Hannah Arendt and World-Making

In three weeks, I will begin my last year at Brown. There are many things that are bittersweet about this moment; one of the sweetest is my anticipation for my senior thesis. I am especially excited to be working on my project with the support of an undergraduate fellowship from the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. This means that I will be writing and thinking in the company of many other people doing wonderfully exciting things, from documenting LGBTQ movements in Cambodia to exploring the rights of non-human species in the Yukon.

The famous 1507 Waldseemüller map, the first to depict the Americas separate from Asia.

So, what will I be up to? My thesis is primarily concerned with Hannah Arendt. She offers, I argue, the resources to think differently about world-making. To understand what I mean and why I think this argument is important, it helps to illustrate some of the background. World-making intrigues me because of its double meaning: what in French one might mark by distinguishing globalisation and mondialisation. Arendt is attuned to both these processes. On the one hand, she is an astute reader of Karl Marx, who tells us about the crude expansion of horizons forced open by capital. This same process of globalization in the early modern world also led to the Enlightenment. Kant and Hegel developed the principles of rights and cosmopolitanism that are still hegemonic in liberal circles today. It is these rights that Arendt critiqued in a masterful chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism entitled “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man.” She says that the experience of the Jews gives the lie to the Rights of Man. Not only are the Jews denied basic rights because they do not belong to any government, but they are precluded from the very right to have rights: the right to make a community.

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A Neglected Thinker of the Black Atlantic

Anténor Firmin in 1889. Photograph by C. Liebert.

Too few people today know of Anténor Firmin, a Haitian writer, anthropologist, and politician. He is important not just as an early anticolonial figure, but also as a thinker of what he himself termed an anthropologie positive. Firmin wrote his most famous work in 1885, De l’égalité des races humaines, a refutation of the classic 1855 racist tract by Arthur de Gobineau entitled De l’inégalité des races humaines. Firmin’s work is truly remarkable for its rigor and forethought. Scholarship over the past two decades has brought to light many of Firmin’s qualities, not least by issuing new editions of Firmin’s book and its first translation into English. Recent articles have also highlighted his surprising relationship to then-nascent Egyptology; his place in contemporary debates over Darwinism and polygenesis; and his philosophical heritage as traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The earliest of these was Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban 2002 article in the American Anthropologist, where she notes that Firmin provides a coherent challenge to race-thinking in anthropology decades before Boas. I want to delve a little deeper into Firmin’s work by highlighting a few passages that I think are particularly exceptional.

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How Do Ice Ages Happen? Exploring Paleosalinity and Thermohaline Circulation

Fill a glass of water from the sea and try to drink it. You gag and your lips pucker. After all, dissolved in that liter of the ocean are around 35 grams of salt. Now, imagine you tried to do this same thing 1 million years ago, 10 million years ago, 100 million years ago, even 500 million years ago. Would you ever be able to drink the water — or would it ever be as salty as the Dead Sea today? These are the questions that investigating paleosalinity helps us answer. We can use a variety of methods — from rough estimates based on our knowledge of the earth system to direct evidence from water droplets preserved in old rocks — to determine how salty the ocean was throughout Earth’s history.

Figuring out how ocean salinity has changed is important not simply because it helps us fill pages in our history book. Changing salinity affects ocean circulation, which in turn has a huge impact on climate. For instance, recent studies have suggested that changes in thermohaline circulation are part of how the Earth cycles between glacial and interglacial periods. In other words, ocean circulation may be the missing link between orbital variations that we know are linked to the cycle of ice ages and the huge swings in CO2 and temperature that are directly responsible for plunging us into glacial periods. In short, tracing paleosalinity helps us understand just how the Earth’s temperature can change so drastically.

This paper is therefore driven by the question: How can paleosalinity help us understand climatic variation, especially that caused by changes in thermohaline circulation? To begin to answer this question, I will present two methods of determining paleosalinity: first, by making an inventory of evaporites; and second, by looking at fluid inclusions. I then turn to the effects that these changes in salinity have on climate, especially by looking at models of how thermohaline circulation would differ and past cases where similar things occurred (for instance, in the Younger Dryas).

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The Life of a Hat from Luzon

A version of this object biography was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Contexts: Annual Report of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

This hat is a product of — produced by and traded through — colonialism. Its resting place today is the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Providence, Rhode Island in the United States of America. There it lies mostly undisturbed; whether dormant or dead is hard to tell. But it was once part of daily life. The hat shielded its owner from the sun and from hazards both natural and man-made. It was also a handy bowl when flipped upside down — quite literally a vessel for life, though even this framing underestimates the hat’s vitality. After all, it has a nose, eyes, and an ear, not to mention some impressive hair. It is more of a head than a hat, in fact. There is something particularly compelling to telling the life story of such an object — from its beginnings in the early twentieth century in Ifugao, a province of Luzon (an island in the Philippines); to its “collection” by an American official in 1912–14; to its acquisition by the Haffenreffer at an auction in 1988.

