Lewis Gordon’s Existential Cartography

Molefi Kete Asante Temple University

Published 1/26/2015

My own critical cartography of Lewis Gordon’s intellectual discourse (Kemetic sebayat) is based on an orientation to his philosophical corpus in Africana Studies. I use the Greek idea of cartography in my title because of its relevance when one speaks of mapping anything. The origin of the term Χάρτης, (khartes = papyrus and graphein = to write), is the discipline dealing with the art, science and study of making and using maps. This could be applied to a map of anything, even the mind of an existential thinker such as Lewis Gordon. In Rita Carter’s book, Mapping the Mind, she fully explains how it is possible now to examine the moods, memories, and thoughts of a person by looking at the geography of the mind in terms of color, blood rushes, and constrictions and expansions of capillaries. Of course, I have no such knowledge or ability in reference to Gordon’s physical brain but I am intrigued by his intellectual production and therefore believe that it is useful to examine his works to explore the particular contours of his existential outlook. This essay I am calling a look into the existential cartography of Lewis Gordon rather than the geography of his mind. The classical Africans, especially Kemetic and Nubian, understood that one’s corpus could be considered a map of ethical positioning. Indeed, I believe that examining Lewis Gordon’s writings explicates the theoretical foundation of his intellectual interests. To be frank, Gordon’s work has impacted the way I see existentialism in relationship to African people. This is similar to Gordon’s own appreciation of the impact of the work of Peter Caws on his understanding as he wrote in 2002, “Perhaps the best statement on an intellectual’s work is the positive influence it has had on one’s own” (Gordon, 2002). I count this as an important point of entry for my work An Afrocentric Manifesto, a work that was read for the publisher by Lewis Gordon (Asante, 2007). It goes without saying that I was profoundly influenced by the scope and breadth of Gordon’s knowledge of the African origins of numerous disciplines of the arts and sciences. He had read Cheikh Anta Diop, Theophile Obenga, and was familiar with the intellectual discourse around the concept of African agency. Nevertheless, it is necessary for me to adequately analyze the nature of Gordon’s contribution to a form of existentialism that links with the idea of African agency. The Location Lewis R. Gordon’s work has influenced several fields, including philosophy, postcolonial theory, sociology, and education. However, I know him principally for his work in Africana studies that some people may claim is the full field of his philosophical work (Gordon and Gordon, 2005; Gordon and Gordon, 2006). I am not sure that Gordon would make such a declaration himself yet I know he is keenly aware of his own influence in Africana Studies because of the many accolades he has received from colleagues. There are a number of lines of thinking that have become important in Gordon’s philosophical production. A few years ago I attended a conference in the field of communication where an entire panel examined Gordon’s impact on the rhetorical nature of argument and persuasion as related to philosophy. It was an impressive display of the reach of this philosopher who had considered the works of his colleagues in other fields to be universal toys that could be enjoyed by other scholars. He clearly appreciated the fact that the communicationists represented his work as influential in their field. This appreciation of the work of other fields does not take away from Gordon’s own commitment to philosophy. He has a tremendous regard for the discipline, perhaps more than should be expected given the Eurocentric focus of most philosophical writings. However, Gordon raised questions about the core of the philosophical enterprise as early as 2002 when he said, “What does one do when philosophy itself is at issue? It would seem that, in order to do philosophical work honestly, one has to suspend the centering of philosophy. In effect, it is the suspension of philosophy for the sake of that which, in the end, renders “philosophy” philosophical. A de-centered philosophy need not lack a philosophical focus “(Gordon, 2002). Of course, at this level he is pursuing, it seems, the same line of thinking as the Afrocentric theorist Ama Mazama who projected a revolutionary transformation of the way we manage intellectual ideas in a racist society that has racialized the character of our thinking (Mazama, 2003). Marilyn Nissim-Sabat’s article “Radical Theory and Theory of Communication: Lewis Gordon's Phenomenological Critique of the New World Consciousness,” (Nissim-Sabar, January 2011, pp. 28-42) showed that Gordon's work challenged contemporary communication theorists “to engage more concretely than they have already done with the ways in which mass media on a world scale transmit or mediate the spread of dehumanizing postures and processes of thought and action” (Nissim-Sabat, January 2011, pp. 28-42). She uses an immanent critique of Gordon's “Existential Borders of Anonymity and Superfluous Invisibility” (2000), where he wrote that, “we are witnessing a heightened intensity of state implosivity on a global level as information and other technologies have rendered the totalitarian personality of mass culturation the order of the day.” Nissim-Sabat demonstrates how Gordon’s work resonates with Phil Graham's Hypercapitalism: New Media, Language, and Social Perceptions