By Bernard E. Harcourt
We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974… The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking… As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.
— The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977)
The Combahee River Collective opens its statement in the first-person plural, and, in collective terms, the authors implicate themselves and their identities “as Black women.” The authors write as Black women and, in their own words, as socialists, as feminists, as lesbians: “We are socialists.” “We are feminists and Lesbians.” The authors draw on their lived experience, on their travails, on the exhilaration of having found each other. They articulate a careful and nuanced theory of identity politics. And despite their intimate connections to the academy—Barbara Smith, one of the three authors of the CRC statement, was teaching at Emerson College starting in 1973 and would go on to help found Black Women’s Studies as a discipline in the academy[i]—the statement reads more like a political manifesto than an academic contribution or even a typical intervention in critical theory. Even though the CRC statement includes a critical theoretic analysis of Black feminism and a genealogy of the Collective, the statement is written in a unique political idiom: radical in its politics, personal in its assertion of identity.
In this regard, the CRC statement stood out at the time—and stands out still today—in the field of critical thought. It bears a family resemblance to the writings of worldly or revolutionary philosophers, who also implicated themselves personally and drew on a distinct political idiom. More conventional academic interventions, by contrast, aspired to a standard of “objectivity,” which meant that the subject and object of study were supposed to remain at arm’s length, and very much detached from the self. Personal implication and the first-person pronoun were disfavored, especially in social inquiry and the humanities in the United States, and even more so in Western Europe. That changed, of course, as a result of the ethnographic and narrative turns. But still today, there often remains an ambition to objectivity, to generalizability, even sometimes to universalizability.
Critical theory contested the notion of objectivity from the very beginning. At its very core, critical theory embraced a form of reflexivity that placed the theorist at the heart of the enterprise.[ii] The critical theorist could not not be implicated because their own understanding of the world was shaped by their historical and political-economic circumstances and because they inevitably affected their object of study. Despite this, critical philosophers of past still often wrote in a more formal style. Modern relations of power, we read in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, operate through disciplinary techniques. Or post-9/11, they operate on the model of the state of exception, or perhaps always did, we learn in Agamben’s Homo Sacer. We produce truth through juridical forms. Knowledge is inextricably intertwined with power. There is a history to how we tell truth… Those earlier pronouncements reflected a curious element of objectivity despite the reflexivity—almost a kind of return of the repressed. Even among critical philosophers who developed the notion of knowledge-power, there remained a penchant for something akin to objective interpretation. They were not anti-positivist, as Foucault said at Louvain in 1981, but rather “counter-positivist.”[iii]
It would take decades—and the intervention of women scholars and scholars of color contesting their exclusion from the debates and conversation—for first-person pronouns to enter the common lexicon of critical theory. Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), Patricia Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (1991), these critical texts broke out of the mold and helped inaugurate a turn to narrative, even to memoir, in contemporary critical theory.
Today, personal narratives and the memoir form have come to dominate the discourse of critical theory. “Sometimes I feel I was the last colonial,” Stuart Hall opens Familiar Stranger, published in 2017, three years after his death. “My first sense of the world derived from my location as a colonized subject and much of my life can be understood as unlearning the norms in which I had been born and brought up.”[iv] Reflexivity, the core ingredient of critical theory, has come to the fore and nourishes a unique blend of criticality that brings together today personal stories, narratives of personal journeys, memoirs, personal implications.
And so today, the worldly philosophers of past and many contemporary critical theorists are joined together in a space of personal implication, recognition of identities, and the first-person pronoun, singular or plural. Today, it is no longer enough to be “engaged,” like Jean-Paul Sartre. One must implicate oneself more fully, recognize one’s place in what the Collective called “systems of oppression.” This demands a more radical consciousness, an awareness of self, a new mobilization of personal resources. (We will discuss this notion of radical consciousness with Robin D. G. Kelley when we read Angela Davis and Cedric Robinson in March 2022.)