Say you were to reinvigorate the object. Pick it up (it’s so light!); turn it upside down; feel the contours on the bottom of the bowl; drag your thumb across the tightly woven rattan brim; note how the light glistens off what seems like its polished metal exterior. When you’re done with the physiognomy, try moving your head closer and breathing in. The smell of the wood can’t help but evoke memories, fantasies, even disturbing thoughts. After all, its military past is ingrained in the pores of the wood and the basketry of its brim. What has the hat seen? What has it heard, touched, smelled?

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How Salty Has The Sea Been Over the Past 541 Million Years?

Take a bottle of water from the sea and try to drink it. You gag and your lips pucker. After all, dissolved in that liter of the ocean are around 35 grams of salts (mostly sodium chloride). Now, imagine you tried to do this same thing 1 million years ago, 10 million years ago, 100 million years ago, even 500 million years ago (that is, throughout the Phanerozoic eon). Would you ever be able to drink the water? Alternatively, would the sea ever have been so salty that today’s ocean creatures would not have survived? A 2006 article by Hay et al. helps answer precisely these questions. The authors tracked variable chloride levels to demonstrate how salinity has changed throughout the Phanerozoic, noting a significant overall decline. These changes have had important effects on ocean circulation and on plankton levels — and possibly contributed to the explosion of complex life in the Cambrian, 541–520 million years ago. Continue reading

Teleology, Hegel, and King

A critique of teleology is well-worn and is articulated particularly clearly by Thomas Trautmann and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Both contrast the “theory-deadness” of the Orient with the the centered dominance of Europe. This can be glossed as a teleology: theory is the telos. This is what Hegel is saying, too, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process – whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason – this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason.

In other words, world history is

the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. This spirit [is] the substance of history; its nature is always one and the same; and it discloses this nature in the existence of the world. … World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning.

In a very simple sense, reading Hegel is weird. The idea of progress is so unfashionable that it is hard to take Hegel seriously. Surely he doesn’t mean a world-spirit in a metaphysical sense. Surely he doesn’t really mean to put Europe above everything else (and thus provide an easy justification for colonial violence). This immediate reaction, once tempered by the considerations outlined earlier, becomes a question: what can we recuperate from Hegel?

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Levinas and Appiah on the Double Bind of Alterity

I found reading Levinas’ Existence and Existents both challenging and stimulating. At heart, I took his argument to be an extension of the existentialist creed: existence precedes essence. In this instance, existence precedes time. This is why Levinas concludes: “To take human existence as something having a date, placed in a present, would be to commit the gravest sin against the spirit, that of reification, and to cast it into the time of clocks made for the sun and for trains” (97). The hypostasis for Levinas is the “I” — the ego. But this is an ego that relies on existence, not rationality, for its ontological constitution: “The I is not a substance endowed with thought; it is a substance because it is endowed with thought” (87). To talk about the relationship of this ego (the subject) with time, Levinas emphasizes that we must resist conventional understandings of time: “Does not the analysis of economic time, exterior to the subject, cover over the essential structure of time by which the present is not only indemnified, but resurrected? Is not the future above all a resurrection of the present?” (92) Note that this turn to the grammar of political theology invokes the same kinds of alterity that Fabian traces more concretely — in particular the supercessionism that Levinas, as a French Jew studying the Talmud, felt so acutely. In this articulation of time, resisting neoliberal logics of economic time, Levinas notices a problem: “The ‘I’ is not independent of its present, cannot traverse time alone, and does not find its recompense in simply denying the present” (93). So how can we constitute time proceeding from an existentialist ego? “If time is not the illusion of a movement, pawing the ground [a gloss of economic time], then the absolute alterity of another instant cannot be found in the subject, who is definitively himself. This alterity comes to me only from the other.” (93) Levinas has linked time in its constitution to the other. In his understanding, time “is constituted by my relationship with the other, … is exterior to my instant, but … is also something else than an object given to contemplation.” Hence, “the dialectic of time is the very dialectic of the relationship with the other.” For me, at least, this is a profoundly different conception of time.

I think this understanding of time can help us think more clearly about the question Kwame Anthony Appiah poses: Is the post- the same in both postmodernism and postcolonialism? His concluding thoughts in some ways echo Levinas’: “Postcoloniality has become, I think, a condition of pessimism” (353). This echoes Levinas’ articulation of the tragic, and further brings to mind a long tradition of thinkers motivated by a kind of pessimism or skepticism (not least Cornel West’s “tragicomic sensibility”). Another theme shared by the two thinkers is alterity: “Perhaps the predicament of the postcolonial intellectual is simply that as intellectuals — a category instituted in black Africa by colonialism — we are, indeed, always at the risk of becoming otherness machines, with the manufacture of alterity as our principal role.” For Levinas (and for me) the power of the other is profound. Not only does it help us to unsettle the familiar, but it is also fundamental to an existentialist conception of time. But what if, as Appiah seems to suggest, producing these positive forms of alterity also means creating an Other? Reading both Appiah and Levinas, we seem to be stuck in a double bind. Postcolonialism on the one hand resists dominant logics of Othering (as with Said’s Orientalism); on the other hand, it also wants to resist neoliberal logics of time that flatten difference, that reduce the tragic condition of existence to a false commonality (as with the critique of the pseudo-universal citizen-subject). The very alterity that is required to resist the latter seems to reinforce the former. What to do?

