Many claim that ideology enables us to better see. This is only partially true. Ideology draws our attention to particular things or ideas in such a way that it also blinds. Thus one must resist the seduction of ideological myopia and its reduction of reality to absolutisms.
The problems of dualistic thinking are manifold. It sustains the notion of a disjuncture between the self and other, when in fact these are often entangled.
Yes, I am not part of the air, but I breath the air. My use of an automobile subtly changes its molecular composition. The air supplies oxygen, a necessary element for my body’s functioning. Every exhalation contributes carbon dioxide to the air around me. The air and I are bound in a cycle of exchange which will continue until I cease to breathe.
I am not my children, or my wife, or my parents. Yet, I am clearly a part of all of them. For some this connection is biological (to my parents and children). For all, the context of shared experience reveals the myriad ways in which we are connected. Even for my father, from whom I was mostly estranged while growing up, his struggles with respect to exemplifying a compelling standard of manhood and to live ethically provide much of my determination to transcend his shortcomings. Thus even in his error, I have found inspiration and insight in his life. My journey is merely the continuation of his.
Indeed, there is no absolute disjuncture between these varied phenomenon. They are entangled.
Of late, much of my thinking about this has consisted of continued reflection on my practice of the arts, as they do not exist outside of me. At a certain point, they became a part of me. In fact, it was during a time when I attempted to take a much narrower perspective on the arts when I became more aware of the extent to which all of these experiences had shaped me, influenced how I perceived movement, and stimulated my thinking about the inextricable links between body and mind—a connection that combat training is supposed to augment. Further, I began to understand–perhaps unconsciously, that on the level of principle, I was not talking about Capoeira, or Choy Lay Fut, or Wing Chun, or this, or that–but circular arcs of movement, linear thrusts, lateral downward movement, sidestepping, flowing, intercepting, and on and on. I began to realize that the barriers between these arts were sustained not merely in the traditions that they embodied and their respective lineages, but that these had crystalized my mind. Thus my mind became the arbiter of an imagined disjuncture between these arts, it became the border guard policing the mental/physical territories that they were supposed to inhabit.
However, there are times when these mental crystals begin to crack, when the markings at the border have been obscured, when a greater awareness of underlying principles blurred distinction, prompting a recognition of a sense of connection and unity. It is at these moments, when I have been most clear that when practicing these arts, I am not simply engaging in some discipline that exists external to me, but that they facilitate my embodiment of these underlying principles. Thus while the art exists as a particular type of kinesthetic tradition emerging out of its respective milieu, it is also a tradition that, when embodied, is expressed through me, one that becomes a part of me. And in so doing, removes the disjuncture between the practitioner and their practice. Ideally, the two become one.
Of course culture has been a core concern of a number of African intellectuals in this country. This has been more than something born of an an undue preoccupation with questions of identity, but has been centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and ideation.
Who are we? What sources inform this knowing? What special contribution might our cultural distinctiveness offer in our efforts to both envision and reshape the world in which we live? How does our degree of cultural grounding facilitate our ability to be discerning, that is critically engaged with the universalist creep of ideas ideas that are not only alien to our ancestors’ cultures, but also potentially corrosive to that which we seek to (re)establish. I fear that in our fervor to embrace increasingly shallow notions of progress, we are constantly stripping ourselves of the potential to know and move from a cultural center of our own, one requiring no sanction or approval from others.
I think of this, not only in relation to, but occasionally because of the spectacles of confusion that abound in our communities. The almost daily sight of young men walking about, pants sagging, shouting expletives in unison with the sounds streaming through their headphones, walking through the L-train selling marijuana, and seemingly bereft of an evaluative criteria of manhood outside of the empty and chronologically-determined manhood of this society is troubling. Of course this is nothing new, our confusion that is. This society has been devised to perpetuate it, to render it normal, desirable, and inescapable.
