[The Pintura of Chimalhuacán-Atoyac, an Amerindian "map"]
Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of the Renaissance explores different practices of representation/expression (literature, history, cartography) and the way in which in their respective registers (language, memory, space) they have been shaped and utilized by the imperial power (Europe, Spain in particular) for its colonizing project (of the Americas). Mignolo makes no gesture to deny that some material world exists outside of these discourses (discourses here simply meaning processes that produce representations such as a literary work, a historical record, a map). Rather than straightforward correspondence between the discourse (which produce entities related to what Saussure calls the sign) and the material world (Saussure’s referent; “reality”), however, Mignolo questions such notion of objective truth. He points instead to the political motivation and implication of such discourses, arguing that the construction of representations and the shape that they take constitute a significant part of the process of colonization (i.e. these discourses forward the imperial power’s political interests). In effect, the colonizer does not merely take over physical space (the territory) and assert its power by physical force (e.g. by the execution of insurgent elements in the colonized population); part and parcel of the colonizing project is the discursive imposition of representations. This is the way in which discourses of colonization, which manifest materially (in the text, the map), have a material effect (as “tools” for colonization).
One such discourse imposed by imperial power is European cartography, the development of which Mignolo charts in chapter 6 (“Putting the Americas on the Map: Cartography and the Colonization of Space”). Mignolo explains that the West mapped the world as divided into four parts in which, at the outset of its colonization, the Americas was represented as a “New World.” This representation equated knowledge by the West of a part of the world previously unknown to it with that part’s existence, as though prior to that knowledge, the Americas was an empty space that therefore had no perspective (coming as perspective does from people) and as though the perspective of the West corresponded to the actual shape of the world (259-62). Mignolo notes that all cultures fall into this centrism (262). If this is the case, it can be asked: why does Mignolo focus on the “hypothetical European observer,” critiquing only Eurocentrism (and not say, Amerindianism) (262)? What makes European centrism unique? Is it because the West at the time that Mignolo speaks of was in a position to do something with its perspective, i.e. to colonize the Americas, in a way that other powers that were also prone to centrism (e.g. Japan) did not?
An implied assumption in Mignolo’s argument is that the European colonization of the Americas worked partly because of European cartography, that, as it were, representation is a tool for colonization. At the same time, however, (this may be what makes the European case unique) the success of their (material) colonization of the Americas allowed Europeans to disseminate their perspective—including to the colonized who come to adopt the colonizers’ maps not in the least because their land has become a part of the colonizers’ territory, thereby necessitating some synchronization of the representations of space—not to mention the forceful imposition by the colonizers of their representations, as, for example, in “the suppression [by the Spanish] of native graphic traditions and modes of communication” (303). Thus not only is discourse a part of the colonizing project; through colonization the discourses of the colonizers seem to gain more universality, if only because that discourse is incorporated into the representational framework of more people (the colonizers and the colonized).
After discussing European cartography, Mignolo turns to “the other side of the mountain” to provide an account of Amerindian representations of space—the same space represented by the Europeans, albeit differently—the presence of which testifies that there were, in fact, albeit silenced, Amerindian representations of space prior to and after the Europeans’ arrival in what the latter called the “New World” (296). Mignolo hints that he can do this with less certainty compared to his account of European representation since “Amerindian ‘maps’ are not as well documented as Spanish and European ones partly due to the fact that most of them were destroyed in the process of colonization,” which once again makes felt the effect of the material situation on discursive representations (296). Nonetheless, Mignolo is able to determine that Amerindian representations were, like the actual space they inhabited, hybrid ones in which both “ethnic spaces” of the Spanish and the Amerindian coexisted (307). This is the way in which Mignolo is able to make the distinction between the two discursive strategies of representation: the European empties space so that he can then organize it with himself occupying the center; while the Amerindian empties the center to show the two ethnic groups inhabiting the same (or a contiguous) space with each other (309).
At first it seems as though it is only the Europeans that are, through their representations, committing a political act, as though it is only their discourses that have a material effect. Emptying space, the Europeans are able to impose their own perspective and position themselves at the center of representations, thereby making felt, even in their representations (i.e. in addition to their setting up of a government, their military bases, etc.), their power. Amerindian mappings of space after the conquest, however, are also political. The Amerindians were faced with a (material) situation in which the colonizers occupied the center. Even as their hybrid representations do not attempt to push these colonizers out (since they represent both groups, including the colonizers), the latter are nonetheless de-centered, in a move that likely calls for an equality of status between the two groups (since in the representations no one is at the center; rather, both groups coexist in two ethnic spaces), in effect dethroning the colonizers from their position of power—undeniably a political move. The two representations have two different starting points (a space that was just discovered, targeted to be colonized; colonial rule in which the colonized “native” inhabitants of the land, occupy a subordinate position) and as such different tasks—and, it must be noted, different goals (colonization, with the hierarchy, usurpation, and oppression it implies; equality without necessarily demanding the colonizers to leave). Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that both discursive strategies are political: created by groups that have political interests (although politics may not be the only reason that they were created), the representations work towards (material) political goals.
