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Critical Theory

Facebook showed me what I was doing this time of year, three years ago… I was in Vienna – for the first time (if I do not count changing trains from the Netherlands to Hungary some 30 years ago and having coffee at the railway restaurant). And despite the feelings of alienation walking along the wide imperial streets lined with high-horsed men and women who once ruled the center of Europe, I fell in love with the city. Where power is concentrated, where its evils are planned and perpetrated, subversion and rebellion live too – and that ambiguous mix provides a space to think – always.

The city where Karl Popper as a student joined a communist organized protest, and became the philosopher of piecemeal engineering, after experiencing what the death at the hands of the police of some of the young protestors did to him. In an interview made for Dutch television, Popper tells of this experience (from 4:04-6:20):

A bit earlier in the same video, at 2:22, he discloses his feelings as a teenager about the fall of the Habsburg Empire after WW I – making him a philosopher who lived through, and reflected on, one of the major crises of the 20th century.

In that same city remembering power and disgrace, now philosophers from many continents were gathering to spend time to push African Philosophy forward.

All the same, Austria in 2017 denied like six potential attendants of the conference from Kenya and Nigeria their visas, for no clear reason. It has to mentioned. Always. We should not mention only those who are present, who gained powerful passports or positions to get them a better chance at a visa, but also those who are absent, whose experiences for sure would challenge the field even more.

And this year, 2020, as my previous post showed, I came back to Vienna, to spend time with thinkers from even more continents to discuss ways to decolonize our work and efforts to understand the world. After I returned I fell ill – had I picked up the virus in the city that saw one of the first major outbreaks of covid19 in Europe? I couldn’t get tested, my case was not serious enough according to the hastily drawn up regulations, so I had to isolate and see how to manage. It felt serious, although it started with only some throat pains, it slowly deteriorated to being at an energy level that barely was enough to take care of my daily needs. And to isolate. Enough time to fret, to worry, and to think.

And when I was improving a bit, work pushed and pulled immediately – students had to be taught, given assignments and graded, and more energy to write a blog post lacked. Not that I didn’t think of anything to post – on the contrary, every day new topics would come up in my head. But it somehow seems harder to speak publicly in times of covid. Not only because of one’s own situation – but because of the situation of the world. Everything seems to be shifting, and it is hard to say anything. People are angry, throwing ancient statues from their sockets. People are confused – seeking fast alliances – and as an involved philosopher, you look on – where we are going, before you can speak again.

Something is ending, that is for sure. The challenge is to think how to avoid unnecessary suffering and death in this ending – yes, I feel what Popper felt when the Austrian empire was trembing in its vestiges and falling. Popper also saw the rise of European racism in the 1930s and made sure to get a job in a faraway country where he – a Jew according to nazi ideas – would be safe. That country would be New Zealand, where he wrote his Open Society. While discussing views of history in philosophy – being especially critical of Marx and Hegel, this work implicitly tells us of the end of Europe, and aims to devise strategies for people to survive in a new world, a world where the statues no longer rule:

“If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. … Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. … And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control.”

(Karl Popper, 2002 [1945], 556-557)

I don’t know how to end this post. I just thought it was worthwhile to remember some of the experiences and reflections of this exiled thinker, who did not want to be driven by ressentment, nor by mistaken utopianism, but who tried to make the best of it.

Just returned from one of the two international trips I expect to make for philosophy this year. From Vienna, a city I only visited for the second time, and shorter than the first time… The first time I saw her grandiose avenues, with all the towering sculptures of emperors and empresses. I also saw her silent, closed, street views – when I went river-wards to see the famous, crazy Hundertwasser house.

This time I walked the other way, right through the older city center, with medieval looking porches and little streets interspersed between – more grandiose palaces and her magnificent Dom.

I walked to the Center for Science and Culture, where I was invited to take part in an experimental style netwerk meeting on Intercultural Philosophy and Post-/De-colonial Theory. Experimental, as it didn’t want to use the hierarchical conference style, with the established professors holding keynotes for a large audience, and the younger scholars having to compete for attention in parallel sessions. How you do academic work matters. The Vienna group, which has organized such events for several years now, wanted to create a space where younger and older, students, researchers and professors, could meet as in… a meeting!

