Jared Sacks | Against Essentialism? Going Deeper…

One of the themes that emerged from Nietzsche 6/13 on Césaire, Nietzsche, and the Struggle Against Colonialism, is the question of “essentialism”. In popular discourse, responses to anti-black racism often bring forth accusations of ‘counter’ or ‘reverse’ racism. In academia, such a charge tends to be referred to as ‘essentialism’ (or more negatively ‘counter-essentialism’). Like racism, the term essentialism is imbued with a pejorative connotation. This normative judgement is rarely interrogated: to call one’s thinking essentialist tends to be seen as nothing more than an insult. It is with this frame that I wish to interrogate the question of essentialism as it was posed during the proceedings of Nietzsche 6/13.


The talk by Daniele Lorenzini, titled Against Essentialism, focused on this issue in relation to the thought of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor and their philosophy of Négritude. He maintains that, “it was and still is quite common to interpret the Negritude movement as defending a more or less radical form of essentialism – a sort of ‘counter-essentialism’ opposed to the European one, but an essentialism nonetheless” (Lorenzini 2016)⁠. Both Lorenzini and Bachir Souleymane Diagne affirmed that the language and formulation of Négritude was essentialist. Yet, embracing this pejorative view, they qualified such a statement. Diagne for instance rationalised that, “at same time, there is something that comes underneath and deconstructs the essentialist language” (Diagne 2016)⁠. In other words, there is something about Négritude that “de-essentialises itself”.


During the Nietzsche 6/13 discussion, a number of different explanations emerged speaking to the question of essentialism. Diagne, for instance, foregrounded Jean-Paul Sartre’s interpretation of Négritude as a primary reason that the movement was interpreted as essentialist. This is where Sartre’s whiteness, his ability as a white person to frame philosophical thought of Blacks, should be considered. The philosopher Lewis Gordon, for instance, speaks to Fanon’s criticism of Sartre’s reading of Négritude. He writes that through arguing for an essentialist interpretation, Sartre implies that “the nègre could then ‘ascend’ to a universal, revolutionary consciousness…Fanon ultimately compares Sartre’s counsel to be at best that of a man who advises the nègre to accept his condition as that of the cripple” (Gordon 2015)⁠. Thus, Sartre’s reading is unable to assert the immediate reality of equality of all people – this is an essentialist position which requires this ‘ascendency’.


However, Diagne and Lorenzini take the discussion further. Lorenzini asserts that the way that Césaire conceives of poetry is linked with a Nietzschean understanding of music and art. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche asserts that “a ‘scientific’ interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world” (1974, p.373)⁠. Following this line of thinking, Cesaire uses poetry not as an essentialism, but rather as a “human” and “universal flowering” – an opening up of thought and practice (Cesaire 1990)⁠. If Négritude is a cultural movement, a poetic movement, a ‘dance’, then this flowering is how, as Diagne points out, it “de-essentialises itself”.


A third point on the question of essentialism within Négritude was put forth by Bernard Harcourt who juxtaposed myths of essence with myths of becoming (Harcourt 2016)⁠. The former being reactionary myths which harken back to an essentialised past. The latter being creative, productive myths that lead the progressive changes within society. The point here is that Césaire advocates the latter: the creation of myths that bloom, expand and lead us toward a future of perpetual change and Nietzschean becoming. His poetry flowers even while his essentialist language speaks to the past.


However, it is also possible to look at the question of essentialism in another way outside the framework of the category itself. If we attempt to de-fetishise the question of essentialism vs becoming (non-essentialism) we can then attempt to recognise that, in everything we do as society, we bring forward elements of both. In other words, we are both in a perpetual state of change while at the same time we hold forth and try to ground ourselves in previous ways of doing things (even if these are only ‘perceived’ or ‘imagined’ traditions).


From this perspective, I wish to bring forth Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s call for “strategic essentialism” (1996)⁠. According to Spivak, strategic essentialism is the way in which subaltern groups temporarily band together and assert a core element of their identity to strengthen their being in society. However, many have taken up the term to, wrongly, imply that this is a justification in itself of essentialism. Instead, in deconstructing the category itself, Spivak is recognising its actually existing use by subaltern groups without boxing it in but subjecting it to normative judgement. This is the theoretical approach taken by Subaltern Studies in general.


