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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dubois at 90

Posted by Aaron Bady on 07/29/08 at 12:21 PM

In the opening paragraphs of W.E.B. Dubois’ last autobiography, written in “the Last Decade of its First Century,” DuBois tells an ostensibly simple story. For almost a decade, he says, “I had been refused a passport by my government,” which used the bureaucratically opaque excuse that “it was not considered to be ‘to the best interests of the United States’ that I go abroad.” The US’s interests and his have diverged, it seems, and as a result he has been deprived of that most basic of civic identities, the right to be interpellated as American while abroad. Since the government had suspected--correctly!--that he would criticize the United States for its “attitude toward American Negroes” if released, he had become--as he dramatically analogizes--a convict. An unrepentant old committer of dissent, he is an almost certain recidivist, and his hope of parole, it would seem, is dim.

But through an unexpected twist of fate, he tells us, he managed to acquire a passport and depart his country, “like a released prisoner.” The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not yet given the State department the right to do what they had done, so before the President was engineer a bill to zip up the loophole, DuBois jumps ship and is gone, traveling to Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Like a criminal accidentally paroled, he savors every drop of what he no doubt expects will be his last trip abroad. And then, he says, simply, “I came home.”

Readers accustomed to the younger DuBois will, I suspect, tend to find DuBois at 90 to be a disappointingly limp writer. There is little of the polished brilliance of Souls’ prose and absolutely none of the baroque extravagance of Darkwater, written around his 30th and 50th years, respectively. By Dusk of Dawn, in his 70th year, his writing has slowed down considerably, and by the time he got around to writing his final autobiography of the four, so much of the sturm and drang of that young student in Berlin has faded as to leave him almost unrecognizable. Instead, he writes in a flat and declarative tone, the voice, perhaps, of a writer unconvinced that anyone is listening, or that it will matter if they are. Some of this, too, is probably the result of a certain hardening in DuBois’ perspective, the kind of elderly disinclination to question one’s own beliefs that makes it hard to talk to one’s granparents about the crazy stuff they believe. When he talks politics and economics-for him, there is almost no distinction-the poetic ambiguity of his earlier works has become a resignedly manichaean third-world boosterism. Evil Capitalist Imperialists confront the Virtuous Opressed Masses and the painstaking sociology of his (relative) youth has become a tendency towards almost comically broad strokes and over-generalization, a great deal of which is just painfully wrong. Did you know that WWII was really a war between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world? I didn’t. As he surveys the Potemkin villages erected for his benefit, he finds confirmation for a belief in Communism that is difficult to take seriously, difficult to square with everything we now know about what went on behind the iron curtain.

This DuBois is something of an embarrassment, and the overwhelming majority of his readers focus on Souls to the exclusion of virtually everything else. But it’s also too easy to dismiss this Stalinist apologist for non-Western despotism as simply an angry old man, though he certainly was that. He was, after all, an angry old man for the majority of his incredibly long career, something that’s easy to overlook if you lose sight of just how preposterously long he lived (especially remarkable given that his parents died in their fifties) and how much he had to be angry about. There’s something stunning about a man who was born during Reconstruction and whose death was announced during King’s March on Washington, someone whose life spanned the incredible chasm between Andrew and Lyndon Johnson. So when he mentions, offhandedly, that Poland and Czechoslovakia are visibly better off in 1959 than they were when he saw them in 1950 and also, by the way, in 1893, the mind boggles a little bit. DuBois wrote four autobiographies, but that was because he had at least four lifetimes worth of living to write about, and as he notes, with a certain gentle humor, he had more or less considered his life to be complete two autobiographies and forty years ago. In the meantime, he had simply, inexplicably, failed to die.

So I’d like to take this autobiography seriously, and neither dismiss out of hand his enthusiasm for communist authoritarianism nor subordinate the book in favor of the more flashy (and a certain sense, less impassioned) works of his youth. This is exactly the rhetorical tactic he takes, in fact, opening the book not with his early years but with what he has seen on his recent trip abroad, and the convictions it has strengthened. “I believe in communism,” he says, and it is in hopes of making you understand the significance of this belief-of making you respect it-that he wants to tell you who he is. He knows you will resist. But he gambles that if he can connect the man to the belief, you will find it hard to dismiss either: respect the man, he hopes, and you will respect the belief. It’s a powerful rhetorial tactic, and I’m almost halfway convinced by it, halfway convinced not to call it by the pejorative “rhetoric” and simply accept his credentials. What, after all, do I know about Soviet modernization that hasn’t been filtered through half a century of cold war propganda? DuBois is certainly ideological, but then, who isn’t? And he, at least, saw it with his own eyes.

In any case, in returning to the text, I find that the dull flatness of those first few paragraphs might be more artful that I originally thought, more like a medium whose transparency is precisely the point. The drama of DuBois’ life, of a man released from prison that is also his home, perhaps, speaks more powerfully about what he once called “the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century” than all the verbal fireworks he employed in Souls or Darkwater ever could. The Kafkaesque logic of being denied a passport by your own government, of being given an identity by very act of being denied an identity, what could speak more eloquently than that? And perhaps, in doing this, it does the work of autobiography more effectively than any of his previous essays in the genre had ever managed, for by rendering the verbal medium so very transparent, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the man from the message. What could be more apparently artless than the sentence “I came home”? And yet, underneath that simplicity, what could be more impossibly tangled?


