been critiques of glib notions of globalization via technology. These critiques often raise longstanding concerns about the political economy of access to digital platforms. So, against that background, let me start by asking you, what are your initial thoughts about the conference theme? Shall we start with you, Audrey?

Audrey Gadzekpo: Immediately, the Adinkra symbol we call Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu, comes to mind. And the Adinkra symbols are bequeathed to us by our African forefathers and mothers, and they depict the philosophies of the Akan people of Ghana. And this particular symbol is represented by two mythical crocodiles conjoined at the stomach. The concept is that they argue constantly, yet they share food together because they realize they have to share in order to survive. And just like the interrobang, the symbol simultaneously celebrates and problematizes oneness. And this invites us to have honest dialogue about the power relations and hierarchies that exist within all kinds of networks in the academy, in the whole architecture of knowledge exchange.

Herman Wasserman: Thank you Audrey. Raka, can we ask you next?

Raka Shome: So my initial reaction came up in a flash as an image of the map of the world which itself has been a colonial writing of the world. There never has been one world, and I am concerned about the implicit production of a universalization through the notion of one, especially at a time when all over the world there is rise of authoritarian populism and the push towards homogenization of nationalism and national spaces? Even within nations, there are worlds that don't even come up into the national imaginary. Within regions, there are spaces and there are populations who are so cut off from the power structures of the region itself. So to me regionalism only produces a continental approach. It’s a very colonial approach, instead of having a framework of transnational linkages and disconnections.

Herman Wasserman: Thank you Raka. But let’s go to Sean.

Sean Jacobs: If we talk about one world and we are imagining a different relation in that one world with a different kind of lexicon, then I would be open to this, but if it's just another way of sort of taking for granted the centrality of the West, then I think I would be more cynical to this kind of language. I just want to give one example. African American culture is now American culture. So when Black Panther came out, it might be considered, “Oh that has something to do with race or the Black imagination.” That was about neoliberalism, it was about an American feel of the world. And then it also was a cultural artifact. People in Iraq, people in Nairobi, in Johannesburg, diasporas in Berlin or in London, they had their own engagement with that product, and they made it their own. Often these, like, “let's do a one world thing” is constructed on that world that we inherited. We take those borders for granted, we take those nations for granted, we take those regional configurations for granted. I would say I’m excited for it if this thing is like a series of breaking those things apart and constructing something, thinking politically about something different.

Herman Wasserman: For me, what comes up here is maybe an older notion of contraflow, right, flowing back. Something like telenovelas in Latin America and K-pop from Korea. Another South Korean hit at the moment is “Squid Game.” It is ostensibly a series that critiques global capitalism quite ruthlessly. And yet, it is part of Netflix’s way of trying to commercialize and engage in regions of the world that have not yet maybe fully signed up to it. So in that sense, one could also be somewhat cynical about it.

Raka Shome: I've always been a little unsettled by the flow-counter flow language because of the neat linearity that it invokes. Western imperialism was a flow, but in that flow, there were so many counter flows that were already simultaneously written into those flows that were rendered invisible. So cotton from Africa and from India made up Britain, right. To think there is flow that's Western imperialism and now there is counter flow when in fact that these have been entangled. There's always been counter flows.

Audrey Gadzekpo: I wanted to just add to the opportunities that, you know, platforms like Netflix provide for all kinds of oneness in quotes, to happen. We can go on netflix and look for our favorite Nigerian movies, for example, so there are contraflows happening. I mean, I see my daughter, and her friends providing a lot of content on YouTube telling stories about the continent, about Ghana, and making that available to people beyond Ghana. And I really think, therefore, that we must look at it beyond the unidirectional flow and look closely at what kinds of platforms are enabling different kinds of activity that allow issues from our continent and conversations with other continents, to be available to talk to people and to become quite popular.

Herman Wasserman: Things like digital communication, for instance, have allowed us to shine a light on authoritarian regimes, it has made it possible for the subaltered populations around the world to bring their plaque to the fore and put it on a global agenda.

