THE UNREAL WORLD OF CORNEL WEST.
All and Nothing at All
The New Republic Online
Post date: 01.19.05
March 6, 1995
Where are the public intellectuals? The question is asked everywhere in America, but it is not merely an American question. It has been a long time, after all, since calm was preferred to crisis as the proper mood of the mind. For the Marxist tradition in particular, crisis is all there is, and calm is only crisis denied. Modern intellectuals roil to be real. Why think, if nothing is breaking up and nothing is breaking down, if intellectuals (or "cultural workers," as Cornel West likes to call them) cannot become public intellectuals? And then history obliges, and the crisis comes, and theC01117 edy of the public intellectual begins. It is not in the absence of crisis that he cannot think. It is in the presence of crisis that he cannot think. Things start breaking up and things start breaking down, and the public intellectual cannot exceed his conventions and his vocabularies and his projects. The public intellectual begins to seem like nothing more than a person who is smart in public.
Or so is the case of Cornel West. Since there is no crisis in America more urgent than the crisis of race, and since there is no intellectual in America more celebrated for his consideration of the crisis of race, I turned to West, and read his books. They are almost completely worthless. The man who wrote them is a good man, an enemy of enmity; but he is, as he writes again and again, for "a better world." Who is not? And who, at this late date in the history of, the attempt to better the world generally, and to better the world of what West calls "America's chocolate cities" specifically, can still use this expression without irony, or without an anxiety about the degradation of idealism?
West's work is noisy, tedious, slippery (in The Ameyican Evasion of Philosophy, "evasion" is a term of praise, a description of an accomplishment), sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self endeared. His judgment of ideas is eccentric. He observes that "black America has yet to produce a great literate intellectual with the exception of Toni Morrison"; that "Marx and Emerson herald selfrealization and promote democracy"; that Trilling had a "relaxed prose" and "a famous conversational style"; that "Marxist thought becomes even more relevant after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before"; that "World War u was a major setback for antiimperialist struggles in black America"; that "intersubjectivity is the go cart of individuality"; that "Malcolm X moved toward a more Marxist informed humanist position just prior to his assassination"; that "crack is the postmodern drug"; that "the classical Marxist critique of religion is not an a priori rejection of religion"; and so on.
West's eccentricity is surpassed by West's vanity. In a survey of "contemporary Afro American social thought," he concludes that "my attempt to put flexible Marxist analysis on the agenda of the black churches is a pioneering endeavor." The twelfth verse of the sixth chapter of the gospel ofJohn ("He said unto his disciples, gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost") puts him in mind of his own essays and book reviews, and he assembles thern in a book called Prophetic Fragments. He likes to compare himself to the prophets: "I am a prophetic Christian freedom fighter," he writes, from his station at a "ruling class institution like Princeton," and his collections of interviews and occasional pieces are called Prophetic Reflections and Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times. "Like both Russian novelists and blues singers," he allows, "I stress the concrete lived experience of despair and tragedy." And "the brief yet gallant struggle to make Oklahoma an all black (and red) state" was
a failed quest that produced ... the legendary "free mind" of black Oklahomans associated with black towns like Muskogee, Boley, and Langston, and with such black natives as Ralph Ellison, John Hope Franklin, Charlie Christian, the Gap Band, and, I humbly add, myself.
He applauds his origins for imbuing him with "ego deflating humility." His parents and his siblings write the introductions to his works. He appears on the cover of a book in a three piece suit and in its third chapter he proclaims that "the Victoria ' n three piece suit with a clock and chain in the vest worn by W.E.B. Du Bois ... dignified his sense of intellectual vocation, a sense of rendering service by means of critical intelligence," unlike "the shabby clothing worn by most black intellectuals these days," which "symbolize [s] their utter marginality behind the walls of academe."
West's most recent book, Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, is a perfect document of the thrill of turgidity that characterizes the humanities of the day. It is a lifeless book, and it abounds in sentences such as this one:
Following the model of the black diasporan traditions of music, athletics, and rhetoric, black cultural workers must constitute and sustain discursive and institutional networks that deconstruct earlier modern black strategies for identity formation, demystify power relations that incorporate class, patriarchal, and bomophobic biases, and construct more multivalent and niultidimensional responses that articulate the complexity and diversity of black practices in the modern and postmodern world.