I suppose I feel no need to find a silver lining to late Du Bois.  Partly, this is because beneath the complexity of thought and sinewy rhetoric of his early prose runs a faith in a strong leader, a flirtation with authoritarianism that isn’t surprising to see wooed by Communism.  Partly, too, this is because I can understand, psychologically, how a man who had lived through what Du Bois had lived through might wind up with a twisted philosophical world-view in the end.

Wilson Harris’s writings, perhaps the closest descendant of early Du Bois, calls this mind-set a “terminal creed.” By this, Harris means that the endless dialectic of experience and belief has been forced to a halt and hardened into a carapace that more protects the psychic health of the believer than says anything of value about the world.  For Harris, both sides of these world-historical conflicts—oppressor/oppressed, for example—confront each other with terminal creeds and in the end each side reinforces the other side’s terminal creed. 

Harris dramatizes this process in his brilliant first novel, *Palace of the Peacock*, in which a mixed-race band travels down a river in pursuit of an ever-changing goal: first, a renegade woman; next, a piece of land they believe they own; finally, a group of peasants they believe they rule.  They are hunters who also feel hunted, and it is only in abandoning these false goals that they realize that they *are* the very object they seek: they are the folk, they are on the land, they have the love they seek. 

When it was first published in 1960, *Palace* was a powerful warning about the future of decolonization and nation-formation.  That Manicheans like Fanon and Ngugi are common intellectual currency while Harris is largely unknown (and out of print) is a sign that the late Du Bois attitude was symptomatic not only of an older generation frustrated with the speed of anti-racist progress but also of a younger generation who would push the anti-racist and anti-colonial movements.

(The story about Du Bois and the passport also reminds me of CLR James’s *Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In*, which James wrote while interred on Ellis Island, awaiting possible deportation.  The work mixes Marxist analysis of Melville with a personal account of how James’s appreciation of Melville makes him a perfect candidate for American citizenship.)

By on 07/29/08 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Obviously, I don’t exactly agree, although(as I hope is clear) I do have real misgivings about DuBois’ embrace of non-Western imperialisms like pre-WWII Japan and Stalinist Russia. But I would quibble with some of your characterisations. You refer to his “faith in a strong leader,” but that doesn’t ring exactly true to me; certainly there’s a tendency in him to look skeptically on oppressed people’s sufficiency to rule themselves without a more advanced class’ leadership and education (and which damningly intersects with a certain very patronizing conception of Western directed “development") but an authoritarian he’s not, at least not in the sense that so many people around him at that time genuinely *were* authoritarian. The virtue of communism for him is that he believes it will make “strong leaders” unnecessary, and while this might seem to be a minor distinction (merely elitist, not fascist), we should bear in mind how in vogue the idea of dictatorships were in those years; that he is an idealist communist, not a practical communist is significant. Hr could have been, but he never was. Instead, he didn’t really announce his belief in communism until it was largely a rhetorical gesture, a way of spitting in the face of the US government using the tools that the cold war handed him. Back when it would have meant something--like during the thirties--he always expressed interest and hope in the Soviet revolution, but also misgivings, and I think that has to be factored in.

In any case, my post is not an attempt to exonerate him, but to think about the question “how a man who had lived through what Du Bois had lived through might wind up with a twisted philosophical world-view in the end” in non-pejorative terms. Instead of starting from the premise that his worldview was “twisted” and trying to find in his experience a reason for why it became so (making “what Du Bois had lived through” into a narrative of trauma), I was trying to suggest the reverse: if we start from the premise that DuBois was actually a very smart and almost mind-bogglingly well-informed human being in certain very particular ways, his late career embrace of authoritarian modernization looks a little less like an old man being duped and a little more like an opinion we should at least take seriously, whether or not we ultimately disagree with it. But Dubois at 90 is very rarely taken seriously; Lewis’ 2 volume pulitzer biography of him, for example, gives the last decades of his life something like fifty pages, iirc. 

Also, I don’t find “Manicheans like Fanon and Ngugi” to be a useful phrase, especially given the way writers like them tend to get plucked from the original context in which they wrote and, by that process of deracination, transformed into something very different from what they originally were. Fanon, for example, is a practical polemicist, and the things he writes make so much more sense when you place him in the context of where he was writing and who he was within the FLN. When locally appropriate practical writings are transformed into universally appropriate theory (and Fanon becomes Fanonism) then something very strange happens, but it’s useful to seperate this process from the historial person. As for Ngugi, let me just say I very much disagree with that characterization, however offhand it might have been; his writings on the recent Kenya electoral crisis, for example, do not match the kind of figure I think you’re making him into.

You’ve convinced me to put PoP high on my reading list, though.

By on 07/30/08 at 08:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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