Apr
03

Confronting Empire

Eqbal Ahmad (1933-1999) is a fascinating activist academic; not the least because he came into his own in the 1960s in North Africa, largely in Algeria, where he worked with Frantz Fanon in the struggle for liberation. He was also quite close with Edward Said. He was born in India, studied in Pakistan, then the US, and spent most of his career in American universities. But, also also connected with global activism, including the Palestinian struggle. Here is a lecture he gave in 1975 at a teach-in, which seems to have kept its relevance in 2021: 



Eqbal did not (as far as I know) write any books, but one book presents interviews he had with David Barsamian (covered in this post) and another brings together his writings (to be covered in a future post). The former book, Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire (2000, with a 2016 reprint) is not a polished written book, and as per its interview style, jumps topics and is often drawn into conversations specific to the weeks and months around which the interviews took place. A few notes:

"we all inherited a colonial system of higher education. These post-colonial governments had no will or desire to introduce an alternative system of education. The rhetoric and the structure they announced was that of independence. The reality was that of higher education based on colonial premises and systems. The educational system in this new setting of post-colonial statehood became increasingly dysfunctional because it came under opposing, contradictory pressures. Third, the functions of colonial education were different. As Lord Macaulav put it, "We want to train in schools of higher learning Indians who would be good at mediating between the Raj and the population, the large majority of Her Majesty's subjects."8 So, this education was supposed to produce not governors or citizens or educators or administrators of an independent state. It was all meant to produce servants of the empire. This we have continued to do to this day." (p. 16-17)

On Fanon: "If you take Black Skin, White Masks and read A Dying Colonialism or The Wretched of the Earth, or for that matter the editorials that lie wrote in El Moadjahid, which have been published as Toward the African Revolution 13 you see the passage of Fanon from race to class, from violence to reconstruction of society, from a distant resistance to reconstruction, from reaction to creativity." (p. 20)

Lessons from Chomsky: "truth has to be repeated. It doesn't become stale just because it has been told once. So keep repeating it." (p. 23)

Lessons for students: "I think that my life and my teachings all point to two morals: think critically and take risks." (p. 55)

"the absence of revolutionary ideology has been central to the spread of terror in our time. One of the points in the big debate between Marxism and anarchism in the nineteenth century was the use of terror. The Marxists argued that the true revolutionary does not assassinate. You do not solve social problems by individual acts of violence. Social problems require social and political mobilization, and thus wars of liberation are to be distinguished from terrorist organizations. The revolutionaries didn't reject violence, but they rejected terror as a viable tactic of revolution. That revolutionary ideology has gone out at the moment. In the 1980s and 1990s, revolutionary ideology receded, giving in to the globalized individual." (p. 83)

"The colonial state was not about being of service to the colonized. It was about exploitation and extraction of resources. The post-colonial state is exactly the same. This intelligentsia, this bourgeoisie - the propertied class of the third world - is as heartless in its lack of concern for the poor, in some ways even more so, as the colonial state. There has been a near breakdown of the institutions of higher learning." (p. 95) 

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May
03

Critique of Black Reason

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian philosophy, based at WistU in South Africa. He has authored a number of influential works (such as Necropolitics), but given the importance of his works, is not as widely read and taught as he should be. Fortunately for English readers, his two recent books have been translated by published by Duke University Press. This post reflects on "Critique of Black Reason" (2013 original, 2017 translation). For anyone learning about, teaching, or researching race, this is essential reading.

"race does not exist as a physical, anthropological, or genetic fact. But it is not just a useful fiction, a phantasmagoric construction, or an ideological projection whose function is to draw attention away from conflicts judged to be more real - the struggle between classes or genders, for example. In many cases race is an autonomous figure of the real whose force and destiny can be explained by its characteristic mobility, inconstancy, and capriciousness. It wasn't all that long ago, after all, that the world was founded on an inaugural dualism that sought justification in the old myth of racial superiority. In its avid need for myths through which to justify its power, the Western world considered itself the center of the earth and the birthplace of reason, universal life, and the truth of humanity." (p. 11)

"Three historical determinants, then, explain the power and the fantasy of Whiteness. First of all, there were many who believed in it. But far from being spontaneous, the belief was cultivated, nourished, reproduced, and disseminated by a set of theological, cultural, political, economic, and institutional mechanisms whose evolution and implications over the centuries have been carefully analyzed by critical theorists of race. In several regions of the world, a great deal of work went into transforming Whiteness into a dogma and a habitus..." (p. 45)

"To reread Fanon today is also to take on for ourselves, in our own conditions, some of the questions he never ceased to ask of his own time, questions related to the possibility for subjects and peoples to stand up, walk with their own feet, use their own hands, faces, and bodies to write their own histories as part of a world that we all share, to which we all have a right, to which are are all heirs. If there is one thing that will never die in Fanon, it is the project of the collective rise of humanity. In his eyes, this irrepressible and implacable quest for liberty required the mobilization of all of life's reserves. Each human subject, and each people, was to engage in a grand project of self-transformation, in a struggle to the death, without reserve. They had to take it on as their own. They could not delegate it to others." (p. 162)

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