My research draws on the diverse and and rich resources in the black Atlantic intellectual tradition. In particular, I am interested in how configurations of difference – racial, national, linguistic, gendered, and others – transform and nuance relations of history and memory. And so, in turn, how history and memory structure formations of cultural, social, political, and existential identity.
I came to my research interests following the submission of my first book Sensibility and Singularity in early 1998 while a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology at Florida Atlantic University. As with anyone’s first book completion, then submission, I was struck with a certain intellectual crisis: what comes next? My doctoral studies were in post-war European philosophy, with particular emphasis on French Jewish poststructuralist thought, and Sensibility and Singularity offered an extensive argument for innovative, compelling notions of time, memory, and subjectivity in a post-Shoah milieu. So, I formulated a new research programme to extend those arguments with questions of how traumatic memory could be translated and mistranslated in a cinematic context.
The first bit of work from this programme was an essay on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, which is still the most profound bit of filmmaking I have witnessed. I took my essay to a conference in Lima, Perú and presented it to a sympathetic and encouraging crowd. From that essay, I imagined a series of essays and a book-length project working across European responses to the Holocaust. After my talk, at the conference banquet, I was seated next to Salómon Lerner, then president of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. We talked a bit about my paper, and then he asked me “Why are you only talking about traumatic memory and loss in relation to Europe? You are from the Americas. And ‘Americas’ is really a synonym for trauma and loss, no?” We resumed eating and small talk with those who surrounded us, but the question struck me very deeply. I took it back to my hotel room in Miraflores and considered what it meant for me going forward.
I’d traveled all the way to South America, so had a long post-conference trip planned. I dwelled on this question non-stop as I traveled alone through southern Perú, Bolivia, and Uruguay. There was really only one option for me: change what I do as an intellectual. This was the work that matters to me, I kept thinking, and my one abiding principle as a writer has always been to do work that matters to me, work that makes me feel like I am contributing the best of me to urgent things. Upon return to Florida, I sat down with a librarian and drafted a reading list that would structure nearly a decade of my life. Since I was educated as an undergraduate in a great books program at Seattle University – a sort of Jesuit reboot of the St. John’s College model – I understood learning to be learning a tradition, beginning with the early canonical stuff and working up through the contemporary moment. So I did just that, reading the African-American and (particularly closely) the francophone and anglophone Caribbean traditions. And began writing.
I would come to African thinkers some years later.
That transition has meant everything to me. I reinvented myself as an intellectual straight out of graduate school – not the most conventional or even advisable model in an always, ongoing terrible job market, but it worked out.
Out of that transition, I have worked to establish myself as a scholar of the philosophical trends and threads in the African-American and Caribbean traditions, with special attention to poetics and cultural politics. Two of my books served as transitional pieces. Godard Between Identity and Difference is an extended meditation on the possibilities in sound + image for thinking radical difference: marking difference in time, rather than space. This establishes a certain kind of vocabulary for thinking across borders, something I do in detail in the chapter on Ici et ailleurs, a film in which Godard contemplates the meaning of making a film, as a white French person, about the 1970 intifada, a struggle undertaken by the Palestinian people. In order to make that intervention, Godard does his own, very instructive version of decolonizing work in order to clear space in sound + image for national-racial difference.
Levinas and the Postcolonial is a book-length interrogation of just that kind of decolonizing work, offering a deep criticism of Emmanuel Levinas’ work out of principles and methods in postcolonial theory. That book carves out critical space in poststructuralist thought by re-placing European thinking with the work of Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Édouard Glissant, Homi Bhabha, and Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos. The ethics and politics that emerge out of Levinas and the Postcolonial decenters the very idea of center.
What is opened up by this decentering?
My writing since Levinas and the Postcolonial has explored the meaning and implications of vernacular culture and the theoretical significance of small places. Without the métropol as ideal and center – that is, after the work of decolonization – meaning and sense relocate to locales. I offer something like an origin story for this orientation in Glissant and the Middle Passage, showing how Glissant’s poetics theorize the Middle Passage as a complex space of pain and beauty, the folding of the painful past into the possibilities of a future. Like Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Patrick Chamoiseau, and others, Glissant articulates the unreconcilable affects of Caribbean history and memory in order to both honor suffering and refuse abjection as the condition of black life in the Americas. I have worked backwards from this vision of the Americas, using Glissant’s insights to critically re-read Fanon and Aimé Césaire, as well as open up new dimensions of African American thought: Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, but especially James Baldwin.
To this last end, I am currently finishing a book-length study of Baldwin’s non-fiction, entitled ‘So Unimaginable a Price’: Baldwin and the Black Atlantic (to be published by Northwestern University Press). This book re-frames how we read Baldwin, moving away from the familiar constellation of writers and figures from the United States, toward theorizing Baldwin as part of the mid-century black Atlantic moment. And so I read him in the context of debates between Césaire, Léopold Senghor, Fanon, and others in order to draw out the crucial decisions Baldwin makes in his exploration of blackness, Americanness, and the politics of cultural formation. I read Baldwin here for absences, not just those things present in his writings. Baldwin barely mentions Africa and African thinkers, makes almost no serious comment on Caribbean writing, culture, or politics – all during the era of anti-colonial struggle, independence, and the beginnings of postcolonial life in the Atlantic world. Rather than only read what little he says about the black Atlantic, I argue in the book that we learn more about Baldwin’s thinking when we think from his absences, a sort of postmodern practice of interpretation. And in those absences, when they lead our interpretation, we see how deeply committed Baldwin is to theorizing African Americans as a distinct, discrete people outside of any sense of diasporic unity or identity.
I am also completing two mini books: one on the idea of the afropostmodern, another on the notion of decolonizing university curricula. These books, each totaling around 25,000 words, condense and extend key ideas at work in my previous writings – namely, the emphasis on fragmentation as fecund and the profound imperative to think without center.
Lastly, I am beginning work on a new book tentatively titled Black Power, Black Panther: Radicalism and the Vernacular Intellectual, which treats key figures from the Black Power and Black Panther Party movements as vernacular intellectuals (a term borrowed from Grant Farred’s What’s My Name?). This book project marks a full return to the United States and the Black radical tradition, something that has occupied my attention as a person and thinker since my earliest days of college. And also recalls Lerner’s remark to me in Lima, that I ought to think key concepts in the context of the lifeworld of the Americas. Always philosophical in orientation, but attentive to how pain, struggle, and ecstasy inform knowledge formation, cultural production, and the creation of world against hegemony. What Levinas once described as that beauty that still adorns the earth.