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Leseprobe 1 DOI: 10.14623/thq.2023.2.127–135
Leela Gandhi
Problems and Perspectives in Postcolonial Ethics
I am deeply honored and humbled to receive the Alfons Auer Ethics Prize from the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Tübingen. Please accept my heartfelt gratitude for this privilege of dialogue with Catholic Theology and Christian theologians. For the occasion, you have invited me to share thoughts on the topic of problems and perspectives in postcolonial ethics. My main claim is as follows: postcolonial ethics takes an exemplary form in and as non-violence; specifically, non-injuriousness, broadly construed. In this form, or through this commitment, it combines aspects of renunciation and surplus. For purposes of clarification I will speak to this hypothesis under the headings, ethics as such; what is meant by injury; ethics of renunciation, and ethics of surplus. I will end with a small story concerning Vālmīki, the poet-author of the ancient Indic epic, Rāmāyana.

Ethics, as such

The concept, ethics, in postcolonial ethics, as I take it, is not a property of this or that place or culture or tradition so much as something transacted across the colonial divide, and incorporating elements of contestation and collaboration. In my own research, and unexpectedly, I was drawn to ethics as a template for describing something unique in postcolonial contexts and predicaments on account of its remarkable instability and availability to contradictory uses in the western tradition. In an Aristotelian conception, for instance, ethics is a precursor to the settled, highly complex political life of citizens in an organized state. It joins sciences as the arts of war, property management, and public speaking. Yet, at the opposite end of the spectrum, it is equally favored by modern anarchist thinkers, for example, Pëtr Kropotkin, as a name for practices of mutual aid in everyday life that expose the redundancy and artifice of the state itself; and as an atavism available to conditions of life in a natural environment rather than a formal science or discipline to be carefully acquired and cultivated. Consider some further permutations of this type.

Ethics is often taken (much like language and rationality) as a distinct speciestic property of the human—something that distinguishes human and natural worlds. Yet, many nineteenth-century European animal-rights thinkers, the wonderful Élisée Reclus, for instance, saw ethics as a property of planetary cohabitation; including adaptive human-animal coexistence. If ethics is a therapeutics allowing emperors like Marcus Aurelius to return day after day to the violent machinations of power, it is no less the parrhesia by which epicurean and skeptic ascetics such as Diogenes Laertius speak truth to power. If ethics is the means whereby we establish life within communities of likeness and similarity (the family and the nation), it belongs no less to the non-reproductive sociality of friendship, and so on.

When we are attentive to inconsistencies of this order it becomes clear that there is, in the Western tradition, a type of ethics more concerned with destabilizing than foundation building; with critique rather than law. How can we not think here of Socrates’s beautiful account of his daimon in Apology, whom he renders as a direct symptom of ethical consciousness. The daimon encourages skepticism not certainty. It only says no to Socrates. It stops him from completing the smallest tasks and keeps him in a state of imperfection. But being thwarted in this way—from actualization—makes a life good, in Socrates’s estimation. “You have often heard me speak,” Socrates says “of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child”—and here’s the surprise—”it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do.” 1

The ethical properties of destabilization and critique and negativity, described above, are arguably at the crux of western anti-imperialism. They allow for a decathexis from intractable identities and fixed binary positions (e. g., white/black; religion/magic; modern/primitive; history/non-history), and from attachment to established privileges of race, development, wealth, to name a few. In my work, I have quested for an equivalent daimonic form of ethics in non-western contexts of postcolonial thought: something imperfective, no-saying, and critical. It is hard to identify immediately. There are plenty of examples of foundational and prohibitive forms of moral law in non-western contexts, as in any other; prescribing hard and fast rules for the preservation of hierarchies, telling women what to do or not do, regulating forms of sexuality, setting strict terminal boundaries of caste and religion and ethnicity. But if you look hard enough you can always find a kind of minor and dissident ethics that opens up a zone or area of uncertainty in times of crisis, including the crisis of colonial encounter. This is the promise of ethics.