of Value, a major research thesis that emerged from Graham’s dissertation at Queensland University (Graham, 2006). In his work, Graham argues that there is a direct connection between language, media, and the social perceptions of value. Gordon’s emphasis on value and respect gains power because of his rejection of bad faith and authenticity discourses that rely on sincerity. Gordon’s view that racism requires the rejection of another human being’s humanity is rooted in his strongly ethical position about human relations. It is this point that makes his work on Fanon and his interest in Du Bois adhere to the critique of domination inherent in these two authors’ works. I am, of course, surprised by Gordon’s eagerness to engage Du Bois and Fanon on the idea of double consciousness which I find to be a dubious concept since one cannot have a double consciousness, only a single consciousness which may or may not be confused. Yet Gordon is right on in his critique of domination. Furthermore, the way Gordon adheres to this critique means that he has established his doctrine at the forefront of the ethical debate about who is human, thus piercing the wall of discourse about the political and social implications of racism to gain access to another, perhaps, more authentic issue. We are normally met with the discourse about dehumanization of another human being from a sociological dimension where one argues that racism dehumanizes but Gordon goes further than this and claims that the racist rejects the humanity of the other. This is not simply a slight of hand argument. This is a profoundly philosophical perspective based on the belief that dehumanization is, of course, impossible. It is not possible that one can dehumanize one who is already human despite anything that we say or do. However, one can simply reject the other’s humanity by refusing to participate in any discourse around the nature of the other person. In this case, I think that Gordon is specifically speaking about how whites view blacks and not the other way around. I do not know of a body of work or writings about blacks rejecting the humanity of whites. On the contrary, as for as whites, it is the situation everywhere one finds racism. Entire schools of thought since the time of the Göttingen cadre of racist thinkers led by Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt pioneered the hierarchy of races during the 18th century white scholars have organized various ways to suggest white superiority and black inferiority. What for instance is the idea that the African is closest to the ape family or that blacks are ape-like? Whose idea is this and why? What did white writers assume about Africans and about apes that made this a trope in their discourses about race? In fact, science says that we are all 99.9 percent like the chimpanzee or bonobo, so why does this rejection of black humanity exist when in fact to reject black humanity is to reject white humanity as well? Since all humans are said to originate in Africa then whites that buy into the rejection mode of racism are rejecting their mothers and fathers. The fact that Gordon sees this contradiction and speaks to it in his works places him at the forefront of a new assault against racism. This is a noble contribution to our discourse around human equality. You cannot reject my humanity without diminishing, no, without rejecting your own. If you think, feel, create, and have desires you are no different from me, and because of this you are truly anti-human, including yourself, if you seek to impose racism on others. Beyond the strict construction of logic about racism, Gordon also appears to have an ethical belief about the nature of relationships. This places him in direct opposition to those who espouse an absolute philosophy of materialism. He is engaged at the level of personal ethics in the struggle to master harmonious human relationships. I find this to extraordinary for a modern philosopher. Yet this particular personal desire on Gordon’s part forces him into a corner. For me, however, if he is trapped, and that is a strong term, it is his search for ethics outside of the rational. Good, for me, does not depend upon the concept of God that was created by human beings; good is an expression of wishing the best for the human race. I seek to insure the on-going process by which man and woman procreate, thus creating the ideal possibilities for human production. Gordon’s response is a plea for the ethical on the basis of faith. Although Gordon rejects the idea that similarity should be a condition of ethical obligation as it is presented in Western thinking, he sees the acceptance of humans as humans, a concept of respect for others, as the key to ethical thinking and acting. One does not have to eliminate the black person in order to fight against racism. Indeed, it is not the elimination of race that makes antiracism possible; it is precisely the Gordonian idea of respect for the human that makes antiracism necessary. One of the points in the cartography of Gordon’s work is his strong position on what he calls black existentialism. Where European existentialism places more emphasis on individuality Gordon argues that black existentialists found their locus of individuality inside of community where one has to appreciate diversity (Gordon, 2000). In addition to the ordinary themes of existentialism such as dread, freedom, anguish, decision, absurdity and death there are also, in Gordon’s view, the necessity to discuss colonialism and antiblack racism. The Route Two aspects of Gordon’s work best describe his