Continuity, Representation, Redress: Khoi-San Testimony on Land Expropriation

This is the final paper written for a Fall 2018 course with Nancy Jacobs called Southern African Frontiers. I have given the first three paragraphs below — for the rest, please see my full paper here!

In February 2018, the Parliament of South Africa established a committee to explore whether and how to “make it possible for the state to expropriate land in the public interest without compensation.” In order to hear testimony from across South African society, the committee organized public hearings in all provinces from 26 June to 4 August 2018. Many spoke of how white farmers — less than 9% of South Africa’s population — still own 67% of the land a quarter-century after the end of apartheid. Redistributing this land, for many, is a clear step toward redress of historical injustices perpetuated by white settler colonialism. Others invoked the specter of Zimbabwe, where land seizures led to economic freefall and long-term political instability. While few testifying before the committee opposed land reform in principle, many argued against the arbitrary abrogation of property rights and the concomitant sprawl of government power.

On 6 September 2018, the committee heard seven hours of oral submissions in Cape Town. One of the first to testify was the head of Indigenous First Nation Advocacy South Africa (IFNASA), Anthony Williams, who claimed to represent the Khoi-San community. Williams argued in favor of land expropriation without compensation. For him, this meant not just amending the constitution to correct for the injustices of apartheid (which only really began after World War II) but also to allow for land claims prior to 1913. Williams decried the focus on Bantu-speaking communities and further asked why his submission was the only one heard from the Khoi-San community. Committee members in turn expressed skepticism over Khoi-San claims to indigeneity, concern over racial stratification, and suggestions of alternative recourse for the redress sought.

This vignette serves to frame my paper. I will attempt to corral a teeming mass of evidence to provide some kind of response to two questions prompted by Williams’ testimony. First, when and why are Khoi-San land claims expressed? Second, how and why are they received? The framework of my investigation follows the three concepts mentioned in my title: continuity, representation, and redress. The first section will thus explore the history of South Africa from 1652 to 1994 to help understand the kinds of continuity and rupture experienced by the Khoi-San. The second section will focus on representation of the Khoi-San in the quarter-century since the end of apartheid in 1994. In each section, I do not want to reproduce the wealth of scholarship that has preceded me. Instead, I illustrate several examples that will help guide us back to the testimony of Anthony Williams before the Constitutional Review Committee. Through these examples, we will begin to discern common tropes that undergird discussions about the Khoi-San: allochrony, continuity, “truth and reconciliation” nationalism, and strategic essentialism. I contend that to understand Anthony Williams’ testimony, and hence the situation of the Khoi-San in contemporary South Africa, we must be sensitive not just to immediate cause-and-effect (as with political debates over the Khoi-San today) but also to alterity and the longue durée of history. This process of talking and listening to the Khoi-San sheds light on questions of redress in South Africa and around the world.

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A Bronze Bust and its Legacy at the RISD Museum

Photo credit: RISD Museum.

About a year ago now, I submitted my final assignment for a class with Yannis Hamilakis called Decolonizing Classical Antiquity: White Nationalism, Colonialism, and Ancient Material Heritage. The prompt was “Decolonizing the Museum”: we were to select one object from the nearby RISD Museum, research its history and context, and present it from a decolonial perspective. The object I selected is shown above. It was previously known as “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy.” I argued that the name should be changed to avoid racial language. Why? To answer, here’s an excerpt from my paper:

I argue that the name used for this object should be changed from “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy” to remove racial (and gendered) language. An example of an alternative title is “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child.” I suggest that the word “boy” be replaced with “child,” since there is no clear evidence that the subject is male. Making this change acknowledges the legacy of patriarchy in naming museum objects; the “unmarked” term should not be masculine. Most importantly, I strongly believe that racial terms like “Nubian” should be avoided when naming objects. As I contended earlier, using such terms – even with the best of intentions – reinforces the structural racism that still pervades our world today. Removing racial language from the label of the object is not a panacea, but it does signify the commitment of the RISD Museum to a just future. Leaving out racial language also does not mean ignoring the continuing legacy of racism, especially in the United States. Ideally, a name like “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child” would force the viewer to reflect on their ideas of race. Whiteness is currently the norm; no object is (or should be) described as a “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a White Child.” Using unmarked language (with no racial descriptor) for the object under question normalizes blackness. Rather than ignoring race, changing the label to remove racial terminology provokes reflection on race and racism while also avoiding ahistorical vocabulary that is inappropriate when referring to classical antiquity.

My full paper is available here if you’re interested in reading more. What I was happiest about, though, is that this paper actually made a difference (albeit a small one). After the class, I emailed Gina Borromeo, the curator of ancient art, suggesting this change. It took nine or ten months, but I’m very glad to say that the object is now called “Bust of a Child”!