Or this one:
My view neither promotes a post Marxian idealisin (for it locates acceptable genealogical accounts in material social practices), nor supports an explanatory nihilism (in that it posits some contingent yet weighted set of social practices as decisive factors to explain a given genealogical configuration, that is, set of events). More pointedly, Dry position appropriates the implicit pragmatism of Nietzsche for the purposes of a deeper, and less dogmatic, historical materialist analysis.
Such a marriage of populism and esotericism is a common characteristic of the academic left. West's sentences are not altogether meaningless. But their meanings are not for you, even if they will eventually set you free. The aim of West's deeper and less dogmatic historical materialist analysis, of course, is action. You remember. Philosophers have for too long thought about the world. The time has come to change it. But with words such as these? The obscurity of this language is not what offends. What offends is the confidence that the established order will eventually fall before this language. Scholasticism is a noble calling, but it leaves the world as it found it. There is not a drug dealer in America who will give himself up to Deleuze and Guattari.
If crisis requires anything, it is clarity; but West's conception of the intellectual vocation is too complicated for clarity. The black intellectual, according to West, must resist "the Booker T. Temptation," which is a "preoccupation with the mainstream and legitimizing power," and "the Talented Tenth Seduction," which is "a move toward arrogant group insularity," and the "Go It Alone Option' " which is a "rejectionist perspective that shuns the mainstream and group solidarity." The black intellectual must become a "Critical Organic Catalyst." "By this I mean a person who sta ' vs attuned to the best of what the mainstream has to offer its paradigms, viewpoints, and methods yet maintains a grounding in affirming and enabling subcultures of criticism." Sounds fine; and Martin Luther King Jr. was, in West's account, the realization of the Gramscian fantasy.
The problem is that the union of theory and practice, in West's hands, becomes a union of pomposity and enthusiasm, a long saga of positiouing. And so we get affirmations such as this one: "Rorty's historicist turn was like music to my ears nearly as sweet as the Dramatics, The Spinners, and The Main Ingredient, whom I ' then listened to daily for sanity." West skips undialectically from the seminar to the street, celebrating his connectedness. This has ridiculous results. "Although the Christian quest for transcendent meaning in life and history is rejected in Prince's lyrics," he declares, "the idea of divine intervention in the form of eschaLological catastrophic presence is observed"; and it does not escape his notice that "the agapic praxis of communities" was abandoned in the late work of Marvin Gaye, and that a change in the image of the Temptations "could not give Motowi hegemonic status on fast funk."
Tracing the evolution of jazz frorn Charlie Parker to Grover Washington, West has not a word to say about decline; and he insists that there is an essential relationshsip between jazz and dernocracy, concluding Race Affair with a tribute to "the jazz freedom fighter."
I use the term "jazz" here not so much as a (nit for a musical art form, as for a mode ,I xing in the world, an improvisational ~r.idc of protean, fluid, and flexible dis, isri . Otis toward reality suspicious of tither/or" viewpoints....
It is true that the materials of jazz were ot (liscovered at the court of the Ester)u~s; but the rest is sentimentality. irpiovisation in jazz is not a release itim structure, and structure in jazz is ",it in experience of oppression. jazz is irre democratic than any other art. ~i, governed, like all art, by an rither/or: either you do it well or you doll't , Nit West is a politicizer. In Keeping Faith, there appears this extraordinary pssdge:
The repoliticizing of the black working poor and underclass should focus primarily on the black cultural apparatus, especially lie ideological form and content of black pupular music. African American life is permeated by black popular music. Since black erimicians play such an important role in Ahican American life, they have a special ims.sion and responsibility: to present beautiftil music w1fich both sustains and motivatcs black people and provides visions of what black people should aspire to. Despite the richness of the black musical tradition ind the vitality of black contemporary music, most black musicians fall far Short of this crucial mission and responsibility. There ar,~ exceptions Gil Scott Heron, Brian Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff but more political black popular music is needed.... Black activists inusa make black musicians accountable in some way to the urgent needs and interems of the black community.
