[CN: colonialism, anti-black racism, white supremacy]
The more i think about the so-called New Atheists the less i think of them. It’s not just the mean-spirited inanity of attacking all systems of belief while knuckling down to the altar of Dr. Dawkins, or promoting the same racist imperialism as the religious right — a secular crusade — the hypocrisy is even broader. The secular modern world chucked off religion and took on another belief system that is no less arbitrary; yet part of its appeal is that we take it as nonreligious. Whether it’s theology or economics or scientific racism, the fundamental desire is the same: for a definition of human, an ordering system for reality’s chaos, and a knowledge to safeguard against the inferior stock.
Sylvia Wynter’s breathtaking essay “1492: A New World View” opens with a dualism. The Columbian Exchange set the germs for globalization and the interrelatedness of our current existence — that much is beyond doubt, but how should we feel about it? The white people of the rich global north call it a triumph, the indigenous of the world call it an atrocious nightmare that hasn’t ended. The former wants to carry on the torch and liberate the earth’s people from their respective stone ages and idolatries; the latter wants to bring and end to history. Wynter ends up suggesting that both positions, like the reality of globalization, are beyond dispute, that they are two sides of the Janus face that is the modern situation. And by her sharp prose and analytical horsepower this doesn’t come off as wishy-washy liberal humping; indeed liberal humanism is squarely in the cross-hairs.
In this piece Wynter offers a new kind of framework for confronting this violent history, one that tries to take the concerns of all of humanity into account. To do so she tells the story of two revolutions in the Western intellect, from Copernicus to Foucault, in 50 pages of dense critical language and a masterful handling of poetic images. It’s a hell of a journey.
In no way did i completely understand everything that i read, so this blog entry will at best be some notes and sketches. Wynter’s conceptualization of history is one that comes after Foucault’s intervention: a story of how “humans represent their lives to themselves.” Much of Western thought comes from two-thinkers — false binaries plague our habits of mind, and of course there’s Hegel and Marx. But Sylvia Wynter is a three-thinker: triads are everywhere in the piece, which itself moves toward the “third perspective” along with the celebrants and the dissidents, which tries to account for the goals and values and symbols that shaped human conduct in modernity. There’s a triangulation of white people, the Indigenous, and the societies of Africa, with this third category condemned as legitimate and natural slaves.
So if we now need to put aside once and for all the notion that “Columbus discovered America,” seeing that only its indigenous people could have discovered it, what rules of perception have enabled the “idea that Columbus discovered America” to remain so central for so long to both the scholarly interpretation of 1492 by range of European and Euroamerican historians and thinkers (see O’Gorman 1951), as well as to the folk perception. In other words, rules that enable those who participate in its celebratory activities to perceive Columbus Day as the day on which “Columbus discovered America” in the teeth of the empirical evidence that what the real-life Columbus did indeed set out to discover, and what he did indeed “discover,” were conceived and carried out within a system of symbolic representations that were culturally different from our now-hegemonically techno-industrial own.
It turns out that what Columbus did was something of a radical act that transgressed the regime of symbols in his own time, staking out a “revolution of humanism.”
Elaborated by humanists as well as by monarchical jurists and theologians, this revolution opened the way toward an increasingly secularized, that is, degodded, model of “subjective understanding.” In the context of the latter’s gradually hegemonic political ethic, not only would the earlier religio-moral ethic then common to all cultures be displaced, a reversal would take place in which the Christian church, of which the earlier feudal states of Latin Europe had been the temporal and military arm, would now be made into the spiritual arm of these newly emergent absolute states. It was to be the global expansion of those states that would bring into being our present single world order and single world history.
It was a shift form serving the interests of God to serving ourselves, from striving for spiritual redemption from original sin through the Church, to striving for rational redemption through the State. Undergirding all of this of course is exploitation and imperialist expansion.
The Aztecs built an astounding civilization which deemed bloody human sacrifice necessary for “the flow of life on earth, in the heavens and in the shadows of the underworld.” The Spanish conquerors, horrified at the sight, deemed brute labor, exploitation, violence and control of bodies as necessary for “the flow of gold.”
