Exemplary Lessons at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research on how to read Sylvia Wynter’s writings best: Collectively.
I have the feeling that everything that is read collectively opens up knowledge that the mind can’t in solitude. At least with theory. A month-long seminar on Sylvia Wynter turned into an intense and somehow unexpected chance to co-create a rare space of intellectual and bodily engagement through our desktops. It can be easier to say goodbye to neoliberal optimization experiments like speed-dating when you have a socially driven learning process towards an understanding of ourselves as human beings and not as captives of ideological constructions. That said, I have to thank Paige Sweet, professor and class facilitator, for considering the street newspaper as a medium to report on these interdisciplinary models of critical and community-based education in humanities and social sciences.
Titled “Decolonizing the Human”, the seminar was attended by a group of 24 participants all sitting in different time zones, but all sharing a common interest: Closing the gaps that have prevailed in feminist and postcolonial studies where the decolonial work of Sylvia Wynter was ommitted. The dynamic was at its highest level, as every participant prepared and was aware of the arguments thanks to previous readings of the same texts. Paige Sweet facilitated the conversations with micro-lecture intervals, letting a collective energy reign in the digital classroom. Between January 28 and February 17, 2021, passages were considered on different levels of difficulty, impact and paired with essential terminologies used by Wynter that referred to a specific spectrum of references.
Reading Wynter’s amazingly versatile academic language can feel like running in circles, so it was important that this wasn’t only an intellectual but rather social event. Animals, kids and other activities parallel to the Zoom course were welcome (!), marking a level of generosity to the density Wynter invites in her writing. The main terms to handle were „sociogeny“, „damnation“ and „decoloniality“, concepts that might start as amalgamations of the “human”, “consciousness” and “blackness.” Our aim was not to redefine, but rather to confront racial and socioeconomic discrimination that Wynter recognizes as a pulsing reality beyond the academic realm; a field in which she only recently started enjoying a more prominent role.
The Sociogenic Principle: damnation, Fanon, decoloniality
Looking into a text is not looking into a mirror, but it always helps to clear the mind of prevailing thoughts that are not easy to share. Between the brain and the mind, our inner lives deserve the outer experience of embracing the subjectivities that help us ground our interests, affects and desires. The first session brought us back to the category of the “Black” as structurally excluded from the the category of Man, a term Wynter uses to describe the rational political subject that “overrepresents” itself as the only available option for being human. Frantz Fanon’s theorisation of anti-black-racism is the origin of Wynter’s own consideration of Sociogenic Principle, potentially healing the cracks created through the literary tradition of the civilizing man, the white man that uses black people to shape his own hierarchical position as “sufficiently” developed and rational. Wynter layers the imagined self, the embodied self and the Other in the diasporic world, sees them as intertwined beyond the “natural” condition prescribed to them as the opposite to the “culture” brought by the white man. Here, universalistic notions are unveiled as illusions that have determined global history while holding on to the reality in which those mechanisms of power are perpetuated, like the figure of the unemployed in the capitalist society, for example. Sylvia Wynter proposes an exploration of Fanon’s “lived experience of being black” in Black Skins/White Masks (look out for it on p. 38) not as a theoretical object of knowledge, but as a principle, in contrast to the definition of species-identity of purely organic life.
"Wynter is not an intersectional thinker, but someone that looks to avoid the trap of theoretical frameworks that reproduce exactly what they are trying to push back against."
She reads Fanon as an exploration of the “Caribbean Negro” and not only through his own experience as a black man. This sense of self, unusual in the 1990s, is mediated through Wynter’s socialization as a Caribbean nationalist, as a Jamaican woman, as a dancer, and as a Professor Emerita of Stanford University for what was back then called “Third World Literature”. Wynter alerts the indispensable function of Fanon in the present culture’s “purely ontogenetic conception of the human”, as, “one that represents the species as existing in a purely continuist relation with organic life, defining it on the model of a natural organism”, to paraphrase Foucault, whose work she is deeply familiar with. “In consequence, given the far-reaching nature of this conception of human identity, it is not enough to have merely understood the causes of what Fanon called the “Negro’s self-division”. The imperative is instead to end this kind of discrimination still echoing today. To do this, one must recognize that (here comes Wynter quoting Fanon again) “to speak” does not mean only “to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language”. It means, above all, to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (Wynter, 2001, p.32).
This sense of the self unsettles me, much in the same way that revolutionary figures have taught me how to understand the world; not in an idealistic way, but in a way that makes my life feel correlated. Her empiricism is strong as an affirmative marching along in the wake of civil right movements. It is as strong as every reason why the people I see on my screen are sitting there, listening and reflecting with one another. Wynter’s proposal is to take the classificatory logics of Humanities and Social Sciences to generate an “inner eye”, not from the institutional mechanisms that declare what is human and what not, but to take this humanness out of the pre-conceptions of value that divide people between race, culture, religion, class, ethnicity, sexuality and gender.
- Sylvia Wynter, “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” (1994)
- Sylvia Wynter, “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What It Is Like to Be ‘Black’” (2001)
- Frantz Fanon, “Introduction,” Black Skin, White Masks
- David Marriott, “Inventions of Existence: Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, Sociogeny, and ‘the Damned’”
- Demetrius Eudell, “‘Come on Kid, Let’s Go Get the Thing’: The Sociogenic Principle and the Being of Being Black/Human”
What does it mean to be Human?