The meeting did start with lectures, like the one by Babacar Mbaye Diop from Senegal (on museums and looted art), and by Renate Schepen (on time and afrofuturism), but even then the time planned for discussion with all those present was way more than at a regular conference, where consuming information is often more important than reflection. In the afternoon session now there was text-discussion, close reading, as it might have been a seminar group – but now with people from across the globe who were partly new to each other. The text at the center was Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia, of which we weren’t sure how to classify it – as an essay, a manifesto…?

The second day brought another exciting turn, with three presentations rooted in Latin-American experience, among others by Rolando Vazquez. Vazquez made sure to delineate the concepts of postcoloniality and decoloniality from each other, as sharp as possible. Postcoloniality would be the critique of the colonial enterprise by its victims wanting to occupy modernity themselves, whilst decoloniality would be a similar critique which, however, rejected modernity as a way of being in the world. Insight was thus gained, but historically, I wondered, whether thus overlappings among experiences and motives of those oppressed by coloniality were not obfuscated. Here arose just one of the many interesting points of discussion and dialogue of the meeting, which asks to be pursued in a next one.

An even deeper question is how action and reflection hang together. And how their relation mirrors the one between intercultural philosophy and de-/postcolonial theory. Is our aim to construct instruments for change rooted in conceptual representations of suffering? To deconstruct hegemonic structures of thought? Or to ask open reflective questions and build spaces for dialogue? To me the most inspiring aspect of this meeting was the confidence that nobody present would want to decide on one of those approaches. We all seemed to realize that none of them can be fruitful without the others.

And what better place could provide that space for thought than the town where Hundertwasser is so present – whose houses integrated in living nature (after only decades) now are present in so many city planning projects. Green roofs, living areas without cars, a ‘human’ scale of living – he foresaw our need of them and pushed to create them. Maybe, hopefully our theorizing and discussing may also produce some ideas of use for a way of life not based on abuse by humans of humans, and of all other persons.

A good two months ago I wrote my latest piece here, introducing the course I was about to teach, outlining thoughts and reflections that had guided me through its design. Now the course has been completed: we read great texts from very diverse points of view, heard guest lecturers, watched films. Presentations were held by the students, critical reviews of the texts written. We discussed, debated from our developing frameworks of reflection, and had ‘live’ evaluations of what was learned, and how.

Now, finally seventeen end papers have been written and graded, and I am truly amazed at the work done by all, also by those who due to conflicting rosters or other reasons could not finish all the work. My pedagogical intention was not to get to a predefined level so much, although the minimal level to be attained of course was clear, but to stimulate everyone – inasmuch as possible – to develop their own critical minds and views of what philosophy is and can do.

What interesting group conversations on the literature we had! Where each participant brought their own life experiences and study background to fragments of books like Gender Trouble (Judith Butler), The Wretched of the Earth (Frantz Fanon) or On Reason (Emmanuel Eze). Two films we watched added to the learning experience, as many scenes came back in the discussions later on. They were Lumières Noires, and On Violence. The contributions of my two excellent guest lecturers, Louise Müller and Annemie Halsema, who helped me introduce the subjects of Euro-American and African feminist theory, were invaluable.

There were exciting new ways to see things, and challenges in the way to express and discuss the developing views. The choice of texts and themes proved to provide a good framework for the work done. The (partly international) students had different disciplinary backgrounds, still all did the readings with good effect. A challenge was how to relate the texts to present day issues, in which sometimes personal life experiences are at stake.

How to speak, how to listen, how to give a personal opinion, or how to defend a position academically, even without it being my opinion – which place, and what space, should we give to our personal experiences, and how can we be critical philosophers, and caring persons simultaneously? All such questions at one point or another popped up and needed attention – a vulnerable and valuable process of learning for teacher and students. Without entering into it, engaged, or involved, philosophy cannot be done.

Beforehand, in my latest blog post I wrote: “how I like to teach philosophy: as a series of ways to stimulate and improve the reflective potential that is already here – in actual students who enter class – with all their different backgrounds, vulnerabilities and talents.” in hope that “they can learn not only from the materials offered, but also from each other, and from themselves, as they go through the step by step transformations that life asks from us, and that philosophical studies speed up.” It is to the students to decide if my hopes for them worked out. They certainly entered the process together and with me earnestly and committedly.

A valuable bonus was the initiative, by one of the students, to do an outing after the papers were written, in the spirit of diversifying our outlook and opening our minds. Even though, with cold november rains and other obligations not many could join on that day, our visit to the exhibition on Surinam (in precolonial times, during colonization by the Dutch and after independence) in Amsterdam was a very nice conclusion. I may add an outing to the official program, next year!

