New Descriptions, New Possibilities
In "Race, Multiculturalism, and Democracy," Robert Gooding-Williams offers an insight. He writes: "Our sense of ourselves and of the possibilities existing for us is, to a significant degree, a function of the descriptions we have available to us to conceptualize our intended actions and prospective lives. … 'Hence if new modes of description come into being, new possibilities of action come into being in consequence.'" In this article, I discuss the philosopher's role in the articulation of new descriptions and thus new possibilities. I argue that potential modes of bold and assertive comportment are conjured when new insurrectionist descriptions are articulated within oppressed populations. To bring this to a higher resolution, I discuss the pervasiveness of dialectical conflict, the need to creatively reorient the descriptions of oppressed groups toward liberation, and the need for more than one prescriptive mode of social amelioration.
dialectics, oppression, insurrectionist ethics, comportment, dynamic nominalism
Dialectic as Backdrop
Plato depicts dialectic (διαλεκτική) as a dialogical form of philosophical inquiry featuring both the collection of things into natural kinds and the division of natural kinds into subcategories (Phaedrus, 265D–266C). In [End Page 168] academic settings, in many a classroom, there is an attempt to facilitate dialectic exchanges between student and text, between student and teacher, and between student and student. Through these types of dialogical exchanges we are afforded opportunities to see the limitations of our own views, to consider the perspectives and interpretations of others, and, hopefully, to gain better notions of the truth.
In Hegel, dialectic involves a much grander claim about the nature of existence. Hegel (1988, 58, 67, 82) describes dialectic as a process of change in which a thesis (x) is confronted by an opposing/contradicting antithesis (the negation of x), which ultimately leads to synthesis (the negation of the negation of x)—a more refined, broadened form of the initial thesis. Dialectic, in this Hegelian instantiation, is discernible in all existing beings, in the development of history, and in the development of consciousness. The dialectic is universal and teleological, the dynamic principle behind change and the progressive unfolding of history (Hegel 1988, 57). Through the meeting of opposition and the subsequent sublation of this opposition, human beings broaden and expand, inching toward greater and greater consciousness of ourselves and our relations to the whole, toward Absolute Knowing.
Of course, Marx appropriated the Hegelian dialectic to describe the development of the economic modes of production. On this account, tribal society was confronted with and supplanted by capitalist society, which inevitably will lead to the higher synthesis, communism. The existential philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrestled with the dialectic. Kierkegaard suggests that the aesthete, living in immediacy, is annulled by the ethical, law-abiding judge but gestures toward the transcendence of this either/or dilemma (via leap of faith). Nietzsche offers a genealogy of morality in which a noble morality is subverted by a slave morality, yet he sees both as primitive relics of lower human culture that must be overcome (by the Übermensch).
A naturalized, open-ended variant of Hegel's dialectic surfaced in the United States in the work of William James. James writes:
This dogging of everything by its negative, its fate, its undoing, this perpetual moving on to something future which shall supersede the personal, this is the hegelian intuition of the essential provisionality, and consequent unreality, of everything empirical and finite. … Any partial view whatever of the world tears the part out of its relations, [End Page 169] leaves out some truth concerning it, is untrue of it, falsifies it. The full truth of anything involves more than that thing. In the end nothing less than the whole of everything can be the truth of anything at all. … Taken so far, and taken in the rough, Hegel is not only harmless, but accurate. There is a dialectic movement in things … but it is one that can be described and accounted for in terms of the pluralistic vision of things far more naturally than in the monistic terms to which Hegel finally reduced it.(1996, 89–90)
Here, James is critical of Hegel's closed teleology and his monist Absolute, yet he accepts the idea that there is a dialectical movement in things and that our relations grow as objects are dogged by their negative. James (1956, 110, 299) postulates a wild/evolving, pluralistic universe, and thus the dogging of everything by its negative does not necessarily lead to progress, development toward a predetermined end is not destined or inevitable, and every systematic inquiry leaves an unclassified residuum.
People often fail to recognize the pervasive dialectical features of human experience, in this Jamesian sense. But to recognize the dialectic movement of things highlights the contradictions, the tensions, the perspectivism we face in our lives (James 1996, 99). For instance, as enculturated fallible beings, we may recognize our epistemic limitations, our inability to discern with certainty the best way of life, and yet most of us are very much caught up in the practice of institutionalizing particular goals and norms. There is dialectical tension here. Similarly, there is tension between our commitments to remain open to novel or alternative perspectives and our commitments to maintaining and carrying forward a set of (traditional) ideas and cultural goods. There is a tension between our commitments to openness and tolerance and our loyalty/allegiance to our culturally bound values and perspectives. There is a tension between a commitment to sympathy and compassion for the other and a commitment to confront and fight injustice or oppression. Here, I mean to make two preliminary points. First, human experience does seem to bear the marks of dialectic. We are often confronted by conflicting forces and ideas; things are dogged by their negatives. And, second, some benefit, some amelioration, may be wrought out through dialectical conflict. By overcoming factors of opposition and conflict, we can transform those factors into differentiated aspects of a higher powered and more significant life (Dewey 1989, 20). [End Page 170]
Camels, Lions, and Comportment
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche develops an extended metaphor concerning the "three metamorphoses of the spirit" (1969, 54–55). Nietzsche describes the metamorphic process the spirit undergoes: from camel to lion and from lion to child. The camel represents a domesticated, weight-bearing spirit—a beast of burden, whose will is broken and dutifully bound to some external authority or power. The lion represents a rebellious (or insurrectionist) spirit—a proud beast of prey, who wants to be lord in its own desert and is willing to throw off shackles and destroy conventional mores. The lion creates space/freedom for new creation. The child spirit represents the innocent and forgetful spirit, a new beginning. The child is a self-propelled wheel—it is free to forget past confines, to will its own will and create new values for itself. Here again, the keen eye might notice the dialectic—(1) camel, (2) the negation of the camel (i.e., the lion), and (3) the negation of the lion (i.e., the child).