Audrey Gadzekpo: You can think of hashtag campaigns: Bring Back our Girls, recently the Nigerian campaign around police brutality. Especially young people in Ghana could connect with those struggles. But I really do think that there's a way in which we can overstate that possibility. Again it comes back to issues of access, of inclusion, affordances, the realities of the digital divide within our continent and our countries. So yes digital media is available, but how much penetration is there of social media in Africa for example, I mean, Africa remains the lowest. But also, as you begin to look at intersectionality issues, if you look at the rural and urban divide, even the fact that there’s still problems with connectivity and electricity tells you that it’s uneven, it’s unequal. Yes social media can be a tool for social justice but it’s still one that the elite might be able to take advantage of. And that’s why the street activism is very important. There’s a lot of organizing on social media, but it percolates onto the street, where it becomes much more inclusive.

Herman Wasserman: Right. I think the figures might suggest a better connectivity rate, but those figures don't always tell us about who in these regions are able to access.

Raka Shome: Speaking broadly about media studies as a field, we assume the normativity of certain infrastructures, right? Can we, in our field, begin to theorize media outside of the assumption of electricity, and if so, what kind of media objects would that direct us to? And if we begin to look at those, try to understand those media objects, can we then get access to lives that do not come up to our screens in media studies. I've written about, like, inverter, which is what they use in India, and I believe in certain parts of Africa when they don't have the proper electricity objects. They will take this and this and that and make, like, a mobile machine which doesn't run on electricity.

Herman Wasserman: The question of electricity that you mentioned, and also agency and how people deal with that is really important. And I want to turn to Sean next about that, because Sean, your website Africa Is a Country I think celebrates viewpoints that might otherwise be neglected by mainstream media and certainly Western media.

Sean Jacobs: Earlier today I read an article by Zacharia Mampilly. And in this piece, he says that in the last decade there have been all these interesting social movements that emerged on the African continent. So by 2012, Occupy Nigeria, which is the forerunner of End SARS; the Y’en a Marre; Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall. Most of those movements, especially Fees Must Fall, had explicit references to the use of the Internet as part of their activism. Zachariah, what he argues is that you read very little about this kind of dynamic in Africa, you know, to the point about the call by BEN as Africa as a place of nothingness. So what we try to do with Africa Is a Country is to say, we're not living outside of history, the point is not to just write this kind of celebratory account, this kind of African renaissance, which again is just sort of an extension of these kind of neoliberal projects, but to deal with Africans on their own their own terms. We would like to cover, what are Africans thinking? And how do you create space for academics who normally don't write you know this kind of short essay and bring that to, like, a broader public.

Herman Wasserman: I think you raise interesting questions around how we think of places like Africa or India, for that matter, often as a place that deserves a pity or our charity, and you know, instead of focusing on the agency that is there in itself.

Raka Shome: What is that we are trying to achieve? Dewesternization doesn't necessarily get us to decolonization of knowledge, you still have U.S. centered frames or Western frames flowing in other parts of the world right, so the goal has to be decolonization because otherwise we simply bring in elite spaces of the non-West, which have more access to the global information order, and that does nothing to overturn the neoliberal capitalist logics of the world.

Herman Wasserman: The two aspects that you've really flagged and that we should be weeding through here: the difference between dewesternization and decolonization, which is a much stronger engagement with power right. And then, also the notion of the Global South that is limited as a concept, especially if one thinks about it in a regional term, not as a power relation, because there's a South in the North and a North in the South.

Sean Jacobs: I’m just thinking now of Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is a foreign policy tool of the Qatar regime who is trying to be a power in the Gulf. But then within that space, because it's not a traditional superpower or former colonial power, the people who work on Al Jazeera English, for example, they have a lot more freedom to construct kind of a news agenda that when I was younger, we would call that like a third worlder’s view, which is a very sort of radical politics, like I think it's that complexity that I'm sort of suggesting. Some of the models, whether it's kind of a media model or a certain kind of cultural politics that are presented to us, they are often part of the arsenal of, say, a kind of authoritarian neoliberalism or something that’s presented also a certain kinds of alternatives, but they don't solve the problems of imperialism, of colonialism.

Herman Wasserman: We are nearing the end of our allotted time. So I’d like to end by maybe taking the discussion back to the Academy, also touching on some of what Sean has said in terms of how it's important to bridge the gap between sort of formal academia and popular culture and journalists and publics and so on. So in recent years there's been a renewed enthusiasm to internationalize or dewesternise or diversify the field, and also the word decolonization has also come up, so are we moving closer to one world, one network on the train of the Academy and of scholarship? What should be our priorities right now?

