Theory Teacher's Blog

Philosophy, History, Literature… Theory?

Paul Gilroy

Recently, I was reading some scholarly books and articles that, among other things, respond to Paul Gilroy’s thesis in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, first published in 1993. In that book, Gilroy basically theorizes that we need to understand the enlightenment tradition and the modern world in which we all live as a hybrid pheneomenon that began with the violence of the transatlantic slave trade and emerged out of the commercial and cultural exchanges across the Atlantic ocean, including the cultural contributions of Africans, Caribbeans, Europeans, Native Americans, etc. It’s a complicated book, and I don’t have time to go into its argument in my blog. Instead, while I was reading, I came across two very contradictory statements about Gilroy’s book that I found very curious. One of them calls Gilroy’s book a history, and the other says that it’s nonhistoricist. How could the same book look like a work of history to one person, and look like the opposite to another person?

So, first I’ll show you the two contradictory quotes that I’m talking about, and then I’ll attempt to explain that contradiction. That contradiction might help us understand what this thing called “theory” is.

In her fascinating book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, published in 2009, Susan Buck-Morss, wrote about the work of “historians like Paul Gilroy, whose attempt to grasp the diaspora of Africans across the black Atlantic led him to argue that no identifying concept of race or nation is adequate” (p.111). Buck-Morss is a professor of political philosophy, and her book convincingly demonstrates that the famous philosopher Hegel conceived of the “master-slave dialectic” as he was reading about slave revolts and the Haitian revolution in newspapers and magazines. Notice that when she refers to Gilroy’s book, she calls him a historian.  

But a few years earlier, in 2001, Ronald Judy, a professor of English, published a review of Gilroy’s work in issue 28:3 of the journal Boundary 2 where he says that Gilroy “strove to present a nonhistoricist account of modernity that recognizes protocols for living in the world today in the supposedly marginal expressive forms (most particularly music) of what has come to be understood as African Diaspora culture…” (p. 210). Notice that when he refers to the same book, he calls it a nonhistoricist account.

So, is Gilroy’s Black Atlantic historicist or nonhistoricist? Is this purely a difference of academic disciplines? Perhaps what looks like history to a philosopher such as Buck-Morss may look like something else to somebody who specializes in history or literary history such as Judy. And what (academically speaking) is “real” history supposed to be anyway? Certainly, real historians are meticulous about thoroughly checking archival data in order to figure out what really happened, and Gilroy’s book (which just focuses on a few famous texts) is not that. But I don’t know if I’d call his book “non-historicist” either, since he does consider the movement of history and the relationship between books and historical forces. After all, later in his article, Judy himself calls Gilroy’s approach a “conceptual history of modernity” (p. 211).

So… apparently… it’s a nonhistoricist conceptual history…. Huh?

What’s also obvious, and perhaps important to point out, is that Gilroy’s many books are getting read and discussed by people in a lot of different academic disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, sociology, political science, etc. But apparently they all have different senses of what Gilroy’s work is and what his work means for them…. Or do they? Maybe the difference between them is less important than the similarity. All of them have changed their approach to their own academic discipline in the same way — taking Gilroy’s point about the “black Atlantic” as the originating locus for modernity and the enlightenment tradition instead of Europe. And likewise, they all now see the black Atlantic as the starting point for thinking about freedom and democracy instead of the United States.

Still, even though scholars from a range of disciplines are all taking up the same basic and groundbreaking point at the end of the day, what do we make of the two contradictory statements about Gilroy’s book? Let’s take a brief detour into the work of another theorist — we might imagine similar contradictory statements being said about a couple of well-known books by Michel Foucault that you may have encountered in your introduction to theory class: Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Philosophers and literature professors often treat Foucault as a historian, but historians treat him as a philosopher. This ambiguity and the interdisciplinary nature of Foucault and Gilroy’s work gives us some insight into what “theory” is. Theory is not philosophy, though often courses in literary theory will read philosophy. And theory is not history, though it often thinks very hard about history and talks about historical contexts. Theory is always in-between disciplines because its project is to change the way people think within those disciplines. Foucault was very clear about this in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History,” where he explains his project as one of genealogical critique. What does this mean? Roughly, following the famous Friedrich Nietzsche’s example, Foucault means that his goal is to open up new possibilities and new ways of thinking about and acting in the world. His method for doing this is to critique how certain ways of thinking and acting have been repeated, enacted, institutionalized, and developed over time. Once one can expose these habits of thought (or habits of philosophy) as contingent rather than necessary, one can liberate oneself from the shackles of mental habits and academic disciplines… and think beyond them.

Then how does literature relate to theory? In some ways, the projects of literature and theory are similar. They both seek to open our minds to alternative ways of thinking about the world, and in that sense, they are allies. But in other ways, literature merely repeats mental habits and often simply repeats the conclusions of academic disciplines such as history and philosophy that the author may have read in school, so theory is a tool that can expose literature’s complicity with hegemonic power. In other words, literature is also part of a genealogy of ideas and institutions, and therefore theory can critically expose its place within that genealogy.

Coming back to Gilroy, he suggests that we read literature from the 17th century to the present as part of a “black Atlantic” context instead of as part of an “English” or “American” or even “African-American” context. How might Gilroy’s conceptual reframing of history, literature, and philosophy change how we read literature by such famous figures as John Milton, Walt Whitman, or Jane Austen as well as how we read literature by arguably more important figures such as Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison? If we look at things from a black Atlantic perspective instead of from — let’s say — a British perspective, who appears to us to be the shining luminary figure that epitomizes the “best that has been said and thought” in our world? Perhaps English departments should all be requiring students to take a course on Frantz Fanon and Bob Marley instead of requiring a course on William Shakespeare?


May 26, 2010 - Posted by | race, teaching, Theory--capital T

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