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Cornel West’s Genealogical Approach

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on February 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

“My genealogical approach subscribes to a conception of power that is neither simply based on individual subjects—e.g., heroes or great personages as in traditional historiography—nor on collective subjects—e.g., groups, elites, or classes as in revisionist and vulgar Marxist historiography.  Therefore, I do not believe that the emergence of the idea of white supremacy in the modern West can be fully accounted for in terms of the psychological needs of white individuals and groups or the political and economic interests of a ruling class.” 

                             —Cornel West, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism”

Cornel West expressly borrows from Nietzsche and Foucault when he employs the methodology of genealogy.  Genealogy documents or tracks the development of ideas and their relation to human organization.  Genealogy traces knowledge to its systemic formations across networks of discourse.  Genealogy does not recover origins because origins are not recoverable.  Instead of recovering origins, or attempting to recover origins, genealogy describes the emergence and development of social structures and attitudes based on certain conditions for knowledge construction.  Genealogy is not about using history to legislate to the present or to validate contemporary attitudes and viewpoints.  It is about analyzing ways that attitudes and viewpoints arise and function.  It is about how systems of belief inscribe and imprint themselves on the human body, and how discourse bears a direct relation to individuals and their regulation by society.  Genealogy is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.  Rejecting a telos, it seeks to understand the function and not the merits of discourse formation.

West’s genealogy focuses on the emergence of white supremacy in Western discourse.  Because genealogy is not teleological, West rejects Marxism and its variants as starting-points for explaining “the complex configuration of metaphors, notions, categories, and norms which produces and promotes [objects] of discourse.”  The tendency of Marxism toward essentialism, class dualism, human reductionism, and grand narratives simply will not do for West, who indicts “[t]raditional, revisionist, and vulgar Marxist types of historiography” for focusing “primarily on powers within nondiscursive structures” (such as powers of “kings, presidents, elites, or classes”) and for reducing the “powers within discursive structures to mere means for achieving the intentions, aims, needs, interests, and objectives of subjects in nondiscursive structures.”  In short, West indicts Marxism and its variants for simplifying social and cultural phenomena that are highly complex.

To some extent, moreover, Marxism diminishes the importance of language and rhetoric to the actions of individuals, whose motivations are contingent upon the time or circumstance in which they were produced.  Although humans are acting agents with the capacity to follow their will, they are also limited by the vocabularies and knowledge available to them.  This conception of limitation on human agency does not correspond with the Marxist conception of limitation on human agency.  The Marxist conception of limitation on human agency has to do with the reduction of individual action to some collectivist cause or linear narrative determined by class.  Rather than coming into being because groups of people desired power and suppressed or marginalized their class competition, the discourse of white supremacy emerged because of several historical and discursive accidents.  Even those eighteenth and nineteenth century writers who were antislavery unwittingly contributed to and perpetuated the discourse of white supremacy by classifying human bodies in keeping with scientific schema.  For these reasons, among others, West suggests that Marxism and its variants wrongly deny “the relative autonomy of the powers in discursive structures” and hence reduce “the complexity of cultural phenomena.”

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