HomeOpinionThe geopolitics of ignorance: Part 3 …COVID-19 pandemic and global south perspectives

The geopolitics of ignorance: Part 3 …COVID-19 pandemic and global south perspectives

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By Professor Artwell Nhemachena

This article was initially presented as a lecture at the University of South Africa Decoloniality Summer School, January 15-19 2024

THE geopolitics of ignorance play strategic functions for colonialists and capitalists because, for instance, a person regarded as irrational or illogical cannot, by extension, invent vaccines.

Besides, a person who is regarded as indistinct from a non-human cannot, by extension, invent vaccines and other medicines.

And a person deemed illiterate cannot, by extension, invent medicines.

Colonial history shows that those who were regarded as indistinct from non-human were not allowed to compete with global pharmaceutical corporations in the invention and production of medicines.

Geopolitics of ignorance refers to attributions of ignorance, for strategic reasons, to other people living in other regions of the world. It also involves actively manipulating the minds of the targeted people such that they begin to believe they are, or they actually become, ignorant.

Colonialists devised many ways, including education and religion, that were used to colonise the mind, to make Africans believe they were ignorant and could not invent anything.

In any case, colonialists have historically dispossessed Africans of material resources and with the 21st Century, emergent mind control, memory editing and deleting technologies, it would be easy to similarly dispossess other people of their minds and memories.

Indeed, we are also told there are ‘technoscientific’ innovations to scan and transfer human minds from biological brains to the clouds or into technological substrates.

But we are never informed about the implications of such technologies on the colonisation of the mind and the attendant geopolitics of ignorance about which I am speaking of today.

After all, when human minds are merged with technology in the form of brain nanorobots, which are patented, the brain’s thought processes would begin to belong to the companies whose patented technologies have been merged with the brain.

Of course, ‘technoscience’ is a term coined to refer to the connections between science, technology, society and politics. In other words, there are no longer any pretensions of separations between science and politics – within the emergent technoscience, in Bruno Latour’s sense.

Science has abated its goal of purification because it is now connected to politics, power, culture and to new technologies designed to reverse-engineer the human brains in Ray Kurzweil’s sense.

If, as was the case, colonial governments destroyed the colonial archives before handing over power to post-independence governments, what guarantee is there that emergent technologies to reverse-engineer the human minds, and to edit and delete human memories, will not be used to destroy the minds, or whatever is archived in the human minds?

As part of what I call the geopolitics of ignorance, colonial governments destroyed incriminating national archives which would have constituted an embarrassment to the British imperial government. 

To provide a picture of this kind of geopolitics of ignorance, allow me to quote Cobain (2023) who notes thus:

“In Northern Rhodesia, colonial officials were issued with further orders to destroy ‘all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or religious bias on the part of Her Majesty’s government.’ Detailed instructions were issued over methods of destruction in order to erase all evidence of the purge. When documents were burned, ‘the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up’, while any that were being dumped at sea must be ‘packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast’.”

Colonialists created ignorance by destroying African archives.

Ignorance is not merely a residue of knowledge, as scholars like Proctor have noted, but ignorance is actively craved in order to secure strategic advantages, including to secure or enhance profits.

It is not only private commercial businesses that seek to profit from ignorance, or from what other sociologists of ignorance call strategic unknowns. Colonial governments and imperial governments also sought to profit from the ignorance of the colonial subjects.

Matters of ignorance are not only individual issues but they are also geopolitical issues in so far as they can be mapped across geographical spaces, including imperial spaces.

While colonial cartographers have productively mapped the geographies of the world, they sadly ignored the contours of socially or colonially-produced ignorance on the geographical spaces so mapped.

The fact that we have been made to believe that colonialism brought pure knowledge is testimony of colonial attempts to ignore what I call cartographies of socially-produced ignorance and the associated geopolitics of ignorance about which I speak today.

The point here is not to argue that geopolitics of ignorance is performed solely by politicians but by transnational corporations which have become more powerful than some States in the world which actively play geopolitics of ignorance for purposes of monopolising profit-making in the world.

In other words, the geopolitics of ignorance is undergirded by geoeconomics of ignorance.

After all, we are living in a world of what John Perkins calls ‘corporatocracy’ in which global corporations, including global pharma, rule and dictate what constitutes inventions and in terms of whose inventions count; whose knowledge counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts as ignorance.

Indeed, we are told that during the COVID-19 pandemic, some global pharmaceutical corporations made profits of up to US$65 000 every minute.

Profits raked from COVID-19 vaccines were possible because of the geopolitics of ignorance in which some ‘cures’ from some geographies of the world were dismissed as cranky, delusory and ineffective.

What I am saying here is that global capitalists do not only profit from claiming patents and marketing their products, including vaccines and other medicines, they also profit through the geopolitics of ignorance in which they make the other regions of the world believe they have ignorance, or they actually make other regions of the world ignorant of alternatives to Western inventions.