Below two of the students and the author in the room representing dress styles of Surinam’s different peoples.

A few years ago my department was shaken by a little revolution: a group of students were protesting that our curriculum was too un-diverse. They were persistent, and connected to similar movements in our university as a whole as well as in other universities, and in the end they claimed a small victory: a new course would be added to the curriculum of the Philosophy Bachelor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which would give room to more diverse ways to learn about and to practice philosophy.

At the same time their victory could also be seen as a defeat – their idea was, namely, to diversify all courses. To introduce feminist perspectives especially and put more works of female philosophers on the reading lists. That goal now has been left to the informal effects of their efforts. What was gained was this one course. It now carries the responsibility to balance our program by introducing ‘diverse’ philosophy works.

The honor to teach this new course has been bestowed on me, for which I am thankful, as it posed a challenge to me as well. I had to reflect first, when designing the outline in more detail, on the meaning of that expression: a diverse philosophy. What is it? And how can one diversify philosophy? By what means?

In that public debate in our department, early 2016, one of our professors claimed that the specialization he taught, Ethics, already had many female authors on the reading list. That would be no surprise, as indeed, there are many important philosophers active in that field, and among the younger generations (45 down) there are ever more. The professors responsible for the History of Philosophy had a harder time, as they held on to the idea that we should dedicate enough time to the ‘Great Thinkers’, which would leave not so much room for the female species among thinkers.

Not much was said in that meeting about other important aspects (like hiring procedures) in which we needed to ‘diversify’ – as black, muslim, or otherwise non-white persons rarely occupy academic teaching positions in Dutch Philosophy Departments. Things will change rapidly in that respect, however, let me prophecy here – as international hiring procedures will increasingly put candidates in the spotlight that before were never considered.

So how to do it? Diversify? Let’s begin by saying it asks for a mindset that opens up for difference. All kinds of difference. Not just difference of racial group, gender, religion, culture – but differences also in temperament, in personal histories, in ways in which each one of us is vulnerable in some or other aspect of life. Amanda may have a slight hearing problem, Xavier an undiagnosed form of Asperger’s syndrome. Marianne may suffer from intergenerational trauma because her parents were refugees, or victims of the last war. Jim may have a problem to express himself verbally, and Sandra to slow down her pace in group discussions – and both may have issues with sharing their thoughts in seminars. On top of such issues which often are invisible, we have vulnerabilities that are related to class, race and gender. Or to not fitting in heteronormative cultural patterns society lays out for us. Diversifying means being open to all of these things. It means understanding that thinking is something real people with real desires and problems do. Not disembodied geniuses, nor ‘minds’.

Diverse philosophy is – as an effect of the above, also critical. It gets suspicious if philosophy claims to have a ‘bird’s eye view’, sees things from the standpoint of ‘pure reason’ or ‘sub specie aeternitate’. Such claims can indicate the kind of decontextualized, disembodied approach that may stand for some form of supression of difference. This does not mean a philosopher like Kant should get less attention in a diverse program. Of course not, he influenced the modern world in unimaginable ways. He could be read paired with critical readings of his work, such as done by Emmanuel Eze, for instance in his work on a post-racial future for humanity.

My task is not, however, to diversify the entire program, but only to add – as spice to a lavish dish – one course to a curriculum which aims to provide a classical training in philosophy. As an added extra. That is an interesting position. Marginal and central as well – depending on the way one looks at it. I will take up the challenge.

After serious deliberation I decided to design the course as an introduction into different ways in which the traditional canon of ‘great thinkers’ of Euro-American origin can be perceived and read critically. Not adding just ‘diverse’ thinkers, but moreover discovering perspectives that students can try out and see how they work for their own thinking. We will delve into postcolonial, feminist, queer and race-critical perspectives, which unhinge the standard ways in which Philosophy as a discipline has been handed down since the late 18th century.

This reflects how I like to teach philosophy: as a series of ways to stimulate and improve the reflective potential that is already here – in actual students who enter class – with all their different backgrounds, vulnerabilities and talents. My hope is they can learn not only from the materials offered, but also from each other, and from themselves, as they go through the step by step transformations that life asks from us, and that philosophical studies speed up.

Looking forward to the start, and to learn from the process myself. As of next week, September 2nd, 2019.