The Sociogenic Principle is more than a theoretical term; it is a term that Wynter gives to the rules or logic (the “master code”) of the system as a whole; it is the invitation to nurture an intellectual tradition as a collective effort, letting being human be carried by the social significance built in solidary circulation. Because the concept of the “human” does not end with the exploration of the question itself, but privileges the depth of African-Indigenous Knowledge Systems in order to leave the binary systems of the master/servant, privilege/slave, white/black behind. Wynter, who is in her nineties today, has an expansive resonance within Social Sciences as an anti-disciplinary inquirer that attempts to dismantle race as a founding premise in order to reveal the subjugated knowledge (Foucault) and through it, the very much needed renewed definition of the human.
These revalorizing connotations want to place the results of the devalorization of racial blackness as part of an even bigger phenomena: the consideration of the map as the territory. Wynter calls this “the fallacy of supraculturalism” that the Eurocentrist representation of the 18th/19th century produced by interrupting the continuity with organic life and calling for a Judaeo-Christian narrative of the human as a “divinely created being”: “Consequently the White/Black invariant Absolute serves to provide the status organizing principle that the Caribbean Elsa Goveia identified as being based on the superiority/inferiority ranking rule according to which all other non-White groups as “intermediate categories”, place themselves, and are assessed on their relative “worth” according to their nearness to the one and distance from the other.” (Wynter 1994, p. 51)
In Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom, Wynter expresses her skepticism about ideology as external to the self, an approach that might obstruct the possible articulation of the human. She introduces the notion of autopoiesis, where every social order is an “autonomously functioning, languaging, living system” (Wynter 2015, p. 32). With autopoiesis, she presents a new epistemological order for the whole system that is reproduced according to the logic/rules of the sociogenic principle, a challenge for the majority of social systems, and to the accumulated knowledge canonized in academic disciplines in which we might have all implicitly have participated so far. Autopoiesis is to a large degree the consolidation of imperial/colonial knowledge regimes, which is why Wynter seeks to disrupt its reproduction through the poiesis of "liminal deviances," like that inspired by Fanon, Césaire, and CLR James. Poiesis is thus the key to abolishing recursive colonial dynamics, the spiraling kind of recreating palimpsestuality. Aimi (1) commented and confronted the idea of autopoiesis with the present through cybernetics, a discipline where self awareness of the system in front of the system prevails, where the consciousness of the system defines the main narratives within the system. This way, Wynter’s Sociogenic Principle resonates in the cybernetics arena thanks to her avoidance of the word ideology when referring to Marxism in a very unorthodox way.
Even though Sylvia Wynter’s writing appears to be extremely dense in itself (every long sentence carries with it the bifurcation between social categories and experiences), it was truly inspiring to see how every single participating member in this workshop encouraged each other to unpack what Wynter has been deconstructing. Charlene (2) insisted that the labor is not to be put on the backs of black people, in the discussion about class, to move them from an uninformed to an informed place, but to embrace the tension, the sort of discomfort that comes along with understanding these decolonial attempts. Donna (3) extrapolated this idea and proposed to move beyond the notion of “allyship” between humans to move towards being “collectively human”, Bob (4) agreed beautifully saying that it is ok to make it about us, us understanding the perpetuation of racism through things that cannot be said anymore. The method that Paige kept by lecturing during the conversation – using an overview for terminologies and how they are connected to each other, as well as reading passages from selected writings together, without undermining the time left to reflect collectively on them – clearly opened up to me when Tasha (5) came to a concluding session of passionate discussions on why perfectionism is a lie; why we need to unlearn the practices of overrepresentation of the human, by making choices to revalorize the territories that cannot be intellectualized.
- Sylvia Wynter, “1492: A New World View” (1995)
- Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond the Categories of the Master Conception” (1992)
- Walter Mignolo, “Sylvia Wynter: What Does It Mean to Be Human?”
- Birgit Kaiser & Kathrin Thiele, “What is a Species Memory? Or, Humanism, Memory and the Afterlives of ‘1492’”
- Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument” (2003)
- Katherine McKittrick & Sylvia Wynter, “Unparalleled Catastrophe For Our Species?: Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations” (2015)
- Max Hantel, “What is it Like to be a Human?: Sylvia Wynter on Autopoiesis”
The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research relies on its supporters to build a new home for accessible critical education and scholarship for the 21st Century. While tuition fees allow the institution to sustain a fair labor model, they only cover a fraction of the Institute’s total operating expenditures. Donations are used to fund scholarships, cover a portion of general operating costs, produce the Podcast for Social Research and other public programs including the BISR Community Initiative and BISR Praxis. Help them build a more inclusive and accessible form of public intellectual life. Donate today: https://thebrooklyninstitute.com/items/support/donation/
(1-5) Participants of the seminar “Decolonizing the Human”
This contribution is part of Issue 15: DECOLOMANIA, on art history, the history of politics, and the history of theory: all of them colonized and colonizing, much like our very selves.