Sean Jacobs: I think the way for me to answer that is to my experiences on another association. I've been a member of the African Studies Association for many years. And I saw how that organization tackled questions about its past. The President of the association Jean Allman, she actually spent time as President investigating and researching the association’s history and through that found out that this association was founded initially by Black academics at historically Black university, but in the 1950s it was hijacked by a group of white scholars, more centrist. By the late 60s, African American academics walk out of the association because of racism and none of these issues were ever addressed until that year. They invited back those people, and so they came to that conference and addressed it. Secondly, they made an effort to look at who represents the ASA, who sits on its board. Historically, it was mostly white Americans. They were socialized to study Africa in a particular kind of way, as this faraway place that is quaint. So what happened was particularly people who live on the continent encouraging people to stand for office, so now the ASA has an equal representation between people who live and work on the African continent, and people who live and work in the U.S. There is a diversity of representation in terms of real decision making. And then the new conversations are like, can we have the African Studies Association annual conference which we usually have in America, which is expensive for people to fly to from Africa, they need visas, etcetera etcetera, let's go have it in an African city. If you're going to change these things, then agenda, the papers, the roundtables etc will also start to reflect it.

Herman Wasserman: If you were to give pointers to the ICA, how does one do that?

Raka Shome: This is going back to the elite space of academia, but we are talking about trying to make changes within academia. Pay attention to the kinds of speakers that we bring in, not just visible speakers from like Africa or India or Asia. And I’m speaking from the Indian base, which I know best. Can we find someone who’s a Dalit speaker, you know, he may not be a comp scholar, but can refer to things that we are interested in.

Audrey Gadzekpo: I think that we cannot end this conversation without touching on the issue of language. When we talk about decolonizing knowledge, we have to contend with what language represents. I’m from West Africa, so language is an issue for us because we cannot communicate easily, and we are not forming strong networks with our neighbors where there may be common challenges, common problems, common research opportunities. Then of course, because we have inherited because of colonialism the Western languages of English, French, Portuguese, we are not producing enough scholarship in our local languages, in Akan. I started this conversation talking about what the Akan symbol of unity and diversity and oneness can contribute to the image, the symbol, in fact I think ICA should adopt the crocodile with one stomach as a symbol for the conference. ICA is very English-centered. Languages like Swahili, if you came to an ICA conference, would there be translation provided for example. And we have to think through these issues if we want to be inclusive and if we want to decolonize the academy.

Raka Shome: ICA could build a syllabus, a resource base, that we would all contribute to and encourage and invite Western colleagues to use those for a media class where not more than two articles are from U.K. or U.S. We are talking about the politics of knowledge production and distribution.

Herman Wasserman: I think that that’s a great idea in terms of practical suggestions because it gets us away from the idea of Western mentors that go somewhere else. The South actually has lessons and it's not only a place of charity and mentorship.

Herman Wasserman: I think that ICA needs to think very carefully about what the Global South means. I, for instance, think that we would be serving our field very well if we had more South-to-South conversations. Elite in Bombay and elite in Nairobi conversations is not interesting to me, because it's still within the neoliberal capitalist fear. So we need to get out of the internationalized model, and maybe the term needs to be decolonized communication.

Audrey Gadzekpo: We haven’t done that very well and I think we ought to.

Herman Wasserman: It seems from our discussion, that this is not a simple “either/or.” Interrelationships of these questions are important, intersectionality is important. And here's much left to still address, but thank you very much to my guests, to Raka Shome, Sean Jacobs, Audrey Gadzekpo, for your expert views and your interesting contributions, and I hope that we can continue this discussion again in future.

Noshir Contractor: One World One Network ‽ is sponsored by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication at both the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

This podcast series is presented by the International Communication Association as part of the lead up 2022 ICA Conference, which will take place from May 26 through May 30. In the next episode, we will continue exploring the conference’s theme – “One World, One Network!?” – from the perspective of each of the other conference theme’s six co-chairs.

This episode was produced by Susanna Kemp. Additional production support was provided by Elizabeth Gasparka. Our theme music is by Jon Presstone. For more information about our participants on this episode, as well as our sponsor, as well as the history behind the interrobang, be sure to check the show notes in the episode description. Thanks for listening.

Herman Wasserman – Dewesternization leads to Decolonization‽
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