Sania Anwar | Engaging Through/With Imagination

By Sania Anwar

But the interaction between the alteration of social circumstances and the content of consciousness is not one-sided, for circumstances can be changed by revolution and revolutions are brought about by men, by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought. It is true that revolutionaries are produced by historical circumstances – at the same time, they are not chaff before the wind of change, but have a solid ideological basis. —Kwame Nkrumah[1]

Worldmaking – From Individual Self-Consciousness to National Self-Determination

In her profoundly insightful book, Worldmaking After Empire, Professor Adom Getachew posits anticolonial nationalism as worldmaking, spearheaded by black Anglophone anticolonial critics, whereby decolonization was “reordering the world that sought to create a domination-free and egalitarian international order.”  Professor Getachew recasts nation-building through the demands of self-determination to expand beyond the formation of nation-states into the international space comprised of “juridical, political, and economic institutions” functioning towards nondomination.

In this reconceptualization of anticolonial nationalism through self-determination as worldmaking, we find echoes of Fanon’s concluding aspirations in Black Skin, White Masks, where he notes that “[i]t is through self-consciousness and renunciation, through a permanent tension of his freedom, that man can create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world.”[2] Therefore, the emancipatory project—from individual to national consciousness—has at its core, the work of transformation at a global scale.

Worldmaking is a powerful concept – as a matter of theory, politics, critique, and imagination.  By skillfully drawing upon the works of various writers discussed in the book and at the 13/13 seminar, Professor Getachew recasts centrifugal nationalism as a fragmentation, not away, but towards a greater whole—in a Newtonian understanding of equal and opposite response to the project of colonial empire making.

In her book, Professor Getachew addresses the fall of self-determination with an increasingly “defensive posture toward the state.”[3]  Another question that comes up in the context of contemporary politics is whether worldmaking can be deployed politically—especially through international institutions which as Professor Getachew notes extended unequal integration and racial hierarchies – as a legitimizing source of what it seeks to leave behind, i.e., traditional authority and nationalist movements.

During the seminar discussions, Professor Getachew also offered a very interesting framework of analysis by suggesting we disaggregate the collective of worldly/engaged philosophers–and perhaps all critical theorists–into those who take on political power and those who are embedded in social movements.  In discussing the distinction, the word ‘choice’ was an interesting choice of word to describe involvement in political processes—not because it was not apt—but because of the complicated standpoint analysis in applying the concept of choice to ascension to power.  Whether this choice/non-choice is accepted by those who exercise it as an endowment[4] of special insight, ability, or standing, or as a resigned acceptance of inevitable leadership,[5]  it offers a point of critical inquiry related to proximity to power: how close should one get to the “machinery of oppression”[6] to offer effective critique in order to dismantle it. The question then is, is it possible to be embedded in the machinery of oppression and not be a participant in it? What do we make of the claims of those who accede to political power and still deem themselves representatives of social movements who are merely propelled or pulled into power by the inevitability of revolutionary momentum?   Political power – especially when it presents as political ideology or political development–can also be an axis in distinguishing various critical theorists and revolutionaries.

Is the distinction also a matter of degree of exposure to critique of critique – with those at the academia ensconced in the safety of the “abstract, self-reflection, and limited” quality of the setting, and the more ‘worldly’ philosopher exposed to measure of success because their writings are more entangled in lived realities and promised outcomes?

What is political thought in relation to revolutions when made palpable by writings of those in proximity to the precipitating and produced forces of social movements? Are these writings a unit of revolution, or a synapse within it?

Perhaps one of the more complex aspect of understanding revolutions through the words of those writing about and for them, and vice versa, is their incongruent state of existence.  Revolutions, by their very nature, are dynamic and define a quality of social consciousness and mobilization in flux.  Writings tend to have a linear and static formulation.  But writings by these ‘worldly philosophers’ may be enmeshed within a spiral of causality dilemma between events and conditions and their critique. How do we then attempt to understand revolutions and the individuals writing for them amidst this lack of consonance?

One of my early childhood memories is of sunrays streaming in sharp lines through various windows of my home– rays of such brilliance that their brightness had a tangible quality: the space within the streaming vector of light felt warmer.  Every time there was a movement or flurry of movements in the room, however short-lived, it would unleash a great agitation amidst the dust particles suspended in the air and illuminated in the rays.  I recall focusing on particular particles, tracing and marveling at how far they would go and how long they would drift before settling.

To submit revolutions to a measure or the writings of those who find themselves, by design or not, amidst that moment—on metrics of success or failure is perhaps an inquiry of analysis and not of resolution.  The shift in the air, the particles drifting in new directions and changing each other’s path upon contact, the rays of light which illuminate different dust particles as they come into the light –everything in that frame forms a component of revolution.[7]

Alienation – Quotient and Threshold:

Another concept that was identified and discussed at the seminar as a feature of these worldly philosophers, their ideology and their writings, was the complicated process and condition of alienation.   There is both a paradox and tragedy of alienation in the context of postcolonialism and its representative leaders and scholars.  We can begin by denoting alienation as a distance.  But we should be mindful that as a metric, the distance in alienation is almost always distant.  In other words, it is in itself a critique and a feature of it.  Much like hunger, the measure of alienation begins with a baseline of an absence of an essential element.

