by Leonard Horne/The New Inquiry
A collection of essays on the work of Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter attempts to move toward a future beyond white supremacist narratives of human universality.
The past year’s high profile murders have made clear that the media spectacle of death also spectacularizes the logic of race. From Ferguson to Palestine, events have highlighted the mundane hostility directed at black and blackened persons. Media coverage of killings has been an emphatic reminder of who magnetizes violence and who does not. As part of the ordinary working of this spectacle, white (male) deaths are greeted with declarations of human rights and calls for solidarity, while nonwhite deaths go almost unremarked. It becomes quite clear whose lives matter most. Who can live in civil society?
This is a question of relations between people. How does an empowered subject stand with an exploited and oppressed object? And after that chasm is bridged, how would these objects emerge into being human, fresh from what Fanon called the “zone of non-being?” It can’t be through masochistic self-recrimination or interracial cosplay. There are limits to guilt and gestures of sympathy. Even performances of solidarity often entail a brutal erasure and decentering, as illustrated by the increased media coverage of the Ferguson protests when white protestors showed up. It was as if, with the arrival of white protestors, the mainstream had found a reason for Ferguson to matter: the Real Humans had taken the stage.
The work of the Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter explores the history and structure of this hierarchy of humanness. She centers the lives of people whose interests are relegated by many white scholars to the conceptual trash bin they refer to as “identity politics”: those who are incarcerated and abused in the global north and exploited and abandoned in the global south; those who are indefinitely uninvited to the fraternal fellowship of Man. Her writings underscore the racialized nature of western notions of the human. Every nonwhite student of philosophy—anyone who has ever read Jefferson, Burke, Locke, Kant or even Marx for that matter—is simultaneously moved and baffled by modern European humanism: how could such humane ideas have been championed alongside such unspeakable carnage? Why doesn’t it feel like these words apply to me?
Katherine McKittrick (editor), Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Duke University Press Books. 2015. 304 pagesSylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis sets out to find answers to these difficult questions. As the editor, Katherine McKittrick, states in the introduction, “this is not a project of reviling and thus replacing Man-as-human with an ascendant figure; rather it draws attention to […] the emancipatory breach Wynter’s work offers.” Wynter and the writers thinking through her in this “critical genealogy” aim to help us figure out how to move away from a singular representation of the human in Man and towards humankind as a species. The book is a collection of essays by scholars throughout the Americas who write on the black diaspora, multiculturalism, gender and queer theory: Rinaldo Walcott, Denise Fereira da Silva, Walter Mignolo, Carole Boyce Davies, Demetrius L. Eudell, Bench Ansfield, Nandita Sharma, and of course Wynter and McKittrick. The first chapter is a generative and exhaustive dialogue between Wynter and McKittrick that sets the tone for the rest of the discussants. Using Wynter’s exploration of the origin stories and ongoing reproduction of a western European concept of humanity, these essays provide us with various entryways to Wynter’s thought. In so doing, they help us understand to and for whom thinkers like Kant made their universal humanist proclamations.
Reading Wynter reminds us of the magic of being human: our ability to dream up worlds, and the very concrete, and even ghastly, implications of these imaginative capacities. She approaches race as a dream produced in Western Europe and concretized through colonial extraction and the development of the modern state. In a world of many cosmogonies, Western Europe’s cosmogony became over-represented and singularized. This was the worldview that produced the novel idea of a universal Man, concentrated in the figure of the cishet male of European descent. His identity and being first followed the logic of the Church, and later, secularized science. Race was manufactured in Europe as an othering tool, artificially dividing humanity into species to buoy up the interests of the ruling class. A specific kind of human—the western Man—became the basis for what Wynter calls the western world’s “referent-we,” or whom we mean when we say “human.”
Wynter wants to move beyond Man. To do so, she goes all the way back to the Big Bang, as she outlines in conversation with McKittrick at the beginning of the collection. According to Wynter’s complete history of life, the First Event is the origin of the universe; the second, the explosion of biological life on earth. The Third Event is the emergence of the languaging/storytelling human species, which occurred on the continent of Africa, the very continent that, as Wynter puts it, “has been seen [by the West] as either the site of the biblical Ham’s cursed descendants or the site of the missing link between apes and fully evolved Western European humans.” Wynter calls these different notions of the human “genres” of humanness. Each genre of the human features its own aspirations and ways of relating—which, taken together, make up what Wynter calls a culture’s “descriptive statement.” Wynter argues that the West, through imperial expansion and colonial violence, has imposed its genre-specific truths on the world. Its descriptive statement is over-represented.