Mignolo (at least in chapter 6) does not make these elaborations as to what the representations of the respective groups do to the material situation. For the most part, his account remains an account in the objective sense, i.e. it is limited to descriptions with minimal interpretation of what they mean with hardly any extraction of their political significance. Similarly, the connection between the discursive and the material—the way in which representations work as tools for colonization, in which, in turn, colonization disseminates the representations—is strongly implied by Mignolo, but it is not explicitly laid out. In fact it can be asked: is Mignolo in fact making this assumption? For someone influenced by the Marxist notion of ideology (as laid out, for example, by Louis Althusser, which is later reworked by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in what they call the regime of signs), it is easy to make the assumption that (imaginary) representations are situated in and have as their content their material context, in which through mechanisms of both allusion (in which representations refer to the material situation) and illusion (in which a representation is taken to be the representation, neutral and therefore universally true) the two—the representation and the material situation—have an effective, mutually-affecting relation. It is easy, then, to insert Mignolo’s critical descriptions of representations, which he implies are part of the (material) process of colonization, in this framework. Part of the Marxist goal in theorizing ideology, of course, is to reconcile the holders of ideology to the ideology of their class—their own ideology—such that, once their representations are aligned to their own material situation, rather than adopting the viewpoint of the class that oppresses them, they can work towards their own political ends.
Is this what Mignolo, by suggesting the implication and mutual reinforcement of the discursive and the material, is trying to do? At one point Mignolo argues that even when “graphic traditions and modes of communication” are suppressed, “cognitive patterns rooted in the collective memory” are not necessarily erased (303). Mignolo implies here that even if a material practice of representation is lost (i.e. the Amerindian way of making maps), in some ways, that way of representing (and the way of thinking that comes with it, in this case one that accommodates hybridity) still exists, if only in memory (303). Mignolo concerns himself here with both the material manifestation of discourse (the graphic tradition and its concrete products, such as maps) and the imaginary/ideational mark it leaves in memory (the cognitive patterns). While one part of this (the graphic tradition) is indeed material (i.e. inscribing graphs on paper or tablets is a material process, and it has a material product, a map), along with the imaginary mark this material manifestation nonetheless pertains—is limited—to the field of representation. There is another level of the material here that is merely mentioned: the fact that the European colonizers are, in a very material way—i.e. by destroying Amerindian maps, by threatening the use of force—suppressing these Amerindian material representations—i.e. the material context of colonization. Rather than exploring in depth the link between this material context and the representations (which, granted, have both an imaginary and a material component), Mignolo for the most part merely describes the representations. In this way, Mignolo stays at the level of the material as represented rather than on the material effects and context of representation, on the colonization of the imagination rather than on the material act of colonization.
This begs the question as to what Mignolo is trying to do. Towards the end of the chapter, he writes about the two types of representation (the European and the Amerindian) that “they are constantly teaching us not only that maps are not the territory, but also that the process of inventing and putting the Americas on the map was not an everlasting episode of the past, but an open process toward the future” (311). Because the link between the discursive representation (which has something to do with the colonization of the imagination) and the material situation (of colonization) is not explicitly made, while from this statement it is clear that Mignolo is suggesting that a change of representations (a change in maps, in identity) is possible, it is not clear how that relates and what that does to the material context, to (material) colonization itself. If the colonized change their perspectives and their representations, what does that do to their colonized situation? If they change their representations, does that mean that they are no longer colonized? In contrast to his analysis of representation that encompasses both its imaginary and material aspects, is Mignolo concerned merely with the colonization of the imagination and not material colonization, the fact that, in addition to suppressing and imposing representations, colonizers are—materially—occupying and ruling the territory of the colonized?
In Writing Without Words, Elizabeth Hill Boone has a similar concern. Expanding the definition of writing (beyond language) to include non-phonetic types allows Boone to say that the Inca, even before the conquest, had a writing culture (e.g. the quipu). This way, these Incan cultures become represented along with the other cultures that have writing. Again, the question is: what does this do? Through discursive moves like Mignolo and Boone, representations of the colonized become recognized and perhaps even adopted and disseminated, yet without linking representation to the material context of colonization, the discourse of Mignolo and Boone do not make clear what their move does to material colonization itself. The discourse of the colonizers, as Mignolo chronicles, contributed to the material act of colonization, in that way successfully performing the function of discourses of colonization. Perhaps the assumption of scholars like Mignolo that aim to represent the discourse of the colonized is that merely by having them represented, the discourse of the colonized would, as discourses of decolonization, have equally potent effects. Mignolo’s is not a discourse of decolonization, however. It is a discourse that talks about the colonized and their representations (like the hybrid “maps”) that may lead to their decolonization—i.e. a discourse on (discourses of) decolonization. It is not, like the discourses of colonization, the discourse itself that, through its representations, contribute to decolonization (that would be the Amerindian “maps” themselves), but merely the discourse that talks about and attempts to make recognized those discourses of decolonization (a sort of meta-discourse about a discourse). Is this a worthwhile move? What sort of material potency does a discourse on decolonization like this have, especially when, despite being a meta-discourse, it does not really theorize the relation between the discursive and the material?
Boone, Elizabeth Hill. “Writing and Recording Knowledge.” Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham: Duke UP, 1994: 3-26. Print.
Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization. 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995. Print.
 The book is in fact divided into three parts, the title of each featuring the word, “Colonization.”
 Mignolo writes, “Economic expansion, technology, and power, rather than truth, characterized European cartography early on, and national cartography of the Americas at a later date” (311).
 While noting resistance to Western cultures, Mignolo writes that “the power of the economic and religious expansion and the force of the printing technology have been the most persuasive among all possible imaginable alternatives” (309). “Certainly, such a perspective was neither necessarily shared by everyone, nor the only possible alternative, but obviously [it was the perspective of . . .] those who had the power and controlled chains of communication and programs of education” (311).
 Mignolo uses the term “colonizing the imagination” (309) but not material colonization.