Decadence, Decolonization, and the Critique of Modernity: An Introduction by the Guest Editor


  • Robert Stilling


What would it mean to decolonize decadence? To ask the question is to consider the relationship between disparate but intertwined critiques of modernity. For writers in late nineteenth-century France such as Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Joris-Karl Huysmans, for example, ‘decadence’ captures a particular critique of urban modernity. These were writers who exhibited a ‘profound scepticism about modernity and progress’, and were ‘disgusted by overcrowding, poverty, and rampant commercialism, what Huysmans described as ‘the caliphate of the counter’. Decolonizing critiques, however, developed out of the anti-colonial movements that lead to political decolonization in the second half of the twentieth century, the emergence of newly independent postcolonial national cultures, as well as continuing efforts at cultural decolonization, including the development of postcolonial theory, and theorizations of coloniality and decoloniality. These are all critiques of modernity differentiated by their origins and ends, but which nevertheless cast doubt, each in their own ways, on the project of Western civilization, its myths of progress, imperial expansionism, imposed temporalities, and enthralment to commodity capital. But to consider what it would mean to decolonize decadence is also to imagine modernity from starkly different viewpoints, from a stance of alienation within the West, from standpoints that experience Western hegemony as alien, and from innumerable perspectives that otherwise navigate colonial rule, imperialism and its aftermath, settler colonial myths, or the development of national cultures outside, but in relation to the West.