Writings of revolutionaries that have followed the guiderails of western philosophical thought, through linkages with western education[8] or institutions, carry an alienation quotient in the way they perceive reality and change from the framework of critique.  The paradox of alienation is that critique often requires a certain threshold of alienation, a certain distance, in order to bring into focus ground realities. “You cannot reconstruct something that you do not know very well,” noted Professor Sudipta Kaviraj during the seminar.  And that is certainly correct and also supports what Professor Getachew called the “tragedy of Black enlightenment that those alienated from the nations would get to govern them.” But, can we understand or know that which needs to be changed without first being removed from it?  In C.L.R. James’s book, Beyond the Boundary (a book that Professor Brent Edwards rightfully identified in 2/13 as “James’s book about cricket which is not at all just about cricket”), he identifies his own struggles in this project of undoing the West, beginning with the threshold alienation required for critique:

I landed in Plymouth and ran around London for a few weeks. . . . . Up to that time I doubt if [we] had ever talked for five consecutive minutes on West Indian politics. Within five weeks we had unearthed the politician in each other. Within five months we were supplementing each other in a working partnership which had West Indian self-government as its goal.[9]

Another possibility from James’s search of political awakening in arrival in England, is that the knowledge and thought for critique for worldly philosophers originate not just in distance but through opposition.  According to Fanon, “encountering opposition from the other, self-consciousness experiences desire, the first stage that leads to the dignity of the mind.”[10]

If we were to accept that there is a threshold of alienation required for critique by engaged scholars, what happens with the writings of scholars who are later deemed [too] alienated from the masses? Does their alienation exceed the threshold because it appears starker, or is it because the fate of their writings is intertwined with that of the revolutions that they represent or critique, and therefore the measure of alienation is applied to them disproportionately and with more at stake,[11] than to the writings of those who are more academically-positioned?

The paradox of alienation in the postcolonial context for worldly scholars is also revealed in the knowledge axis.  Knowledge of the processes and machinery of colonization—often acquired through institutions of western political thought — comes at the cost of alienation of these worldly philosophers from the colonized masses.  C.L.R.  James, after noting the value in perspective from a distance, outlines the cost of alienation:

Already I was writing. I moved easily in any society in which I found myself. So it was that I became one of those dark men whose ‘surest sign of . . . having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself’. My decision cost me a great deal. For one thing it prevented me from ever becoming really intimate with [other West Indian cricketers and kept us] apart for a long time. Faced with the fundamental divisions in the island, I had gone to the right and, by cutting myself off from the popular side, delayed my political development for years. But no one could see that then, least of all me.[12]

Nkrumah discusses a similar push-and-pull of alienation, noting that “[Eurocentric] history is anointed with a universalist flavouring which titillates the palate of certain African intellectuals so agreeably that they become alienated from their own immediate society” and crediting his own escape from such alienation by learning “to look for social contention in philosophical systems.”[13] (Emphasis in original).

Perhaps the critical theorists who become more engaged in the political processes straddle with greater ease the two planes of thought—‘looking at’ and ‘looking forward’– across alienation while those in academic settings are not merely situated in alienation but deploy it as freedom in their work to imagine and devise critical theories and ideas.

Imagination, Knowledge, and Proximity:

Karuna Mantena and Adom Getachew identify the two aspects of anticolonial enterprises: the critical undertakings and the reconstructive projects.  In addition to discussing these axes during the 2/13 seminar, the frame of situatedness was introduced as a point of distinction between the writers in the academia and those writing from within the eye of the revolutionary storm.

As we make our journey through Revolution 13/13, I read the writings under discussion within a three-dimensional analytical frame[14] comprising of three axes suspended in time: knowledge, imagination, and proximity.

The knowledge axis refers not only to the depth and scope of critique in the writings of the engaged philosophers, but also to the concept of alienation.  Imagination refers to the project of reconstruction—of perceiving and persuading different futures.  Knowledge and imagination, i.e., critique and reconstruction, can be co-constitutive of each other.  For what is reconstruction if not built on the baseline of critique, and inherent within critique is the ability to imagine and discern or to create space for reconstruction.[15]  As Fanon notes in Black Skin, White Masks:

But once we have taken note of the situation, once we have understood it . . . . [h]ow can we possibly not hear that voice again tumbling down the steps of History: “It’s no longer a question of knowing the world, but of transforming it.[16]

The axis of proximity is both a measure of distance from the masses (alienation) and the degree of enmeshment with the outcome of the revolutions at play.  Proximity is what answers the question of ‘what is the prize/drive’ for these scholars.

Were Fanon and Gandhi more successful at what Professor Getachew calls, “undoing the enamorment with West” because of their proximity to the masses and the culture as the project of colonization (as Professor Biodun Jeyifo pointed out in the last seminar: Fanon was acutely aware that colonization included language and culture)?    Or did they become unenchanted with the West, as depicted by their critique of eurocentrism because of their more political and engaged roles and writings? Perhaps it is the disenchantment itself that serves to create more proximity and engagement with the masses.