route to intellectual fulfillment: his response to the existentialist dogma and his response to the protest canon in African thinking. The first is a reaction to the work of existentialists, principally Jean-Paul Sartre; the second is a combination of reactions to racism, especially in the United States and South Africa, two of the three areas where he has roots, the third being the Caribbean. Frantz Fanon, a Caribbean intellectual, and Steve Biko, a South African political icon, gain more legitimacy in Gordon’s thinking as he gathers a vision of African philosophy unlike that expounded by several of his Eurocentric or Afro-Eurocentric contemporaries. This is useful and remarkable given the fact that Gordon is well trained in the classical constructions of European philosophy; such a fact often drives a person away from his own engagement with culture and history. Gordon, for whatever reasons, and we could speculate, is driven into the arms of an African understanding of existence. Gordon’s Bad Faith and Anti-Black Racism (1995) explored both Sartre’s and Fanon’s ideas of bad faith and anti-black racism and became a useful entry into Gordon’s critiques of racism and the way the black person responds to the racial situation. Lewis Gordon is quick to devise a brilliant framework to consider the construction of the two-tiered society, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom, in order to explain the severe racism in western societies. Thus, he decries in his works the notion of white superiority and black inferiority and the linguistic constructions that maintain this two-tiered idea proffered by the theorists of white domination. Gordon takes his work seriously and it is ultimately about seducing us away from the partitions that have been devised by a cleverly constructed hierarchy of race in the Western world. I believe that is why he begins with a discussion and critique of Sartrean bad faith in his doctoral dissertation at Yale. While one can see some pivoting toward Fanonian understanding of consciousness in Gordon’s later works one cannot escape his allegiance to Sartrean notions of consciousness. For example, he writes, “Sartre, it is well known, proposed a radical existential phenomenology. The existential turn goes to the heart of intentionality as a point toward that which simultaneously embodies a standing apart. Ex sistere—the Latin etymology of ‘existence’ means to stand apart—and existence, the French cognate, is to exist and to live. To stand apart, the existential moment, challenges any preceding necessity, any preceding meaning” (Gordon, 2002). Gordon is keenly aware of the fact that Jean Paul Sartre was the most prominent member of the philosophical class during the 20th century to take on the question of racism. Gordon, consequently, is interested in massaging the relationships between existential consciousness, phenomenology, and racism. He does this because he sees that Sartre’s notion that consciousness does not exist without being conscious of something could lead to bad faith as Sartre also understood. When consciousness is conscious of itself then it is possible that consciousness is concerned with something; indeed, it is concerned with itself. As Gordon explains, “Bad faith is a lie to the self. It is a lie to the self that involves an effort to hide from one’s freedom. One’s freedom is at the heart of the absence of a sedimented thing that we expect to conjoin us to the things of which we are conscious. We seek two “things”—the object of consciousness and consciousness” (Gordon, 2002). The Distance Well, Gordon’s view of consciousness, that is, the thingness aspect, allows us to segway into a discussion of his relationship to political consciousness. To the degree that the existential demonstrates the separation of the individual from the other one can understand that South African politics under apartheid was one of the most fertile grounds for examining the nature of consciousness. One of the more interesting essays on Gordon’s views about racism appears in Mabogo More’s article “Gordon and Biko: Africana Existential Conversation.” More. In this article More takes on Gordon’s identification with Steve Bantu Biko’s assertion of his independence. He writes that “Gordon is himself inextricably connected with Biko by what Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane refers to as The Ties That Bind (Magubane, 1987). Like his long time intellectual compatriot Paget Henry, the philosopher Lewis Gordon has been able to demonstrate reasonably well the interconnection between the various loci of African people. Neither consciousness nor existence is a matter of where African people are geographically located. Gordon’s work, similar to Henry’s thinking in Caliban’s Reason (Henry, 2000) establishes and sustains the idea of African commonality of experience in resistance to racism. Just as the Africans in South African had to fight apartheid; those in the Caribbean had to over the antiblack attitudes of certain black and white elites; and those in the United States had to deal with the continuing legacies of slavery and segregation; such common assaults on racist intrusions into human relations mean that the struggle is interconnected The Djed The ancient Kemetic people used the word “djed” to refer to the columns that stood as the anchors of the temples. In construction, the djeds represented the most solid aspect of a building and all other aspects of a structure were defined by the djeds. Giant hypostyle halls gained their character because of the djeds. Thus, the application of this idea to