Cornel West: The Modern day Griot (Part 2)

Cornel Ronald West was born June 2nd 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was in his teenage years when his activism started to develop, caught up in the middle of civil rights demonstrations in which he helped organise and march on. His Harvard years would see him being taught by the libertarian influenced Robert Nozick, most famous for his work on epistemology and his contribution to the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment. His militancy also started here, pushing for his political agenda’s to be met by the education hierarchies and creating a platform for his own “African, Christian and de-colonized outlooks.”

 

West’s academic life has been truly prolific since the completion of his doctoral thesis on Marxist ethics, which he earned from Princeton in 1980. He is currently the class of 1943 Professor of Princeton University in the centre for African American Studies and the department of Religion. He holds 20 honorary degrees and is the author of 19 books that examine subjects as wide-ranging as racism, the Black Baptist Church, philosophy of religion and jazz. As well as writing books, he helped develop the philosophically charged storyline for the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix (1999) doubling up as the film’s official spokesperson and appearing in the final 2 films as Councillor West.

 

Unheard of for most intellectuals, when he is not working on anything academic or in film, West works on his musical career. He has recorded 3 music albums to date. His last album Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations featured some eminent names such as Prince, Outkast, Talib Kweli and KRS-ONE and took a stand against homophobic rap culture and lyrics that are considered derogatory to women.

 

Along with the recording of CD’s, advising Rev. Al Sharpton on his 2004 presidential campaign, and several lecture post cancellations, West drew some rather strident criticism from several other professors, who began questioning West’s intellectual rigour. One criticism in particular came from the Conservative professor of Comparative Literature John McWhorter who in April 2002 had written an impassioned article in the Wall Street Journal criticising West for replacing scholarly output with personal gain. McWhorter, who felt that it was inappropriate to keep West on as one of only 14 professors at Harvard, also speculated on West’s recent “decamp to Princeton” which began with a high-profile dispute with Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard.

 

The dispute started with Summers’ concern that West had started to neglect serious scholarly activity, and that West’s recent work had only consisted of edited volumes. Summers claims that West had cancelled three weeks worth of classes to endorse Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign which led to West responding that he’d cancelled only one class to deliver an address at a “Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS.” West felt that an academic should be specialised and faithful to her/his field but should not be limited to it, which encroached upon Summers’ very strict view of an academics’ duty and, according to West, is the totality of the disagreement.

 

But the disagreement went further still when West was taken ill with prostate cancer, he became disappointed that Summers had taken so long to send a get-well message (according to Pam Belluck and Jacques Steinberg for the New York Times in 2002) when by contrast new Princeton president, Shirley M. Tilghman “had called him almost weekly.” West ended up calling Summers the “Ariel Sharon of American Higher Education” and accepted an extended job offer made by Princeton, where he remains.

 

West’s public intellectual status began with the 1993 release of Race Matters, which has sold half a million copies to date. At the start of his book writing career his political orientation was leaning more towards Marxism, with releases such as Prophecy Deliverance! (1982) and Prophetic Fragments (1988) that contended that class plays a far heavier significance than race in determining who is able to possess and who is lacking in societal power. But it was at the time of West’s release The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989) where his intellectual attitudes began to modify, in which he took up more existential concerns.

 

For West, to be a left-winger today, one has to be concerned at the level of both the institutional and the existential. In an interview with Democracy Now West claimed that the left today must target “the catastrophic … [so] often concealed in the deodorised and manicured discourses of the mainstream.” This bears many significant parallels to the new project taken up by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, admired by West who chaired an event in November 2005 at Princeton for him, in his 2008 book Violence. The book aims to describe the differences between the violence we see on the news in the form of thuggery and the violence incurred by the workings of the rogue bankers tweaking the economy. The difference, for Žižek, is the difference between “subjective” and “objective” violence. That is to say, “subjective” violence is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict” whereas “objective” violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the “symbolic” (bound in language and its forms), or the “systemic” (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.

 

Žižek readily points to the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros as figureheads of a new type of business ethic that implicitly incorporates objective violence. They create a philanthropic standard for themselves at which they desire to be perceived, when in fact the more appropriate standard to which one should perceive them is at the concealed level of their function in the economy, an economy that determines the fate of individuals and whole nations. For instance when their philanthropy is contrasted to a street robber it might seem obvious who the violent criminal is, but when we start to analyse that which may not be readily perceptible – objective violence – we start to understand their violence at another level, which the philanthropy has been used to camouflage.

 

The notion of objective violence is precisely analogous to what West meant when he called on “sleepwalkers”, during a debate at the 2007 Left Forum in New York, to “wake up from indifference to other people’s suffering.” Market-driven culture, as West would put it, has made people very complacent with their attitudes towards their fellow beings, precisely because of the so-called philanthropic standard, which the capitalist class promotes. West here is calling on an “institutional” solution – like West’s wish that Obama had said something before his inauguration about the Israeli-Palestine conflict – and also, more importantly, an existential one in which we wake up and put the pressure on the government to stop the suffering.

 

West’s insistence on political existentialism emanates from his views on race. For him the birth of American racism and what he identified in Race Matters as black “existential angst” – which he believes still persists – originated in 1619, when America received shiploads of slaves. At this point, says West, America had both white and black slaves, and slavery itself was not yet “racialised”, but come 1621, white slaves had been named, whereas black slaves were identified simply by reference to their skin colour. West attributes this event as advancing the “black problematic of namelessness.” The black struggle that began with the abolitionist movement, all the way through to the civil rights movement, and to the present day is an expression of the fight against this “namelessness.” And it is an issue that West has always felt himself inextricably linked to. (Part 3 tomorrow)

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