However I do not despair in the face of these things. This is not because I believe in some grand destiny where we will inevitably transform our condition, but because I see some of us, many of us doing this work using tools such as Capoeira, rites-of-passage, study groups, agriculture, language instruction, meditation, and so forth. It reminds me that processes of transformation do not necessarily begin on a scale that is grand equal to their aims. Their beginnings might be quite humble, their progress slow but inexorable. We too know this. We know that “Aendaye polepole hana budi afikile”, that is that “the person who walks with calm and care will arrive without fail”. We will arrive, at that place to which we desire to be, one wherein the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of our sovereignty are ends, and from there to even greater works which lay beyond. Works animated by the vision of sp tpy and whm mswt, that is the actualization of the cosmological and sociological ideal of a truly enlightened society.
One mustn’t choose to live in the shadow of fear and doubt. Fear can populate the mind with thoughts of legions of potential perils. Fear may provoke anxiousness and anxiety, but these feelings possess an energetic quality that if properly harnessed can also motivate one to act.
Doubt is the corrosive acid of self-assurity that if not faced and divested of its power can compel inaction when action is needed, capitulation when perseverance might carry the day.
When I was 9 years old I resolved to eradicate my fear of the dark. I went into the darkest room of my apartment and sat. I wanted the darkness to envelope me. I wanted for fear to show itself, to unleash the doom that it so often promised lay just outside my covers.
In the beginning I was terribly afraid. I feared the invisible hordes, who draped in darkness, might prey upon me. But this fear was counter-balanced by something else, my knowledge that the darkness was merely the absence of light, and my fear merely the triumph of irrationality and the absence of reason.
I conquered my fear of the dark, and also learned something more, fear and doubt are synergistically linked, one compelling us to retreat, the other assures us that no matter what we do, the possibility of triumph is illusory. In spite of this, fear can be bested. In fact when confronted we often find that fear’s ominous vestments merely hide a withered and frail form. Similarly, doubt can also be overcome. Much of its power over us is that it faces us in the mirror, it lurks in our memories of failure, it resides in the certainty that what we are striving after is–like so many things–simply beyond our capacity. Doubt has to be seen for what it is, mediocrity’s companion, the one sure path that will always divert us from evolving into the people that we might potentially become. It is a fetter, yes, but an impermanent one that if discarded enables us to rediscover who we are and what we can accomplish.
While my forays into the dark eventually bested that fear, others remained. Thus throughout my life I have found it continually necessary to seek out fear, challenge it to show itself and to deliver the oblivion that had promised, or to leave me be. I have also had to remind myself that it is not doubt that faces me in the mirror or lurks in my memories, but that doubt is a shadow that grows proportionally to the light within which one walks. Doubt is the inescapable echo of your voice projected into the world, faint and diminishing, but never fully absent.
Despite the bombast of fear and the vacuity of doubt, the future remains undetermined, providing us the chance to fashion our lives and the world into an image and form worthy of our highest potential.
The New York Times featured an interesting article on philosophy in the academy entitled “When Philosophy Lost Its Way“. After reading it, it provoked some of my thinking about the nature of academic knowledge production and the significance of African philosophy.
This is a good discussion of the ruinous nature of so many forms of academic knowledge production. The academy has succeeded (along with the academic publishing industry) in commodifying knowledge in rather unnatural ways that divorces its productive cycles and areas of emphases from the existential quandaries that exist in the world.
I think that a number of questions are in order here. How does philosophy answer the crises that so typify so-called modern life? How does philosophy inform a mode of social criticism capable of forming a new conception of society? How does philosophy reinforce the more generalized and diffuse Eurocentric hegemony of Western education? Is philosophy (as we know it) more trouble than it’s worth? What might we pose as an alternative?
While I am disinclined to suggest a forward path for Western philosophy, I will argue that for people of African descent, the resuscitation of philosophical discourses and modalities of knowledge production are a vital part of social transformation. Whether we are examining the deep thought of the ancient Nile Valley pertaining to “good speech”, or the cosmological insights of the Dogon, or the Yoruba conception of struggle and its necessity, the love of wisdom as captured in the works of Ahmed Baba and his contemporaries at the Univ. of Sankore in the 16th Century, the social theories of Prince Hall or Martin R. Delany or Anna Julia Cooper, the cultural analysis of Du Bois from the 30s and 60s, Master Fard Muhammad’s and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s discourse on moral intractability, Malcolm X’s critique of America’s vaunted and dubious morality, Sista Souljah’s thesis about enslavement as the default condition of Africans in the American social order, and on and on. Philosophy has a great deal to offer us, but first we must do as Jacob H. Carruthers instructed and resolve ourselves to cultivate bodies of knowledge both divorced from the imperatives of the West and inextricably linked to our efforts to transform both the world and ourselves.
