Lewis R. Gordon by Sula Solomon (November 2015)
Lewis Ricardo Gordon is an African American philosopher of Jewish and Jamaican origins born in 1962. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Honorary Professor in the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University in South Africa, the founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies as well as former president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Being particularly interested in the fields of Africana philosophy and black existentialism, he is considered the father of postcolonial phenomenology. You can read the first part of this interview here.
- You have written books such as What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction To His Life And Thought or also To Want and to Live: Thoughts for Today, Inspired by Amílcar Cabral. Which are the activists, philosophers and politicians which most influenced you ?
Actually, « To Want and to Live: Thoughts for Today Inspired by Amílcar Cabral » is a chapter I wrote for Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral, edited by Firoze Manji and Bill Fletcher Jr. and published in Dakar, Senegal by CODESRIA/Daraja Press in 2013. What Fanon Said is a book I wrote that, thankfully, was published in what would have been Fanon’s 90th year. I worked on that book for many years but had to put it to the side until it was ready to belong to others. That’s how I write all my books. I see them as my learning and struggling with an issue to the point of further learning coming from those beyond the communities in which I’m immediately involved. My books are thus open texts, invitations for others to join me in such a journey and for them to offer me opportunities to join theirs. The activists, philosophers, and politicians that most influenced me are many. They include Yvonne Patricia Solomon (my mother, who, among many things, was also a union organizer), Imhotep, Leonardo da Vinci, Frantz Fanon, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz /Malcolm X, Steve Bantu Biko, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Sri Aurobindo, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Ernst Cassirer, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, Simone Weil, Jean-Paul Sartre, Keiji Nishitani, Alfred Schütz, Hannah Arendt, Paulo Freire, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bruce Lee (yes, he was a philosopher and activist), Fela Kuti, and Bob Marley. There are quite a few among the living, too, but I think the ancestors will suffice. It’s a motley crew, to be true, since they would no doubt end up fighting if they were in the same room, but I converse with them well through the course of my work.
- Also musician, you perform jazz, blues and alternative rock. Where did you get this interest for music ?
It’s part of the way I see, think, imagine, and feel reality. My children are similar. I’m delighted to be playing rock with my youngest son in his band ThreeGenerations, jazz with other musicians now and then, and blues with some of my colleagues at UCONN. I also do solo projects, such as a series I began on drummers. Music also helps me work with a collaborator on physics. He is also a saxophonist. As I haven’t studied higher-order mathematics, my point of entry is through music (which is very mathematical). To my surprise, I’m able to read equations I haven’t formally studied but can “see” or “hear.” My collaborator in physics, Stephon Alexander, and I have a great time thinking through cosmology, quantum theory, and string theory that way. I’ve been bringing that approach to my work in multidimensional theory. It’s possible to theorize reality in many more than 4 or 5 or even 18 dimensions, if we wish, and participation in activities such as music discloses other dimensions of reality. Stephon has a wonderful talk on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” mathematically understood as revealing the double helix. I’ve also conversed with jazz musicians attuned to the communicative practice of jazz improvisation. I wrote about such performance as a metaphor for living, working democracy in Fanon and the Crisis of European Man and Her Majesty’s Other Children. Some of my readers notice the musicality of my philosophical writing, which I appreciate. It means they are really reading the text, which, for me, is not simply words on paper but also entry into a world, rhythmic and dynamic, of living, intersubjective thought.
- As a philosopher, you dealt with black existentialism several times. Can you explain to our readers what this term indicates ?
Black existentialism explores the dimensions of thought and lived-reality that many thinkers seek to avoid. Take theory as an example. A presumption of much Euromodern theory is for theory to achieve a form of completeness through the rational unfolding of consistent propositions. I have argued that though rational, such a project would reveal a basic problem: a maximally consistent person or thought may be an unreasonable one. Reasonability exceeds rationality because it also evaluates the latter. I gave a lecture, “Theory in Black,” which was published in a journal called Qui Parle in 2010. There, I pointed out that reality always exceeds our grasp yet we are aware of those elements of incompleteness, of negation, of transcendence as a form of darkness beyond the light. Though we attempt often to shed light on reality, we should understand that darkness is also always present as one of reality’s features. The darkness is, for me, not to be erased but engaged, and where not understood, at least not feared. There is no distinction without a meeting of darkness with light. Black existentialism, then, is existentialism brought to radical reflection on what it means for existence to precede essence. It involves facing the contingency, the lack of guarantee, the suffering, the underside of life, the complexity of what is involved in reaching for reality through the disclosure of a shared human world aware of its limitation.
