Bernard E. Harcourt | The Collectivity and Incompleteness of Critique & Praxis, in Conversation with Moten and Harney

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“On our own we don’t add up.”

— Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, All Incomplete, 125.


Biodun Jeyifo made three main arguments in his intervention at Revolution 1/13 and elaborated on them, brilliantly, drawing on the historical sequence of Frantz Fanon’s writings—from Black Skin, White Masks (1952) to his paper at the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists, “Racism and Culture” (1956), to his essay from the Second Congress, “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom” (1959), to, finally, The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Let me recap here the three main points Biodun Jeyifo made:

  1. Worldly philosophers want to be read by the public and are writing for others. Theirs is an outward facing exercise, never solipsistic. It is intended to be read by the people and debated and influence the course of history.

Critical theorists situated in the academy also, of course, intervene within a discourse and write in conversation with other critical philosophers. But there is something qualitatively different about the worldly philosopher whose entire project is to engage a wider public. That imperative has effects on the writing itself.

  1. There is a deeply agonistic dimension to this ambition to reach a public. It is in the confrontation with other worldly philosophers that ideas and actions are shaped.

Here too there are parallels with critical theory, especially the thought of Hannah Arendt on the agonism of philosophy and politics. But once again, there is a distinctive quality to the worldly philosopher whose entire being depends on threading a path through competing visions of the world and action.

  1. This means that the resulting ideas, writings, manifestos, and praxes are the product of a collective confrontation (my term, “collective,” not Biodun Jeyifo’s). This demands that we focus not so much on any one individual worldly philosopher but rather on the collective enterprise, the shared agonistic space of confrontation and debate.

It is for this reason that Biodun Jeyifo focused us on the Congresses of Black Writers and Artists of 1956 and 1959, and the Bandung Conference of 1955. The challenge, the imperative was precisely to turn our attention to the confrontation of ideas and praxes that were so generative to the anti-colonial movements at the time and thereafter.


In this regard, Biodun Jeyifo’s intervention resonates powerfully with current struggles. It resonates with the rise of leaderless/leaderful movements in the twenty-first century. It resonates with the recurring critique of “great man” histories that plague our recounting of social movements. It resonates with the rewriting of history that so many brilliant scholars are performing today. I am thinking, for instance, of my new colleague at the IJS, Che Gossett, who is researching and writing a theoretical-praxis-biography of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, whose activism spanned from protests alongside Martin Luther King at Selma, to draft resistance and his famous “Fuck the Draft!” poster, to his ‘third world gay liberationist’ manifesto, to ACT UP Philadelphia, to his to his activism for HIV decriminalization and the legalization of marijuana—all with the ambition to enrich our understanding of how movements and organizers work together.

This work—both retroactive and prospective—of excavating and highlighting the collective conversation and collective production of critique & praxis is crucial.

We recently celebrated the book launch of the English edition of the GIP archive—edited by Perry Zurn and Kevin Thompson and published under the title Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group (1970-1980),[i] a rich collection of archival treasures regarding the 1970-71 abolitionist movement in France called the Groupe d’information sur les prisons or “GIP” (prisons information group). One of the most important contributions of that volume is to document the breadth of the social struggle, to recognize the multitude of extraordinary contributions by members of all walks of life—nurses, social workers, students, sociologists, persons incarcerated, doctors and philosophers. That archive spots a light on all those who participated—women, men, and queer people who made up and worked with the GIP and had been, prior to this archive, ignored or forgotten in the retelling: Danielle Rancière, Claude Liscia, Hélène Cixous, Ariane Mnouchkine, Christine Martineau, Catherine von Bülow, prison chaplains like L’abbé Velten, Jacques Donzelot, Louis Aragon, Louis Casamayor, and Marianne Merleau-Ponty. This archive confronts how we tell the stories of these movements, so often eliding the voices of the people who are marginalized in the telling of history. And it forces us to confront the collective work of critique & praxis, rather than just the individual thinking of what Biodun Jeyifo refers to as “the titans.”