Of late I have often reminded myself that we encounter things along our path that are merely bridges. Bridges help to guide us towards our destination, but are not destinations unto themselves. This is a critical distinction as some people, unable to discern the difference between the two, get stuck on the bridge. A lot of my developmental experiences, while quite valuable, were not sufficient to push me to where I am now or where I aspire to be.
I have been propelled along by a certain taciturn and inquisitive nature. I have also reached points where these interim stages were untenable. That despite my myopic desires, I was forced to move forward. I have reached other junctures where I found it necessary to return to earlier points, reacquaint myself with the lessons that those moments occasioned, and move forward from there with renewed clarity.
These experiences collectively affirm for me that the path is neither linear or always apparent. Yes, it consists of interim stages, but its beginnings and endings are often clouded in the confluence of events. My path began in 1975, but is also entangled in the paths of wazazi wangu na wazazi wao (my parents and their parents), in addition to the broader familial and communal contexts that they inhabited. Moreover, my path’s ending will definitively occur in a physical sense, as I am not immortal, but the impact of my life should persist among those whose paths intersected my own. Even prior to this eventuality, my own striving for fulfill my life’s work is not a destination as much as it is a process of unfolding. I liken it to the physical universe, which will end, but whose interim stage is an ever unfolding cascading of occurrences of expansion, endings, and transformations.
To be sure, I have set an abundance of achievable goals with measurable outcomes for myself, but even the fulfillment of these do not represent an ending for my journey. They are occasions which enable other occasions. But even these are unrealizable if I mistake the bridge for the terminus of the journey. Bridges, no matter how expansive or architecturally magnificent, are not destinations. They are conduits. Ephemeral junctures. One mustn’t lose sight of this.
“What is called the spirit of an age is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end. Though one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of five thousand years ago or more, it cannot be done. Therefore we must make the best out of every generation.”
-Wayne B. Chandler, quoting an ancient proverb
Humans are multidimensional beings. We can think of this in several ways. One way that comes to mind is based on Michio Kaku’s theory of Hyperspace, wherein humans inhabit four dimensions of space-time (three spatial and one temporal dimension). From the experiential view, our existence is bound within the dynamics of physical space and the arcs of time through which we traverse. I argue that to actually know the human requires a comprehension of this four-dimensionality, as we are in a constant state of becoming.
We can also look at multidimensionality from the vantage point of African deep thought in two distinct ways. One way is with regards to the human scale, the other is with regards to the scale of the universe. I will offer two examples that address this concept on the human scale, and in a later work will examine this on the cosmic scale.
We can think of the human being as reflecting multiple, coalescing, distinct yet integrated facets. The Swahili and Bakongo concept of moyo illustrates this, as moyo has dual meanings. Its most basic meaning is the heart, while its deeper meaning is the life force or the bio-energetic dimension of the human.
Among the Yoruba we find at least two conceptualizations of multidimensionality. First is with regards to the mind itself, or most specifically the head, which is conceived in its most basic sense as ori. Ori is the head, but more than this, it represents the Yoruba idea of destiny, is the seat of the human personality, the locus of one’s character. Each human is believed to select their own head prior to their journey to Earth. Despite this act of agency, the heads are of varying quality, and the journey to the world reveals the imperfections of each ori. While taken literally this might suggest that humans are bound to a fixed unalterable destiny, however the Yoruba’s deep thought reveals that such is not the case. The Odu Ifa states that “If one’s destiny is unfortunate, perhaps one’s internal wisdom is not sufficient.” This suggests that human fate is malleable. Thus just as one might grow in knowledge, or improve one’s character, so too can one’s destiny be amended.