Summer 2018 I was near the Bodensee to give two lectures at a Philosophy Summer Week. This year, May 2019, I returned to that beautiful region in central Europe again on a very different occasion – I was invited as keynote speaker at a bachelor’s students conference – a novelty to me! The title of the conference was Globalizing the Frankfurt School, and it was organized by professor Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach. She had been the ‘Halle Visiting Scholar’ at Oxford College, Emory University (USA), and brought her students to the University of Konstanz to share an intercultural experience of doing critical philosophy together with their German peers.

I loved the trip, this time nearing the Bodensee from the south, which allows one to pass through Switzerland, a country that always brings back feelings from the 1960s to me, when it shone like an example of how Europe could look once more after WW II damage would had been repaired. From Zürich Airport one takes the train, which gives better views of the country side, and also of the famous Swiss mountains (of which I could not get a good picture).

I had decided to take an article by Tommy J. Curry as the center of my lecture. An article which I had used in class beore, as it is so good for teaching purposes – because of the options it gives to go back and forth from lived reality to theory, use video and create discussion. It carries deeply philosophical concepts (such as the concept of ‘submergence’) and puts them to use to clarify superficial theorizing in cultural studies on black dance in the Americas. It shows how reflection on the specific dance called ‘Krumpin’ essentializes it as ‘naturally African’, without taking the specific historical situation into account which this dance addresses. On the side it critizes representations (in the documentary film “Rize”) of black dance as part of a general ‘racist othering’ (these words are not in the article, they are mine here) of African Americans. But its main point is to articulate a politics of social pessimism as a form of self-care of the group for which Krumpin’ was developed.

The article is called I’m too Real for Yah, and was published in the Radical Philosophy Review in 2009 by Tommy J. Curry. Curry, whose book I reviewed here some time ago, recently transferred from the USA to Scotland. I thought the article fit the theme of that conference – though it contains not a single reference to Adorno, Horkheimer, or other great names of the original Frankfurt School thinkers. I remember now one of the worst annual interviews I had in my career, in which I told the head of our section I was returning to the Frankfurt School type of theory, and he scolded me for working on dead historical stuff. I was too baffled to reply, but if he had just kindly asked me what interested me in this, I would have explained that I want to revive some of its inspiration in present day philosophy on present day issues. The inspiration of philosophy as political intervention. This is what the paper on Krumpin’ does, and how I presented it to those German and American students, in that room in the grandiose library of the University of Konstanz. The students liked it too, and the very different background of the two groups of students made for a lively and also sometimes very personal discussion, in which boundaries were crossed and true learning experiences were had.

By the way – and to conclude: if you are interested in Campus architecture you should travel to this place – if only to experience the sublime 1970s mix of straight modernism and organic shapes, with a mensa that feels like a German Bierhalle and above all: spaces that really invite to create a reflective community – what a university should be. Just look at the pictures below. I really enjoyed being there. I benefitted from the atmosphere of critical reflection created by our host Monika Kirloskar, which allowed us to do what is so important – to think in exchange with others.

Just recently my first single-authored book in English came out – I wrote it after becoming so frustrated at conferences that I could not share my books with the increasing numbers of non-Dutch colleagues whom I befriended. I had written 5 books, but all of them in my native language alone… Of course, there were articles – but they are always limited in scope, and cannot transfer so well one’s philosophical intentions in a wholistic manner. There are the blog-posts as well, and I know they are well-read, but they do not contain the argumentative structure and reference-basis that make the academic work a joy.

This was a lucky book. I was asked for it by the editor of the Environmental Humanities Series. The reviewers of the proposal understood what interdisciplinary debates I aimed to interfere in, and liked my writing style. The people at Routledge, as well as their external copy-editor, were all so nice and helpful. I do not write this to boast, but to express my gratitude – that hard work and pushing on despite many odds payed off. I hope the book will raise more awareness that academic philosophy needs to include indigenous people’s voices, to decolonize its attitude, to become inclusive – to undo, moreover, its discriminatory politics of epistemology, which excludes the voices of ani(mal)istic spirits – to our loss.

When a project like that – which took years of research and many months of writing – has been finished, my first reaction is always: oh, now I can read new things again! Because, during the writing you should not, to not confuse the framework you built in dialogue with a collection of focused readings (the reference list at the end of the book). A friend noted, seeing my new collection of readings, that I always focus on violent things. Well, no, that is not true. One has to focus on what limits freedom and happiness, however, if one aims to think towards finding the key to make them accessible more. One of those social media games asked to show a favorite book each day for five days. I didn’t have time and posted five books which were important to me in the past, and five which I am reading now.

