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The Political Universe

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.

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?

Today a colleague tweeted this Spinoza quote from the Political Treatise:

“Those who take an oath by law will avoid perjury more if they swear by the welfare & freedom of the state instead of by God.”

It made me aware of why Spinoza’s habit of putting things in a conditional manner has always appealed to me so much. To my knowledge he is one of the few philosophers who does this so consistently. And not in order to be vague, but to be precise. Spinoza understood from experience what it was to live under repressive regimes – and he saw two main vehicles for oppression: religion and politics. The main insight from his TPT was that humanity cannot free itself (its mind, its heart) without adressing both institutions – in their entanglement. Both play on our animality – our sensitivity to danger – by promising safety. Politics promises safety of the body, religion safety of the soul. And either one of them may use the other’s reach over our vulnerabilities to intensify their own claim. This happens all the time: when states urge us to trust a certain religion over another – because the ‘strange’ religion threatens our safety. Or the other way round: when religions urge their believers to trust a certain state power – for it safeguards them from instability and chaos.

The entanglement between the two institutions may also lead to an imagined conflict between them. We see it in so-called ‘religious’ attempts to end state power (think IS) or in political movements that try to end the power of religion (all forms of strict secularism). Both movements are confused, for they fail to see that the boundaries between politics and religion are porous. Both overlap. They both play into our natural fear of bad things that might happen, and appeal to our natural hope that this can be solved. To free oneself, therefore, Spinoza held we should address religion and politics in their entanglement and mutual dependency. They can not be separated, but can work together in more and less destructive ways. Their connectedness would be most beneficial to a good life, Spinoza concluded, when religion – albeit in a purified form – would inform politics, and not the other way round. A good life he defined as a life in friendship with others, with freedom of mind and peace of heart. To attain this one should not have religions do political things (then politics would inform religion), but political power play should rather let itself be inspired by religious things, trying to promote justice and charity. This was at least the (contested) upshot of the interpretation I gave in my 1996 PhD thesis on the TPT.

The citation I read on twitter underlines the above. Spinoza was convinced that it was easier to keep true to one’s pledge of allegiance to freedom and welfare, than to one we make to God. God is just too much above human fallibility, one could say, as He is one and ultimately just. Freedom and welfare of the state is a relative thing, and we can more easily remain true to it. My reading of Spinoza was contested as it followed a long period of Hegelian and Marxist interpretations of his work (and combinations of them) – which all aimed to reconstruct it to be progressivist, and teleological. This led to a Spinoza who claims the telos of mankind’s efforts to be absolute freedom of religious oppression – embodied in true philosophy – the mental realization that frees us from irrational fetters.

Such interpretations however overlook how Spinoza did things with words: how he made any philosophical judgements conditional. In his Ethics he mostly uses the formula: ‘in so far as…’. Here, in the PT, he allows himself to be rethorical – without losing precision. Perjury is our condition, he says indirectly. We cannot be completely true to our better nature, to freedom, to friendship – we will always fail if we aim to be ‘good’. To make our failing as minute as possible, Spinoza warns us, we better aim not too high. Freedom and welfare of the state is very important, looking up to them can keep us from doing too bad things – trying to emulate God, however, is so far removed a goal that it will automatically make us fail – and fall into desparation as a consequence.

Being truly religious then, for Spinoza, meant to claim as little as possible about God. It would better show itself in living in accordance with the two main virtues: charity (love of one’s neighbor) and justice (treating others fairly). When we practice those, we do the utmost. Aiming higher is moral pride. However, despite the humility in his philosophy, he was a believer in the modern state, as being the best guardian of the good, free, and peaceful life. A then new political form he helped to carve out philosophically. Living in the 21st century the belief in the state as the guardian of shared and equally distributed wellbeing has tarnished, to say the least. The inescapable awareness we now have of the infinite potentialities of state violence and repression make Spinoza appear not morally humble enough. The modern state tramples justice and charity with ease, even while making its citizens believe they are righteous and good. But where can we find a hold, if we better not even pledge an oath on the freedom and welfare of the state? Where can we look to anchor morality?

What inspired me to ask these questions? It were reflections ignited by the announcement of one of my students, last week, that she wants to write her thesis on evil. During the first discussion we had on her chosen theme I started to wonder why philosophers’ writing on evil had always somehow irritated me. And the Spinoza quote made me understand: speaking of evil creates a fog. It is a conjuring act. It aims to exorcize the bad things we inevitably experience in this life, as well as the bad things we do to others. Using the word ‘evil’ helps us to abstract from real life, and to rise to a metaphysical realm where things promise to be clear and well-defined. Thus we conjure ourselves away from nature’s forces – which play through us, sensitive creatures, when we feel fear and hope. We hope to lose our fear, to be absolutely safe, which inevitable means we will have to bend reality – for safety is not here in this world (not even in the religious beliefs we can have in this world). Bending reality, we will inevitably harm what is in our way.

Perhaps we should loose the concept of ‘evil’, and realize that we just do bad things, as well as good things. Perhaps philosophy cannot even meaningfully define them – as it failed badly at earlier attempts. Wouldn’t we be more true to Spinoza’s caution by abstaining from swearing oaths at all? And would we, in our present times, not better give up belief in the state as the natural guardian of peace and welfare?

Perhaps we should not swear anymore. Nor speak of evil. But attempt to do the right thing on the most inconsiderable playing field. The field without flags. Without honor. Without deaths of honor over flags. In order to be ready for such a post-idealistic politics we should overcome just one thing: the fear of fear. And its denial. Fear is real. As well as bad things. Let’s not clothe them in the solemn, metaphysical concept of evil. It makes us too easily forget those who are hurt by them. The ones that we should mourn, as well as the ones we should – now – try to protect. Only by accepting that the bad things are always already happening, and that we are inevitably involved in them, can we avoid the false consciousness we create when condemning certain acts as ‘evil’. And avoid perjury a little more.

