Malik Sekou OSEI
While to bring an understanding of reality or rather “social’ reality, one has to grip two considerations one objective and two subjective, in relation of race and power in American social reality. For without understanding the dialectical bases of that relationship the actual understanding would become barren and empty. For to be frank without a dialectical view—this view cannot actually be confrontational intellectually nor socially. For without dialectic, this view is the pragmatic comfort of the slave in a racist society.
Here, we must examine the subjective factor in relation to social sensibilities and class oppression that finds its sterile flower in American racialism as social culture.
This leads up to the question of social and personal authenticity as a broad rationalization of never negating the pragmatic world outlook of the comfort of the slave. This view is helped and cultivated by the more liberal view of white capitalist power. The role of liberal of liberalism is to provide symbolic reform to co-op the necessity of opposition. Thus this is to create dependent-authenticity among the oppressed.
One of the venues of dependent-authenticity is the fact that the oppressed—or more to the point—the racially oppressed must pretend of being naïve or come to accept naivety as the road to their actualization. The questions of direction and goals are to be safely negated for the notion of “motion” in itself as a general goal. For the implicit goal under this agenda has only been acceptance by white middle power of privilege and consumption.
Thus, the role of this choice is to make the “native” conceptually barren. Thus within his paradigm, he loses the ability to distinguish between the notions to strive or to struggle. Thus his striving of upward mobility within white middle class acceptance is articulated as “struggle” and resistance. For this is where we see the talent and skills of the pragmatic native in the use of language games of articulate obscurement.
For it is within this forum that the “native” finds pleasure within his emotional escape from reality through abstract and emotive symbolic language of American celebrity culture. For the natives answers question that no one has asked. Thus his life is a life of daily performance of his cultivated ignorance of slave pragmatism.
While in the realm of American culture “his” role has been the role of an entertaining distraction and the social advertisement of American conspicuous consumption as” progress,” of the coming social crisis of American capitalism.
While most people in the US never discuss the question of ideology or engage a discussion as a question—where should society go—to be more humane? For in this social and intellectual vacuum, leaves a space for a number of postures as projections as rigorous engagement, for which in fact is only incestuous self-entertainment.
I think that the work and history of Frantz Fanon is most useful. I think here at this point, as we try to further grasp the work of Fanon and his contribution to the humanist dialectic of liberation. We must be very careful not to fall into essential sloganeering as liberation. For to understand Fanon’s work is the work of social emancipation through political revolution. While his languages was at times expressed in existentialist terms, but his work was very concern with the actualization of the humanity of the colonial racially oppressed.
While it must be understood that human liberation is actually beyond the question of existentialism and is more involved with the question of power of ontological reality. For this involves economics and redistribution of the socially created wealth. At the same time the notions of class has a role to play in the anti-racist struggle against capitalism. But to be more than grounded in the reality of the racially oppressed, their struggle is a struggle of class in the form of racial conditions. What a number of progressive pundits seem to forget is that the slave-mode-of-production is a notion of class struggle, because slaves are a class of compulsory and coerce labor.
While existentialism can and has provided a number of perceptual insights, its weakness is that its logic is not conceptual, but “perceptual” that could be given to intellectual speculation of human nature and not address the question of actual power.
But the question of human choice and self-definition is more than an important question and to many this is a question of choice of existence.
Thus, I will begin with the works of the bespectacled cock-eye French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his existential philosophy of being.
As vast human communities must fact profound social tragedies under the paradigm of human and democratic rights of and within the American menu. Must begin to face, how the vast majority conceived that the rights were to be guaranteed as political rights of the right to housing, health care, education through the commitment to hard work. And this was perceived unlike the so-called “other,” which was based on race. And thus the struggle of effort was to distinguish oneself by social behavior and ways. However, these attitudes could not protect large sections of people from the necessary dictates of capitalist profits and the moving of jobs and work abroad.
While, a number of white ethnic groups thought by distinguishing themselves from the fundamental contradiction of capital and labor from the descendants of American slavery, the African American community and labor. But this social and racial loyalty to the capitol of the white ruling elite could not protect them from the need of private profit.
