“The Effects of Colonialism Are Still Felt in Our Lives Today”
The recently launched digital platform “Affect and Colonialism Web Lab” touches on many issues, from the Black Lives Matter movement to migration
Sep 03, 2021
“Colonialism isn’t just something that began in the sixteenth century and ended four centuries later. It's still present in our world today,” says Jonas Bens. The social and cultural anthropologist at Freie Universität Berlin is an editor for the Affect and Colonialism Web Lab, a new multimedia platform that will serve as a discursive space to parse out the multifaceted impacts of colonialism across the world. Through podcasts, videos, and a digital exhibition, researchers, artists, and activists will investigate how colonialism continues to shape aspects of life today. Freie Universität’s online magazine campus.leben spoke with Bens about the project, which was distinguished within the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s Ideas Competition – International Research Marketing in 2020.
Let’s begin with a short definition of terms: What does “affect” mean in this context?
We use “affect” to refer to the realm of feeling and emotions, but it’s actually a very comprehensive term that encompasses phenomena we find difficult to pin down, like moods and atmospheres.
How does this come to bear on your digital platform “Affect and Colonialism”?
Colonialism put structures in place that are so enduring they still govern our world. This becomes especially clear when we observe how much people are emotionally affected when they are confronted with them in everyday life.
Could you give us some specific examples?
Discussions about renaming streets that honor controversial historical figures, what we should do with ethnographic collections of dubious origin like that of the Humboldt Forum, and whether children’s books that contain racist terms should be rewritten are all specific, contemporary examples of how we are constantly grappling with colonialism. Growing numbers of young people are passionately engaged in campaigns to tackle climate change head-on – calling on us to take fewer flights, drive less, or adopt a vegan lifestyle – climate change itself being a product of a colonial economic system.
All of these conflicts provoke very strong emotional reactions, for example, among a section of the white population who grew up with certain terms and traditions that were considered perfectly fine for decades, and are now all of a sudden unacceptable.
On a global scale, we dicsuss different attitudes toward migration, which is the result of an unequal world that still retains colonial structures. The Black Lives Matter movement is fundamentally tied to colonialism-related issues that remain unresolved, as many African Americans who sense that their overall situation has hardly improved since the onset of colonialism and slavery are now protesting for freedom from an oppressive atmosphere of white supremacy.
Colonialism is a remarkably broad topic – both in terms of chronology and content. How are you planning to approach this issue with the Web Lab?
The Web Lab is designed to be a platform that brings together people from across the world who research colonialism and how it manifests itself palpably in people’s lives. But we’re not just interested in purely academic work; artists, political activists, and journalists are welcome to showcase their projects on our website.
We want to go beyond the formats that are dominant in academia like printed books or written essays to adopt videos, podcasts, and other formats that allow agile interventions and easy access. All in all, we want to create a mosaic made up of different perspectives. This is the core concept of our Web Lab: it is decentralized, non-hierarchical, and brings perspectives from around the world together in one place.
Who is the Web Lab for?
The content we publish via the Web Lab will be oriented toward a wide audience. At the same time, we want the platform to create global networks between people who are working on the topic of colonialism. We also have a digital fellowship program dedicated to overcoming the boundaries between academia and art. Jaider Esbel, an indigenous Brazilian artist from Boa Vista, and Luiza Prado, a Berlin-based Brazilian researcher and artist, are currently collaborating to create a digital exhibition that will also be available via the Web Lab.
This interview originally appeared in German on August 19, 2021, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.