This is precisely what is at stake with the Combahee River Collective statement. It is the claiming of identities and of personal experiences, and their radical consciousness, at such an early time in 1977, that makes the Combahee River Collective statement so powerful—and their central intervention so compelling: If we shaped a world where Black women were treated as equals, were not done violence, were elevated to their rightful position of equality in society, that world would be a better place for everyone. As I argue in an earlier essay, this does not present a zero-sum situation because whatever anyone else might possibly “give up” produces greater benefits for them and for society as a whole. So, it is not zero-sum; it is net positive. That is the promise of coalition politics and solidarity.
The Material Conditions of Production
During the discussion at Revolution 4/13, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor traced the subsequent transformations of Black feminism after the publication of the CRC statement in 1978. Barbara Smith turned her energies to starting Black Women’s Studies programs in academic settings, and eventually those programs were shorn of the more radical politics of the Collective. The explicit socialism and Marxism was less pronounced, in some places sidelined; the embrace of lesbianism was not as highlighted, though elements of queerness were retained.
Part of this ideological drift and deradicalization, I proposed, was the product of the institutional shift: as the radical thought entered the academy, it got disciplined. Institutions tend to have that effect, for many reasons. Trying to gain the respectability of academic peers can have a subduing effect. Trying to maintain funding and a secure place in the institution—which most often depends on philanthropic donations of wealthy individuals or government support—can also have a conservative tendency.
On Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s interpretation, though, it was only partly the institutional shift that influenced the direction of Black feminism. What was more determinative, she suggests, were questions of materiality—namely, how and where the critical thinkers were embedded in terms of class and community. As Black feminists like Barbara Smith were transitioning from being part of the working class, immersed in socialist politics, to entering the more middle- and upper-class environment of academia, their concerns changed.
The exchange was particularly enlightening, and, since it goes to the heart of the problematic animating this seminar, I will reproduce it here in extenso:
KYT: Black feminists—in the same way that many other currents of the radical Left of the 1960s and 1970s—go into the academy as a way to continue to engage in politics and debate, to be in a space to talk about ideas and to think about things, to be intellectuals without the weight of the state bearing down on them. And so, one of the things that we have to examine is the way that the entry of the leading lights of Black feminism—in many ways led by Barbara Smith, who sees it as part of her role to create Black women’s studies as a unit of inquiry—distorts the Black feminist project. That had consequences for the de-radicalization of Black feminism. By the time we come to the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective, [the tributes] celebrate its queerness and its feminism, while at the same time downplaying its radicality [its socialism]. [They downplay] seeing [the Collective] as part of a Marxist tradition that must be extended perhaps, but as part of a Marxist tradition nonetheless.
BEH: I suppose those are precisely the dimensions that this seminar series, Revolution 13/13, is trying to get at: What are the ways in which the placement within a particular institution, such as the academy, can water down or eliminate the more radical aspects of critical theory? And here, it sounds as if part of the transformation was the need to become acceptable in order to be a part of the academic discourse of Black women’s studies—or at least to be more acceptable, more palatable.
KYT: But it’s not just the institutionalization that produces this effect. It’s not just a question of respectability and being palatable. What happens is class transformation, and with class transformation, your concerns shift. They’re different. If you’re no longer at the bottom of society—and the political questions that emerge from the bottom lead to certain kinds of confrontations—those questions change when you’re no longer in that position. And that’s not a moral dilemma. That is the essence of materiality. Right? Being determines consciousness, and the being is transforming. And so, the questions and the concerns transform with it.
We have to think about what is happening outside of the institution [of the academy], which is to say, we have to think about the issue of tokenism, which is not an abstraction, but concerns class within the Black community. There are particular figures. The one that comes to mind for me, especially around 2016-2017, is Michelle Obama, especially with her autobiography Becoming, which is held up as some kind of quintessential experience, up to a certain point, of a certain generation of Black women. And if Michelle Obama and Beyoncé are embracing the moniker of feminism, then what does that do to its politics? And so, that’s also part of it.