For the crisis in America is multi-faceted not just materially, but also socially in terms of social consciousness of social awareness. Thus, American must face to negate its pragmatism of the slave of immediate comfort at all cost. Where the thinking of Americans is that they can be entertained to death with no problem or contradictions, and this has been based on the nature of imperialism and super-profits and the historic racism of the founding of the American white settler state as the right of land grabs under the guidance of god and religious freedom.
While what was needed was not a philosophy seeking to understand the objective reality of the world, but a philosophical rationalization of the comfort and privilege of the merchant and the plantation class, while the status of this class of ownership was based on race.
As America goes through it first Black executive office holder and see that this first Black president had no charge or commitment to any political or social reform, and has brought drastic cut of austerity to vast America public and in particular the president had no charge to effect the condition of the African American unemployed and under employed working class.
While a number of Obama pundits begin to spur a number of arguments, what we find that a lot of these arguments or not arguments at all, but are stagnant rationalization of racial pride. Thus the realm of identity politics is still within the realm of African American social and political sensibilities and at the same time use to vindicate the racialist and imperialist agenda of the current Black individually led presidential office. Thus the question and notion of and about identity has become the opium of African American senilities of social resistance.
As we look and see that the material standing the African American community has profoundly and profanely collapse around racial lines of capitalism in crisis and under the preview of a Black presidency. Thus the political question of “what is to be done” has collapses into the questions of whom are we: by questions of identity and further escape from American political reality. The politics of identity, or “identity politics” as it more frequently called, is based on a set of propositions that, although widely held, are for the most part only loosely formulated or even tacitly presupposed. There is not any singular text that one can turn for a systematic formulation of the tenets of identity politics, and indeed the very notion of identity is so open to radically divergent interpretations, thus ranging from the biological to the broad and expansive.
Thus even so, as much from observing the practice of identity politics in action, we can also draw from its written texts, it can be argued that it can be characterize its core propositions as the following: 1) that differences of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so on have for too long been obscured by a hegemonic white, male, upper-class and heterosexual elite which, under the guise of claiming that there exists a universal human condition, has constructed an account of reality that serves its own ends; 2) now, those groups whose identities were previously subjugated by this elite should now be privileged as sources of both epistemological and moral authority, since their oppression gives them a unique capacity and the right to speak about and judge what is true and what is good; 3) that (implicit in the first two claims) access to truth and the authority to make moral and political judgments is not universal, but is always relative to who one is; 4) that to “unmask” or “deconstruct” privileged, universalist reading of reality and to make possible the expression by the previously silenced and subjugated of their own identity and truth are not only valid forms of political action, but the most important forms of political actions today; 5) that such a politics of unmasking privilege the subjugated to come to voice needs also to be conducted internally, within groups and movements on the Left.
Identity politics is a rather new and recent phenomenon of what could be called “the politics of recognition.” It can be argued that with the collapse of the recognized identities and social hierarchies, that is, with the transition from the feudal codes of honor to the modern, Universalist claims about equal human dignity, that the politics of recognition born. For with the collapse of the unproblematic, ascribed social identities of pre-modern society, it became necessary to discover, create, or negotiate social and personal identities.
It was of course, Hegel who first powerfully formulated the demand of the modern self for recognition: to be fully human, to attain full consciousness of self, this was to be possible only through the reciprocal struggle for recognition by the other. Although Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic” was couched in abstract terms of a reciprocal struggle only between two consciousnesses’s, and although it constituted only an account of an ethico-existential struggle of selfhood, the demand for free recognition by the other for which Hegel had postulated has been fundamental to broad political struggles for at least two centuries. It has been subtended not only demands for the “Rights of Man,” for an equality the law and adult white male suffrage, but also the abolition of slavery, the demand for women’s suffrage, visions of socialism and, more recently, the Black civil rights movement.