One example comes from the preface to M.K. Gandhi’s Autobiography (the book has the subtitle, My Experiments with Truth). He composed it between 1925 and 1929, following a two-year prison sentence for various civil disobedience campaigns against imperial government in India. According to Gandhi, ethics (or rather the sphere of morals as he calls it) is something beautifully fungible and malleable. It does not have the sharply delineated and distinct properties of either the spiritual sphere nor the political sphere.

It is secular and sublime. It combines factors unknown and incommunicable and factors public and apparent. It is without precedents. Its results are uncertain. Its methods are contingent. It is something experimental. It may fail or succeed. To be ethical, Gandhi writes, “I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it.”2 How very unlike the categorical imperative. When it combines contradictory elements and diverse viewpoints, and when it is something perverse and shape-shifting, ethics becomes a resource for responsiveness and flexibility at times of oppression and suffering: and which can bring out various monomanias and fixations, of aims, personality, forms. I want to destroy you. I will destroy myself. This is what justice looks like. This is the kingdom of heaven. This is true. This is inadmissible. This will never change. The form of postcolonial ethics I’ve been hinting at—an ethics that opens up a zone of uncertainty—emerges out of an agonism between principles of renunciation and surplus. This is my suggestion. I want to evoke it rather than hammer it out as an argument in the course of my discussion.

What is Meant by Injury?

At the outset I made the claim that postcolonial ethics acquires its exemplary form in and as non-injuriousness. By this I mean two things. First, noninjuriousness has been a powerful and recurring current of many anticolonial and antiracist movements: preeminently, projects of decolonization in the global South and, as well, the American Civil Rights movement and its long aftermath. Second, and this is the salient point, postcolonial noninjuriousness responds to and calls out the constitutive injuriousness of modern imperialisms, in all their myriad formations: e. g., the industrial imperialisms of the nineteenth-century; the new imperialisms of the twentieth-century, often described as the “scramble for Africa”; the toxic nuclear and chemical imperialisms of the Cold War that targeted much of East Asia (Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam), and which saw the emergence of currently ongoing Soviet imperialisms in Eastern Europe with the pervasive undercurrent of nuclear threat and fallout. Other non-Western imperialisms belong to this series, with the leading example of Japan. Aggressive interventions in the Middle-East make the list, as do ongoing forms of settler colonialism, including against indigenous populations. No less, many postcolonial regimes stand charged with modes of internal colonialism against vulnerable domestic populations (gender, sexual, ethnic and religious minorities included).

The term injuriousness in such contexts has a specificity. It does not refer exclusively to physical violence, per se, though that too. Let me elaborate. The extractive and intrumentalizing energies of modern imperialism make for a unique and distorted form of biopolitics, namely, a form of politics concerned with aliveness (and to borrow an important concept from Michel Foucault). In this case, subject populations, indeed, the subjectplanet itself, are sustained and kept alive through a calculus of instrumental harm: by commuting enslaved life into no more and no less than raw labor, or optimizing the modernization of a territory only for the extraction of resources, and with minimum concern for human and ecological futures, leave alone flourishing.3 This is a keeping alive, Achille Mbembe tells us, “in a state of injury.”4

A person or entity or substance is injured, tout court, when separated from the integrity of biological, affective, cultural, historical, political and ecological life. This or that person may be cut off from full political participation in a nation-state; from the products and payoffs of their own labor in an economy; from a land or landscape inscribed with the legend of creation itself; from knowledges and pasts by which this or that people run their lives and provide meaning to existence. Consider some cues to advance an understanding of injuriousness as a species of imposed separation. Following an experience of being wounded in action during the First World war, the British welfare economist and socialist, R.H. Tawney, described injury as an experience of abandonment and acute loneliness, and off being spun into a “desert of unpeopled space.”5 The French mystic-philosopher, Simone Weil, in her tract, War and the Iliad, also describes injury—being turned into a thing while still alive, she calls it—as an experience of being brutally separated from inner and outer worlds: from one’s own aspirations and from the empathy of others.6