Before that, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no distinction between Black feminism and radical Black feminism; on the whole, there was an understanding that Black feminism had an inherently radical character to it. That changes over time, as the position and the presentation of a small but highly visible layer of Black women in positions of power and authority become the physical face of what it means to be a Black woman in the United States. And so you see that with Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and the various Black women who are in positions of power, who are far and few between, but who received disproportionate amount of attention and coverage, as if to say something more general about the condition of Black women. That is also part of the distortion when it comes to understanding how the questions that animated Black feminism at the end of the 1960s, the Third World Women’s Alliance, how they change when you have Black women in charge of the Empire.
In the end, it is not only a question of [being surrounded by] socialists versus academics, but how class transformation leads to transformation of the concerns [that animate Black feminism].
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasized, beyond the question of institutional forces, the matter of materiality: namely, how the theorist’s class and material embeddedness affect their theorizing.
This reflects what I would call the material conditions of production of critique and praxis: Material considerations shape the contours and texture of the critical theory that is produced. This takes us back, naturally, to the issue of reflexivity that was always at the heart of critical as opposed to traditional theory: the precise location of the critical thinker in society and history shapes their understanding of the world and their resulting critique and praxis. This includes not only the modes of economic production within which they find themselves, and the relations of power in society, but also where they themselves are materially and physically located, in which class, at what historical moment, in what circumstances and conjunctures. The concerns and problematics of the critical philosopher are shaped by the material conditions within which they find themselves. Those conditions affect who the theorist is in conversation with, who they are addressing, and what material pressures they are daily confronting.
The material conditions of production of critical theory could be articulated along several lines:
- Who the theorist surrounds themself with. The material conditions will affect who one’s interlocutors are and what concerns, objections, and reinforcements are being raised. This will be affected by one’s class position. It is likely to be affected as well by gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, language, discourse, and other personal factors. Language is really important here. So is one’s location within a discipline or in forms of practice. One’s practical engagements can be determinative.
- Who the theorist addresses themself to, as their audience. The choice of which audience to address will also be deeply affected by material conditions, by the people one surrounds oneself with, by the daily concerns that arise as a result. The harms that one is personally being subjected to and the theorization of systems of oppression will shape who one addresses.
- What objectives the theorist keeps foremost in view. The theorist’s priorities will likely differ, again, based on their material situation and what they are constantly confronting. The drum beat of particular crises—whether it is police shootings, or drone strikes, or climate disruptions—will affect one’s organizing and activism. The problems one constantly confronts—whether it concerns employment or discrimination or racism—will shape one’s choice of objectives and the problems to address.
All three of these dimensions are affected by the theorist’s location in social structures and history—by the material conditions that they find themselves in.
Shifting the Problematic
This perspective offers the beginning of a tentative answer to the original set of questions for this 13/13 seminar—namely, what can we learn about critique and praxis from the differences, if any, between the worldly revolutionary philosophers and the more academic critical theorists?
What is evident from our discussions at these 13/13 seminars is that there is no relevant difference in the mode or quality of critical theorizing between worldly and critical philosophers. All of their writings make equally important contributions critical theory. These are all fundamental texts, and as a result, naturally, all of the critical theoretical work—worldly or more academic—needs to be read in conversation and in dialogue, as we have always been doing in these 13/13s.
Next, what was somewhat unique to worldly philosophers of past, perhaps, was a deeper level of self-implication and recognition of identity, by contrast to critical philosophers of past who, despite their reflexivity, seemed to maintain a slightly greater distance from their object of study. Worldly philosophers tended to speak more from their personal experience and in first-person singular or plural—as noted earlier. But that difference is now being eclipsed as more contemporary critical philosophers have embraced narrative, memoir, personal implication, and the first-person singular and plural as well.