Of course, we often do this, even when we study the more “academic” critical philosophers. We often draw on the interactions, conversations, dialogue, and confrontations between them. Foucault’s work on Nietzsche cannot be read or understood without reference to Deleuze’s book Nietzsche et la philosophie published at the Presses Universitaires de France in 1962 or to the conference on Nietzsche at Royaumont in 1964, where Jean Wahl, Pierre Klossowski, Karl Löwith, Giorgio Colli, Mozzino Montinari, and others intervened.[ii] It is simply impossible to make any headway to understand Foucault’s critique and praxis of the prison without engaging his debate with Deleuze published under the title “Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation Between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.” [iii] That debate is central to understanding the GIP movement itself. Foucault’s debate in June 1971 with the “Maoists,” Benny Lévy and André Glucksmann, “On Popular Justice: A Debate with Maoists,” is pivotal to see how the GIP moved away from the model of the popular tribunal to embrace the strategy of inquiries of intolerance.[iv]

When we do intellectual history and the history of social movements, we clash figures, paradigms, and philosophies as a way to make sense of intellectual and movement progress—not linear progress, but development. When Seyla Benhabib writes about exile, asylum, and displacement, she puts in conversation Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Judith Shklar, Albert Hirshman, and Isaiah Berlin.[v] As Alioune Diop, the editor of Présence Africaine, opened the first Congress—and as Gary Wilder reminds us in Freedom Time: “culture is a dialogue.”[vi]

And yet!

And yet! We so often return, like children playing with action figures, to those singular titans. Sometimes we do so, as I argue in the context of the GIP archive, for instrumental reasons: We attach a movement to a celebrity thinker in order to get people to care about that movement. No one would care, at least in our circles of critical theory, about the GIP were it not for Foucault, Vidal-Naquet, or Deleuze’s involvement. No philosopher or critical thinker would philosophize about the interaction between theory and practice were it not for the involvement of these “titans,” as Biodun Jeyifo calls them.

But most of the time, it is not merely instrumental. It is fantasy, attachment, projection. It is the photograph of the great thinker. Cigarette in hand. The lure of charisma. Now, the Instagram share.

In this, Biodun Jeyifo is so right. We need this corrective. We need to stop placing these individual thinkers on a pedestal. We need to stop the photographs and postcard images. And we need to pay far more attention to our citation politics—as Sarah Ahmed and others counsel us.[vii] We must theorize more richly the interaction, the tensions, the contradictions that produce collective thought. We need to recognize that what matters is the production of ideas, critique and praxis that emerges from the agonistic conflict, and not trace that to any individual critical thinker but to the collective space of revolutionary thought.

Harney and Moten, All Incomplete (2021)

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten make this point brilliantly in their new book, All Incomplete (Minor Compositions, 2021). In fact, you could say that their entire intervention there—and their central concept of “incompleteness”—is centered on a critique of individuation in the theoretical and practical enterprise. Their critique is aimed at the idea—or more precisely, the illusion—of the individual thinker as being sufficiently complete to form a proper object of study.

They discuss this brilliantly in conversation with Amilcar Cabral and his famous speech, “The Weapon of Theory,” which he delivered at the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America in Havana, Cuba, in 1966—a few months before Bandung. In using that expression, “the weapon of theory,” Harney and Moten argue, Cabral indexed a common struggle—not an individual struggle. He was using “theory” in the way in which Biodun Jeyifo urges us to rethink collective theorizing.

Cabral, Harney and Moten write, “told us theory is part of the arsenal of revolution; he didn’t say that it was the representation of revolution or a possession of the ones who represent.”[viii] It does not belong to the theorist. It becomes the common, in the sense in which Dardot and Laval or Hardt and Negri conceptualize the common—though Harney and Moten resist the notion of the common.[ix] .[x]

The problem that Harney and Moten identify, in their collective work, is precisely the individual of possessive individualism. The concept of property, on their view, represents a loss, specifically the loss of sharing.[xi] Their critique targets the concepts of self-possession, entitlement, private property, that are at the very heart of our individuated notions of self in modernity—the concepts of self-ownership, of the “figure of man,” or “earth-owning man.”[xii] In essence, that figure of man drawn in the sand that is at the very heart of modernity…[xiii] Harney and Moten trace the figure of man and individuation to Kant’s anthropology, to Locke’s notions of the self.[xiv] It is this individuation, this claimed completeness, that they place at the heart of our contemporary struggles and problems.[xv]

And by contrast, they point us toward notions of incompleteness associated with study[xvi] (by which they mean an openness to thinking and struggling together in an unresolved and fragmentary space), with friendship and collectivity. They point us to Paulo Freire’s notion of pedagogy which, they write, “inclines us toward one another.”[xvii] They point to Cedric Robinson who, in The Terms of Order, refers us to “a society which has woven into its matrix for the purpose of suspending and neutralizing those forces antithetic to individual autonomy, the constructed reality that all are equally incomplete.”[xviii]

So many powerful forces point us away from that—copyright and intellectual property, careers and tenure—and yet Harney and Moten insist in their challenge to the liberal illusion of individuality.

