Lecture Notes: On Rigor

We do not come fully formed. And we must accept that. Life would be less fulfilling if we did. Living life means forever developing. And the kind of life we require must be “lit by some larger vision.” It is only when we relinquish our desire to make ease our human standard and efficiency our bellwether will we see this light. In order to live one must work.

Our work is what keeps us, so therefore it is not to be taken lightly. What is also not to be taken lightly is the idea that we must work in order to improve our work. Development is not contained by any temporal boundary. It is continuous.

Our objective is to contribute to something larger than that which can be understood by the attainment of grades. Or degrees. Bound together with this larger goal is the realization that none of us are fully prepared to reach this goal. None of us. Students nor teachers. So we must struggle together to ensure that we are at the very least, moving toward the path, so that we can at least see the destination.

It is likely that we, ourselves, may never reach it. But work toward it, we must. Anything less, any effort not guided by this dictate, is an acceptance that we must always be where we are. Reading and writing, then is about liberation from a place–physical and conceptual–that limits our ability to realize not only ourselves, but where we might go.

To take this is as our task is to accept that rigor is our lot. This is work that will not be easy. It cannot be easy. If it comes to you easily, do not trust it. The only thing that we can trust is our commitment to doing it and the feeling of having done it. And that by doing it we have done all that we can do. That is our reward. And it is a reward that is well earned when we see others that have continued the work we began and extended.

Rigor is not punitive. It is simply a reality that the modern world and its challenges have placed for us. We are faced with thinking a freedom that is not inscribed in the logics of the available knowledges–or rather the knowledges made available to us. It would be easy to simply assign an exam that assessed how well you understood that which has been made available to us. It is harder to evaluate your ability to think beyond the permissible.

But this is our duty and such is our task. It may not come to us immediately. It is only when we take ourselves seriously to do the work and when we take our work seriously to understand what it is ultimately about, that the question of rigor feels less a burden and more a calling. Everything we do is about getting you to a point where you can see beyond the immediate context and connect Black thought–your thought–to a vision of freedom that transforms all of our lives. It starts with study. Unending study. And it continues with writing. Speaking a truth.

 

Lecture Notes: Reading The Terms of Order in the Age of Trump – Pt. 3

Politicians are not heroes.

But we should not dismiss the ways and reasons we imagine them as such. Charisma—and its manifestations in the charismatic leader, the charismatic event—represents a dynamic relationship, a way of knowing that might in fact lead us beyond the current political order, if understood in different ways. That it has been grafted (appropriated might be a better term) onto political order is for Robinson the demonstration of a “pathology” of charisma (154). In constructing the myth of political leadership that is at the core of Western societies, political actors have instituted a conception of order analogous to the Greek polis rendered through a Judeo-Christian concept of History—that is how we live and move through the world cognizant that we must do so in a particular way to stave off destruction, however defined. These conceptions of order transposed charisma from its “mystical” context in order to rationalize its usage for a market-conscious, bureaucratic edifice, which was itself the product of a newer myth, a newer grounding assumption: that of political leadership. (See Part Two). Chapter Four of the The Terms of Order, “The Messiah and the Metaphor,” deconstructs these relationships through a treatment of Max Weber, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, relating the question of time to authority and both of these to the construction of mythologies—those ways we make sense of reality as well as its conceptual limits.

We respond to the catharsis of the charismatic event and the ecstasy of the charismatic leader because through those words, those experiences we descend toward a depth of spiritual connection that is irrational. While few of us felt this sort of connection to Donald Trump (some did, and we would do well to recognize this), Barack Obama has been described as perhaps the most charismatic political figure to occupy the presidency since John F. Kennedy. And we can certainly argue that his election was seen as cathartic, rent with ecstasy and joy. Yet, we must also argue that this charismatic event produced the continuities of the logics of a market society, fully arrayed against the deeper meaning of catharsis, fully arrayed against a system that exists for the alleviation of repressed feelings of fear (and perhaps, pain). Erica Edwards, author of the brilliant foreword to the new edition of Terms and of Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (2012), puts it well:

What Weber would not do, and what sociology since Weber has not done, is interrogate how charismatic authority as a cultural construction operates within gendered, racial ideologies of the self and the political and, further, how charismatic authority authors hierarchy as much through terror as through the seemingly benign manufacturing of consent.[1]

On the Obama moment, she argues:

The staging of black American history and identity as a parade of leaders ending with Obama—and the reapplication of that staging in the service of a postracial tale of American goodness—short-circuits desires for social, political, and economic justice and channels them into a fiction of leadership that is lacking in historical detail, structured in social hierarchy, and shaped by normative gender codes.[2]

When we (mis)read charisma as constitutive of political project premised on Western traditions of order with societies that rely on the “political” we implicitly accept the coercion and violence that inherently characterizes such a society. As Edwards argues, such violence is continuously present where this appropriation of charisma and the crafting of the charismatic scenario prevails. On this rationalized violence and its relationship to charisma, Robinson reminds us:

So Weber notwithstanding, political society and political order cannot logically locate their foundations, structurally, in the charismatic phenomenon for the substance of the relationship is fundamentally different from what can be achieved in a rationally related society. (153)

And when we take the language of the political and apply it to other ways of existing and being we commit epistemological violence assuming that what we know as political order is inherent to human social organization. Such was the contradiction of the anarchist theoreticians that Robinson explores in the final chapter, “On Anarchism.” Starting with ruminations on human nature of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, continuing through to eighteenth century anarchist William Godwin, and concluding with what he calls the individualist and the anarcho-socialist traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Robinson concludes that anarchism could not escape the presumptions of political order that it was courageously arrayed against. Anarchist theory could oppose the social and political order, but it could not oppose social and political order.

Robinson ends the text with a reading of a group, the Ila-Tonga (of what is now Zambia), that demonstrated again that such conceptions of reality were not inherently human—even as the anthropological sources he used could not effectively break from the notion that primitive societies implied the absence of the State (by which they meant political order, and thus not modern, not civilized). Robinson however reads these societies as possessing a concept of social authority that was based on both kinship and what he calls the “principle of incompleteness”—that is, they built a concept of order that relied on “the indivisibility” of reality—humans, literally could not possess authority (196-199). This was refracted through the social and governance systems that defined life, which was just as concerned with metaphysical realities as material ones. Instead of violence, the Tonga jokester, through shame and humor, resolved transgressions of morality—a system of resolution immediately familiar to anyone that has played the dozens. While this section is suggestive, it represented a tendency to decolonize anthropological ways of knowing African thought systems that has produced important work in the thirty-seven years since this work was published.

And even as this is true, little work has been done to take this a step further by decolonizing our conceptions of political order (See Part I). In a little cited essay, “In Search of a Pan-African Commonwealth” (1996), Robinson argued that the political State was perhaps “an undeserving venue” to carry the energies of the anticolonial struggle, an argument that began with his invocation and critique of Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction to “Seek ye first the political kingdom.”[3] This is of course not a disavowal of political struggle, for as Robinson concludes Terms, we must “defend ourselves from the destructive objectification of the myth: the apparatuses of repression and control” (214). What must be done, that is not being done in this moment, however, is the second part of this work: “to subvert that [mythical] way of realizing ourselves” (215).

 

[1] Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership, 15.

[2]  Ibid, 191.

[3] Cedric Robinson, “In Search of a Pan African Commonwealth,” Social Identities 2 (1996): 161-168.

Books Read in 2017: January

A new year. New projects.

Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon, 1995)

Revisited this important text, especially for chapter 3 and the meaning of the unthinkable.

Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (U. of California, 2015)

This text is one of recovery and causes us to ponder what is being recovered and for whom.

Lecture Notes: Reading The Terms of Order in the Age of Trump – Pt. 2

One thing has become very clear: From this text, one could derive endless insights. It is, quite frankly, never done with us.

So to continue, Robinson’s subject, leadership, is imagined to be not only rational or necessary, its very possibility is assumed. In fact, it requires us to assume that in the absence of leadership there can only be terror.

Yet, leadership is required by the crisis-experiences that accompanied the political (see Part I). Those crisis-experiences created the very rationales that required the logic and assumptions of leadership. And thus authority. Political thought then asserts that the leader is necessary, assuming that leadership will resolve the crisis-experience, all the while obscuring on whose behalf the crisis is understood and imagined, particularly the crisis-experiences germane to market societies.

In this construction, the leader cannot simply be part of the mass. The leader must be deviant, that is “extraordinary.” It is here where we might apply Robinson’s appreciation of the term to Donald J. Trump. While deviance has taken on a pathological turn within the behavioral sciences, what Robinson, following Mapheus Smith is indicating here is something different.  The leader is deviant; someone: “whose attainments, in terms of a set of goals are considered high; “whose status is recognized as superior to others engaged in the same activities; “who emit(s) stimuli that are ‘responded to integratively by other people” (49). Elsewhere, he cites Murray Edelman who identified the following characteristics of the “extraordinary” leader: intelligence, knowledge, skills, certainty, responsibility, capacity to give direction, success, conspicuousness, potentiality (40).

In some ways, Trump’s ascendancy has exploded the idea of the leader as deviant more than any exemplar thus far. Yet, we did not need Trump to see this. We merely needed to understand that all “political leadership  is the actualization of a myth, a legend, or as it were, a social ideology” (44-45). And in the case of the present order, “The market society informs the political authority of Western society. It is at its roots. The constructs of the market or economic society are one set of the material factors which service the political authority episteme” (55). In other words, the idea of the leadership is rationalized and premised upon the “eufunctionality” of the market society and thus the political.(In this sense, the desire to characterize Trump as socially or psychologically deviant is less helpful–if not ableist; his non-deviance vis-a-vis the relations of power are far more critical).