This is not Stalinism. This is silliness. But it is silliness of a particular kind which brings us to the matter of what West really believes.
I am not a prophet and not the son of a prophet, said the prophet. The professor is not so circumspect. lie calls his work prophetic. His point of regard could not be more unprophetic: he is a historicist, and the prophets were the early enemies of historicism, who chastised the temporal in the name of the eternal; but he is not deterred. West's writings are really tiresome on the subject of their own prophetic ness. Of his view of the world, he writes that
I have dubbed it "prophetic" in that it harks back to the Jewish and Christian tradition of prophets who brought urgent and cornpassionate critique to beat on the evils of their day. Tire mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with couragecome what may.
The synoptic vision I accept is a particular kind of prophetic Christian perspective which comprehensively grasps and enables opposition to existen tiall anguish, socioeconornic, cultural and political oppression and dogmatic modes of thought and action.
Prophetic criticism ... begins with socia structural analyses [but] it also makes explicit its moral and political anus. It is partisan, partial, engaged and crisis centered, yet always keeps open a skeptical eye to avoid dogmatic traps, premature closures, foritrulaic formulations or rigid conclitsions.
It would be hard to exaggerate West's satisfaction with his spiritual temperamerit.
There is a modern view of prophecy in the Bible according to which it was faiidamentally a political vocation, a fierce and founding style of social criticism; and West's propheticism isjust another instance of that view.
The moral vision and ethical norms I accept are derived from the prophetic Christian tradition. I follow the biblical injunction to look at the world through the eyes of its victims, and the Christocentric perspective which requires that one see the world through the lens of the Cross and thereby see out relative victunizing and relative victimization. Since we inhabit differelu locations on the existential, socioeconornic, cultural and political scales, our victim stains differs, though we all, in some way, suffer. Needless to say, the more multilayered the victimization, the more suffering one undergoes. And given the predooninant forms of life denying forces in the world, the majority of humankind experiences thick form of victimization.
There are victims. This is not a matter of controversy. The harshness of the world, and the human responsibility for a large measure of its harshness, cannot be gainsaid. but the bible did not prescribe that we look at the world through the eyes of its victims. It prescribed that we seekjustice. That is not the same thing; but West is dead to the difference. He is a hero in a culture of morbidity, in which wounds are jewels. And his appropriation of what he calls "the Christocentric perspective" for the politics of victimization in America is preposterous. It is banal at best, and it is blasphemous at worst, to describe the crucifixion of Jesus as victimization, in the sense in which we recognize victimization. No road runs from Calvary to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Why is West a Christian? He gives two reasons. The first reason is "on the existential level." The Christian tradition helps him to understand "the crises and traumas of life," to overcome sensations of "deep emptiness and pervasive meaningless." The second reason is "on the political level." It is that "the culture of the wretched of the earth is religious." "To be religious," he writes.
permits oneself to devote one's life to accenting the prophetic and progressive potential within those traditions that shape the everyday practices and deeply held perspectives of most oppressed peoples. What a wonderful privilege and vocation this is!
Historically, this is bizarre. The story of the alliance of religion with power is a long and miserable story. Religion has animated oppression as much as it has animated the resistance to oppression. What some of West's favorite theologians like to call "liberation" has often taken the form of secularization; and it is not difficult to understand that the threat to one's faith has been preferred to the threat to one's life.
Not that West is unaware of the grisly past.. But this is how he treats it:
On the one hand, I assume that religious traditions are, for the most part reactionary, repressive, and repulsive wi&ut heavy doses of modern formulations of rule of law, gender and racial equality, tolerance, and especially substantive democracy. On the other hand, such modern formulations can be based on or derived from the best of religions.
This is even more bizarre. It is true that there are elements of tolerance in all the monotheistic faiths, but the elements of intolerance are more numerous; a religion that is based on a revelation is a religion based on an ideal of exclusiveness, which is not an ideal of democracy. And what sort of faith is it that finds religion "repulsive" without a particular politics, and locates "the best of religions" in their approximations to social democracy?