In addition to its role as a center of human consciousness, ori is also an orisha. If orisha is conceptually identical to nTr (netcher) in the culture of kmt (Kemet), which one might define as the totality of all things, then one’s ori represents both the consubstantiality of the human being–that is that humans are inseparable from the universe, not simply residing in the world, but being a fundamental expression of it. Therein ori also reflects the potential of the human being, one’s capacity, via struggle, to achieve one’s full potential, to fulfill one’s destiny. Thus ori, as orisha, represents one’s highest self. In this way, the Yoruba offer a compelling example of multidimensionality with regards to the human being. The human, or eniyan, is simultaneously corporeal and finite, yet inextricably transcendent. Thus in both the Swahili/Bakonogo concept of moyo, and the Yoruba concept of ori, we see the conceptualization of the corporeal and non-corporeal, the physical and the metaphysical, or perhaps the situatedness of human beings within the world and beyond its spatial bounds as an energetic quality.
The Kemetic view of time differs in some ways from the Bantu-Kongo, but corresponds in a number of respects. Three relevant Kemetic conceptions of time are nHH, sp tpy, and wHm mswt. These describe the Kemetic conception of the pre-conditions of the advent of the universe, the emergence of space time, and the invocation of that occasion as a paradigm of cultural renewal.
nHH, or the Kemetic idea of eternity or infinity is characterized by four basic forces: formless and boundless matter, infinite potential, absolute darkness, and the unknown. Jacob H. Carruthers states that “The idea of infinity as the pre-beginning condition is related to the…notion of boundlessness. Here, time emerges from the Eternal never ending, never beginning, never distinct infinity.” (Carruthers, 1984, 60-61).
sp tpy, literally “first occasion” (Carruthers, 1984, p. 58), represents the emergence of the physical universe and the beginning of space-time. That is to say that sp tpy represents the origin of the universe as a spatial-temporal phenomenon. However in addition to this, sp tpy also represents the initiation of a process resulting in the ultimate manifestation of the constituent elements necessary to establish optimal conditions for living. As Carruthers states, “The conditions, properties and processes that are necessary for existence, the good life and eternity came into being for the first time…. Thus, we may say everything came into being sp tpy.” (1984, p. 58).
Similar to musoni and kala on the Dikenga, nHH and sp tpy represents two distinct phases of cosmogenesis (Obenga, 2004). nHH is a state of infinite possibility, one which precedes actuality. It is the state of formlessness, possessing within it the potentiality of all form, giving rise to the universe at sp tpy. Thus these two stages of the Kemetic concept of time represents the state preceding and subsequent to musoni (the big bang) (Fu-Kiau, 1994), in addition to the continued unfolding of the universe as represented by kala.
wHm mswt, literally the “repetition of the births”, was the hr name of the “Twelfth Dynasty” ruler imn m HAt or Amenemhat, who initiated a period of national restoration and renewal (Carruthers, 2007). As niswt (the title of rulers in kmt) Amenemhat’s hr name explicated his descent from Hr or Hrw, and the attendant charge to restore the unity and greatness of the nation. Amenemhat conceptualized this restorative process of reclaiming the great works of antiquity, and building upon those to restore mAat to the land. This charge is clearly expressed in the text that Carruthers calls the “Good Speech of Neferti” (called the Prophesies of Neferti by the Egyptologists) which states “mAat, with respect to injustice, is in her place. Cast out Isft.”
Given its orientation towards restoration and reclamation, wHm mswt, is similar to the point of luvemba on the Dikenga. It acknowledges a process of decline, and thus articulates a process of renewal and restoration as a social mandate to correct this condition. Thus wHm mswt is situated as a social processes directed towards the restoration of order (mAat) in the land. The juxtaposition of mAat to isft is highly instructive of the potential circumstances that occasion the invocation of wHm mswt as a necessary social corrective. It suggests the ascendence of, or rather the descent into isft as a condition of societal decline, wherein mAat is posed, not only as an opposing ideal, but as the natural order of things.