Its historic specificity points to the emergence of black people and the challenges of what I call “black melancholia,” which is the condition of being rejected by the world to which black people are indigenous (Euromodernity), as well as the radical critique it offers for studies of reality ranging from historiography, where there tends to be a failure to regard black people as agents of history, to metaphysics, wherein the range of dimensional possibility may be occluded as occult and dark, to the political question of action as commitment in the face of rejected optimism and pessimism. I regard Black existentialism also as a relational enterprise of connecting to the human effort to establish meaning and, in doing so, expanding the possibilities of what it means to be human.
- You are also known to be one of the founders of the postcoloniale phenomenology and one of the leaders of the African phenomenology. What are the basis of the postcoloniale phenomenology and of what it consists ?
I argued in the mid-1990s that there need not be a conflict between existential and transcendental phenomenology because both are committed to radical, metacritique. This radical critique means taking seriously that orders of knowledge and disciplines could in effect “colonize” our ways of knowing, learning, and thinking. It’s an expansion of my earlier thesis of questioning the questioner. This transforms phenomenological movements into acts of epistemic decolonization. I argue, however, that decolonization in and of itself is insufficient for a genuine postcolonial relationship. This is because the negative movement of elimination must also be transformed into a positive one of self-aware and evidence-based construction. When compared to the political understanding of decolonization and postcolonization, we could look at it this way. Decolonization may affect a colonial order, but it may in effect create a new one if it isn’t open to the possibilities of alternative ways of producing or organizing human relations of power. Lacking such, decolonization leads either to continued violence in the form of legitimacy as decolonization or neocolonization. To go beyond that entrapped circle of decolonization collapsing into new forms of colonization requires a movement of teleological suspension, for which I argue in my book Disciplinary Decadence. A postcolonial phenomenology advances the relational aspect of phenomenological work, its attunement to evidence, and its fundamentally social character. I think when you stated “African phenomenology” you may have meant “Africana phenomenology.” Africana phenomenology draws upon these relational resources from Africana philosophy—similar to what I pointed out about Black existentialism—and examines reality through challenges posed by identity/ontology, contingency/freedom, and metacritique/justification. Concretely posed from the historical situation posed by Euromodernity, against which I’ve argued there are varieties of Modernities, these questions are historicized as: (1) philosophical anthropology (What does it mean to be human?), (2) philosophy of freedom (How are dignity and responsibility for what we are to become possible? For what should we struggle?), and (3) metacritique of reason and justification (How is thought justified given the historical assaults on its integrity? Is even justification any longer justified or even justifiable?).
- In 2014, you appeared in the series Capitalisme, realized by Ilan Ziv and broadcasted on the French-German channel Arte. Today, what is your vision of the capitalism?
Capitalism is a secularized theology. It has no real principle of verification. It is a commitment to a god that never arrives. If socialism were given the number of efforts to try again and again, as given to capitalism, who knows what kind of world we may live in today? I think John Stuart Mill’s work on political economy, where the question of social commitment, whether in a capitalist or socialist economy, was on the right track. The fact of the matter is that there is decadence at work with how we tend to think of economies. Absolutes of all or nothing simply don’t match human reality. Government interventions are constantly at work to save capitalism, which contradicts its ideological premise. Moreover, the interventions are often introduced for the welfare of plutocrats, which makes capitalism, ultimately, a system constantly suffering from a legitimation crisis. How could we legitimately defend a system as in the interest of people through appealing to its basic premise of burgeoning when placing human welfare to the wayside? It seems to me that Karl Jaspers’s conception of truth is apt here. He spoke of varieties from the pragmatic to the transcendent. Capitalism clearly belongs with the pragmatic. But there it faces a problem of the relation of logic to reason. If issued in a maximally consistent way, it becomes unreasonable. Many people would suffer for the sake of profit for the few. The larger issue is what humanity faces on a planet that is becoming smaller (because of population growth and technological impact on time). Where we could cover distances fast, space in effect decreases. There simply is declining “room” on our planet, which, in our consciousness, is dwindling each day. We must take stock of human responsibility for human states of affairs and a future we hope to inhabit. That means eradicating flawed, disciplinarily decadent models of separation, especially in the human sciences. Economics, understood as a human science, needs to be relational, connected to the complex schema of variables through which and by which people live. Given human complexity, mixed economies make more sense to me. The way I look at economics also means understanding, in global form, what is required to address the needs of life on our planet. At the moment, we treat capitalism as a theodicy: a god so intrinsically good that sources of evil must be accounted for elsewhere. When we understand that it is human beings who produce relations of capital, we could unmask the idolatry through which concomitant suffering flourishes. It’s simply weird and unethical to value profits more than people living on a healthy planet. I don’t believe we can create a perfect world. I do, however, believe we can produce a better one. Such a world must be premised, I contend, on rethinking our concepts of value through understanding what it means to take responsibility for conditions for which subsequent generations could either celebrate or regret our efforts.
Interview of Lewis Gordon realized by E. Michaut