In an interview with Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean, Spivak critiques the notion that one can completely remove their critique from essentialism. “So the shift from ‘identity’ to ‘agency’ in itself does not assure that the agency is good or bad, it simply entails seeing that the idea that calling everything a social construction is anti-essentialist entails a notion of the social as an essence” (Spivak 1996, p.304). As the editors of the same book clarify in their introduction, “you can-not simply assert, ‘I will be anti-essentialist’ and make that stick, for you cannot not be an essentialist to some degree. The critique of essentialism is predicated upon essentialism” (1996, p.17)⁠. What this means is that we cannot see the question of essentialism as a simple dichotomy. Instead its strategic use is a reality; it is the fact that subaltern and other groups cannot be defined as either/or which thereby de-fetishises and deconstructs the distinction. This reality also makes us question the normative judgement in being ‘against’ essentialism because that would imply taking away some of the tools of solidarity and resistance that people need in order to fight oppression.


Where does this different approach lead us? If we are speaking about Négritude, not only as a philosophy, but also as a strategic form of politics that can be a tool in the struggle against anti-black racism, then we should also acknowledge its “strategic use of positivist essentialism” (Spivak 1996, p.215)⁠ as part of a process of struggle. This is an acknowledgement that there is no pure struggle: one cannot easily assume that forms of utopian equality (e.g. multiculturalism) already exist as tools of struggle in the hands of oppressed peoples. One enters the struggle already imbued with relations of oppression (racism, patriarchy, etc) and therefore one is often forced into forming, as part of that process, alliances based on counter-essentialist identities. But, as Spivak makes clear, this is for strategic use (where necessary) rather than as a validation in itself of essentialism.


The question then becomes, while acknowledging the drawbacks of essentialism, to what extent should it be used strategically? Césaire’s approach is to use it, but use it poetically; to affirm that black is beautiful but to then go beyond such an assertion. However, in the long run, it was not Césaire himself who embodied this process of going beyond essentialism, but the praxis of his former student Frantz Fanon.


In The Damned of the Earth,[1] Fanon speaks to the strategic use of anti-colonial nationalism but then asserts the need to surpas such essentialism else it tends to turn in on itself in the postcolonial context. His example is the postcolonial dominance of the corrupt and comprador anti-colonial bourgeoisie who refuse the decolonisation of the state and economy. In contrast to Césaire who, after many years, could no longer transcend the essentialist and inward-looking language of Négritude and began to rationalise a subordinate and accomodating relationship with France, Fanon remained committed to the revolutionary confrontation as a way out of this quagmire. Lewis Gordon puts it clearly: “As Fanon endorses outward-directed activity (being ‘actional’), the failure of inwardness demands struggle against a foreclosed future. Such activity baffles the colonizing group, and the conflict”, quoting Fanon from Towards the African Revolution, “‘opens people [with the possibility of] actually becoming brothers. The two cultures are able to confront each other and enrich each others’” (2015, p.91)⁠. Universality is achieved in difference – but a type of difference that confronts one another on the basis of a radical and ‘actional’ struggle of equality. This showdown may begin with strategic essentialism, but in the process of a humanist confrontation goes well beyond it, thereby avoiding its pitfalls. Whereas Césaire focused on achieving this through art, Fanon recognised it needed something more fierce (and perhaps violent) that could rupture existing social relations.


The question of essentialism, then, needs to be complicated beyond a mere dichotomy and the assumption of it being normatively unwelcome. While Nietzsche’s thinking was key towards imbuing within Négritude a critique of its own essentialism, Nietzsche also allowed Césaire to get lost, at least philosophically, in questions of cultural transformation through poetry, to the detriment of revolutionary action. Yet thinking beyond this dichotomy brings us into the messy realm of struggle which, as Spivak points out, must often strategically employ essentialism. In order to go beyond this however, the question of action must be foregrounded. It is from this perspective that one can radically deconstruct essentialism – rather than merely re-assert it through what can be understood as an anti-essentialist essentialism.











Cesaire, A., 1990. Poetry and Knowlege. In Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Diagne, B.S., 2016. Nietzsche 6/13: Césaire, Nietzsche, and the Struggle Against Colonialism.

Fanon, F., 2004. The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.

Gordon, L.R., 2015. What Fanon Said: A philosophical introduction to his life and thought, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Harcourt, B., 2016. Nietzsche 6/13: Césaire, Nietzsche, and the Struggle Against Colonialism.

Lorenzini, D., 2016. Against Essentialism. Nietzsche 13/13. Available at: https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/nietzsche1313/daniele-lorenzini-against-essentialism/.

Nietzsche, F. & Kaufmann, W.A., 1974. The Gay Science, with a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs, New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, G.C., 1996. The Spivak Reader: selected works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak G. Maclean & D. Landry, eds., New York: Routledge. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Spivak-Reader-Selected-Gayati-Chakravorty/dp/0415910013.


[1]     More commonly known in English as The Wretched of the Earth (2004)⁠.