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.

 

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.

 

 

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.

 

 

When you have read my posts regularly, you will have noticed that I tend to discuss (and read) more history books than you would perhaps expect in a philosophy blog. Today I will try to explain some of my reasons for this.

During my studies I also read ‘other’ books of course, because philosophy as such has no subject, or ‘everything’ is its subject. Philosophy is a way of thinking about things, but these things can range from the principles of mathematics to poetry, and all other thinkable subjects. Famous are writings from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or Gottlob Frege on mathematics, and Heidegger and Gadamer on poetry, just to illustrate my remark. Of course there is also philosophy on philosophy, on its methods of reasoning and argumentation, on its history, and on its place in the whole range of human sciences.

My ‘subjects’ outside the works of philosophers and about philosophy itself have gone through different phases. After finishing my masters, for some years I read passionately in the field of theology, history of Christianity and bible studies. The philosophers I read in that time were Arendt, Levinas, Strasser and of course Spinoza. After finishing my PhD there was a phase that I read rather widely, in environmental studies, in philosophy of science, and, in philosophical methodology (so to speak), investigating the approaches of hermeneutics (Gadamer), deconstruction (Derrida) and pragmatism (first Mead and Cooley, later James). It was the time of my postdoc research. Later I moved to African philosophers like Mudimbe, Mbiti, and E. Eze, and read a lot of cultural anthropology on the side. The last few years I discovered, next to reading more of James and Derrida, more of Scheler and Foucault. And the ‘extra’ reading is nowadays very often in history, especially in ‘alternative’ views on the history of the US (not the one of the victors) and on WWII.

Why this route anyway? Just yesterday, when I started another book in the history of philosophy, on James, to be specific, the interesting study by Francesca Bologna called William James at the Boundaries. Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge, I was fascinated by her introduction on the strange address James gave as president of the APA in 1906. The speech was about ‘The Energies of Man’. In this speech he described the benefits of yoga and drinking alcohol to enhance the human spirit, and cited popular works and works by thinkers on the verge or outside academia. Bologna provides good reasons for discarding the idea that James was losing his mind (as some philosophers present did), by showing that it was a deliberate and recurring strategy in his work to transgress boundaries. “James struggled to reconfigure the relationships between philosophy and the sciences, as well as professional and amateur discourses. Through these efforts […] James reinterpreted the nature of philosophy and science and, by doing so, proposed a new vision for the intellectual and social order of knowledge.” (Bologna, p. 4) When reading this, I realized that for many years, without knowing what I was doing, I had been following a similar course as James, in this respect: something in me always opposed itself to the pressures to keep to one discipline, and to specialize within that discipline – to discipline my curious mind, so to speak.

So now why the history? Let’s start IMG_3706with WW II. In other posts I have made clear that the world in which I grew up pushed me to read up on it: the world of the 60s and 70s of the last century, a world that wanted to move on, that drove itself crazy over Cold War stuff, and that actually consisted of an almost audible silence about matters nobody wanted to be remembered of. Every year now new material on that time still comes out. Some things were only researchable after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and some are only researchable now that certain individuals die, leaving archives, or because their power to silence others is gone. Just recently I came across an article about a collective of secret historians who wrote on the events in the Warsaw ghetto. Those writers, who knew they probably were not going to survive the hell they had landed up in, took it upon themselves to register things as they experienced them, for posterity. I was absolutely amazed and awed by their farsighted courage and mental strenght. And I realized that all over the world, projects like that must still be happening, even now, more or less in secret, more or less under the duress of oppression.

The powers that try to rule history, attempt to obscure it at the same time, for their own actions to be more effective. And that’s where the alternative histories of the US also come in, from that same stifled Cold War time I grew up in, where we were taught to think of the US as our saviours from Hitler, who brought us all the goods of modern life, washing machines, cigarettes, chocolate bars, and scientific management. There was nothing to be worried about anymore ever, as long as we stuck to our new big brother. Even as a child I felt that both things were unhealthy: not wanting to know about WW II, and not wanting to know about who our new protector was. I realized more and more over the years that there can be no good thinking, no good philosophy, without a wish to know history as it ‘really’ happened. Not that we can ever find ‘real’ history in an absolute sense. But we can at least get rid from the worst outgrowths of propaganda, by doing the real work of serious history. And if we are no historians ourselves, we should read all the painstakingly collected facts and carefully reconstructed structures of what happened and how it was transferred. It will clear our minds.

And, last but not least, we should do the same with the so called ‘history of philosophy’, which, for the most part, is not history at all, but a construction to bring us under the impression that the Europeans, that is the Romans and the Greeks, and later the Enlightenment thinkers, imagined all things worthwhile. There are powerful powerstructures at work in that construction too. Peter Park, in his recent work Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 has written a real historiography of how this powerstructure came to dominate the history of philosophy. Many others of course pushed in this direction by their own investigative work, among others a philosopher whom I discussed here before, Emmanuel Eze. Just the other day I watched the entire talk he delivered some years before his untimely death, which has been luckily recorded and publicized on youtube, and would recommend you, when you watch, to keep watching till the end of the second part, which makes clear why not reading outside the ‘official’ history of philosophy will not only makes the discipline remain stuck in old questions, but also deny itself many qualitative texts that it has never read or even known of which could help to rethink these questions and perhaps think up better answers than it did before.