You see. It is not much academic philosophy. I read that too, of course, more than the picture shows. Disciplinary philosophy should however always enter into dialogue with what happens in our world today. And in today there is much history. History which asks for eternal re-interpretation, as it still works out in the present. Much violence of today is still the effect of the so-called ended Cold War, or even of the colonial politics of European powers in the 19th century. If we do not try to understand those forces better, they will keep a hold on our policies – limiting our options to act as human beings with a choice.

My book on our Relations to Nature is also not a romantic turn to pre-modern ways of life. It is a study into the philosophical foundations of the most silent war of our times – the war of modernity against nature, and of the moderns (as Latour called this destructive tribe) to the indigenous peoples that understood differently how humans should live in and with nature. Almost every day an ‘earth-defender’ is being murdered somewhere on the globe. And a large portion of them, reports say, are members of indigenous peoples. You do not read this in the news. But it is most relevant to understand the problems of our times…

We’ve long landed in 1984. And like in Orwell’s novel, most of us don’t even care. The spaces where we are not under survey get ever scarcer. And the thing is, we tend to admire people who work towards unlocking the final reserves where surveillance is not yet the strongest force. We admire the biologists who, with great courage, ‘discover’ all the butterflies in the amazon. We admire the people who bring modern schooling to all corners of the world. Or modern medical care, like vaccines. These people do not have the goal to conquer more land for the Empire 1984 – but as an effect of their good intentions and their personal courage, they do.

One month ago this small and off-the-record (not part of any official schooling or research plan) reading group I am in, started with a new book. One-Dimensional Man, a book that fascinated me when I read it as a student, but I felt I did not completely understand where the sting of its main argument was. So: happy that we can read it together – maybe in concert we will understand more of it. During the first session I was struck that several of our group had remarks like ‘but why should we read this? What is it with this search for freedom and authenticity that Marcuse is pursuing?’ I had never asked myself that question.

The next session I first understood the origin of these questions, when we entered in a discussion whether Marcuse was modern or postmodern – another question I had never asked myself, perhaps because I read the book first when those concepts were not yet known to me. Also for me Marcuse always was linked to the rightful and necessary liberation movement, like the one in which his pupil Angela Davis played her part. Let’s link this documentary on their connection here once more.

Aha! So now thinking resistance to the One Dimensional Society, to Empire 1984, risks to be thrown out as part of hated Modernism, which produced colonialism, über-rationality, and stifled our natural being, like in the Louis XVI gardens? Did I understand that rightly?

This same month, I watched CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ film of the days that Edward Snowden made his disclosures that the American National Sescurity Agency was in essence spying on all American, and many non-American citizens. I was struck when he explained his feelings about his situation, in his hotelroom, before he was found out as the source, but knowing he would within days. He said something like: “I feel free. Now I can do nothing else but act.” Exactly this feeling I knew, and had I been pursuing for decades to understand philosophically (and still am).

This is the thing: modern culture and modern thinking created both – calculation, colonialism, objectification of human beings and of all nature in one stroke – everything Foucault called ‘discipline’. It produced a society in which we are continuously surveilled, in which ‘everything’ is measured, known, and dominated; and… it created the idea, not only of individual liberties (whose value is restricted by love, community, solidarity), but of a principled freedom – which is not even individual, as the individual (like in the case of Snowden) is overtaken by a greater responsibility, and may sacrifice his life as it is. This is the freedom to act, and this is the freedom to resist. It is ‘negative’ freedom, Marcuse would say. Negative over against the disciplinary system of Empire 1984.

Now even Snowden’s act is sinking in the sea of oblivion. I guess my new students would not know who he is. They never heard of Marcuse either, by the way, nor of Angela Davis. Some know the name of George Orwell, though, as they read his novel. More on the power of fiction another time. Let me conclude by giving a quote from One-Dimensional Man, where Marcuse analyzes the ‘military-industrial complex’ in which we all seem to live:

“the insanity of the whole absolves the particular insanities and turns the crimes against humanity into a rational enterprise. When the people […] prepare for lives of total mobilization, they are sensible not only because of the present Enemy, but also because of the investment and employment possibilities in industry and entertainment.”

