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Alexander Weheliye on desiring for a different world

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Alexander Weheliye on desiring for a different world

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This interview with Alexander Weheliye, Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern, comprises part of The 1701 Project, a venture led by The Yale Historical Review.

This interview with Alexander Weheliye, Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern, comprises part of The 1701 Project, a venture led by The Yale Historical Review.

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Alexander Weheliye on desiring for a different world

  1. 1. INTERVIEW ALEXANDER WEHELIYE On desiring for a different world Interview by Henry Jacob, SY ‘21 Transcribed by Rachel Blatt, SM ‘23JULY 14, 2020 I first encountered your work in a graduate seminar on organicism. Habeas Viscus: Ra- cializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human was the final reading and perhaps the most enlightening because it offered a new entry point for our class conversations on biopolitics. In the book, you build on Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers rather than Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben to demonstrate the limitations of prevailing discourses on the human. How do you seek to reframe theoriza- tions of “Man” by turning to perspectives often excluded from these debates? That's the big question. In terms of the reframing, I demonstrate how Black culture is central to Western modernity. Black thought, from the beginning of European colonialism and racial slavery up to the present, has significantly contributed to conceptions about what it means to be human. Growing up in Germany, I encountered Black thought and European critical theory at the same time and noticed a very deep resistance to thinking about the histories of colonialism, enslavement, and its afterlives in Western European theory and philosophy, which mirrored my everyday experiences as a Black German. In both theory and national po- litics, race, and therefore racism, are still an anathema, because European public and acade- mic discourse positions these as problems located elsewhere, which produces a constitutive externalization and misrecognition of non-white Europeans as always already distant from Europeanness. In essence, though hardly ever articulated as such, it equates being European with being white. Agamben and Foucault stand as two of the many theorists with glaring his- torical and conceptual absences in their work. Blackness and Black thought are not external to Western Europe. They never have been. Habeas Viscus responds to this willful forgetting by decentering prevailing conceptions of intellectual production in the West. You fill the gaps of contemporary theory by inclu- ding the lived and remembered experiences of colonialism and enslavement within the story. Throughout these case studies, you analyze the suffering body not only as a locus of pain, but also of creativity. You seem to suggest that violence, though not generative, does not limit originality in thought or action. Oftentimes it’s positioned as if there is a choice between the two. Violence doesn't extinguish creativity and life; they can--and frequently do--coexist. I've always tried to take that into account in my work. I try not to be absolutely celebratory or, on the other hand, only to focus on the violence imposed from without. 1 ALEXANDER WEHELIYE
  2. 2. You also take a nuanced approach to the relationship between Black Studies and the aca- demy. In a 2014 article, you pose three questions on the past, present, and future of the field. You probe its intersections with traditional disciplines and minority discourses, considering the benefits and limitations from such crossover. You end the article by no- ting that these conversations, “open up the horizons of what still needs to be done.” Six years later, what work remains? The academy is important, but there are many limitations to its current configuration. When I say Black Studies, I do not just refer to scholarly discourse located in the university because Black Studies existed outside of the academy for so long. It’s a recent phenomenon that Black thought occurs primarily within the academic realm. Wynter and Spillers provided me an entryway into this conversation. They both reflect upon the history of Black thought and the impact of Black studies’ institutionalization in the US mainstream university since the late 1960s. I challenge readers to think about Black Studies not just as a mode of thought because it is produced by Black people, but also to consider what we study and why. We cannot assume that we know what ‘Black people’ means, what the ‘Black community’ means, and what ‘Black studies’ means if we don't think about the creation of knowledge within Black thought. Let’s pause on the phrase creation of knowledge. In Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, you show how Black artists occupy a central role in the development of technology and music in the 20th century. How do these cultural producers also contri- bute to our notion of the human in modernity? I cannot think about humanity without thinking about technology, because technological objects exist in relationship to the people using them. In modernity, colonialism and en- slavement violently export the European notion of the human, which later stands in for humanity as such across the globe. Rather than a local, provincial version of the human, everything becomes about enforcing and having to emulate the particular European version of what it means to be human. Technology played a crucial part in this endeavor given that colonialism, but also enslavement, was based on the idea of white Europeans’ mastery over certain kinds of technologies such as alphabetic literacy. As a consequence, Black culture was positioned as anti-technological. This truth emerges particularly with the pivotal role of sound technologies and music in Black cultures. In the early 20th century, Black culture used instruments like the piano, par- ticularly the upright piano, against their original intentions. In a similar way, the record player becomes an actual musical instrument in DJ scratching. On the other side, throughout history others have positioned Black culture and Black people as inherently anti-technological, which is patently untrue. What happens if we reverse this false notion? What happens if we direct our analytic viewpoint on the technological when thinking about music? How does that change the way we think about Black music and culture as well as humanity? In your analysis of “sonic Afro-modernity” you draw upon Ralph Ellison, Darnell Mar- tin, and the Fugees, to name a few, blending canonical and popular works. Do you see academics and artists as theorists working in the same field? 2YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