an analysis of Gordon’s discourse is founded on the principle of that which is the place from which he takes his stand. The Greeks may have later called this “stasis” but the founding idea is “djed.” The cartography of Gordon’s work is tied to appreciating his work on existentialism, the mightiest locus of his thinking. He starts with the premise that each human being is unique and amazing. This is the statement of a conclusion at the beginning of argument. Gordon believes that the individual is the fundamental unit of the human race. He is rarely concerned with the masses of black people as a Marxist would be, particularly at the class level, or a cultural nationalist would be at all levels. His intention, in his work, is the salvation of the individual on the road to fulfillment. This perspective, of course, automatically launches Gordon’s ideas in contradistinction with positions taken by progressives who argue for group, class, and gender elevation. Grand schemes for humanity are not the purview of the existential world where Gordon dwells. He prefers to concentrate on the individual decisions that are made by human beings. This allows for a freedom necessary to fulfill life in a quality manner. The lived experience, which is the only kind of experience that matters, is real. As a real experience it means that we are engaged in decision-making each day of our lives and as we make decisions we are writing our own history. There is no mass production of human kindness, love, appreciation, power, or reality; in Gordon’s view it is a continuing activity at the core of some decisive stand for the individual. Each person makes his or her own decision to engage or not to engage in reality activities. We are free to defend, speak, and to argue and to decide, always to decide, what we will do with our space. While these studies and ideas might be tied to Sartre’s brand of existentialism it is in the work of Fanon that Gordon finds a truer home in thinking. Thus he writes “Fanon, like Du Bois, was guided by the challenge of freedom and the constraints placed on searching for it in the modern world.” In fact, Gordon also says, “When philosophy becomes absolute or “deontological,” it loses its own sense of purpose and becomes, like the universal in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, below the realm of faith” (Kierkegaard, 2006; Gordon, 2008). Like Fanon, Gordon wants the individual to be empowered so that he or she will be able to take a decision to be free. But freedom is meaningless without consciousness because one can have it and lose it in time without ever knowing the reason of the loss. This is why identity does matter. Gordon says, “The identity question was announced by W. E. B. Du Bois, when he claimed the twentieth century would be marked by problems of the color line. The color line, as we now know, became the organizing reality and metaphor for many lines of identity formation. Thus, it became the class line, the gender line, the sexual-orientation line. Its concrete manifestations ranged from the lynching of blacks in North America to the ovens for Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, blacks, homosexuals and invalids in death camps. The liberation question was marked by the Bolshevik revolution, after which most of the century was marked by specters of revolution. Problems of identity and liberation have taken ironic turns at the end of the twentieth century” (Gordon, 2002). I like the fact that Gordon is an integrator of thoughts, bringing together Sartre, Fanon, and Biko in his own writings. Since Sartre had committed himself to the visions of the African world for freedom there was always a reason for black philosophers and writers to turn to him as the one indispensable modern European. Sartre’s championing of the rights of the African could be seen in ethical or pragmatic terms but Gordon chooses to see Sartre’s response to the condition of blacks as part of the existential idea of individual freedom. If a white could seek individual freedom, then what was to prevent blacks from having the same rights? Final Link Another part of the cartography of Gordon’s work is his engagement with African culture. Gordon writes about a way of thinking “which involves theoretical questions raised by critical engagement with ideas in Africana cultures and their hybrid, mixed, or creolized forms worldwide” (Gordon, 2008). I truly feel that in this regard he has surpassed most other contemporary philosophers in his appreciation of uBuntu and other African philosophical traditions. Soon after the Second Chimurenga in Zimbabwe I went to live in that country. I was amazed when it was announced that A. J. Ayers, a British philosopher I read when I was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles as a graduate student, was coming to speak to the University of Zimbabwe. I went to hear him and after his presentation I rose in the audience and questioned his total disregard for African culture, philosophy, and ethical ideas. Some in the audience, mostly whites, sneered at my question but the great philosopher who had written one of my textbooks was better than the audience. He said something like “You are right. I should know about African thinkers and cultures but we have not been trained to examine African ideas. I suspect that this will change in the future.” I took my seat feeling justified in my interrogation. I did not want the audience, the many whites and the few blacks, to leave that day assuming, as racists would, that Africans had nothing to say. This is why Lewis Gordon has emerged as an