And what if the wretched of the earth were unbelievers? I don't mean to remind anybody of Pilate, but what is truth? "Of course," West murmurs, "the fundamental philosophical question remains whether the Christian gospel is ultimately true." Of course. But West is a postmodern man. His faith is proudly unexercised by the question of truth. For the question has been settled. There is no truth. There are only truths. This has been established, he thinks, by Richard Rorty, and more generally by the repudiation of traditional metaphysics in Anglo American philosophy.
West writes glowingly of "the historicist turn in the philosophy of religion," which banished from the temple "all modes of philosophical reflection which invoke ahistorical quests for certainty and transhistorical searches for foundations." He describes himself as a "prophetic pragmatist," by which he means a Christian who believes in the gospel according to John Dewey, for whom there are no stable and lasting essences, no self and no world except the self and the world that we create, no invisible reality at the end of visible reality, no expression of the human spirit that refers to anything more than its experience.
There are no arguments in West's discussion of these matters. He is not a philosopher, he is a cobbler of philosophies; and so he reports the pragmatist and historicist tidings and proceeds to the manufacture of what he needs. "To put it bluntly," he concludes "I do hope that the historicist turn in philosophy of religion enriches the prophetic Christian tradition and enables us to work more diligently for a better world." To put it bluntly, he will be disappointed. The Christian tradition will not be enriched by a faith for which God is not real, Before what, exactly, does the postmodernist bow his head? For the anti essentialist, what kingdom is at hand? Rorty claims that the abolition of transcendence is necessary for liberalism, but West claims that the abolition of transcendence is necessary for religion. He does not see that his position is a dire contradiction. "Prophetic pragmatism" is not rich and revolutionary, it is in dulgent and impossible. He can have the prophets or he can have the pragmatists, he can have truth or he can have truths, but he cannot have both. (It was Pilate who spoke in the voice of the pragmatist.)
West's model of the "prophetic Christian as orgartic intellectual," again, is Martin Luther KingJr. But the authority to which King appealed was not the authority of "social and heterogeneous narratives which account for the present and project a future"; and when he demanded thatjustice run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty strearn, he was not calling America to "critique." The moral and political force of King, and the struggle for civil rights from Harper's Ferry to Selma, was owed to the certainty that some things are absolutely true or absolutely false, absolutely good or absolutely evil. King was religious, but West, at least in his writings, is religiose, What summons him to faith in God is not the object of the faith, but its social utility. He resembles, in this regard, many of the conservatives whom he despises.
For the purpose of grasping West's politics, there is no better summary than this paragraph, written less than a decade ago, in an essay called "Critical Theory and Christian Faith." It is long, but it is special.
Industrial capitalism, with its nightwatchman state and its military like organizations, boasted of its overt racist practices such as its Jim Crowism against people of African descent in the Diaspora and in Africa, its exclusionary immigration laws against Asians, imperial conquest and geographical containment of Mexican and indigenous peoples; it promoted its cult of domesticity to privatize the role and function of heterosexual women and banish the presence of lesbian women; and it valorized the doctrine of masculinity which degraded "effeminate" heterosexual and gay man. Monopoly capitalism, with its interventionist state and bureaucratic administration, tempered its racist practices and refined its racist ideologies against people of coloryet nearly committed genocide againstjewish peoples [sic] in the midst of "civilized" private spheres; castigated lesbians and Europe; celebrated oinnifunctional women who worked double loads in the public and recloseted gay men. Multinational corporate capitalism, with its bankrupt and authoritarian like state and administrativeintensive workforce, turns its principal racist ammunition on the black and brown working poor and underclass; focuses its right wing (or restorative) movements on women's reproductive rights; and often poses lesbians and gays as mere cultural scapegoats. The recent fanning of the social logics of white, male, and heterosexual supremacist discourses and practices in the Americanization and Sovietization of the world further deform and debilitate public life because these logics attempt to make this sphere the possession of primarily white heterosexual elites or those who emulate them, from Margaret Thatcher to Clarence Pendleton Jr.
