A Conversation with Anthony Bogues.
by Maria Mercone
The last 27th March we had the chance to debate with Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, during the event “Thinking about the Human: Critical Thought, Fanon, Césaire and Wynter”, organized by the Department of Literary and Linguistic Studies of the University of Naples “L’Orientale”.
The theoretic framework of the discussion was built around the necessity to redefine the category of the human – entrapped into the stiff and outdated categorizations of Western thought – starting from the Black Radical Tradition, in order to imagine the construction of an undisciplined archive. Bogues’ speech allowed us to debate on the possibility to conceive a different arrangement of the archive, a reconfiguration of all the forms of historical memory which cannot be tamed – art, music, practices of struggle, religion, oral expressions – trying to set them in the “traditions of the oppressed” (Benjamin). The Western historiographic canon has constantly delegitimized and trivialized the subaltern forms of knowledge, the kinds of practical and theoretic knowledge which cannot be assimilated by the Eurocentric perspective, conveying in this way the colonial reference incidental to the systematization of the historical archive, a persistence that keeps on shaping the structure of knowledge even today. The importance of the deconstruction of the hierarchically organized archive, which erases what it does not recognize as legitimate knowledge, must necessarily bring to the deactivation of the arbitrary devices which make all the subaltern forms of knowledge silent, but also to the construction of an undisciplined archive, made by elements originated from the praxis, from the struggles, and with the roots planted into the opposition to the colonial figures of the inhuman.
The counter-discourse of the undisciplined archive, as Bogues pointed out, conceives freedom as a set of practices, unlike the European political thought which refers to freedom as a philosophic and theoretic concept. In the colony’s necropolitical space, where the racial capital put forms of thingification to effect, shaped zones of nonbeing, making the colonized in the condition of living corpses, the only possible way to break the oppressive devices was through the freedom practices, forms of struggle and resistance to the colonial violence. It’s in this way that the subaltern praxis produces critical thought, challenging the dominant discourse that wants theory and practice as two highly separated spheres, and presenting a kind of knowledge grew from a complex process of heterodox practices.
To this end, Bogues’ reflection on the distinction between freedom and emancipation is definitely interesting. Defining emancipation from an oppressive condition as a single act of liberation, the first step toward the political subjectification, Bogues explained how freedom as practice is an act of imagination and never ending self-creation.
Black Radical Tradition often considered the link between radical imagination and liberation practices as an essential element for a total change of political and social relations. The material and symbolic aspects of racial and social injustice should put into crisis not only the devices that governed the political and economic system, but also the representations, the structures of the mind. Some of the expressions of the Black Radicalism in the United States – each of them through different political theories and practices – like Malcolm X, Carmichael’s Black Power, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, went towards this direction: they broke the boundaries of the dominant thought, they invaded the political space in order to claim their agency, to speak up from the margins of the ghetto, to assert the urgency to bend the hierarchical structures of the whiteness, because a new black subjectivity had to be built, and racial capitalism, racism and social injustice had to be dismantled. Black radicalism worked for the construction of a radical imagination, starting from the legacy written on the body, the legacy of slavery.
So in order to open the space for a knowledge free from colonial device, in order to build a radical epistemological change, we have to connect the practices of deconstruction and decolonization of knowledge to a militant commitment, like Black Radical Tradition showed.
After this meaningful event, we had the chance to pose some questions to Anthony Bogues, here the interview shown below.
- You have found some genealogical relationship between Haitian ex-slaves’ notions and practices of freedom and set of concepts and practices that were present in the American Southern Freedom Movement. Could you explain this connection?
Bogues: The genealogical connection has more to do with the question about what freedom should look like: the ways in which Haitian women in 1794 demanded equal pay for equal work, the ways in which they were trying to think about the link between freedom and equality, how those things were configured and practiced. To me the American Southern Freedom Movement, the so-called Civil Rights Movement, raised again those questions. It does not mean that this movement and the Haitian Revolution were doing the same things, what I am trying to say is how come the Southern Freedom Movement raised these questions of freedom and its relationship to equality in the same way the slaves raised them? And what does it mean for political theory? The idea that freedom and equality are two distinct things is not so, that is the point. The genealogical relation I was trying to think about dealt with a set of practices, the way these events occurred, which questions were raised and then how those things reconfigure our thinking, the intellectual territory of freedom.
- You wrote in your essay And what about the Human?: Freedom, Human, Emancipation, and the Radical Imagination that in the humanities and within the domain of critical thought we are entering in a period of crisis, which could be not productive and lead us to a standstill. How can we avoid this condition?
B: We can avoid this particular condition by going back, bringing to the form the things we talked about today: the black radical tradition, the question of feminism, for example. I mean we have to go back to all the sites of human populations that were oppressed and are oppressed, and try to think what is it that they are saying, what is their history, that’s the only way out of this cul-de-sac. We cannot exit from this cul-de-sac simply by reinventing upon Foucault, or upon Marx and other critical thinkers, you cannot go any further in European thought in this way, you have to go back to the tradition of the oppressed in order to reanimate the humanities again, that’s my thinking.
- In order to destroy Eurocentrism as synonym of academic objectivity and as a perspective that crystallizes knowledge as an accepted body of thought, how can we think of a space in the academy that makes possible to consider knowledge as a practice?
B: That’s a very difficult question. The only way I can think about the answer is creating a group of scholars who are trying to think differently, to map a different intellectual genealogies. How can we arrange a research project for this matter? How can we create a site of conversation between young scholar who are trying to rethink the question of humanities? What I am trying to do is to create a space to bring together this young scholars and to start a conversation about this matter, about the things we could do in this field, also focusing on what’s happening outside the academy.
- The last question is about Ferguson and the wave of racism and police brutality against black people in the United States. Do you see a possibility for a new radical movement to break out in this peculiar critical moment?
B: I think this is a flashpoint because Ferguson brings out all the other issues that are going on in the society nowadays, not only racism and police violence. But I don’t see a significant shift toward an organization for a radical movement. I hesitate to think that, I’m not sure we are yet in a new moment. We are in a particular conjuncture where we are punctured by all those things, but it does not necessarily mean that there is something else under them, that a new movement is going to happen. I think what we have is a flashpoint, is an illumination, but a lot of things have to be done to build a new radical movement.
We do collect a lot of ideas during this conversation, which brought us to reflect on the possible articulations of Black Radical Tradition’s legacy.
The push to the formation of a radical movement, in the United States but also in Europe, should be the product of a collective imagination, reshaped by the process of transformation of the undisciplined archive’s contents into oppositional practices against the racist and neoliberal devices, which arrest the possibility to think different, which control and orient the desire and the radical imagination. We can link to this the necessity to grab the rage of Ferguson, of North Charleston, of the streets of Baltimore – just to mention the latest scenarios of the explosions of violent institutional racism – to turn it into political struggle’s paths.
The opening of spaces for a subversive epistemology goes necessarily through the practices of struggle, which find their strong point into the interstices of collective imagination of liberation.