So, I spent most of the lockdown and post lockdown periods in a most “enjoyable” manner… writing a book! Looking back, I have no idea why I decided to write a book during a global plague. But I had started a lot of the research for it some years prior, so it seemed like a good idea for me to begin writing at that time. The book that came out of all this is titled, “Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge: Reflections on Power and Possibility.” It is now available for pre-order from Bristol University Press. The e-book is being released at the same time as the hardcover. The paperback will be released sometime later. I would really appreciate it if you could recommend the hardcover to your university or other libraries that you use, and also pre-order a soft copy for personal use. [See info on recommendation in image below].
In addition to this, I am also available to give book talks, so if you would like me to come to your law school or other educational department, or related institution, or group, to give a book talk, please let me know and we will figure out an appropriate date and time. Please use my institutional address to contact me. [Invite me somewhere sunny please! All expenses paid. Winter is coming!]
Writing this book, my first book, has invited some complex feelings. On the one hand, I am quite happy that I got to finish writing it, and I am really looking forward to people reading the book. On the other hand, I am really terrified that people will actually read the book! I guess this is because, it has been a lot of hard work to bring together my thoughts on decolonisation and law. When I started writing about decolonisation, it was not such a huge topic for public [and often misguided] debate. Specific to the book, I have been writing sections of it since about 2016. I also spent most of mid-2020 to early 2022 writing every day, nose and fingers to the keyboard, every minute that I was not teaching, doing admin, eating or sleeping. So, I have been consumed by it and I am ready for that hard work to manifest in physical form. I cannot wait to hold the book… and maybe find a typo in it! I am going to write a different post on the writing process itself, but I just want to add that if I was writing the book today, the process of writing the book would mean that I would write a different book. But that different book can only come about with the existence of this one. For that reason, I have come to appreciate any piece of writing as part of an ongoing conversation – internally but also externally.
In this post, apart from begging people to pre-order the book [done], I want to explain why I wrote the book and give a brief overview of what it contains.
Why Did I Write the Book?
This quote from the movie Tenet  is a weird place to start this discussion, I know. But, I like this quote for many reasons. For one, it calls into question our settled understanding of time. It also invites us to act in the present, despite the seemingly settled and pre-ordered nature of things. I have mentioned before that my work has always engaged with decolonisation – or put differently, I have always tried to unpack what global structures and temporal patterns of power in the world tell us about imagining better futures. As such, I am not intellectually concerned with apportioning blame or deciding which groups of peoples are ontologically “good” or “bad.” What’s happened, happened. The question left for us in response is twofold. Firstly, what actually happened? Secondly, when we know that, what do we do next?
The first problem here is an incomplete understanding of the orders of power laid down by the colonial enterprise and its adjuncts. These orders of power have, since their inception, circa 1492, attracted demands for their dismantling – i.e. decolonisation. Since 2015, especially with the inception of the University of Cape Town’s Rhodes Must Fall movement, conversations around decolonisation have been on the rise in UK higher education. However, I have been increasingly frustrated with many of these conversations. In some cases, there has been loads of enthusiasm but limited understanding of the nature of both colonial structures and praxes of decolonisation. In other conversations, there have been a wilful misunderstanding of both. Thus, we have engaged in more debate than action on decolonisation.
I have also become more uncomfortable with activity or discourse that seeks to “decolonise X”, where X has been anything, from a unit/module, to an institution, an activity or an item of clothing. What does it mean, for example, to “decolonise assessment”? Or to be even less facetious, what does it mean to “decolonise law”? How do you undo the thing that has brought about the thing that you want to undo it from? In response to these frustrations, what I have tried to do in this book, is to ask us, to look further back and ask better questions about what things are and how they came to be that way, how meanings are made and how those meanings become accepted and naturalised and enable the silent but violent reproduction of the harms from which we wish to depart. In essence, I have avoided writing a handbook on how to “decolonise law”… whatever that means. Rather, in this book I seek to unpack how this version of signs that we call “the law” has emerged through a particular history that has included both the presence of the coercive-extractive power of subjugation, and also the people-power that continues to attempt to subvert it. Enslavement and slave rebellions. Colonisation and anti-colonial movements. My intention is to demonstrate the tensions that exist within legal knowledge itself, as well as the limits that are inherent within our conversations about decolonisation in relation to law. What’s happened, happened, but do we even understand what has happened?
To this end, the book is titled, “Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge: Reflections on Power and Possibility.” “Decolonisation” here, indicates that I want to engage in a close conversation about the nature of decolonisation itself. One of the earlier suggestions for a title was, “Decolonising Legal Education.” After much deliberation, I had to abandon the phrase entirely. “Decolonising”, while it very helpfully suggests that we do something, has often led us to forgot to reconsider what we are, that has led to the demand to decolonise. So, we focus on doing anything, without giving closer thought to doing what needs to be done, in light of who we are, and where we are. “Decolonisation” points to a particular history. Any action we undertake under this banner, must account for that history. The phrase, “Decolonising Legal Education” also suggests that both components [decolonisation and legal education] are fixed and closed categories. I am more concerned here with how what we think we know in law is produced through relevant histories, and how settled that knowledge is presumed, as it passes through educational institutions. This question goes beyond teaching, and includes research and any form of knowledge interaction in and with law schools. It invites us to unsettle what we consider to be settled.