(p. 55 of the 1991 Routledge edition)

We might never know whether he really said it. But he might have. I see it thus: basically he thinks like a businessman – not politically. So if he said it, he must have meant to indicate an economic situation. A shithole country is one that cannot be lauded for its flourishing entrepreneurship. Those African countries (oh, and Haiti and El Salvador would be included) – in his eyes – are unable to produce anything worthwhile, so… In general I do not particularly follow what he said or didn’t say, I rather follow those people on the ground who actually try to reorganize and restructure their surroundings for the improvement of their (our) world.

Among the thinkers and entrepreneurs from African countries whom I follow, some admire him. They think he makes for a welcome change from those ‘civilized’ Western leaders who, their mouths full with words of progress, through the backdoor support policies that hinder the free development of actual people on the African continent. They prefer someone who says he doesn’t care about anyone or any countries who cannot organize their own success. These people, some of them, even say he is right – to a certain extent – if he said it. Because their countries are stuck in many ways. Why? Because their governments do not support free enterprise enough, they say. They do not invest in schooling or in infrastructure enough, while surviving (these governments) on Western aid. I can understand their mistrust of all eloquent speech on freedom and progress.

But. But what if we would not read his words as the words of a businessman? Should we not read them as those of a political leader – which he happens to be, just through the job he has? Reading them thus can explain the indignation to his undiplomatic choice of words – words that may harm not only relations between countries, but – closer to home – the human rights situation of immigrants in the US itself – the country which he happens to lead through the already difficult waters of history. Or – does he really lead, they ask? Does he not do the opposite – make the waters more stormy then they already were?

Talking of history. History is a thing that is always in the making. Even the past is never fully past. Because so much history has not yet been written, while it is ignored, or seen through the colored lense of those who managed to stamp their interests on it. Researching and writing better histories – that speak not just for the masters, but also for their victims – changes history itself – both past history and the one we are living now. And this is a tricky endeavor. It will be met with resistance – for it destabilizes vested interests and standing deals that benefit the privileged.

When reading work that aims to do just this in the American context – to do justice – based on historical investigation – to the experiences and the fate of native Americans and enslaved Africans and their descendants, I realized something that makes things even more tricky – especially if one belongs to one of these peoples. Researching history to inscribe ones ancestors’ place in it (as first person characters) means also investigating injustices of today in relation to that history –  while living in a system that was never designed for you to be part of it. How does one do that? When there is no option to remove oneself from it, no option to change it by force, no option to go around those who choose to remain ignorant to the cruelty and inhumaneness of the system that benefits them. Writing, researching, as a descendant of those who survived genocide and slavery – all while one’s people is kind of stuck on an island with the descendants of those who perpetrated those crimes – how does one do it? Where can one find the space to be free – as a researcher, as a thinker? How to survive that kind of shithole?

After a long day I went to sit outside for a bit, and I watched the stars. Reflecting on the moment and on my life as it is now, a sentence came to my head: ‘I am just living my life and enjoying it.’ It was a humble thought, not a triumphant one. And then, this sentence of Derrida, which had vexed me for years ‘to learn to live, finally’ came to my head. I cite from the head now, but it is from his Specters of Marx, which I read for the first time about seven years ago. Upon my first read this book fascinated me, as it gave me so much new insights into the world we are living in right now. Published in its English version in 1994 (French 1993), the book foresightedly analyzes the post-Cold-War world, which was fresh and new back then, but of which we see the essential characteristics unroll more and more today.

All the same, the book contains long passages of which I could hardly makes sense, as Derrida always thinks along and against and through the many texts he read – of which many are unread by me. Even of Marx, whose name is in the title, I only have sketchy knowledge. For that reason, and out of the hope to understand more of the book, I proposed we would read and discuss it in depth in the postgraduate reading group I formed a few months ago. In my language (Dutch) we have a saying: ‘two know more than one’ – so seven would even know more. And they do. After three sessions (and having progressed unto page 33 of the book) I understand more than I did before. I see, among other things, how Heidegger and Marx dialogue in the thought of Derrida (Levinas always somewhere in the background) – or should I say in his writing? In the thought that springs up when reading his writing again.

We spoke also about this mysterious sentence – to learn to live, finally – we circled around it, but I still didn’t understand what these words, that reminded me rather of self-help literature (to learn to live, finally, in 7 steps – or something to that effect), were doing in a serious philosophical text. But now, looking at the stars, as the ancient philosophers must have been doing so much more than present day ones, I suddenly saw it: this sentence was Derrida’s answer and reference to Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates teaches his pupils, when he is in prison and about to undergo capital punishment for spoiling the minds of the young, that philosophy is all about learning to die. In the mind of Plato learning to die becomes focusing on the eternal (the stars), the unchanging – to overcome the pain and anxieties of this here life. So suddenly I was present at the grand U-turn Derrida makes – we can still look at the stars, but they aren’t unchanging, as little as anything in our world. After pursuing the Platonic gaze for more than two thousand years, attempting to learn to die in vain, we better try to learn to live, finally.