Industrial capitalism, monopoly capitalism, multinational corporate capitalism: these are the categories that West cherishes for the analysis of American life.
West's published work is an endless exercise in misplaced Marxism. Philosophically, his desire is to demonstrate that "Marx's turn toward history resembles the anti foundationalist argument of the American pragmatists," but no such demonstration is provided, and the resemblance is largely a measure of West's desire. Otherwise he seeks to devise a Marxist ground for American grievances, and in this, alas, he succeeds brilliantly.
There is something puerile about West's Marxism; it is too much fun. He writes like a man who refuses to accept the fact that he was born too late for a particular excitement. Instead he pioduces little mimicries of the Marxist tradition, such as the essay called "Toward a Socialist Theory of Racism," which promises to furnish the proper theory of modes of European domination and forms of European subjugation and types of European exploitation and repression. The italics, needless to say, are his own. In 1985 he writes, and in 1988 he reprints, this exhortation to black Americans: "The relative unity and strength of our capitalist foes requires that we must come together if our struggle is to win!" The urgency is matched by the unreality. This is true of all doctrine.
It is hard to read West's description of, say, the Black Panthers as "the leading black lumpenproletarian revolutionary party in the sixties" without recalling Trotsky's oration to the "workers and peasants of the South Bronx." But not all of West's progressivism is quite so charming.
The most crucial brute fact about the Anierican terrain is that the U.S.A. began as a liberal capitalist nation permeated with paniaithal oppression and based, fit large part, upon a slave economy.
None of this awfulness would matter much, except that it informs West's opinions on the subject of race in America, and those opinions are loose in the land. It is impossible to understand the depth of West's contempt for the black middle class, for example, without understanding the depth of his contempt for capitalism. The emergence of a black middle class as a consequence of the civil rights revolution is, for West, a phenomenon without dignity. It signifies, in his view, "the new class divisions produced by black inclusion (and exclusion)." Throughout his writings, the men and the women of the black middle class are describe as heartless collaborators with the market, creatures of "conspicuous consumption and hedonistic inclidgence," who have abandoned their political responsibility. "Black entree into the culture of consumption," lie scolds, "made status an obsession and addiction to stimulation a Way of life." And elsewhere, "Like any other petite bourgeoisie, the 'new' black middle class will most likely pursue power seeking, promote black entrepreneurial growth, and perpetuate professional advancement."
In one of his most troubling utterances, West offers this summary of the recent history of African Americans: "The '60s in African American history witnessed an unforgettable appearance of the black masses on the historical stage, but they are quickly dragged off--kiIIed , maimed, strung out, imprisoned or paid off." Paid off! This, from the burgher on the cover of Race Matters, who appears in his finery on a rooftop in East Harlem. West traveled there to be photographed in the neighborhood of those "black masses." He complains that nine taxis refused to take him from Park and 60th to 115th and First. "My blood began to boil," he recalls. A parable of racism. But he suffered the slights of Park and 60th, as he admits a few lines earlier, because "I left my car--a rather elegant one--in a safe parking lot." So the taxis would not take him where he would not take his car! This is not precisely what Gramsci had in mind.
West flatters himself that his Marxism is unorthodox. It is his "basic disagreement with Marxist theory' " he says, that "I hold that many social practices, such as racism, are best understood and explained not only or primarily by locating them within modes of duction, but also by situatng them within the cultural practices of civilizations." Never mind that this unorthodoxy is almost a century old, that it isjust another school of Marxism. The truth is that, for all of 'Nest's preachments about "nihilism" in the black community, and all his summonings to a "politics of conversion," his analysis of the inner city is mainly an economicist one. West believes that what most ails the inner city is "class inequality," or "the distribution of wealth, and power and income"; and that "visionary progressives must always push for substantive redistributive measures," even if "every redistributive ineasure is a compromise with and concession from the caretakers of American prosperity." For "without jobs and [economic] incentives to be productive citizens the black poor become even more rone to criminality, rugs and alcoholism."