Wynter aims to paint a comprehensive picture of how the West’s descriptive statements have changed over time. Before 1492, she argues, scholasticism and the distinction between clergy and laymen were formally similar to later binary conceptions of the human. A transition from religious to secular society marked the period from 1492 to the late 16th century, after the Renaissance. From the 16th century to the 18th, a Copernican leap away from supernatural theology to natural science took place. In this period, the biological began to be cast by European thinkers as natural, just as the theological before it was cast as supernatural. A biologically grounded social order was deemed beyond human control, absolutely inevitable, and above intervention, just like the God-centered social order that preceded it. These ideas enabled the ostensible full separation of the religious from the natural, and marked the transition to a new dominant notion of Man; Wynter labels the two models “Man1” and “Man2”. The theological served as a template for the biological; Man1 provided the mold for Man2. Man’s Others under Man1 were heathens, and under Man2, biologically defective. The universe no longer revolved around God: it revolved around the stars. Man was no longer seen as a creation of God but rather the result of biological evolutionary processes.
In the mid-18th century, the work of not only Darwin but also Adam Smith and other thinkers articulated and universalized a version of the human driven by the imperative of survival and perfectly embodied in Western Man. Human beings were rendered economic machines that seek to maximize their share of sparse natural resources. The inscription of a bio-evolutionary and thus inevitable impulse behind the ascent of Western Man—“we all want to grab more resources, Europeans just did it better than everyone else”—came to vindicate capitalism, white supremacy, and imperial expansion. The West invented Man and projected Him onto the past as natural and timeless, rather than historical and cultural. Scientific systems of knowledge presented this projection as discovery. For science, Man was not invented, but created by natural processes and discovered through scientific ones.
For Wynter, the brief decolonial rupture of the 1960s provided a glimpse of a future untethered to capitalist, white supremacist, and anti-black narratives, before being institutionalized and co-opted by political counterforces: reformism, tokenism, and racist anti-racism. These counterforces centered whiteness, aspiring impossibly and contradictorily to be incorporated by Man as opposed to orientating towards Man’s dissolution. In more recent times, colonial feminisms (e.g. TERF, Lean-in), and genocidal/ecocidal neoliberal socioeconomics come to mind. With the failings of communist movements, the shortcomings of non-intersectional Marxism, and the triumph of capitalist strategy, capitalism was ideologically revitalized as the only way to negotiate supposedly natural drives in the face of resource scarcity.
Since its inception, capitalism has displaced and disappeared peoples not only through privatization, but also through marginalizing non-Western understandings of the world. In conversation with McKittrick, Wynter discusses why traditional Marxism and other Western/Westernized anti-capitalist critiques fall short. With class as their battleground, they assume other forms of subordination—race, gender, sexuality and so on—will be immediately resolved when the means of production are made communal. This theory sees racism and sexism as byproducts of the material and economic issue of labor. Before widespread anticolonial struggles emerged, Wynter acknowledges that Marx was “the only ostensibly ecumenically human emancipatory project around,” but this project was limited by Marx’s understanding of social difference as emerging from material conditions. For Wynter, social categories such as class, race and gender are instead all part of “the performative enactment of the Western world system’s [allocation of] degrees of domination/subordination.” Fanon expressed a similar thought in The Wretched of the Earth: “The economic substructure is also superstructure. The cause is the consequence: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” For Fanon, this means Marxist analysis has to be “slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.” Wynter’s work is indebted to Fanon, but she wants to go further: to explode the paradigm, not just stretch it slightly. For her, race and class are “co-relatedly, indispensable to the overall enactment of homo oeconomicus.” Rather than focusing on “intra-European” ruptures like the Soviet revolution, Wynter sees anti-colonial struggles as the truest challenge to a violent world order in their attempt to overturn not just economic domination through labor but also the dominance of Western Man.
Wynter rejects the conventional Marxist distinction between materiality and ideology: for her, we are not resource-seeking animals who speak, but speaking subjects who live in language. In the essay “Come on Kid, Let’s Go Get the Thing,” Demetrius Eudell cites W.E.B. du Bois and Toni Morrison’s different references to the “Thing” as the unnameable sense of blackness as lack. For du Bois, writing in response to a letter from a young black man about racial terminology, the Thing refers to a “feeling of inferiority” that lives “in you, not in any name.” For Morrison’s characters in The Bluest Eye, the Thing is the mysterious mechanism that assigns beauty to blue eyes and paler skin. The Thing must be human, because it’s a human creation, but it regulates human life as if it were an autonomous force. From the perspective of the Thing, which rests everywhere and nowhere, it is possible to mount “a critique of the ostensible freedom of the subjects, who, like all of us, remain merely licensed in the terms of the machinery of desire, that is, until they are transformed.” The Thing is neither purely inside language, nor outside of it. The human capacity for storytelling codifies a non-genetic “set of instructions,” as Wynter terms it, that work intimately with our physical drives: a human code that overrides, gives meaning to, and interpolates itself within our genetic one. Wynter uses neurosociology to understand this interpolation, and so Eudell’s essay goes to neuroscience too, though you have the feeling it could have headed to many more interesting places—psychoanalytic theory, for example.