And that was also what I was feeling myself – after more than half a century on this earth I have learnt to see that nothing is unchanging, not even for a moment. Large as well as minute changes surround me and work in me. Just a few weeks ago I returned to a place where I had been last almost forty years ago, and although I could remember ‘me’ being there, no cell in my body is still the same as then. The fragile structures of my body have somehow translated the memory over and over again, untill it is a faint imprint of the first experience. One cannot even say the memory captures the ‘same’ experience. Or that the ‘me’ remembering is the same.

Everything is changing, but this is for Derrida not a trigger to go and look for eternity beyond this life – but, on the contrary, to take up responsibility: to see injustice in front of me, and try to invest myself to try to restore justice (a justice that has never been, in this world, but that attracts and commands us). Here is where Marx comes in – this thinker, he says, who is ‘mad enough’ to speak to a ghost. When we were discussing in our reading group I remembered Marx’ words about how philosophers ‘up till now’ have only understood the world, but that now it is also time to change it.  This incentive Derrida takes very seriously, where he sees Marx as the first thinker who turned philosophy around – from staring at the stars and wanting to escape life, to seeing even the stars as reminders that we are up to our knees in the endless open ended decision moments of this life, and that we should take up our responsibility to do something, even when we remain in the dark, finally, about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Do something, however, not arbitrarily – but under the gaze of the ghost that looks at us – the ghost (of Marx, of the dead, of the suffering who are not fully in this world, of those without civil rights, without papers, without birthright in the affluent societies) that horrifyingly shows us injustice every moment, and our involvement in it. Thus our uncertainty about right and wrong does not mean we can be unengaged, or that we can ever, even for a moment, be indifferent. Paradoxally, this ethical awareness, after the Marxian U-turn of philosophy, means that we are on the path to learn to live, finally. To learn to enjoy life – being part of it, not fleeing it, knowing we can do something, at every moment. Or just doing something, under the gaze of the ghost – without even knowing whether we really can.

 

I want to thank here my brilliant co-readers of Specters of Marx – you know who you are. You would obviously write a very different post about your reading experiences, were any of you to write a blog. This post just addressed one moment of looking at the stars, on one fine evening in August, by one of us, who realized her ‘me’ to be within this ever changing and changeable sphere which I might want to call life.

 

From ‘Abuse’ to ‘Zimmerman’: these words significantly delineate the index of The Man-Not, the recently published book by Texas based philosopher Dr Tommy J. Curry. I had long awaited Curry’s book, as I wondered about the theoretical frame which was apparently behind all his work, but not fully articulated in his published articles. Being no expert in the fields for which the book will be tagged by a librarian or bookseller: gender studies or critical race theory, it has been my search for relevance in philosophy, for truth over ideology, that made me follow Curry’s work several years ago. In this sense the book definitely fulfilled my expectations – also as to my special curiosity about how he builds his theory – on this I will focus in my reading review below.

This is a book that is very hard to summarize, as it contains so many studies in detail, that first might appear to be an anthology of research done over the years: from race in 19th century ethnology, through black writers’ experience of the effects of the prison-industrial complex, to white women raping black men under slavery, and supporting their lynching in a later period of history. It is a book I couldn’t put down once I got through the introduction (which situates it within present-day discussions of race and gender) – learning new things from each page, appreciating its creative style of writing as well as its conceptual clarity, despite the abundance of disciplinarily diverse works discussed in it.

I was intrigued by where (what looked like) so many case studies would lead me as a reader. Gradually the substructure (if that is the right word) of the book began to shine through. Or should I say: what the book does (as in ‘how to do things with words’). Or: what I, now, perceive of what it has the potential to do, for I am convinced that this is a book that will only gradually unfold many possible understandings/effects among its philosophical readers – and I wish it will get time to do so (as in a time and place where almost everything Curry states can be seen as controversial by so many potential readers, it might well be misunderstood and mischaracterized, as his work already has been earlier).