Without taking these struggles out of context, they all were to take place within social and economic organization, in other words within social systems of society of the reform for democratic rights. Nonetheless, what makes identity politics an important difference from such earlier forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which it has been heretofore been denied: it is qua woman, qua Black, qua lesbian or gay—and not qua incarnation of universal human qualities—that recognition is demanded and moral superiority sometimes alleged and defended. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human characteristics, nor even for respect in spite of one’s differences. Rather, hat is demanded is respect or oneself as fundamentally different.
This recasting of an earlier universalistic politics of recognition that today culminates in identity politics had its classic philosophical formulation in the early works of the existential thinking of Jean Paul Sartre and the materialist and psycho-cultural-existentialist articulation of Frantz Fanon. The principle is Sartre’s treatment of the “Jewish question,” and Fanon’s creative and critical appropriation of that term of that analysis in terms of Black identity. Thus, we must turn to Sartre and then to Fanon to give the historical and intellectual genesis of this ungratified human contradiction within human history and the underdevelopment of human organization at this time.
In examining the pyscho-existential accounts of the dialectic of recognition and non-recognition that Sartre and Fanon were to develop, firstly we must recover the important strands of its intellectual roots of identity politics; secondly, it has to be shown that there are numbers of ways in which identity politics can learn from these earlier thinkers; and finally, to suggest that some of the failures and insufficiencies of present-day identity politics can be brought more sharply into emphasis by examining certain problems found in the original texts.
1) The Outlook and Logic of Sartre
As we look at Jean Paul Sartre paradigmatic accounts of non-recognition as oppression, together with his strongest call for the oppressed authentically to affirm their identity is found in his essay called The Anti-Semite and the Jew. While it must be noted that this question of recognition had already been extensively explored in his book called Being and Nothingness that was published in 1943, here Sartre was to argue that the “Other” is always a threat to the experience on the self to the non-other, thus having the power to objectify the “Other” and thus to cause the “Other” to run off into self-objection. In spite of this, such dynamics are portrayed by Sartre in his Being and Nothingness as socially mutual: each can equally objectify or be objectified. Anti-Semitism, by distinction, is not simply “the expression of our fundamental relations to the Other.” For in the Anti-Semite performs upon the Jew something further is involved, which precludes the mutuality or reversibility of the objectifying relationship: “The Jew has a personality like the rest of us, and on top of that he is Jewish. It amounts to a doubling of the fundamental relationship with the Other. The Jew is over-determined.” In short, there is not a reciprocal relation of objectification between the Jew and other people. For the Jew, in an Anti-Semitic world, is never free not to be te Jew or the Other. Here Sartre writes in a passage that really captures the dynamic between white liberals and the African American in America today, here Sartre writes: “The liberal, when he met a Jew, was free, completely free to shake his hand of spit in his face; he could decide… but the Jew was not free not to be a Jew.” In explaining the dynamics of this “over-determination,” Sartre in significant ways anticipates more recent anti-essential accounts of the construction of racial, ethnic, and gender identities. To be a Jew, Sartre argues, is not to be born of a physical race, or even—since many Jews are non-practicing—into the religion. If one asks what it is that Jews have in common, it is no fixed essence but rather “the identity of their situation.” Here Sartre goes to illustrates being-in-a-situation as living “an ensemble of limits and restrictions” that one does not freely choose, but which one can choose to invent with various meanings. The situation of the Jew in Sartre’s account is one above all constituted by the Anti-Semite—just as other will later argue that of women is constituted by the sexist and that of people of color by the racist. “The Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew…it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew.”
Thus, how can the Jew and other oppressed groups respond to this over-determination? Sartre suggests that the most common response is “flight,” the attempt to avoid fully facing the pain of the situation through a multiplicity of self-evasive strategies that he explains as choices of “inauthenticity.” For example, Sartre explains the attraction to many Jews of rationalism as a form of flight, for in the abstract life of the mind it would appear that we are all “men” and particularity can be transcended.
In contrast to the Jew who flees, Sartre describes the authentic Jew: the one who demands recognition for what he is. Authenticity, as proporients of Black pride, gay pride and other forms of identity politics also insists does not involve the mere admission that one is what the Other says one is. Rather it involves re-appropriating, as a positive value, the self that the Other has imposed on one. Thus, “The authentic Jew… ceases to run away from the obligation to live in a situation that is define precisely by the fact it is unlivable; he derives pride from his humiliation.”