important voice in the discourse about African culture. His ability to handle Afrocentricity, Negritude, Fanon’s existentialism, Marxism, and Biko’s culturalism means that his sources are broad and his commitments rational. Thus, the cardinal points in Gordon’s thinking, at least the part that I appreciate as an Afrocentrist, are anti-racism, culture, identity, the challenges of freedom, and the utterly decisive role of existence in our relationship with each other. I believe that Gordon is haunted by identity and his views are sharpened by contemporary political realities. Yet, the identity issue does not define Gordon; since he is also a philosopher with strong ethical concerns one must also consider this side of his philosophy. In my view his revolutionary critique of the African situation utilizing the three horsemen of Sartre, Fanon, and Biko is founded upon his interpretation of human existence within a context of ethics. With this achievement in his books, especially Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (Gordon, 2000) and Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age (Gordon, 1997), Gordon presented himself as a major voice in philosophy. Not only has he won numerous awards for his scholarship and honors for his books, he has connected Africana culture, not in an essentialist sense, with the conditions of our existence. This is a crowning achievement of a major intellectual. Not surprisingly, however, it is at this point, as I see it, that the major influence of Sartre recedes and Gordon asserts his own linkages with ancient African history as well as the assertion of a perspective on discipline that allows him to engage a new line of thinking. Gordon finds in African origins of philosophy the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and Theophile Obenga. He is aware of the considerable contributions made to ancient thinking, often called Wisdom Literature, by the African philosophers such as Imhotep, the builder of the first pyramid and the world’s first physician, Ptahhotep, sage responsible for the world’s first book, and several other ancient Egyptian philosophers. Gordon knows Akhenaton, Merikare, Duauf, the story of Khunanup, and the brilliant Amemnemhat just as he knows Thales, Isocrates, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This is rare for a contemporary philosopher and to say that Gordon provides us with a philosophical position that may find itself irreconcilable with the majority of philosophers in his field is to say the obvious. When has the modern field of philosophy ever credited the early African philosophers, the so-called Wisdom Teachers, as philosophers? Who has written in a history of philosophy, before Gordon did it, about the nature and origin of African philosophers and their sebayet? The demands of a new generation of scholars will make the cartography of Gordon’s philosophical vocabulary even more important in the future as writers seek to know how Gordon escaped the disciplinary decadence that he so easily saw in others (Gordon, 2006). Furthermore, Gordon has recently leaped into the prickly discourse on essence and essentialism with a powerful offering that perhaps all essence does not have to have a sort of metaphysical counterpart that allows for things to stand outside of the rest of reality. He posits in this work the possibility of a relational metaphysics that will allow scholars to treat some communities as problems themselves (Gordon, 2012). Hopefully, my essay has pointed to Gordon’s predictive and prophetic markers in a way that will assist others in appreciating the massive contribution of a uniquely gifted intellectual.   References Asante, Molefi Kete, An Afrocentric Manifesto. Cambridge: Polity Books, 2007. Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, l998. Gordon, Lewis, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 1995/1999. Gordon, Lewis, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Gordon, Lewis, Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2006. Gordon, Lewis, “Existential Borders of Anonymity and Superfluous Invisibility” (2000) Gordon, Lewis, “Making Science Reasonable: Peter Caws on Science both Human and “Natural,” Janus Head, Vol. 5, No. 1 Spring 2002. Gordon, Lewis, and Jane Anna Gordon, Eds. Not Only the Master's Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm, 2005. Gordon, Lewis, and Jane Anna Gordon, Eds., A Companion to African American Studies. New York: Blackwell, 2006. Gordon, Lewis, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000. Gordon, Lewis, “Essentialist Anti-Essentialism, with considerations from other sides of modernity,” Quaderna, Vol. 1, 2012. Gordon, Lewis, Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997. Henry, Paget, Caliban’s Reason: An Introduction to Caribbean Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2000. Kierkegaard, Søren, Fear and Trembling. Edited by C. Steven Evans and Sylvia Walsh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Magubane, Bernard Makhosezwe, The Ties That Bind: African American Consciousness of Africa. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1987. Mazama, Ama. Ed., The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003. More, Mabogo, “Gordon and Biko: Africana Existential Conversation,” Alternation, 11, 1 (2004) 79-108. Nissim-Sabat, Marilyn, “Radical Theory and Theory of Communication: Lewis Gordon's Phenomenological Critique of the New World Consciousness,” Atlantic Journal of Communication, Volume 19, Number 1, January 2011, pp. 28-42.

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