THIS IS THE 29th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Lewis R. Gordon, who is professor of Philosophy with affiliation in Jewish Studies, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and International Studies at UCONN-Storrs. His many publications include What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (2015) and the forthcoming Fear of Black Consciousness.
BRAD EVANS: You have described art as being “the expression of human beings creating belonging in a world that really didn’t have to have us.” This understanding of art, which stands in marked contrast to art as the production of commodity fetishization, has a profound bearing on its relevance to the human condition, especially its violence. Given the definition you offer, what do you understand to be the relationship between art and violence?
LEWIS R. GORDON: I reject the model of art as the production of commodity fetishization. It is not that art can never be commodified or made into a fetish. My objection is that the story of art is only presented to us under specific social conditions. Euro-modern society and its celebration of capital are only parts of the human story. It is decadent to reduce art to a single element of what we sometimes do with it — namely, art for consumption.
Such an account of art is also a form of European arrogance wherein nothing exists except through actions of Europeans or whites. Ancient humanity decorated, found ways to season their food, made music, and dance. Some did so ritualistically; others did so for instrumental reasons long lost to the rest of us; and others did so simply for enjoyment, fun, or pleasure. Europe certainly didn’t invent the idea of a “good life.”
Yet the underlying question is: Why do so at all? Even if we enjoy doing something, we do sometimes have to be coaxed into that activity. I regard our species, and perhaps some of our related but now extinct cousins, as endowed with an extraordinary sense of awareness and critical possibilities that haunt each moment of lived investments. The fact that we puzzle over what preceded us and what will succeed us brings forth the existential conundrum of what we bring to reality as necessary despite our existence being contingent. For some, that occasions fear and trembling. For others, wonder. And, yes, there are those who are too busy to care. Yet even the last find pause for moments amid the ebb and flow of life in the range of aesthetic experience we have with objects and performances we call “art.” Art brings value to our existence in a world through the radicality of our non-necessity. In other words, because we are irrelevant to reality, it means our value, through art, must be on our terms. Art enables us to live despite the reality and infinite possibilities of the absurd — including the absurd notion that our existence is necessary.
The relationship between art and violence, as I see it, is one of value, valuing, and being valued. The core idea is that violence properly exists where there is an attributable value, which is being both accepted and denied in the violating action. Accidentally walking into a wall hurts. Someone pushing you into a wall is violence. The latter offers two forms of suffering whereas the former has only one. The two are pain and degradation. To be value, realizing oneself as a source of value, and experience being valued offer dignity. Violence rips that dignity away. Where it emerges from sources not linked into the human world of communicated and communicable value, there is accident. Though it may be contingent that violence happens to us, it is never accidental. Where there is violence, there is, then, responsibility.
Art, among other features of human life, is a key value into the radicality of values in which we are offered a refuge from the desolate. That, however, makes us vulnerable to the experience of being thrown back into the cold, uncaring void. There is thus an empowering element in art that paradoxically connects also to the violent significance of disempowerment. All violence includes the disempowering of another.
In terms of your critical understanding, rather than focusing on the colonial practices of art you have attended to the ways colonialism is brought to art as an invasive force. In this regard, might we see art as being, by definition, something that is necessarily anti-colonial and indeed revealing of something pre-/post-colonial in the temporality of its demands and claims upon the liberation of non-Eurocentric ways of living?
Yes. My argument is one that precisely links art to freedom. It is, however, not freedom in and of itself. It is always reaching beyond itself as a testament to our condition. This is why excellent art speaks across generations. It is only partially in its time. Bad art, however, suffers from a form of implosivity. This, by the way, is also how I define oppression. Or to put it another way, the subjugation of a life is a subjugation of its arts of expression. Human life thrives when it reaches beyond itself. Oppression pushes us back into ourselves to the point of being trapped in our bodies and eventually mental illness. What is madness but losing our mind? I also describe this phenomenon as epistemic closure. It means no longer having to learn; knowing little is to know all. This mentality could be brought to art. It collapses art or artistic practices into forms of closed idols. This is what colonialism, racism, and all forms of oppression do. That is why they are saturated with violence.
Yet there is a paradox. Colonialism and other forms of oppression are, after all, human practices through which human institutions of violence are constructed and maintained. What this means is that they could never be complete. They are attempts, as idols and expressions of idolatry, to close human reality through reducing it to one of its elements. In the case of racism, that means the narcissism, as we have seen over the past few hundred years, of white supremacy. The obvious limitations of all such efforts are that even those who built them eventually find them unlivable and seek alternatives even from those they supposedly “conquered.” Colonized people fight, and part of their resistance is in their effort to reclaim their value, often through producing art that transcends the idols imposed on them. Colonial art eventually suffers the fate of all those who imagine they are the end of art, history, and thought. They become boring, unimaginative, irrelevant.