Harney and Moten elaborate this in a brilliant passage on page 148 of All Incomplete—a passage that Fonda Shen drew our attention to in our discussion in our collective with Lisette Bamenga, Che Gossett, and Omavi Shukur in Harlem the other night. Yes, Fonda points us here:

But today, what is this rallying cry, “theory is my weapon”? And from what practice does theory emerge within the academic-artistic complex? It emerges from a practice in which theory is reduced from a realistic spot of common seeing to an abstract, unoccupiable point of individual expression. It is no wonder that this complex is as tautological as the military-industrial one, which ensures our safety by making the world more dangerous, enforcing precarity in the name of security. Cabral says we are not gathered here to shout at imperialism. That is not how this weapon works. And the main reason it does not work like that is functional, not theoretical. Theory cannot be wielded by a theorist. It cannot be lifted or aimed alone, by a single voice, or even by a chorus of single voices shouting at the enemy. That’s how our weapon gets pried from our own dead, individuated hands and is deployed against us – on the bodily remains we call our own and act like we walk around in – as an instrument of torture and shame. That’s not a revolutionary weapon. Now, when we think about what such a weapon would be, the practice of revolution having come more fully into relief in the obliteration of whatever delusions of repair we had (which will have always been directed, finally, at the system that breaks rather than those who have been broken), we have the proper reason and the proper tools to get a sense of the importance of what the petty bourgeoisie, which today can be said to include the branch managers, shop owners, independent contractors of the academic-artistic complex, can and cannot, must and must not, do.[xix]

Pried from our dead individuated hands: it is only in the collectivity, in coöperation, in the shared space of critique and praxis, that we can hope to advance.

Paradoxically, it has often struck me that thinkers only become “titans” when in fact they best synthesize the ideas of their times, when they best represent the collective thinking of a time…. If that is true, what they represent is a collective enterprise.

In this, Biodun Jeyifo’s intervention is critical and important.

Bridging to the Present

In terms of our readings for this first seminar, my only regret is that we did not include more contemporary theorizing, for instance on the undercommons, in our discussion of Bandung, Paris, and Rome. The critiques of colonialism in the mid-1950s, which we find in the two Congresses and at Bandung, feel dated to me, and so I feel as if we need to put them in conversation with the problems of neo-colonialism not only from the time (the writings of Kwame Nkrumah, for instance), but also of today—the problems of neo-colonialism that produce the undercommons, so powerfully analyzed in Harney and Moten’s previous book, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study.

The undercommons is, undoubtedly, tied closely to incompleteness. Harney and Moten underscore, in All Incomplete, that “To be undercommon is to live incomplete in the service of a shared incompletion, which acknowledges and insists upon the inoperative condition of the individual and the nation as these brutal and unsustainable fantasies and all of the material effects they generate oscillate in the ever-foreshortening interval between liberalism and fascism.”[xx]

As we move forward, let’s put these classic texts of worldly philosophers in conversation with living worldly philosophers… in order to better chart a revolutionary future.


[i] Kevin Thompson and Perry Zurn, eds., Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group (1970-1980), trans. Perry Zurn and Erik Bernanek (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021).

[ii] Gilles Deleuze, ed.  Cahiers de Royaumont. Nietzsche (Paris: Minuit, 1967).

[iii] Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation Between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze,” in Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 214–215.

[iv] Michel Foucault, “On Popular Justice: A Debate with Maoists,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. John Mepham (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 1–36.

[v] Seyla Benhabib, Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[vi] Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 168.

[vii] In the introduction to her book Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed reveals that she had chosen “not cite any white men” in order to “attend to those feminists who came before [her]. Citation is a feminist memory,” she explains. “Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials though which, from which, we create our dwellings,” she writes, and thus chooses instead to “cite those who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy and antiracism.” The citation policy of her book not only delineates the intellectual foundation of her book but more importantly, forms part of her praxis. Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 15-16.

[viii] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, All Incomplete (New York: Minor Compositions, 2021), 148 (emphasis added).

[x] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Étienne Balibar, Bernard E. Harcourt, Camille Robcis, and Mikhaïl Xifaras, “Praxis 5/13: The Common,” Praxis 13/13 (seminar, Columbia University, December 5, 2018),

[xi] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 14 (“All property is loss because all property is the loss of sharing”); 16.

[xii] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 27.

[xiii] … and that Foucault so provocatively suggested would wash away under the coming waves, like a drawing in the sand. The Order of Things, final pages. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1994), 387. (“As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility… then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”)

[xiv] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 15.

[xv] Incidentally, this raises a lot of questions about Foucault’s idea of “care of self” – which they address some at page 126. Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 126.

[xvi] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 43 (“Another word for incompleteness is study, or more precisely, revision.”)

[xvii] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 41.

[xviii] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 24 (italics in Harney and Moten).

[xix] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 148.

[xx] Harney and Moten, All Incomplete, 122.