The difference, then, with important implications and consequences, may often turn on the material conditions of production of critical theory. This may be an oversimplification, but my sense is that the worldly philosophers of past tended to be more embedded among the oppressed, or as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor said, “at the bottom of society.” Many of them placed themselves there; they were not necessarily born there, but deliberately located themselves among the people. By contrast, many of the critical philosophers that we often return to in these 13/13 seminars tend to be located in the academy, situated and surrounded by academic colleagues, and as a result in more comfortable conditions. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney highlight in The Undercommons that this is by no means true for the academy today and that, on the contrary, there is overwhelming precarity and marginality in the undercommons. But for many of the critical philosophers we have often returned to—Adorno, Arendt, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, etc.—the academic setting provided a kind of stability and respite that ended up placing them relatively comfortably in the upper middle class even despite their moments of exile and precarity.
I am painting with a broad brush, too broad I admit. But there do seem to be some correlations that I would prefer not to ignore. And they have to do with the material conditions within which the critical theorist is embedded or embeds themself—not necessarily, always, by necessity, sometimes by choice. Those material conditions of production have consequences, and, again, using too broad a brush, we might be able to articulate them along the following:
- Who the theorists surround themselves with. Worldly philosophers tended to surround themselves with political activists and organizers, with radicals and revolutionaries, with the people or what used to be referred to as “the masses”; they tended to locate themselves among the oppressed and most marginalized in society. By contrast, many critical theorists tend to surround themselves with academic colleagues in history, philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities. This in itself, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor suggests, may have significant effects on the texture of their critique and praxis.
- Who the theorists address themselves to, as their audience. Worldly philosophers tended to address the broader public, members of their coalition, their comrades, those they were rebelling with. Many critical theorists, by contrast, address other philosophers, historians, academic colleagues and students. Foucault famously contested this, saying that “I would like the little volume that I want to write on disciplinary systems to be useful to an educator, a warden, a magistrate, a conscientious objector. I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.”[v] But perhaps in those moments, he was more of a worldly philosopher. The implications, again, are clear—especially in terms of the praxis orientation of worldly revolutionary philosophy.
- What objectives the theorists place foremost in mind. Worldly philosophers primarily sought to change the world. Their objective was not so much to impart knowledge or form future teachers and scholars, but to transform society—sometimes as the vanguard, at other times through more democratic processes. Critical philosophers contribute to a discourse, engage in pedagogy, and through these means, hope to make the world better. The priorities, again, may be somewhat different.
These three dimensions can have dramatic effects on the tone and texture of the works produced. They may well explain the differences between books like Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Michel Foucault’s The History of Madness, both published in 1961; or between Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1955) and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958); or between Kwame Nkrumah’s Towards Colonial Freedom and Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, both published in 1947.
Where might this leave us then?
Perhaps it is time to grow out from our original formulation. Maybe now we can read worldly philosophers and engaged critical theorists for how they can help us work through our present political struggles—rather than for how they differ—keeping in mind the material conditions of the production of their work. Perhaps we can now return to pairing the work of worldly and critical philosophers with contemporary political problematics in order to draw on them for insight and guidance, for critique and praxis. For instance, we could read Stuart Hall and Manning Marable in order to better understand the current debate and controversy over critical race theory—Kendall Thomas and I are planning this for the Spring.
Yes, indeed, there is a lot to do. We will start at our next session, Revolution 5/13, on December 15, 2021, in conversation with Amy Allen, by exploring the work of Rosa Luxemburg and its purchase on contemporary political struggles.
Welcome to Revolution 5/13!
[i] For a history of Black studies, see Abdul Alkalimat, The History of Black Studies (London: Pluto Press, 2021).
[ii] See, generally, Bernard E. Harcourt, Critique & Praxis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 55-71, 316-320.
[iii] Michel Foucault, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 21.
[iv] Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 3.
[v] Michel Foucault, “Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir” (1974), in Dits et Ecrits, tome II (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 523-4.