Sanctioned Ignorance

A postcolonial critic, Spivak seeks alternative readings of culture within the context of colonialism. She writes in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999) that ‘the mainstream has never run clean… part of mainstream education involves learning to ignore this absolutely, with a sanctioned ignorance’ (p.2). Here she is referring to the Western literary canon as being tainted by imperialist assumptions and the sanctioning of scholarly ignorance to this fact as worthy of critique. Spivak believes that the ‘theoretical elite’ and the ‘self styled academic ‘practitioner’’ (p.4) sanction ignorance now more than ever before.


The effect of this ‘sanctioned ignorance’ is, she suggests, the reproducing and foreclosing of colonialist structures, and every critic of imperialism must chart this ignorance in their studies. Here, the focus is the ‘third world’ and its relation to the ‘first world’. In Selected Subaltern Studies (1985) Spivak writes ‘it is correctly suggested that the sophisticated vocabulary of much contemporary historiography successfully shields this cognitive failure and that this success-in-failure, this sanctioned ignorance, is inseparable from colonial domination’ (p.6). Ignorance is therefore rationalised, and by such means sanctioned. Spivak’s charge of sanctioned ignorance is most often directed at the Western study of the ‘third-world’, ‘oriental’ or ‘subaltern’, a gaze filtered through a selective lens. It therefore sits comfortably alongside recent calls to bring the non-Western into social theory. However, broader than this is the abstraction of normative theory, originating in particular, colonial, cultural and historical contexts and then apparently unproblematically applied to all contexts.


The charge of ‘sanctioned ignorance’ is not merely the suggestion of an omission, an angle on analysis as yet unexplored by chance. It gives agency to the omitter. Indeed, to the collective academy. It is a purposeful silencing through the dismissing of a particular context as being irrelevant. This is not necessarily an issue of individual malice but an institutionalised way of thinking about the world which operates to foreclose particular types of analysis or considerations from entering into the debate.


Essential reading:

Spivak, G. C. (1985) Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography. In: Guha, R. & Spivak, G. C. eds. Selected Subaltern Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Spivak, G. C. (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Boston: Harvard University Press.


Further reading:

Mayblin, L. (2013) Never Look Back: Political Thought and the Abolition of Slavery, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26:1, 93-110



What examples of ‘sanctioned ignorance’ are there in your discipline?


By what processes is ‘sanctioned ignorance’ made possible?


How can ‘sanctioned ignorance’ be challenged?


Submitted by Lucy Mayblin

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3 thoughts on “Transnationalism”

  • As a recent recipient of the graduate school certificate in African studies at ASU, my final drew from or focused in part on the settler narrative movement of the antebellum era. Despite the discovery of over 100 burials from this era that came to light recently, it was all treated in a quite troubing manner. Settler Colonial mentality was pervasive. It is clear, the slave labor narrative must be preserved at all cost. Local professional organizations and offices were disrespected and ignored as if the descended community did not exist. People wear the continuance of mixed relationships from this history and it is only now that they are finding their voice and their heritage in some cases. Global social theory is spot on.

  • I’m interested in colonialism,settler colonialism and decolonisation as it speaks to the original ownership of the land/country[?].
    I was interested to read ‘the tendency among some scholars of settler colonialism to treat settlement as inevitable, simultaneously relieving settler societies and states of the burden of reconciling with indigenous peoples, and placing the burden of accommodating settler sovereignty onto those same indigenous peoples'[above]
    I have been tentatively searching for references to the morality/legality of colonialisation,which could possibly have huge ramifications,and they are scarce.

  • Interesting. Could you please add Maria Lugones’s work in the further reading section please? She not only engaged with Quijano’s concept but revised it significantly to demonstrate the coloniality of gender. Thank you.

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