Whether or not an individual chooses authenticity, to be a Jew is to live in a situation one has not chosen, yet which constitutes part of one’s very being. One is not “just” a human being who happens, in addition, to be a Jew: one is one’s situation. And although one can give to one’s being-for-others various meanings, one can never push it off. Thus, anticipating later critiques of universalism, Sartre argues that the old style abstract humanism of the liberal democrat is not merely inadequate, but itself oppressive. Liberal universalism puts Jews—and other minorities—in a double bind. For it seeks to suppress the particularities of concrete groups and individuals that are, for better or worse, integral to their existence. It also obscures the dynamics of oppression behind the assertion of a universal human essence that “we” all share.
For it seems to be undoubtedly the case that what is today under attack from identity politics, including liberal ideology and the western humanist tradition, have normally —has function as exclusionary discourses. On the other hand, this is not to say that all Universalist values should—or indeed can—be simply thrown out. Indeed the troubling and subjective thrust by a radical relativism only leads to social and moral speculation and nothing more. As we are to read Ms. Marnia Lazreg essay “Feminism and Difference: The Perils of writing as a women on Women in Algeria.” In the book calledConflicts in Feminism, Editor M. Hiersch. She goes to say that: “The rejection of humanism and its universalistic character…deprives the proponents of difference of any basis for understanding the relationship between the varieties of modes of being different in the world.” For ontologically one can makes sense of difference only by recognizing the certain commonality to the human condition; generality is the sphere against in which particularity must be or become configured. The demand to be recognized in one’s particularity or difference is itself an implicit call for wider human reciprocity and respect. For if recognition by negating the Other was not needed for the integrity of the self, non-recognition per say would not present itself as a problem.
Here, one can find Sartre’s position to be much more lucid than that of the many contemporary thinkers of identity politics. While devising a clear and persuasive critique of abstract humanism, he does not claim that difference inherently fractures knowledge, truth, and reality. Instead Sartre maintains and emphasizes the need to hold together in tension both difference and a certain commonality of the human world. He goes further to argue that oppression must also be resisted by those who are not directly its victims because lives are in fact demonstrably interconnected. The fate of the oppressed is also “ours,” not because we share a common human “nature” but because we are embedded in one and the same historical world.
But here Sartre runs up against a logical incoherence between the realm of moral and existential experience (in which the demands for recognition takes place) and the world of concrete political transformation, a incoherence that actually haunts modern identity politics today. Thus having portrayed anti-Semitism as above all an existential relation of anti-Semite to the Jew, in which the Jew cannot escape the objectifying portrait fabricated by the anti-Semite but he can choose to live it either the world of authentically or inauthentically; and thus having urged authenticity—the active and prideful taking up of identity—on the Jew, Sartre points out that, although authenticity might affirm existential freedoms in the face of oppression, it does not in itself address the social situation of the Jew. The individual Jew may resist the self-objectifying look of the anti-Semite, but authenticity provides no clear orientations towards the elimination of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, Sartre concludes that, “The choice of authenticity appears to be a moral decision, bring certainty to the Jew on the ethical level but in no way serving as a solution on the social or political level.”
The problem is that Sartre leaves a profound question that remain in speculation and ambivalence in particular in his Anti-Semite and the Jew is this: how to bring the realm of moral and existential self-affirmation into a practical engagement with the actualities of a realm of politics that extend beyond personal experience—that is, the realm of institutions and enduring social structures? For power does not rest on objectification alone. Anti-Semitism is more than the sum of the actions of a collection of individual anti-Semites: it takes enduring historical and structural forms. Sartre was very aware of this reflective limitation, but he in his Anti-Semite and Jew he can only acknowledge the hiatus and tries schematically to bridge it with a hopelessly rationalist appeal at the end of the book for a classless society as the end to all ills, including anti-Semitism. At this point of Sartre arguments that he becomes culpable of accepting a de-situated and schematic vision of history, which he had ignored his own valuable insights into the concrete particularities of oppression.