The history of colonizers who seek creativity through fusion or creolization with the aesthetic life of those they dominate is well known. It is also a misunderstood history. Many today call it “appropriation.” I reject that characterization since it fails to address what it means to participate in the beautiful, enjoyable, and profound. The better concepts to use are “historical erasure,” “historical misrepresentation,” or, getting to the point, “historical theft.” I use “historical” in each because the issue is not whether some or perhaps many whites, for instance, participate in the aesthetic forms of nonwhites. It is that those whites have exploited the history and capitalized on those forms through commodification, historical misrepresentation, and practices of disenfranchisement. It is the addition of racism to the presentation of the art in which such forms are treated only as art when whites perform them.
The liberation of non-Eurocentric forms of art, then, is the liberation of art. I see the liberation of art as linked to freedom since that would also require the freedom of non-European peoples. The Native American philosopher V. F. Cordova argues this point beautifully in her aphorism: “The value of survival is being able to recognize yourself after you’ve managed to survive.” Beyond surviving colonial invasion, colonized people raise, through art, an important question to humankind, as their art is compelled to address the violence unleashed on us all from such an onslaught: Given what has been done, what have we become? What, in remembering, might we offer as testaments of belonging?
“Belonging” is, after all, an unusual word. It in effect means to keep being. That requires having a place in the realm of the possible. What does that demand other than freedom?
The influence of Frantz Fanon over your work still remains powerful and instructive. When reading Fanon, I am often taken by his poetic language and how his critique invokes a truly radical imagination. We could, for example, take a whole number of passages from Black Skins, White Masks or The Wretched of the Earth and read them as poems in their own terms. What is it about Fanon, which still captures your imagination (thinking with and beyond Fanon), especially in terms of his poetic and aesthetic qualities?
Fanon was not disciplinarily decadent. He loved freedom and understood that to squeeze the human condition into a single narrative, shoes, or box would be to make us into problems. It would be a form of violence. He understood that this was not an issue of changing players. It was — and continues to be — about changing the game. Doing so means more than what the game is but also how the game is played.
Fanon was critical of depersonalization, dissociation, disconnection, and the varieties of ways human beings are pummelled out of relations with reality — which includes each other — into the isolation and madness of self-contained selves. Such a model is best suited for gods, not people. Human beings require creativity, which in turn requires possibility and freedom. He thus saw colonialism and oppression also at methodological levels. This is why he was able to see and articulate truth beyond the confines of ordinary philosophical and scientific prose. Such ways of offering truth hide their own aesthetic character through supposed claims of non-subjectivity. In fact, the subjective versus objective divide is loaded with fallacies since neither could make sense without the other.
Fanon’s poetic talents are evident throughout. Beyond his well-known books published before his death, there are many essays, editorials, poems, and even academic journal articles with poetic resonance. Fanon understood that profundity should not be a liability but instead an exemplification of communicability. So, too, should humor not be a liability. Readers are often shocked at how funny he is. Fanon, the revolutionary forensic and clinical psychiatrist was not only a man of action but one who found time to cook, dance, and read novels, plays, and poetry.
In the spirit of Fanon, I take some of these issues further and offer ideas through musical composition and performance, and I also argue that there are truths available through aesthetic forms and that theory by itself is insufficient for a healthy relationship with reality. We also need meaning. A problem with much of what is proffered as professional scientific and academic writing, for instance, is that they are attempts to demythologize reality to the point of offering meaningless theory. I explore considerations such as truth in fiction, rhythmic meaning, and more. I thus take seriously the meaning significance of myth and narrative and their importance for communication and also critical sensibility. In other words, the world of thinking suffers where its model is disconnection instead of connectivity. It would in effect be the performative contradiction of incommunicability as our highest aspiration.
What then does the thinking of art in a decolonial way look like at the level of everyday aesthetic practice? And which contemporary artists in particular stand out for you in this regard as pushing against the boundaries of the colonial imagination?
We should bear in mind that decolonization is always a transitional act or moment. It is the transformation of the given with an expectation of an openness of what will come. This is a paradox because where it fetishizes itself it would be a form of epistemic closure. It would in effect have to produce colonial relations in order to keep decolonial practices going. So, I only see decolonial questions as critical moments in certain forms of art but not necessarily the foci on which art must be based. My argument about art is that it must not be one thing but instead a meeting or convergence of many elements through which we live our relationships with reality. Art is, in other words, about freedom and belonging without dissociation from the challenges of life in the face of the lifeless.
