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New article: "Unthinking philosophy: Aimé Césaire, poetry, and the politics of Western knowledge"

My latest article, "Unthinking philosphy: Aimé Césaire, poetry, and the politics of Western knowledge", was just published here in Atlantic Studies (click here for a PDF).


Laying the foundation for rationalism, Descartes claims unambiguously that the sensible and the particular experience cannot be made into the object of science. From an Enlightenment point of view, origin and race are assimilated to a people’s level of “objective existence” in Hegel’s philosophy, which invents the West as the incarnation of the philosophical Spirit [Geist]. Hegel reconstructs and redefines philosophy as belonging in a unique way to Europe, indeed, as defining the European spirit. This construction of the history of philosophy as the peculiarity of Europe is articulated in its opposition to the African mind. In The Philosophy of History, he writes,

The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas — the category of Universality. In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence – as for example, God, or Law – in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. […] The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality — all that we call feeling — if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.

For Hegel, therefore, philosophy is the peculiar destiny of European humanity, on account of its attainment of an “objective existence,” that is, of a separateness from phenomena. “Africa Proper” is the Other by virtue of which this Spirit exists, being “the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantel of Night.”This worldview, articulated between 1822 and 1930 (the period during which Hegel gave his lectures at the University of Berlin) is coeval with the commencement of colonialism’s veritable phase of planetary expansion. Hegel would salute the conquest of the city of Algiers by France in 1830, praising European expansionism in the northern part of Africa. Adorno and Horkheimer, despite their critiques of rationalism, and the links they draw between rationalism and anti-Semitism, neglect to highlight anti-Blackness as a foundational and enduring cornerstone in the worldview of rationalism, having implicitly adopted a view of civilisation that is both evolutionary and Euro-centric. In pinpointing the eclipse of magic in the European philosophical worldview, they ignore the importance of magic in the history of imperialism, where it has served the enslaved in the culturing of their own counter-imaginations. The colonial system fought against magic. The enslaved and their descendants in the new world have fought to preserve it in an existential struggle, despite the cultural brainwashing to which many have been victim. In the end, magic has functioned as “cultural guerrilla warfare against the market economy.” It served to rehumanise nature, “and helped to save [the African’s] own humanity against the onslaught of the plantation system.” This history of resistance, of embodied epistemic struggle as a rebuttal to the history of modernity, is significant for the work we must do in decolonising epistemology. Diasporic knowledge systems and living practices are forms of counterinsurgent knowledge. To think with spirits was to position a counter-current to an imperial ideology built upon the normalised and invisibilised fictions of race. The subterranean traffic of ancestral spirits in new world practices such as Vodou, Myal, and Santería, keep an alternative account of knowledge of the world in modernity alive. Négritude is in the lineage of this epistemic counterinsurgency. Continue reading →


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