What is missing, in both Sartre’s account and in contemporary identity politics and its stress on social validation and not the organization of and on actual power, this is because it lacks a sense of intermediation and intervention, for which the dynamics through which issues of the interpersonal recognition and identity pass into and from the realm of concrete institutions. How for example, do they pass into anti-Semitic legislation, into segmented labor markets that perpetuate low Black and women wages into mechanisms that grant differential access to health care or education by class and race?
2) The Outlook and Logic of Fanon
While looking at the work of Fanon and for better or worse, the effect of Sartre is more than persistent in Fanon earliest work in the text of Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon takes Sartre’s account of the dialectic of recognitions and non-recognition and intensifies and splendidly transfigures as it is extended to issues of racial identity. Yet a similar abandonment of a careful phenomenology of situated experience and abrupt shift to rationalize also impairs Fanon’s work. However, what Fanon also brought to his topic was something that Sartre could not bring and did not have: first-hand experience. While Sartre writes as a progressive, but as neither anti-Semite nor a Jew, Fanon writes as a black man. There is both a tangible eloquent of knowledge and depth of temper to this consciousness that gives his work as a classic for later movements for Black consciousness. Even though the book focuses on the experiences of Black Antilleans in the 1940s and 1950s, it has resonated far beyond these boundaries of time and place.
Fanon’s starting point in Black Skin is the problem of authenticity. Most colonized Black men, he observes, are not capable of an “authentic upheaval” today. For they are the victims of a socially produced, but real, situation of inferiority which they have internalized, thus they suffer from a “psycho-existential complex,” that inhibits them from authentic self and social transformation. The Black—the Negro—is, as he suggests, characterized by a “situational neurosis…a constant effort to run away from his own individuality, to annihilate his own presence.” Fanon hopes to help “cure” this neurosis through his analysis.
The social origin of this neurosis lies with the attitude of whites, colonial society to Blackness. “Negrophobia” is in many ways a similar phenomenon to anti-Semitism as Sartre had depicted it, but there are also profound differences. For the Jew and sometimes become anonymous, but the Black is always visible as such. Creatively appropriating Sartre’s notion of the over-determined otherness of the Jew, Fanon writes: I am overdetermined from outside. I am not the slave of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my appearance” (Black Skin, White Mask p.116). For in the white unconscious and as well within white culture, Fanon argues that the Negro even more than the Jew denotes “Evil.” “Is it not whiteness in symbols always ascribe in French to Justice, Truth, Virginity? …The [B]lack is the symbol of Evil and Ugliness. …But the Negro does not stand for abstract evil so much as for the threat of uncontrolled carnality and sexuality. The Jew is an intellectual or economic threat, but the Negro symbolizes the biological danger. For the Negro is only biological….[for] the Negros are animals” Thus the experience of alienation in one’s body, that self-doubling process in which one experiences oneself as a body-for-others, is more profound for Fanon’s Negro than for Sartre’s Jew. The task that Fanon assumes in Black Skin is less to account for white negrophobia than to investigate the lived-experience and moral possibilities open to a Black living in a negrophobic world.
Like Sartre Jew, Fanon’s Negro often engages in forms of flight. For Fanon and the reality of the racially oppressed it seems most impossible to do otherwise. While, here the question of ideology is more implied for whiteness is also the venue for material upward mobility, as it seemed. For virtually all paths to an authentic self-affirmation seem to Fanon to be blocked or co-opted. From childhood onwards, exposure to the values of white culture induces an inauthentic identification with whiteness—particular in the educated child of color—such as Fanon.
Here Fanon goes to say:
“The young black in the Antilles, who in school never ceases to repeat, ‘our
forefathers, the Gauls,” identifies his [or herself] self with the explorers, the
civilizer, the white who brings truth to the savages—an all white truth.
There is [the] identification that is to say that the young black subjectively
adopts a white attitude. [For] The Hero, who is white, is invested with all
Indeed, Fanon reports that this is so much the case that many Antilleans simply not see themselves as Black: Antilleans are French as white; and Negros are Black and primitive—and they are far off in the mountains of Africa.