  3. 3. Yes, very much so. Cultural producers are theoreticians in and of themselves. Artists don’t need academics — they can speak for themselves and interpret their own work—and their creative works represent different ways of animating ideas and concepts. Although not artists in the same way, Benjamin and Du Bois stand as two other theorists who speak for themselves. If I recall, you have embarked on a comparative study of the pair. It’s not a project that I’m actively working on anymore, though I spent a lot of time researching Benjamin’s and Du Bois’s works and archives. After immersing myself in their work I saw some structural similarities. For example, they persistently returned to and revised their own writings. Some would call that recycling, but I think that there was an actual method there. I also appreciate Benjamin because he resisted the systematicity of Kant, Hegel, or Heidegger; Benjamin’s messiness makes him interesting to me. Du Bois wrote with a similar style and across a number of different genres: essays, fic- tion, autobiography, poetry, sociological studies, and historiography. While I saw connections between their ideas and methods, I was not the one for that parti- cular project at that moment. But I might go back to it. Still, I learned a lot from Du Bois and Benjamin and from doing that particular form of research. I'll definitely take those lessons to my other projects. You noted the amount of archival research you conducted for this project. I also appre- ciate how you collected many editions of Benjamin’s and Du Bois’s works. How do the convoluted publication histories of these two authors connect them? Given that their work is so expansive and their archives so scattered, Du Bois and Benja- min epitomize the history of the book in illuminating ways. Take, for instance, the different editions of Benjamin's work. Adorno edited the first collection of Benjamin’s works in the early 1950s. The volume is not only very truncated, but also very selective. Adorno presented his version of Benjamin to the educated German public. The same rule applies to Hannah Arendt’s editing of Illuminations in the Anglo world. Du Bois’s autobiography was first pu- blished in Russia, and then it was published in East Germany, all before being released in the United States. Even more, his autobiography is a partial compendium of all his earlier auto- biographical writing, a remix, if you will. Histories like these not only demonstrate how their works and archives circulate globally, transforming over time, but also how these material changes, far from ancillary, substantially impact the content of the works. It highlights the importance of texture to critical thinking and practice. I want to link to your earlier reflections on creativity and violence with our conversation on texture. In Habeas Viscus, you discuss how C.L.R. James produced an outstanding study of Melville while incarcerated and suffering at Ellis Island. How do you approach these situations of material deprivation and intellectual fertility? I partially became interested in the testimonies of the Muselmänner, because I stumbled over the untranslated term Muselmann is an old derogatory expression for Muslims in German. I wondered why Agamben gave little to no explanation of the history of the word. Agamben’s explanation sounded philosophically clear but I wanted to understand the texture, both the 3 ALEXANDER WEHELIYE
  4. 4. positive and the negative. C.L.R James’s experience on Ellis Island bears some similarities. Staying there debilitates him because he cannot eat the food due to his ulcer. But on the other hand, this experience opens up the pathway for him to think about his position in the world and write a text about Moby Dick. As I said earlier, life continues in spaces of complete deprivation. A couple of years ago I, in an essay I wrote collaboration with Katherine McKittrick, consi- dered this theme in relation to sexual violence (“808s & Heartbreak”). The violence doesn't go away after the event of violation. One has to continue to exist with that in a world that doesn't recognize this harm. Similarly, it’s more violent to think that the Muselmänner in the camps were not simply inert and passive walking corpses but human beings that fought to live. Let’s shift to the topic of possibility. In another interview you mentioned that you “want to hold on to an affect of utopianism.” What do you envision this unrealized alternative society would look like? Most, if not all, large-scale real-world instantiations of supposedly utopian systems have failed spectacularly, frequently reinstating previously existent hierarchies, often violently marginalizing specific groups. So, why not embrace the desire for a different world, for something else, without necessarily having a particular image of what that something else will be. This way we might avoid calcifying and perpetuating current hierarchical struc- tures. I look for something beyond our current world without having that something else be concrete in my mind. Maybe in our current moment ‘abolition’ can serve as shorthand for this: abolishing the police and various other anti-Black state institutions represent concrete demands to change existing structures but also herald the possibility of a different world. I’m glad you mentioned the present. How do you seek for “that something else” amid our bleak political horizon? I wish I could say I was surprised about what has happened in the last few months, but I was not. This crisis has not only exasperated existing inequalities, but has once again highlighted the utter vacuousness – and I mean vacuous in a violent sense – of rhetoric about democra- cy, equality, justice, in the United States given how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Black communities and the renewed visibility of Black folks such as Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd being executed by the police. At Northwestern, undergraduate and graduate students drafted a petition a week after the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal killing by the Minneapolis police began. The document, which was submitted to the university administration, included both tan- gible demands specific to Northwestern and broader abolitionist tenets. As of now, these demands have not come to pass, but putting them on the table will lead to future conversa- tions; these abolitionist ideas have entered broader public consciousness. “Defund police, defend Black lives” This is an example of wanting otherwise and acting on that emphatically without necessarily having concrete policy alternatives, though the petition included those too. I was also really gratified to see much more discussion about the abolition of the prison industrial complex and the police, both on campus and beyond. I'm generally not the most optimistic person, but moments such as these warrant hope for at least some change. 4YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW

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