Ethics of Renunciation

In colonial contexts (indeed, most contexts of systemic oppression) the labor of consciousness- raising is taken with creating attunements to injury, and bringing about an understanding of the entire imperial apparatus as comprehensively injurious; as contaminated through and through with injuriousness. In such a setting, ethics can take the form of renunciation. An adaptation of a Gikuyu parable by Jomo Kenyatta, who was the first Prime minister and President of independent Kenya, illustrates this anti/ postcolonial ethics of renunciation. It is called, “The Gentleman of the Jungle” (1938). In the story/parable a kind-hearted man shares his jungle hut with a series of needy animals (who need shelter from the rain, or who are hungry or lonely and so on). Each act of hospitality results in exploitation. A lion, a buffalo, an elephant, a hyena, an alligator, a rhinoceros, a leopard, and a fox, in turn, evict their human host from his own hut and begin to occupy it themselves. As each case is brought before the jungle commission— a thinly veiled equivalent of imperial government—the human plaintiff is informed that though he may rebuild his hut on another site, he no longer has any legal claim to his existing property. Let me quote from the fable:

“In our opinion, this dispute has arisen through a regrettable misunderstanding due to the backwardness of your ideas. We consider that Mr. Elephant has fulfilled his sacred duty of protecting your interests. As it is clearly for your good that the space should be put to its most economic use, and as you yourself have not reached the stage of expansion which would enable you to fill it […] Mr. Elephant shall continue his occupation of your hut, but we give you permission to look for a site where you can build another hut more suited to your needs.”7

In the end, the man builds a large hut. Before long, all the animals rush in to occupy it. They begin to quarrel about who gets the most comfortable spot and about their entitlements in general. As the animals are embroiled in fighting over the spoils, the man/ plaintiff sets the hut on fire, jungle lords, and all his goods and possessions included. Left with nothing: no friends, no enemies, no hosts, no guests, no habitation and no property to his name—nothing but his own solitary singularity—he finds the peace he has lacked all his life and lives happily ever after.

In the era of twentieth-century decolonization, what I’m calling an ethics of renunciation won the endorsement of non-western and western observers, alike. Western observers took the lead in declaring renunciation the canonical form not only of postcolonial ethics, but of any thinking worth its salt in the longue durée of the global south. Instances of renunciation were compared favorably to the perceived materialism of anticolonial revolutionary politics. Such revolutionary projects, exemplified in cultural nationalisms, were accused of instrumentalism, and charged with merely seeking to appropriate the injurious tools and infrastructure of this or that oppressor for alternate ends and gains—but ends and gains, nonetheless. By contrast, the argument went, an anticolonial ethics of renunciation does something different. It is a project of total expropriation: a refusal to partake in any benefit that obtains from the colonial-injurious system, let’s call it.

The great European thinkers Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers argued that non-western asceticisms were a sign of native (autochthonous) modernity; and, by implication, that renunciation may be the secret ingredient of any meaningful modernity at all.8 This is a point anticipated early in the twentieth-century by Max Weber, in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and posthumously published, Economy and Society. Rationalization, Weber famously suggests in these works, arises from an inner-worldly asceticism. It is integral to the spirit of capitalism. Let me stay with these themes for a moment.

The ideal of renunciatory modernity that I’ve been describing (via Arendt and Jaspers and Weber) has three features. First, it describes entities, systems, structures, institutions, practices and behaviors that achieve something we could interchangeably call formation, or emergence, or even species identity within processual time. So, in colonial discourse we often hear how such and so culture is advanced because it has clear hierarchies and state-formations; and how another is less so because its political institutions and economic systems are still fuzzy and indeterminate. Second, such species identity/emergence/formation requires factors of internal coherence (qualities of uniformity, durability, conformation). Mainly, and here’s the point I want to emphasize, it requires factors of distinction (achieving uniformity, durability, conformation through processes of individual differentiation from a given milieu; and from other species and non-species). Third, and finally, none of this is possible without capacities for separation, opposition and adversity. In a nutshell, values of emergence/formation/species identity are founded on principles of rupture and break. Thus, in the Kenyatta story the man in the jungle comes into his own capacities and freedoms only when he breaks all his ties with the world as he knows it, and with his own desires in that world.