"Even more prone"? There are many, many black poor who are not prone at all; and the resistance of these people to the, ioyces of social and spiritual disintegration surely gives the lie to the economic analysis of morahty, accor6ing to wriirm N Aues are an expression of class, and the values of the bourgeoisie are the consequence of the money of the bourgeoisie. (It is hard not to conclude, as one watches illegitimacy acquiring legitimacy in American society, that a little bourgeois morality would go a long way.) It flies in the face, moreover, of the determinism that reduces the lives of the miserable to their misery. They're depraved on account of they're deprived: this determinism often masquerades as a form of hope, but it is a form of despair.
West is a dodger on the question of individual responsibility. He resents the 11 new black conservatives" for making an issue of it. "We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circurnstances into which people are born and under which they live, By overlooking these circumstances, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament." This is not a fair account of the views of Shelby Steele, Glenn Loury, Stanley Crouch and others. I do not hear them blaming people for being poor. I hear them blaming people for abandoning families. Their assumption is that the latter is not the result of the former; that men are good husbands and good fathers whether or not there is cash in the bank. And this is finally a philosophical assumption. The discussion of individual responsibility is really a discussion of human agency. There is no way to explain the behavior of good husbands and good fathers, except that they have chosen to be good husbands and good fathers. In their blasted universe, they have exercised the freedom of their will.
And yet the "prophetic Christian freedom fighter" fights those who insist upon the explanation from freedom. West has it backward: we must be cognizant of the circumstances into which black people are born and under which they live, but we must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people. There is no government agency that can let human agency off the hook. But West, as I say, is a dodger. "It is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming the victims perspective." Politically, this is plausible. (Pennsylvania Avenue has run between between Scylla and Charybdis for two years now.) Philosophically, this is implausible. Fortune treats us all differently, but moral behavior is not a hostage to bad fortune, even if bad fortune makes immoral behavior sometimes more attractive. We are not all in the same universe socially and economically, but we are all in the same universe morally. Either we are accountable for our actions, or we are not. Either, or.
West's tirelessly preaches reconciliation, between blacks and blacks, between blacks and whites, between blacks and Jews; but intellectual reconciliation is not the same thing as emotional reconciliation, and emotional reconciliation is not the same thing as political reconciliation. His sweetness lands West in all kinds of confusions. Last year he endorsed Al Sharpton's candidacy for the Senate in New York, "his role in the controversial Tawana Brawley case" notwithstanding, because he "could fuse the best of Malcolm x and Martin Luther King Jr." Sharpton, he told the readers of The Daily News, was "in process," and Farrakhan, too, was "in process," though Farrakhan 11 still has far to go to embrace a progressive stance."
Nothing of his own is alien to him. He finds human truths in inhuman lies. In a lecture on "The Black Underclass and Black Philosophers," West suggests that the black community has been transformed by drugs, he says, "whether it's conspiratorial or not." And elsewhere he describes the history of the inner city since the 1960s in this way:
The repressive state apparatus in American capitalist societyjumped at the opportunity to express its contempt for black people And the basic mechanism of pacifying the erupting black ghettoes the drug industry fundamentally changed the character of the black community. The drug industry, aided and abetted by underground capitalists, invaded black communities witli intense force, police indifference and political silence. It accelerated black, whitecollar and blue collar working class suburban flight, and transformed black poor neighborhoods into terrains of hurnan bondage to the commodity form.
The unreality of the theory of the academy meets the unreality of the the ory of the street. It is a high price to pay for the tickle of authenticity.
Enough. Cornel West has been called "the pre eminent African American intellectual of his genenttion." This cannot be so. He is a homiletical figure, a socialist divine, who has come to lift the spirits of the progressives. He is forever imploring them, the "progressives of all colors," to conie together. But if the progressives of Ann ica finally come together, all that will have happened is that the progressives of America will have finally come together. It is obvious only to them that the greatest failure of American societ~ since slavery will stop for them. Terrair, of human bondage to the commoditv form! From such notions, the iiast~ world has nothing to fear. Somethin ', is happening in our midst that none of 11's appears to understand. Perhaps we ha~e been asking the wrong question. Where are the private intellectuals? Philosophers have for too long tried to chan,t the world. The time has come to think about it.Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
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