We continue to discuss and imagine identifiers for scholars closer in proximity to social movements and revolutions–worldly, engaged, pragmatic etc.  I propose another characterization for these scholars:  the empathetic philosophers.

The double consciousness, as termed by W.E.B. Dubois, and Fanon’s two dimensions of a Black man as part of the “arsenal of complexes that germinates in a colonial situation,”[17] are fundamentally about matters of different frames of reference, self-identification, and objectification.   What we deem as the ‘situatedness’’ or proximity of the worldly scholars to the masses can be more than just an engagement, it can be empathy.  Empathy is the ability to switch frames of reference.  Perhaps the familiarity that Black anti-colonist scholars had with fragmentation across fames of reference created empathy as a by-product of the intellectual process of critique.  The writings of worldly scholars have an emotive attribute which connects the agitation in philosophical thought to social stirrings in revolutionary processes.[18]

Contemporary Revolutionary Philosophers

In the seminar, Professor Harcourt invited identification of another dimension.  “Who would we read as revolutionary philosophers today? Is there a clear category?” He suggested the work of Black abolitionists such as Derecka Purnell, as represented in her recent book, Becoming Abolitionists, creates new possibilities in imagining contemporary revolutionary philosophers.

In similar vein, I propose we open ourselves to imagining a more vivid and dynamic—and therefore closer in mimicking the molecular nature of revolutions – form of philosophical renderings through the written word and symbols in online activism.  To the extent that hashtag activism has redefined not only reach, in scope and breadth, of revolutions it has also redefined how billions of people collectively engage in a process of understanding the world, their relationships to and within it, and to each other. What some may call branding is perhaps a palpable form of intentional articulation of philosophical thoughts through stringing together words which create meanings and purpose.

The constraints of pithy declarations transform this medium into insightful articulations of critique and reconstruction in 280 characters[19] or in a simple metadata tag of a number sign.  From #loveswins and #metoo to #occupywallstreet and #blacklivesmatter, these social revolutions contain within them a whole philosophy of life and lives lived, endured, yearned, and imagined.


[1] Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-decolonization, 33-34 (1970 ed.).

[2] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 206 (2008 ed.).

[3] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-determination, 179 (2019).

[4] See the Bible.

[5] See J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows 251 (2015) (“It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”).

[6] Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy 24 (2005).

[7] Can we distinguish uprisings and revolutions in this analogy by ascribing the role of uprising to the precipitating movement?

[8] In his book, Consciencism, Kwame Nkrumah discusses the “different categories of colonial student:” the “hand-picked ones” carrying “certificates of worthiness” who become “enlightened servants of the colonial administration;” the ones who gained access on account of social standing and therefore saw it as a “personal distinction and privilege”; and the ones like himself: “ordinary Africans, who, animated by a lively national consciousness, sought knowledge as an instrument of national emancipation and integrity. . . . .  [And][i]n order that their cultural acquisition should be valuable, they needed to be capable of appreciating it as free men.”  See

Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-decolonization, 4 (1970 ed.).

[9] C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary, 115 (2013 ed.; originally published 1963).

[10] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 192 (2008 ed.).

[11] Therefore, perhaps the reason we attribute less alienation to Gandhi is because we measure his writings in light of the monumental anti-colonial revolution he represented.

[12] C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary, 53 (2013 ed.).

[13] Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-decolonization, 5 (1970 ed.).

[14] These are in addition to the various other variables and axes we explore in each seminar, for example, time, situatedness, strategies and tactics, audience, accountability, abstraction, self-referentiality, and conceptuality, etc.

[15] Nkrumah notes similar duality in revolution and notes “Revolution has two aspects. Revolution is a revolution against an old order; and it is also a contest for a new order. . . .  A revolutionary ideology is not merely negative. It is not a mere conceptual refutation of a dying social order, but a positive creative theory, the guiding light of the emerging social order.”  See Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-decolonization, 34 (1970 ed.).

[16] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1 (2008 ed.).

[17] Id. at 14.

[18] See Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-decolonization, 2-3 (1970 ed.)(“I was introduced to Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx and other immortals, to whom I should like to refer as the university philosophers. But these titans were expounded in such a way that a student from a colony could easily find his breast agitated by conflicting attitudes. These attitudes can have effects which spread out over a whole society, should such a student finally pursue a political life.”).

[19] Of course, such word constraints do not limit additional writings enmeshed with the revolutionary forces and components based on and related to online activism and writings.  See e.g., Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (2021); Asha Bandele & Patrisse Cullors, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018).  Online revolutionary philosophical thought and engagements extend beyond the Black abolitionist movements; often times inspired by it.  It also extends to before the reemergence of BLM as a global movement.  In 2009, an 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai penned an insightful blog post for the BBC titled, ‘I am afraid.’  Although this example is scope of the conversation for thisessay, it is important to note that her writings and engagements are to be situated in both post-colonial South Asian context and that of U.S. Imperialism post 9/11.

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