But this analysis of Trump’s leadership would be perhaps too simplistic and unsatisfactory a reading of Terms. While political leadership–and particularly Trump’s brand– cannot be said to constitute the substantiation of anything resembling justice, morality, or right-living. There is as Chapter Three, “The Question of Rationality,” suggests, much more that needs to be explained. We need to better understand the meaning of followership. And it is here where the irrational comes into view. Robinson, engaging a wide array of thinkers, asserts that political leadership becomes the attempt to contain or direct the subconscious irrational impulses considered to be continuances from the pre-rational or primitive order. Its presumptions toward rationality then perhaps cause us to endorse or “vote” for its representatives, because we desire order. And we fear order’s opposite: terror. Yet the desire for order, according to scholars such as Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Norman Cohn, gave the world National Socialism (Nazism). Robinson desires that we utilize a mixed paradigm (the juxtaposition of traditions that are rational with those that are irrational) to offer a better vantage point than social science has thus offered. We can perhaps speculate that the maintenance of whiteness, required the “order” of Donald J. Trump as an attempt “to avoid the experience of terror” (107). If the above is right, such an avoidance is impossible, the past (and present) suggests that much more of humanity has “known order through terror” and has realized “terror in order” (106).

Lecture Notes: Reading The Terms of Order in the Age of Trump – Pt. 1

We make the political–“an idea dominated by the positivity of the State” (1)— the logical conclusion of human liberation and we ask questions about why it failed. And we answer said questions by concluding that it was because we weren’t more effectively political. And then we fail again. We fail to create the societies we want, the societies where the demos and its interests are centered. And we keep concluding that we are not failing because of the political, we convince ourselves that the political can be improved. Our sense of authority affirms the political. Our sense of order affirms the political. The political enacts violence and power and suffering. We take moments of the political as failures; we read Trumpism as a mere moment, a mere instantiation of the political (which it is). We rarely claim that such a moment is reducible to the idea of the political. We rarely consider the political as normatively violent. Because we cannot order the political in other ways. Until we do. Until we recognize that political leadership is not a leadership that centers our lives, our understandings of the good. And even in that realization, we may fail again, but at least then it won’t be for failing to see that it was the political that produced the failures of yesterday, of modernity.

Spring 2017 Readings

This semester’s books (and music):

Honors Social Science Seminar
#HUAFRO091

  • CEDRIC J. ROBINSON, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2000)
  • CEDRIC J. ROBINSON, Black Movements in America (New York: Routledge, 1997)
  • CEDRIC J. ROBINSON, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2007)
  • CEDRIC J. ROBINSON, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2016)
  • CEDRIC J. ROBINSON, An Anthropology of Marxism (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2001)
  • DARRYL C. THOMAS, ed., “Cedric Robinson and the Philosophy of Black Resistance,” Special Issue of Race and Class 47 (October 2005)
  • H.L.T. QUAN AND TIFFANY WILLOUGHBY-HERARD, eds., “Cedric J. Robinson: Radical Historiography, Black Ontology, and Freedom,” Special Issue of African Identities 11 (October 2013)

Twentieth Century Black Social and Political Thought
#HUAFRO134

  • W.E.B. DU BOIS, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing my Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (New York: International Publishers, 1968)
  • CEDRIC JOHNSON, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
  • ROBIN D.G. KELLEY, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002)
  • TONI MORRISON, Paradise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
  • TONI MORRISON, Song of Solomon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977)
  • NIKHIL PAL SINGH, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004)
  • ROBIN D.G. KELLEY AND EARL LEWIS, eds. To Make Our World Anew: Volume Two: A History of African Americans since 1880 (London and New York: Routledge, 1997)
  • MANNING MARABLE AND LEITH MULLINGS, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology, 2nd Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009)
  • CEDRIC J. ROBINSON, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2000)

 

Music:

Introduction to Africana Studies I
#HUAFRO05

  • ARMAH, AYI KWEI. Two Thousand Seasons. Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh Books, 2000.
  • BLACK, DANIEL. The Coming. New York: St. Martin’s, 2015.
  • GYASI, YAA. Homegoing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.=
  • ARMAH, AYI KWEI. The Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature. Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh Books, 2006.

 

Music:

Books Read in 2016: December

A few titles to end the year:

Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand Books. New York: NYRB, 2014.

About the life of  Chimen Abramsky and his library and a world of deep literacy that doesn’t exist in the same way anymore.

Francis Njubi Nesbitt, Race for Sanctions: African Americans Against Apartheid, 1946-1994. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Concise overview of anti-apartheid organizing among US Africans, beginning with Robeson’s Council on African Affairs.