But once a direct encounter forces on the Antillean knowledge of his own Blackness—Whereas Fanon did, he goes to the metropolitan France and experiences white fears and hostility as he walks down the streets—at this point further forms of inauthenticity are elicited. Thus, having internalized white negrophobia and the belief in the superiority of white “civilization,” the Antillean cannot receive the description the Black. For to speak French well, to be educated, are after all, sure signs of being French—that is, white. But suddenly, there he is, irrevocably marked by his body as the feared and despised other, the threat to real and authentic “civilization.” For many Fanon included, the response is to the white negrophole’s stare, is to employ in the kind of self-objectification that Sartre depict in the inauthentic Jew. Here, Fanon goes to say:
“On that day…disoriented, incapable of being abroad with the other, the white man,
who imprisoned me without pity—I took myself far off from my own presence
—making myself an object (p.112)
Here Fanon was to note that this self-objectification is the source of the allege Black “inferiority complex,” a complex that has nothing to do with family dynamics or the Oedipus complex, but everything to do with what he calls the “epidermalization” of social inferiority
Fanon was also to deal with another response that was to more than fascinate him—is the natives attempt to escape into a universal humanity through the appeal to reason. Just as the Jew seeks to evade his particular situation through “rationalism,” claiming that reason makes him a “man” like any other, so too there is a temptation, especially for the Black intellectual, to try to escape from his racialized situation by an appeal to reason or other transcendental universals. But this is always thrown back into his face by power of the culture of white racism:
“…this Negro who is looking for the universal. He is looking for the
universal! But in June 1950, the hotels in Paris refused to rent rooms
to Negro pilgrim. Why? Purely and simply because their Anglo-Saxon
customers (who are rich and who, as everyone knows, hate Negros)
threatened to move out (p.186)
Nonetheless, there is another strategy, which looks at first sight seem to be more promising: “I decided, since it was impossible for me to get away from an inborn complex, to affirm myself as BLACK. Since the other hesitated to recognize me, there remained only one solution: to make myself know” (p. 115). This might seem as an authentic response to racism. For this was surely, is what Sartre was to advocate for the authentic Jew, even though he noted that it would not resolve the Jew’s social situation. Here also is more that discerns and sees identity politics from prior forms of the politics of identification: the demand to be acknowledged in one’s difference. But, here we see that fanon was more than hesitant and undecided, for he saw that this was more of a reactive politics. Of course, the native will be “…driven to discover the meaning of [B]lack identity” is and advance of the “native who seeks to be white. But the search for Black identity is in itself laden and burdened with problems. For here Fanon argues: “[That…] what is called the black is a white construction.”
It was through his brief visit and scrutiny of negritude that Fanon surveys the quandaries of the pronouncement of Black identity. For here Fanon was in a tactical philosophical dilemma, negritude is at once flawed and yet necessary. Here through extensive citations from the works of Senghor, Cesaire and other, Fanon illustrates that much of its affirmation of Black identity simply rested on reversal of social place, but not the advocating of the destruction of white colonial power. A type of re-appropriation of white stereotypes of Black culture, for what is celebrated as authentically “Black” is the rhythm of the individual person, the magical, the irrational, the emotional, and the intuitive—and all of these are more than inundated and drenched with the sexuality of the over-sexed, whose social role is to bring the world an immediate happiness of a too close familiarity, as Black culture. Here Fanon goes to explain the sterile logic that leads to such a reversal:
“I had [come] to rationalize the world and the world had rejected me
on the basis of color prejudice. Since no accord was possible on the
level of reason, I threw myself back toward irrationality…I wade in
the irrational. Up to my neck in the irrational. And now my voice
vibrates (p. 123)
What has to be looked at here is the clearly ironic attitude of fanon’s presentation of the mythic grandeur that displays the poets of negritude. Yet, still however oversensitive it might be, in Fanon view it was also very necessary. For in his view, this was to shift in the Black-and-white relation, at least in the realm of the symbolic.
To be continued…