Drawing on Michael Callon’s sociology of translation, I argue here that geopolitics of ignorance involve creating obligatory passage points by pillorying other regions of the world as ignorant in order to pivot one’s strategic position.

In other words, the geopolitics of ignorance include the politics of naming the other as ignorant, for strategic reasons. 

And, with regards to what we herein call frictional ignorance, it includes ignorance which derives from inflating the costs of accessing knowledge.

Thus, much as scholars often speak in terms of the global political economy of knowledge, there is also the global political economy of ignorance which explains how some regions of the world profit from distributing or casting ignorance, which is to say, from casting spells of ignorance on others.

While other scholars have written in terms of what they call the geopolitics of knowledge, in relation to the coloniality of knowledge, I want to write in terms of what I call the geopolitics of ignorance in relation to the coloniality of ignorance.

The point I want to make is that colonisation is not necessarily achieved by imposing knowledge on the colonised but by casting spells of ignorance on them through the geopolitics of ignorance.

In a world wherein not only knowledge has been mobilised as an apparatus for geopolitics, it is essential to also think in terms of the geopolitics of ignorance to denote ways in which ignorance has been, and is often, strategically created and used to geopolitical effect in the world.

Referring to ways in which geographies, time, politics and ignorance often overlay one another in spatial terms, the notion of geopolitics of ignorance enable us to map the spatial distribution of socially-produced ignorance.

Put differently, the notion of geopolitics of ignorance does not assume that ignorance is always natural, but it also posits that ignorance is actively produced, mobilised and deployed in a world wherein some seek to monopolise knowledge and associated economic benefits of the knowledge economies.

In other words, the geopolitics of ignorance enable us to see ignorance not merely as an attribute of some individuals, but with it, we see that ignorance can be mapped in terms of geographical regions in the world.

In this regard, it becomes possible to question why regions of ignorance often correspond with geographies that are subjected to colonisation, capitalist dispossession and exploitation.

Put succinctly, in order to colonise, dispossess and exploit some regions of the world, colonialists needed to impose not knowledge but ignorance on the peoples who became colonial subjects. And so, instead of merely thinking in terms of the coloniality of knowledge, it is imperative to think in terms of the coloniality of ignorance.

While they destroyed pre-colonial African universities, such as the University of Timbuktu, colonialists taught Africans that they were illiterate, uneducated and did not have schools and universities prior to colonisation.

The idea here was to create strategic ignorance among Africans such that they would begin to believe that Africa has always been the ‘whiteman’s burden’.

Indeed, in respect of vaccinations against COVID-19, Africa has proven to constitute the whiteman’s burden.

Yet, the constitution of Africa as a whiteman’s burden has the net effect of disabling Africans from seeing the whiteman as a colonial burden to Africans. It has the effect of lodging coloniality into Africa.

Whereas in the metropolitan centres from which the colonialists came, ignorance was an attribute of individuals, in the geographies that were colonised, ignorance became a matter of the spaces or geographies.

Put in other words, the notion of geopolitics of ignorance is not about individual attributes but it is about ways in which entire colonised geographies were cast as ignorant, and how colonial spells of ignorance afflicted entire regions that were colonised.

Geopolitics of ignorance refers to ignorance which is a function of colonial geopolitics and geo-economics.

It has an affinity with what other scholars have called strategic ignorance. However, the distinguishing feature of the notion of geopolitics of ignorance is that it does not refer to individual attributes but to entire geographies that suffered the colonial spells of ignorance.

While the geopolitics of knowledge and the attendant coloniality of knowledge would presuppose that colonialism was about matters of fact, which undergird matters of knowing, I argue herein that geopolitics of ignorance is connected to matters of concern wherein African matters of fact were denied centrality.

Borrowing from Bruno Latour, I argue that colonialists’ geopolitics of ignorance was premised on matters of concern, involving the denial of the facticity of African humanity, for instance. Africans were regarded not as humans but as animals or as very close to animals that were deemed to be their cousins.

It would be simplistic to describe those who could not recognise the humanity of Africans as having brought knowledge to Africa. One who is ignorant of the humanity of others cannot simply be described as having brought or imposed knowledge.

Thus, while considering themselves to be higher up the ladder in the ‘great chain of being’, colonialists regarded Africans as indistinct from non-human animals.

The point was to generate ignorance about the humanity and human rights of the colonised peoples.

If enslaved, Africans were not content with simply accessing and harnessing medicines invented by other people, why must 21st Century Africans be merely obsessed with accessing and harnessing medical inventions from elsewhere?

Similarly, if the inventive pre-colonial Africans were not content to merely access and harness medicines invented by others, why must 21st Century Africans be obsessed with accessing and harnessing medicines that are invented by other people?

Are African universities failing to break the spells of geopolitics of ignorance that explain why we have pathetically failed to design and invent an African vaccine for COVID-19?

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