An ethics of renunciation, I’m suggesting, may well refuse to partake in colonial-injuriousness. Yet, precisely by so doing, by separating itself radically from the perceived contagion of colonialism, by seeking a much too pure and purified form of anticolonialism, it incorporates a constitutive violence within the nonviolence to which it is ultimately committed. The brilliant thinker-writer Walter Benjamin famously defended something like an ethics of renunciation, thus described, in his breakthrough 1921 essay, “Critique of Violence”. There is a divine violence, Benjamin argued, that becomes nonviolent on account of its indifference to ends. It stands liberated from questions of material and physical security and the tug of desires. It refuses to partake in the world as it stands. It defies the realm of necessity.

There is something thrilling and ennobling about this stance. Yet, it is based on the view that there is something ignoble and abject in the quest for life, as such; for the preservation of life, the tending of life. This makes me uncomfortable, faced as we are with specters of ecological extinction; the build-up through war and terror of countless refugee populations seeking conditions of livability across the world; the existential anxieties that beset women, trans- and sexual minorities each passing minute of our shared time. As many as 828 million people still go hungry. World hunger is on the rise again. It affects nearly ten percent of people globally. What value an ethics and a nonviolence that devalues the mere life, good, bad and ugly, that we share with each other in precious planetary coexistence?

Ethics of Surplus

Recently, I had an illuminating conversation with someone who has been a great architect of civil society in Pakistan. In our conversation, we were mindful of the artificial political differences that partition our respective nations of origin. Our lament was about how these artificial differences have begun to saturate everyday life and common perceptions in the current era of divisive cultural nationalisms and resurgent fundamentalisms. My interlocutor indulged in a moment of nostalgia for politicians of the past. People such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the first governor general of independent Pakistan) and Jawaharlal Nehru (the first prime minister of independent India), he reminisced, were ethical. They never forgot their humanity for the cause of this or that political cause and conviction.

The qualities that my interlocuter deemed ethical consist, surprisingly, not of virtue (i.e., kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, civility—though such forms may appear in context). Rather, they belong to a capacity for inconsistency and contradiction. When this or that political leader forgets a political agenda to engage with the distress of an adversary, or when we allow ourselves to be derailed from this or that objective by additional hopes and aspirations (our own and those of others) we become aware of something that the poet Rabindranath Tagore once described (in his 1930 Hibbert lectures at Oxford University) as a state of surplus.9

By the notion of surplus Tagore means to encourage the belief that we are always much more in a position to give than we might imagine, especially in times of hardship (material and psychical). But surplus also indicates other factors. It implies the plurality of personality we carry everywhere with us. We are citizens and non-citizens, the places we come from, the places forbidden to us, the work we do, our practices of leisure, the languages we speak, and those that we do not understand. By extension, surplus implies a condition of multiple identifications. We are never saturated, in truth, by just one attachment or other, say to a national or religious group. Thinking borne of inequities of gender, colonialism, sexuality, class, xenophobia and race has always been especially alert to the surplus of complex entanglements within structures of oppression. These include inevitable factors of co-dependent life that endure, say, in the inextricability of forms within the postcolonial aftermath (languages, institutions, epistemologies). More so, the postcolonial condition is alive to the ambivalence— as American sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois called it—of double-consciousness. In such circumstances, we may simultaneously deride and yearn for the resources that are readily available to us (a mother-tongue, home-grown remedies) and simultaneously yearn for and deride others to which we are not entitled (European philosophy, a world-famous antiquity). Or, all of the above. Du Bois writes:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.”10