Given my position, I explore a broad range of what we call “art” over the course of human existence. I try to converse with our ancestors who managed to offer us intelligibility of affect and truth from antiquity to the present. This ranges from the visual to the auditory to the gastronomic — in short, the full range of what is properly called aesthesis, which refers to affecting all the senses. I do not elide aesthetics because of my position on the dimensions and possibilities of meaning afforded in the practice of art among other kinds of creative activity.
So, with such a lofty goal, and given my position on relationality and the freedom dimensions of art, I must first stress that I seek such experiences from the radically local and independent to the global. As this is a limited forum, I will not belabor our discussion with the long list of works I love but will instead simply focus on some living practitioners from music and visual art.
I immediately think of the following artists in the world of music: Michael Abels (United States), Joan Baez (United States), José Adelino Barceló de Carvalho (better known as Bonga from Angola), Peter Gabriel (United Kingdom), Abdullah Ibrahim (South Africa), Linton Kwesi Johnson (United Kingdom and Jamaica), Joni Mitchell (Canada), Meshell Ndegeocello (United States), Youssou N’Dour (Senegal), Sinéad O’Connor (Ireland), Burning Spear (a.k.a. Winston Rodney, Jamaica), Boubacar Traoré (better known as Kar Kar from Mali), Jagjit Singh (India), Tracy Chapman (United States).
I see these artists as inheritors of, if by “contemporary” you also mean the past 50 years, the African Americans John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Abbey Lincoln/Aminata Moseka, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Prince, Max Roach, Horace Silver, Nina Simone, and Billy Strayhorn, the Puerto Rican Willie Colón, the Canadian Leonard Cohen, the Nigerian Fela Kuti, and the Jamaican groups the Wailers, the Abyssinians, and Steel Pulse.
Those artists were revolutionary. Each of them took the world of the rejected and transcended genre and expected practices to offer portraits of freedom, despair, love, and sorrow. The list among those who have become ancestors is, of course, not exhaustive, and if I were to list the past 200 years, which includes artists I listen to from many other countries, the reader may stop reading.
As should be evident, I do not hold the popularity of some artists against them. You no doubt also notice there are some “white” artists on this non-exhaustive list. There have always been white artists who challenge not only the colonization of art but also the same for humankind. Those I have listed regard their commitment to freedom in their art also as forms of resistance against colonization and other forms of decolonization.
I often quip that I am the guy who likes the “B” side of albums. It lost resonance in the age of CDs and now MP3s and streaming. By the “B” side, I mean that most of what I listen to are “indie” or independently produced music and most of my viewing is of independent cinema. There are, however, “hits” that make my list. Filmmakers — that is, director-writers (again, among the living) — include Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Marlon Riggs, Lina Wertmüller, Euzhan Palcy, Julie Dash, Rajkumar Hirani, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, and Boots Riley.
There are, of course, artists whose works connect us to themes of freedom and belonging despite forces of crushing nihilism without offering the theme of decolonization. Those artists are many, and failure at least to engage what they offer would collapse my analysis into an example of aesthetic and epistemic closure. Many of them get the proverbial “it” of our existence, whether through the sorrowful wales of the Spanish indie group Barbott or the majestic virtuosity of Erykah Badu (listen to her live recordings) or the South African jazz guitarist Vuma Levin, the dynamic couple of US-American jazz saxophonist Ben Barson and opera, jazz, and US-Mexican flamenco vocalist and cellist Gizelxanath Soprano, and the Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi.
I also look forward to mixed media by visual artists such as the African American Paula Wilson in Carrizozo, New Mexico, and the Salvadoran Karina Alma (formerly Oliva Alvarado) in Los Angeles, California. Additionally, there are theater projects such as Rites & Reason in the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) National Arts Festival in which themes of our conversation abound.
I should stress that Levin’s, Barson’s, Gizelxanath Soprano’s, and Alma’s work also address decolonial themes. My list of novelists, poets, playwrights, choreographers, architects, and innovative chefs would also make this discussion go too far afield.
And, of course, there are the many unnamed artists who make us pause as they busk in the streets across the globe. They remind us that we emerged out of a nowhere that we made into somewhere through producing what eventually was a work of the anonymous to everyone who is paradoxically valued despite our all sharing the eventual fate of anonymity at the moment of our witnesses’ final breath.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.
Artwork: Segment from Chantal Meza, Visceral Ecologies (2019). For full details see: www.chantal-meza.com.