The Decolonial Abyss

Mysticism and Cosmopolitics from the Ruins

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
An Yountae
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , October
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What becomes of the self after trauma? How does the self survive and emerge after being ravaged by trauma? While such questions might typically lend themselves to the realm of trauma theory and psychology, in The Decolonial Abyss: Mysticism and Cosmopolitics from the Ruins, An Yountae explores this question with a more specific focus on the colonized subject whose self has been traumatized in and by the devastating history of colonization—slavery, suffering, displacement, discontinuity, and death—and its ongoing effects. While honing in on the colonized subject, Yountae’s reach is broad, reflective of the extended reach of colonial trauma itself, exploring its spiritual, social, and political effects on the individual as well as the collective self, and the spiritual, social, and political possibilities in light of those effects. To address these questions and their contours, Yountae turns to the trope of the abyss, the site of the “work of negation that displaces the self and her old world and gives birth to a new self at the same time” (3).

At its heart (irony intended?) the abyss “indicates the indeterminate—if not finite—structure of being, the precariousness of the human epistemological and ontological foundation.” Yountae explains that he is interested in “the use of this trope to describe the concrete sociopolitical situation of human experience that is ‘the lived experience’ of the body” (11). Ultimately, the abyss marks and facilitates the movement of the (colonized) subject, reconstructing the self not to a triumphal repaired or reassembled state but to a relational self always in the process of becoming: what Yountae, following Martinican thinker Édouard Glissant, calls the creolized self. This “reconstructed” self of the colonial abyss has theological and political implications for the collective self, for reconceiving a sense of global citizenship that takes colonial violence seriously—a cosmopolitics from the ruins.

After the “situating [of] the self in the abyss” in chapter 1, and to make its argument for a reconstructed, always-becoming self, The Decolonial Abyss theorizes, explores, and ultimately interweaves the trope of the abyss, its respective meaning and what it offers, through three disciplinary threads—the theological, the philosophical, and the political—which make up the three central chapters of the text.

Theologically, Yountae examines the mystical abyss, wherein the trope of the abyss “denotes the blurring boundary between human finitude and divine potency” (14).

He outlines the Platonic roots of the trope of the abyss, tracing how it develops in Neoplatonic thought (particularly in Plotinian cosmology) and on to medieval mysticism/negative theology (focusing on Pseudo-Dionysius and Meister Eckhart). Honing in on the Dionysian turn to darkness, not as a passageway to light but as a passage from finitude to infinity and back again, Yountae begins to gesture to the non-linear, non-unidirectional movement of the abyss, turning to postmodern philosophy (Derrida, Marion, and Žižek) to begin to illuminate the ethical and political import stemming from the movement of the mystical abyss.

Chapter 3 then builds on this theme of movement, turning to the dialectical abyss, focusing on the negative functions in Hegel’s dialectical becoming of the subject. While recognizing that the negative is underdeveloped and underemployed in Hegel and his followers, Yountae eschews the reading of the dialectic “as a narrative of teleological progress” in favor of Hyppolite’s interpretation, which “understands synthesis or the end as a momentary achievement” (59). In other words, the Hegelian dialectic does not move towards completeness but a web of interrelations.

Finally, chapter 4 turns to the colonial abyss, drawing on Martinican and decolonial thought (Cesaire, Fanon, Glissant) and its engagement in contemporary philosophy (Deleuze, Braidotti) to situate the abyss and its relevance politically. Reflection on the colonial context, Yountae demonstrates, offers a rich resource for a reconstructed self and subsequent decolonial cosmopolitics from the place of suffering—“a dialectic of dispossession and reconstruction that gives rise to a relational ontology” (89).

The Decolonial Abyss is stunning in its breadth and depth: Yountae’s examination of the abyss weaves together an impressively diverse array of voices to construct a persuasive vision of a reconstructed self, a (cosmo)politics from the ruins, and (counter)poetics as a resource for enacting that vision. That being said, I did at times have questions about Yountae’s choice of interlocutors, both those engaged and those not engaged. Of course, no project can engage everything that is relevant, and choices understandably have to be made. But it was puzzling that there was no engagement with critiques of the Hegelian dialectic. While I can understand the reading of negativity in Hegel as non-triumphalistic, non-reconciling, and non-teleological, I can’t help but wonder if that reading would have been stronger if it had critically engaged critiques of Hegel—the Foucauldian critique taken up by some queer theorists, such as Lynne Huffer. Finally, while the theme of cosmopolitics was engaged closely and thoughtfully in the introduction and conclusion of The Decolonial Abyss, I found myself wanting to see more engagement with the cosmopolitical in the central chapters.

Those concerns and questions aside, The Decolonial Abyss is an erudite, insightful, and exceptionally important text. Given the either/or trend in critical theory/identity studies (for example, the queer theoretical debates on temporality between a rejection of futurity on the one hand [Lee Edelman] and an embrace of utopianism on the other [José Esteban Muñoz], or of the critical race studies polarity between Afropessimism [Frank Wilderson] and “Black Ops” [Fred Moten]), Yountae’s turn to the middle, to the abyss, is refreshing. It is hopeful while not superficially or naively optimistic. This both/and attention seems to be a more recent trend in critical theory, one led by religious studies (see, for instance, Joseph Winter’s Hope Draped in Black). The Decolonial Abyss offers a potent framework for possibility and politics in light of and from the place of pain, a politics of possibility that is assuredly undone by the pain, but that operates from, and finds possibility precisely in that undoneness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandy Daniels is a Ph.D. candidate in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

An Yountae is Assistant Professor of Religion at Lebanon Valley College.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.