Anyway, slowly I started to understand that these were not case studies, and the book is no anthology. It is systematical and methodical to the core, forming theory from actual issues in the lives of black men and boys. First I was surprised why Curry would stress that he theorizes, where he opposes himself to essentializing racist theories – the point is: his kind of theory is different from the one we used to learn in university up till now. It is theory, maybe even a new kind of ontology – beyond constructivism, deconstructivism, and so many other critical ‘isms’ we have seen in the past decades. It doesn’t give a separate account, though, on its ‘method’ – a method designating a road to a subject – as it doesn’t approach a subject by means of a theory. Here we have, rather, theory being developed from its subject-matter: from lived experience.

The experience from which this theory/ontology grows is the experience of African American Black men and boys – experience reflecting the effects of ‘Western’ hegemonic attitudes that legitimized the enslavement and systematic abuse of people from the African continent and still sees their descendants as of lesser value than whites. Experience that might also be described as the historical resistance to being erased from humanity and to being (ab)used for the creation of a world that called itself ‘civilization’. As this ‘civilization’ has aimed to dominate the world, and for a long time succeeded in doing so, its localized (African American Black) criticism opens a window to a new universality, which we perhaps might call Black humanity (my words).

Curry consistently defends that philosophy should be based on facts, on data – historical and sociological. This doesn’t bring him to do ’empirically informed philosophy’, but to a complete turning around of what philosophy can do: liberating actual human beings by letting thought work for them instead of against them. Liberating them by blowing away the academic chaff his insistance on reality has exposed as creating so many ideological mirrors used to distort and crush the humanity of (especially) black men. After reading The Man-Not the ethical ideal of ‘humanity’ itself has disclosed itself as a tool of torture.

Along the way you will have to be ready to follow criticisms that relate so many normative ideas to each other – ideas about gender, patriarchy, (homo)sexuality, femininity, masculinity, class, race, emprisonment, morality, violence – to realize that they form the frameworks of a world that “is not a world for Black people at all.” (228) Despite the critical approach of the entire book, it would be misunderstanding it to read it as a negative book, that doesn’t bring anything constructive. On the contrary, I think, the book is one of the most positive possible, as it discards with what actually is negative already: the thought and practice that treats a certain group of human beings as ‘not real MEN’ (my paraphrase).

To conclude this reading review, I will gather here some quotations that struck me. They are not meant to represent the main line of reasoning of the author, but show some of the places which made me learn new things about race, science, history, ethical and political philosophy. It is a caleidoscope meant to give a taste of what there is to learn here, introduced in my own words. And if you want to hear more from the writer himself, you can watch an interview on the themes of the book.

Scholars should take their responsibility: “This America makes corpses of Black males. […] This death, however, is shunned, cast out of the halls of the university, and avoided at all cost by disciplines.” (1)

Philosophers in the past based themselves on scientific insights: “Hegel’s depiction of the Negro was not the rambling of a simple racist posing as a philosopher [but] […] reflected the most authoritative ethnological thinking of the nineteenth century.” (43)

How gender categories worked in old ethnology/anthropology: “Our present-day understandings simply reduce these ethnological distinctions and evolutionary beliefs to “political” beliefs and erroneous racist ideology, where in reality these were scientific doctrines accepted by both Black and white thinkers […] [:] the Black race was savage and did not have genders […] in relation to the white race the Negro was feminine.” (54)

DuBois opposed Bachofen’s idea that matriarchy was an earlier stage of civilization, instead presented it as the core of African ideas of a civilized world: “The Black Man’s Burden was deployed against the divine right of white men and women to rule non-European societies. It was an attack on the sexual order of white supremacy. Black men understood that the order of the white family, presumed to be the structure of civilization itself, was false.” (71)

On the ideological grounds of mass incarceration, exclusion and erasure of black men and boys from society: “Anti-Blackness creates a schema of social terror that substitutes the deviance white males occupy in society, their pathology, as the nature of Black males. […] The black male […] is raced and sexed peculiarly, configured as barbaric and savage, imagined to be a violent animal, not a human being.” (191)

Why ethics, producing distorted images of black males, “[…] relies on the perceptions and caricatures […] that appeal to whites’ self-assuring images of themselves […].” (185)

All of this leads to the conclusion that “Anti-ethics is necessary to demystify the present concept of MAN.” (186)

My first idea was to call this post “From ‘Abuse’ to ‘Zimmerman'” but on reflection I thought this would have created a more fatalistic image of the experience under discussion than Tommy J. Curry actually presents, ignoring the historical and actual resistance to dehumanization that breathes from every one of its pages.