Over the next few pages Wynter develops, among a lot of other things, cartography and the map of the world as the limits of knowledge. The simplified hero-worship narrative i got in kindergarden was that the Court made fun of Columbus for wanting to make a voyage west bc they all thought the earth was flat and his ships would fall over the edge. According to the text it wasnt that the world was flat; everyone was just certain that there was nothing there, and thus no reason to find a new trade route because going around the horn of Africa was the best they’d get. All land on the planet was covered with water after the Flood and sank, bc water is the “lighter element.” The patch of land that the Christian world stood on, with Jerusalem at the center, was the miraculous exception. Because CC was obsessed with the idea that the Second Coming was immanent and he had to save as many souls as possible, he deliberately acted out on a conviction which his society did not allow him to imagine.
Christendom rested on an outside-inside model of the world. There were the saved, there were the “enemies of Christ,” namely Jews and Muslims, and there were the “idolaters,” the Indigenous of the wider world that had yet to hear the Word (another triangle). The revolution of humanism legitimated the appropriation and exploitation of the third group under the notion of inclusion and service to all humanity:
this nos [“us” of Christendom] was represented as if it were the propter nos [“for us”] of the human species itself, and was so believed to be within the logic of the apocalyptic dream of “one sheepfold, one flock, one shepherd.”
Bringing everybody into the sheepfold involved coercion and enslavement and rape on a massive scale. And Wynter slowly, methodically goes through the complex symbolic structures that rationalized it, showing how “stereotyped images” created roles for fulfillment. In the secular world the “new symbolic construct”was “Race.” What was human became defined against blackness. Race is our modern religion, our inquisition; it’s a complete social construct and yet it determines who lives and who dies. And racist whites will often be the first to say race is a construct and “we’re all human,” when all this does is absolve the pigs.
What Wynter describes so eloquently for me is the paradoxical feeling in our lives of being so free yet feeling so constrained. The worship of private property over human life in this country fills me with despair, but i keep my mouth shut bc the people around me bring up microwaves and running water and YouTube and the rest of that “you never had it so good” response. Wynter clarifies this as actually being two distinct kinds of autonomy:
our increasing human autonomy with respect to our knowledge of the physical and organic levels of reality, and our lack of any such autonomy with respect to knowledge of our specifically human level and reality, and therefore, with respect to the rules that govern the individual and collective behaviors by which each such mode of reality is brought into existence and replicated…
All this liberal emphasis on the individual and its alleged natural human essence deliberately makes us blind to the social forces, the unspoken rules, that are driving much of our behavior, and we cant account for them, aren’t allowed to. In this ending phase of Wynter’s essay, Franz Fanon becomes a real hero. His work in looking at our shared psychology are in Wynter’s eyes the brave new steps to reconfiguring the “For us” imperative, going “beyond reason” and the established symbols that shape our sense of ourselves.
The central mechanism at work here, therefore was and is that of representation. Its role in the process of socialization, and therefore, in the regulation both at the individual and at the collective levels of the ensemble of behaviors — affective, actional, and perceptual-cognitive — is central. For it is by means of the strategies of representation alone that teach human order and its culture-specific mode of empirical reality can be brought into being as such a “form of life” and third level of human, and therefore languaging existence.
So it ends on a hopeful and spurring note: that black and brown people across the globe fighting for liberation are setting out past the Straights of Gibraltar, if you will; beyond the mapped boundaries of conventional reason. Even though it’s easy to imagine a prospero us society without Capitalism,or white supremacy or cops, we are not supposed to. Even though we can imagine an existence based on collectivity rather than arbitrary individual behavior, such things are supposed to be viewed as risible. But the regime these opponents defend arose from the very same act of surpassing the map, and it will happen again.
And this is just one strain pulled out from this incredibly complex and richly researched piece, and from only one read-through. i cant come close to reproducing the tightness of its structure and how all of these ideas from multiple fields come together. It’s an intricately plotted map and im sure you can trace all manner of routes through it.