Walter Mignolo’s “Sylvia Wynter: What Does it Mean to be Human?” cites Wynter’s use of Chilean scientists Maturana and Varela’s concept of autopoiesis: autonomous, self-perpetuating systems, such as biological cells. For Wynter, Man is autopoeitic: what our eyes see is not what is, but rather the culture-specific image that our neurology reproduces. “This belief system is calcified by our commitment to this belief system,” writes Mignolo. But this seeing is not monolithic; “one does not,” Mignolo points out, “see and feel capitalism in the same way across time and space and thus across different colonial settings.” In an example of a different way of seeing, Mignolo looks at Wynter’s reading of C.L.R James through a “pieza conceptual frame.” A pieza was a Portuguese slave trading term for “a man of twenty-five years, approximately, in good health, calculated to give a certain amount of physical labor value against which all the others could be measured—with for example, three teenagers equaling one pieza and older men and women thrown in a job lot as refuse.” A pieza is a person, a symbol, a commodity, and a unit of measurement, and as such demonstrates how modes of production and modes of domination are intertwined. This makes sense as a critique of white labor movements as well as of capitalism itself, but Wynter’s use of biological terms like autopoiesis remains mystifying. Eudell and Mignolo’s essays attempt to explain Wynter’s assertion of human “hybridity:” that the biological is simultaneously the vehicle for, and is interpreted through, pseudoscientific narratives like race. They assert that we must supplant these artificial and exclusionary narratives with ones that encompass all of humankind. But neither suggests how we do this, perhaps because Wynter is unsure herself. She restates a seemingly obvious truth: if society defines our place in it narratively, we are able to alter the script and reject the narratives that attempt to rob us of personhood. But the point that who we tell ourselves we are is who we believe we are isn’t particularly groundbreaking, and the meandering paths by which Wynter and her exegetes lead us to this point sometimes feel excessive.
This is compounded by the fact that her prose is wilfully labyrinthine. Who is Wynter speaking to with her work? Are her writings legible to those who need them most? The simplest of assertions are cloaked in neologisms, asides, modifiers, and qualifiers. The mode in which she delivers her ideas often evokes the intellectual smugness she critiques in Western philosophers who have overrepresented their idea of the human. Academic writing is meant to demystify the world around us and dispense the findings, but is often impenetrable. Wynter’s theory relies on shifts in the way we talk about ourselves as a species—“the rewriting of descriptive statements”—without considering how language itself can be inaccessible; language and the ability to wield it is a domain of power and privilege. Radical academic theory seems doomed never to reach and interact with the people it wants to represent: the global underclass, the jobless, the overworked and un(der)waged, and the un(der)schooled. That is not to say that complex ideas should be stripped of nuance, but theory that doesn’t care for clarity is unable to lend itself to praxis. While there is excellent prose in the volume—particularly from Ansfield, Mignolo and Eudell—Wynter’s theories don’t seem to produce a lot of lucidity.
Despite its global implications, Wynter’s work feels as if it is walled in by the Occident, as well as the academy. Crucial events prior to the hegemony of Europe are absent from her discussions, for example the trans-Saharan slave trade, which form the foundations of the structure of antiblackness in Asia/MENA even before 1492. These events generated ideas about alterity that Western Man only extended. Furthermore, Wynter does not deal with the internal problematics of coalitions among non-white people. Her analysis is inadequate to the relations of Man’s Others and the power dynamics among them. Questions of domination also play out within grassroots activism, in movements and communities (on or offline), in households, in classrooms, in ghettos and on reservations, on the fringes, the margins, and above all in blackness, the exterior of universality.
Nevertheless, Wynter reiterates important conclusions drawn from Caribbean and black thought over the past several centuries. For Wynter, it is not merely the unceasing tenor of violence that calls for going beyond Man and towards the human. It is also the untenability of this violence and the devastation that awaits us should we fail to do the work of reinventing ourselves. Her call to rewrite the human as species by extricating the full horizon of humanity from its incarceration in Man is urgent. We must declare that there is no such thing as a subhuman, and we must treat each other as if this is so. Wynter believes that Man’s Others can be lifted out of the global zone of unbeing, where only Man can be human, and where non-Men are always already unmade and undone; we must believe it too. To enable this shift we must focus on our collective entanglement in matrices of subjection while avoiding collapsing the specificities of our various struggles, collaboratively and sympathetically. Wynter writes to dissolve Man, denaturalizing His sovereignty by exposing that which guarantees its reproduction.
Where do we go from here? What will be our narrative, our counterpoetics? This book gives us hints, but not answers. It’s up to us to find, in Cesaire’s terms, “a science of the Word” in which the study of our narratives conditions our study of nature—a new order of knowledge that leads to new modalities of being. Perhaps we will put an end to the violence that subtends our existence via Man. Perhaps we will discover new freedoms (and perhaps not, but rather pipedreams than pipelines). Altering how we look back, Wynter looks forward, charging us to speak alternative futures into existence. All social orders, their sciences and modes of production, are subject to human intervention. But in order to change them, we must first know who we are. Wynter reminds us, however laboriously, of these simple facts: we are organic and we are artificial. We are scientists and we are authors. We are cosmic flesh and blood. We are humans being: all of us. And together we are what bring society into existence.
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