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.

Continue reading here!

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 Testimony, Sara Baartman, and Agonistic Humanism

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

Boa Gente at the Cape: An Alternative History

This story is a response to a simple question: what would have happened if the first European settlers at the tip of Southern Africa had encountered not Khoikhoi pastoralists but rather Bantu-speaking agriculturalists? The two main sources for imagining this alternative history are Noël Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (New York: Knopf, 1992) and Catherine Cymone Fourshey, Rhonda M. Gonzales, Christine Saidi, Bantu Africa: 3500 BCE to Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), both of which I read for a class with Nancy Jacobs called Southern African Frontiers. I have tried to be as historically accurate as possible, but at heart this remains a thought experiment.

“Table Bay” by Thomas Bowler, in the Iziko Museums of Cape Town.
I’ve come to lie.
I’ve not come to tell the truth.
Because if you discover that there’s truth
in the lying, you’ll love my poetry.
But if you discover a lie
in poetry that claims to be true, you’ll hate me.
Now let me sing:
—Euphrase Kezilahabi, “Stray Truth,”in Stray Truths (East Lansing, MI: Michigan StateUniversity Press, 2015), ed. and trans. Annmarie Drury

Through the blue mists, far away on the horizon, a distinct promontory appeared: the honey-glazed profile of Table Mountain. The sailor who sighted the cloud-high peak sank to his knees in joy and immediately cried out: “Land ahoy!” As the Dromedaris neared the southern tip of Africa, every member of the crew had begun to strain his neck to catch sight of land. For one, the first to see Table Mountain was always given an extra swig of wine, a new hat, or some other gift. Since leaving Texel in December 1651, the passengers under the command of Jan van Riebeeck had lived in filth, disease, and insubordination. In the four months since their departure, not one person on ship had not wished themselves at one point or another to be one of the lowest animals ashore. From the original complement of passengers — two dozen sailors and 100 settlers chosen (or volunteered) by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) — only half had survived.

Emotions ran high on the boat carrying the landing party to shore. The prospect of immediate relief was on everyone’s mind. It seemed as if they could already taste the sweet water running down from Table Mountain and curl their toes in the firm, rich soil beneath their feet. But there was also trepidation. The previous night, they had seen bright fires dotting the cape, and some sailors had even sworn that they had heard faraway echoes of song and snatches of conversation. Now, as they neared the beach, they saw that a small group of natives — armed with spears — was awaiting them. How would they treat the strangers arriving on their shores?

Continue reading Boa Gente at the Cape: An Alternative History

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.

Turkish Language Reform

I want this post to be shorter than usual, since I’m mostly just interested in presenting two images I find fascinating. They are both related to the Turkish Language Reform. In 1929, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkish would from then on be written in the Latin alphabet (as opposed to the Ottoman Arabic script used previously).1

This first image is of an Ottoman calendar published in Thessaloniki in 1911. It demonstrates a remarkable diversity of scripts and languages. These include Arabic and Turkish (in the Arabic script) using the Islamic calendar; Bulgarian (in Cyrillic); Greek (with the Julian calendar); French (with the Gregorian); Armenian; and Ladino (in the Hebrew script), with the Jewish calendar. Some discussion is available here. Isn’t this just incredible!

This second photo is of Atatürk supposedly teaching the Latin alphabet. The photo is clearly propagandistic, but still a fascinating historical document.

Some background on Baybayin, a pre-Hispanic Filipino Script

Update: a more recent, more detailed, and better-informed version of this project is available here.

A page from the Doctrina Christiana, with Baybayin (Tagalog) on top and Latin (Spanish) below.

In this post I focus on Baybayin, a writing system native to the Philippines. Baybayin is a Brahmic script used to write Tagalog through to the period of Spanish colonization.1 There are few academic studies of Baybayin.2 What we know about this script mostly comes from Spanish missionaries who learned, documented, and translated Baybayin texts in the 16th century. The earliest known book published in Tagalog is the Doctrina Cristiana from 1593, which includes both Latin and Baybayin transcriptions as well as a translation into Spanish. At this time, literacy in the Philippines was fairly widespread, though it seems literature remained primarily oral. The Boxer Codex of 1590 reported that native inhabitants “have neither books nor histories nor do they write anything of length but only letters and reminders to one another.”3 This claim may have been used to cover up mass destruction by Spanish priests of Baybayin writings. In 1921, Otley Beyer, an American scholar of the Philippines, wrote: Continue reading Some background on Baybayin, a pre-Hispanic Filipino Script

Textbook Narratives in Cyprus

I wanted to briefly talk about the presentation of recent Cypriot history in Turkish and Greek textbooks. This subject was treated very adroitly in the volume edited by Rebecca Bryant and Yannis Papadakis entitled Cyprus and the Politics of Memory, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse. But there’s a few interesting observations I’d like to make towards the end of this post.

Historical context

Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean with a long documented history, including Mycenean settlement in the second millennium BCE and a Greek presence since. In the past four thousand years, the island has been governed by many major powers, including – in chronological order – Egyptians, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, and the British. In July 1878, the British Empire assumed control of the island from the Ottoman Empire. This short background is necessary to understand the context for the narratives I discuss here.

A demonstration for enosis in the 1930s.
Continue reading Textbook Narratives in Cyprus

Reviewing Derek Walcott’s Omeros

                                        I said, “Omeros,”

and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes

and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.
Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes
that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.

(Omeros bk. 1 ch. 2 sec. 3)

Derek Walcott’s masterful Omeros is a palimpsest. As an epic poem, it is deeply indebted to Homer; as a portrait of St Lucia, it is bound to the daily rhythm of island life. It is this tension between rootedness in the Caribbean and participation in the “global republic” of English (to borrow from Paula Burnett) that Walcott explores in his imagination of a postcolonial world. Reading Omeros means inhabiting the contradictions inherent in the postcolonial condition. Walcott’s poetic work is an extraordinarily successful exploration of modern life, all accomplished in poignant and achingly beautiful lyric verse.

The poem is structured as an odyssey, shifting from the present-day Caribbean to modern-day Europe and seventeenth-century Africa before returning to Walcott’s home island. The narrative is divided into seven books that provide a structure for the 64 chapters, each of which comprises a handful of sections. Yet the plot, such as it is, can be roughly split in three. In the first part, Achille and Hector (two fishermen) are competing for the affections of Helen against the backdrop of modernizing St Lucia. The second part of Omeros shifts to a broader view of the world by considering Philoctete and Ma Kilman. Their connections with Africa are visceral, spiritual, and deeply allegorical; in the case of Philoctete’s wound, the legacy of slavery quite literally bleeds into the present. The narrator dwells both on the horrors of the Middle Passage and the contradictions of the contemporary metropole before returning to the St Lucian town of Gros-Ilet in the concluding section. To end, the narrator turns away from history to instead depict the tourists who flood St Lucia’s beaches today: “barefoot Americans strolling into the banks— / there was a plague of them now, worse than the insects / who, at least, were natives” (1.10.3). In this third and final section, Hector dies driving these same tourists from the airport to a hotel, while Achille remains afloat as a fisherman. Continue reading Reviewing Derek Walcott’s Omeros