In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. An ethics of surplus, simply put, does not seek to surpass the contradictions of uneven historical life—indeed, of uneven life as such. So doing, it rejects any final perfective settlement of values and scores. The disposition is intolerant of immutability. Its presupposition of variability is not confined to the belief that base elements are controvertible into purer elements, though that too. The onus is on continuities between base and pure elements in either direction. The Buddhist philosopher Nāgarjunā is clear on point. He says a power may be called miraculous when it can change stone into gold and gold into stone. By this measure, an ethics of surplus may never achieve the prerogatives of emergence and formation available to an ethics of renunciation. Yet, it may bypass the separations at the heart of injuriousness.


There is a popular story in India about Vālmiki, the poet-author of the epic Rāmāyana. It gets at the essence of a postcolonial ethics that opens up a zone of uncertainty, and which I have been conjuring thus far. Let me recount this story in conclusion. A highborn child gets lost in a forest. He is rescued by a scavenger. She teaches him how to convert waste into reusable material and harness nutrients in dead matter. A famine settles on the land. The scavenger becomes a hunter. The animals perish in a drought. The hunter becomes a murderer. One day he sets on a band of itinerant ascetics. They plead for their lives and urge the murderer to mend his ways through repetition of a mantra (a mystical formula of invocation or incantation). But try as he might the murderer cannot get his mouth around any of the numinous phonemes recommended by the ascetics. He settles on a word he knows best: mārā, meaning kill. He sits on the ground chanting mārā for roughly 63,000 years. An anthill or vālmikā forms around him and covers him entirely. When the ascetics return to the same spot they hear sounds issuing from the anthill. Some hear the word for kill. Mārā. Others can only make out an established one syllable seed sound reputed to bring an end to destruction. Rām. A few hear the tangle of both articulations. Mā-rā-mā-rā-mā-rā-mā-rā-mā-rāmā- rā-mā-rā-mā-rā. When they dismantle the anthill there are no remains. The murderer has become the sound of the coincidence of opposites.11


Postcolonial ethics, I’ve been saying, achieves its consummate form as a critique of colonial injuriousness—understood, as a regime of separations and partitions. It is marked, in this endeavor, by agonism between principles of renunciation and surplus. The practice of renunciation is at the heart of an ethos of modernity, yet it repeats the separations and partitions of colonial injuriousness. The principle of surplus is more attentive to entanglements within history and invests postcolonial ethics, indeed, ethics, as such, with a power to open up a zone of uncertainty in times of crisis. Life belongs to this zone.

1 | My Emphasis. Justin D. Kaplan (Hg.), Apology, in Dialogues of Plato (The Jowett Translations), New York 1951, 26
2 | Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography. The Story of My Experiments with Truth, transl. Mahadev Desai, Beacon, 1993 (1948), xxviii.
3 | See Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory, New York, 2019, 177–214.
4 | Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, transl. Libby Meintjes, in: Public Culture 15/1 (2003), 21.
5 | Richard Henry Tawney, The Attack and Other Papers, London 1953, 51.
6 | See, Simone Weil/Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad, transl. Mary McCarthy, New York 2005, 5.
7 | Jomo Kenyatta, The Gentleman of the Jungle: A Gikuyu Tale, in: Peggy Rutjerford (Hg.), An Anthology of Native African Writing, New York 1958, 86–87. I am grateful to Professor Yogita Goyal for drawing my attention to this work. See Yogita Goyal, Romance, Diaspora and Black Atlantic Literature, Cambridge, 2010.
8 | Compare, Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, transl. E.B. Ashton, Chicago/London 1961, 24–58; Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, New York/London 1968, 88–89.
9 | See Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man: The Hibbert Lectures for 1930, New York 1931, 41–62.
10 | William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks (Hg. Cynthia Brantley Johnson), New York 2005, 7–8.
11 | See Leela Gandhi, On Sitting, forthcoming, Representations, 2023.

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