critical theory

What is the world for Hannah Arendt?

Hannah Arendt once wrote that to grasp Heidegger’s philosophy one needed to properly explicate the place of the world in his writings. One could say much the same about Arendt. Arendt draws on Heidegger’s understanding of the world as developed in Being and Time. For Heidegger, “the world” at first means quite simply the environment, that is what is around us. He writes that:

The answer to the question of the “who” of everyday Dasein is to be obtained by analysing that kind of Being in which Dasein maintains itself proximally and for the most part. Our investigation takes its orientation from Being-in-the-world — that basic state of Dasein by which every mode of its Being gets co-determined. … In our ‘description’ of that environment which is closest to us — the work-world of the craftsman, for example, — the outcome was that along with the equipment to be found when one is at work [in Arbeit], those Others for whom the ‘work’ [“Werk”] is destined are ‘encountered too.’ (153)

This is quite intuitive to grasp, really — our world consists of not just other objects but other subjects, too. Our mode of being with these other subjects is very important for Heidegger’s own project, which is to answer the question of Being (the Seinsfrage). Our mode of encountering Others is different than how we encounter Things:

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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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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?

Testimony, Sara Baartman, and Agonistic Humanism

Over the weekend, I was a chair at BUSUN XXII, a high school Model UN conference here at Brown.1 The committee I ran simulated a session of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. One of the issues we talked about extensively were the withdrawals from the ICC of various African Union states. At some point on Saturday, I was becoming a bit frustrated with how glibly the students were treating the topic. I therefore began introducing more and more real-world examples. The most powerful part of the session was when I read out excerpts from a report compiled by Human Rights Watch. A representative of HRW interviewed several dozen victims of the violence associated with the May 2018 referendum in Burundi. The testimony these witnesses gave to Human Rights Watch was horrifying. To give just one example, here is a passage from the report, which is entitled “We Will Beat You to Correct You”: Continue reading

Jan Tzatzoe, John Wesley Gilbert, and Women’s Refugee Care

I want to take the chance to reflect somewhat on how Roger Levine’s A Living Man From Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) intersects with other things I’ve done and am interested in. First, I want to elaborate a bit on the similarities and differences of Levine’s project from my work on John Wesley Gilbert. Second, I want to discuss my work with Women’s Refugee Care in light of Jan Tzatzoe’s life as an intermediary and interpreter. Finally, I want to think a bit more about Levine’s method — particularly his relationship to “theory” — and consider what I can learn from A Living Man From Africa. Continue reading

My Independent Concentration

I recently found out that my proposal for an independent concentration in Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry has been approved! Just what does this mean, and why am I so happy about it?

First of all, a few words on what an independent concentration is (at Brown). Apart from the standard concentrations (majors) we offer, every student has the opportunity to design their own course of study. This concentration proposal must be reviewed and approved by a subcommittee of the College Curriculum Council, the same body that approves regular concentrations. The process of proposing an IC is supervised by the Curricular Resource Center, which has multiple peer student staffers who meet regularly with students who want to create an IC. The actual proposal is long and rigorous. Furthermore, the committee almost as a rule rejects first-time applications; there is a heavy emphasis on the process of proposing an IC as a conversation between the committee and the student with the aim being to create a well-articulated, coherent, and rigorous course of study that aligns with Brown’s wider educational goals. I personally found this process extremely rewarding: it helped me process my interests and a few thoughts that had been rolling around in my head (many because of courses I had taken). I am now much more articulate about these interests and I have a much better idea of how they align with my broader life goals. Although the process of creating an IC is arduous, for me it was well worth it.

To explain what my Independent Concentration is about, here’s an excerpt from my proposal (which you can find in full here):

What is Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry? It is the study of global social phenomena such as postcolonialism, nationalism, and global justice through the philosophical lens of critical theory. I think dialectically about both the institutions derived from the Enlightenment and the practices, communities, and identities developed and deployed in resistance to these institutions. I am thus equally invested in studying the universal and metropolitan on the one hand and the particular and peripheral on the other. As a field of study, I imagine my Independent Concentration as a conversation with a number of figures invested in this dialectic – chief among them Edward Said, Hannah Arendt, and Cornel West. In many ways, this field of study is constituted by its intellectual genealogy: while investigating questions about how societies cohere, how politics functions, and how the past shapes our present (and drawing on sources from many times and places), what distinguishes Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is its distinctive perspective. This reflexive, provisional approach is gathered from the theoretical consciousness developed through the philosophical tradition of critique. Given my commitment to provisionality and reflexivity, I do not intend through this concentration to provide conclusive answers to the questions I described above. The fundamental aim of Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is instead to develop concrete questions, modes of interpretation, and resources for action that resonate across different commitments and backgrounds. Through my concentration, I develop a map – a way to navigate the incredible diversity of thought and experience our world has to offer.

Engaged Scholarship and the “Organic Intellectual”

As a concentrator in Archaeology here at Brown, I am also a member of the Engaged Scholars Program. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the nature of engaged scholarship and my relationship with it. I wanted to summarize and comment on three seemingly disparate strands of engaged scholarship that I’ve recently come across: the more traditional idea of service learning; Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual”; and Cornel West’s more recent evolution of this idea, as demonstrated through an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr. I end by drawing together these three thinkers and articulating a critique of dominant understandings of engaged scholarship.

Tania Mitchell

This semester,  I am in SOC 0310: Theory and Practice of Engaged Scholarship (with Allen Hance and Lynsey Ford). We’ve been talking a lot about what engaged scholarship means for the program, particularly as an evolution of “service learning.” The traditional idea was that students gain valuable skills and experiences through direct service. More recently, Tania Mitchell has encapsulated a trend away from this idea towards a kind of “critical service-learning,” which emphasizes the importance of critical reflection as a way of addressing structural and systemic issues that underlie the most apparent problems. Brown offers a number of courses that fit within this philosophy, and has recently approved the introduction of a course designation in Community-Based Learning and Research (CBLR). Indeed, I would argue that the idea of service learning (mostly in its critical form) is at the heart of engaged scholarship as the Swearer Center currently understands it. Other definitions abound. For example, as used by New England Resource Center for Higher Education, engaged scholarship focuses on the role of faculty “in a reciprocal partnership with the community, is interdisciplinary, and integrates faculty roles of teaching, research, and service.” This definition (focused on faculty) has greater ambit than the idea of service learning, which is focused on student experience. I feel that this difference points at the crux of the issue with engaged scholarship as it is currently understood — more on this later. Continue reading