The subtitle reflects another frustration I have with the current state of discourse on decolonisation, especially with its focus, [at least in UK HE], on EDI. In our rush to decolonise X, we often forget that we are always talking about power, the power to include, always presupposes the power to exclude, the power to make equal, presupposes the power to make unequal and so on, and so forth. In this book, I trace those orders of power and how they have evolved, almost unseen, in different forms and through legal knowledge. I also pay attention to questions of possibility. Beyond coercive-extractive power, on the other side of colonial worlds, what possible flourishing futures can we create?
This cover is meant to reflect these themes of power and possibility. On the left side is dry and arid land. This depicts the limits of coercive-extractive power. While it can control and restrict, its ultimate end for most on the planet is destruction. On the right hand side, the leafy greens represent life. Collective people power creates possibilities that we have not even yet imagined – hopefully it creates flourishing together-life.
What’s Inside the Book?
Good question. It’s about 80,000+ words. In it I begin to question some of the fundamental concepts of legal knowledge – what they really mean, what they are, how they came to be, and how we can use them differently in the present and the future. This essentially is a succinct summary of the book. I focus on some key conceptual issues that I believe legal academics [in particular but everyone else in general] should be thinking about if they want to adopt decolonisation in their work – as both a theory and a praxis. This means thinking about both the spatial and temporal breadth of decolonisation, as well as an acceptance that decolonisation has had, continues to have, and will always have its own meaning outside of the curriculum. We are merely borrowing its framework. My focus here is on unsettling three foundational legal concepts – the body, space, and time. But there are definitely more concepts one could engage with. But these are the ones I consider to be most important to the study, practice and research of law. The book has 6 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. These I have summarised below:
Introduction – Setting the Scene: The Law School and the Discipline
This chapter discusses the current state of the law school in the UK and explains why decolonisation has been suggested as a response to that state. The purpose of this chapter is to provide the contextual background for the chapters that follow.
Chapter 1: Theories of Decolonisation or to Break All the Tables and Create the World Necessary for Us All to Survive
This chapter tries to define decolonisation. I often joke that I wrote 12 000 words in this chapter, got to the end and decided it was too much of a bother to define decolonisation! But more seriously, here I place less emphasis on the strict boundaries of definitions. Rather, I take a look at the different contexts in which actions have happened [and continue to happen] that can be placed under the banner of decolonisation, and what these actions teach us. In other words, what does the long history of decolonisation teach us about what we can do in the present, in law schools, in our quest to build new anti-colonial worlds?
Chapter 2: What Have You Done, Where Have You Been, Euro-Modern Legal Academe? Uncovering the Bones of Law’s Colonial Ontology
This chapter examines the nature of the law that we teach, research and practise in the Westernised university. If we consider that both colonialism [as a way of thinking, being and doing in the world] and decolonisation [also a way of thinking, being and doing in the world] have evolved together in a “push and pull” relationship, then law has developed in tandem with this fractious evolving relationship. Therefore, to enact decolonisation within and with legal knowledge is to pay closer attention to the concepts and methods of colonial thought that survive the colonial process unnoticed within our legal knowledge.
Chapter 3: Defining the Law’s Subject I: [Un]Making the Wretched of the Earth
As stated earlier I look at three fundamental concepts though which law makes its meanings. The first is the human body or person. So, in this chapter I trace how law’s human has developed through a history infused with hierarchies [race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality etc] and examine what that means for the human that is the subject of law.
Chapter 4: Defining the Law’s Subject II: Law and Creating the Sacrifice Zones of Colonialism
This chapter focuses on the second conceptual subject – space. It follows on from the previous chapter to examine how the creation of human hierarchies of value enabled the enclosure and commodification of land. This chapter argues that one of the most significant outcomes of the legitimate property-fication of labour, land, and nature is the looming endangerment of the life on earth and of the planet itself.
Chapter 5: Defining the Law’s Subject III: Law, Time, and Colonialism’s Slow Violence
Of extreme importance to this conversation is the ways in which the effects of the colonial enterprise, [that is the enslavement of kidnapped Africans and the dispossession of indigenous peoples] have been borne forward almost silently in time. This, despite legislation to end these practices. In this chapter, I look at how colonial thought makes colonial time and its effects ever-present. I argue that we cannot hope to understand colonial persistence if we do not unpack the relationship between law and time.
Chapter 6: The Law School: Colonial Ground Zero – A Colonial Convergence in the Human and Space-Time
In the last chapter, I bring together all the preceding arguments. What do they tell us about life and work in a Law School? This chapter responds to the chapters it follows with some theoretical reflection and practical suggestions. Rather than advocating for “decolonising law” it responds to the question, “What does it mean to dream of new anticolonial worlds from within the law school?”
Conclusion: Another University is Necessary: Towards Pluriversal Worlds
Unsurprisingly, I conclude with the conclusion. I remind us that one of the reasons I struggle with “decolonising X”, is that we often seem to forget that whatever X is, it exists in a world [and often an institution or sector] still refusing to be decolonised. So, our goal must always be within us and beyond us, not to decolonise X, but to harness the power we have together, to reinvent the boundaries of possibility and build new flourishing worlds in which we all may thrive.