In the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche revisits this theme, pointedly chastising what he perceived to be the weight-bearing camel spirit of his time. This, of course, was the morality of compassion, which has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Consider the so-called Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. One is reproached for sexual desire, relish of fine food, the attempt to better one's material existence, enjoying leisure, showing righteous indignation, the attempt to acquire what another possesses, or acknowledging one's own power or excellence. Nietzsche prods us to consider whether there is anything wrong with pride, beauty, and strength. Following Nietzsche, I would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with these character traits. Yet these traits have been devalued and discouraged within the Judeo-Christian tradition—at least in principle. By valuing self-denial, self-sacrifice, humility, restraint, serenity, compassion, and charity, this morality of compassion breeds guilt-ridden, self-effacing, meek, impotent people (Nietzsche 1998, 4). Morality, in this case, acts as a poison or a narcotic that dulls, pacifies, and immobilizes these camel spirits. It produces a backward-glancing tiredness and turns their will against life, holding them back from reaching the highest power and splendor of the human type (Nietzsche 1998, 5). Hence arise the lion spirits, the proud beasts of prey, who rebel and take joy in negating conventional values, clearing space for the creation of new values. The lion spirit makes space for the imminent child spirits, for new possibilities. [End Page 171]
I rehearse this Nietzschean metaphor to draw attention to the dialectic between the camel spirit and the lion spirit. I want to emphasize the self-effacing and submissive character traits of the camel spirit, as well as the lion spirit's bold and rebellious strivings to confront and annihilate that which confines the camel spirit. I want to emphasize how particular norms affect comportment, the manner in which a person carries him- or herself. If we situate these ideas within discussions of oppression, the metaphor may become more salient.
Oppressed people, as perceived members of a stigmatized group, are systemically reduced, immobilized, and molded as subordinate to another group (Frye 1983, 33). Through social norming, typecasting, estrangement, bigotry, and symbolic acts of terror/violence, the oppressed person is reduced, defanged, and molded in a particular caste. This may manifest in (lack of) sartorial choices, in (lack of) uprightness of posture, in (lack of) forcefulness of speech—in demeanor, in comportment. Women are compelled to be demure and sexually available, to smile (Frye 1992, 129). LGBTQ people are compelled to don sex-specific clothing and mannerisms and to deny their relationships, their most basic displays of affection. Black and brown men are compelled (often through threat of violence, loss of employment, or incarceration) to be nonthreatening and acquiescent. Other oppressed groups learn to hide in plain sight, to quietly carry out their work and not draw attention. Stepping outside of these roles, choosing another script, one is subject to reproach, often labeled bitch, man-hater, mentally unstable, sexual deviant, terrorist, thug, or bad hombre. Thus, in established oppressive relationships, oppressed groups maintain something like a camel spirit, a weight-bearing ethos of compliance and modesty. (That is, unless they become lion spirits.)
Oppressed people can take a militant stance of resistance to their oppression and become lion spirits (McBride 2017a, 230). They can overtly or surreptitiously challenge and undermine oppressive norms and authority figures (McBride 2013, 32). They can give approbation to insurrectionist character traits (e.g., tenacity, irreverence, indignation, guile, and audacity) when faced with injustice or oppression (Harris 1999, 230, 236; 2002, 196; McBride 2018, 9–10). This could manifest in graceful, resolute, and bold comportment—in bold and assertive sartorial choices, posture, and speech (Kaiser 2012, 1, 23). Furthermore, these emboldened oppressed people can bind together in impure coalitions of resistance to marshal potent social agency (McBride 2018). Hence arise the lion spirits, the bold and [End Page 172] indignant, who rebel and take joy in destroying those material conditions that cause and maintain oppression and degradation, clearing space for imaginative scenarios of emancipation and the creation of new values and relationships (Harris 1997, 112; 1999, 240; cf. Foucault 1988, 124). This is not the work of submissive, self-effacing, or complacent weight-bearing camel spirits. No, this is the work of confident, uncompromising, and rebellious lion spirits.
Descriptions and Possibilities
To open new paths toward the lion spirit (and subsequent paths toward the child spirit), we may need to broaden, complicate, or change the descriptions we entertain. Here, Ian Hacking's (2002, 106) dynamic nominalism is instructive. Hacking does not advocate a strict nominalism; he recognizes a distinction between people and things. He writes, "What camels, mountains, and microbes are doing does not depend on our words": "The microbes' possibilities are delimited by nature, not by words" (2002, 108). But human actions are different. Human actions are closely linked to the descriptions and conceptual frameworks available to us. Hacking writes, "Who we are is not only what we did, do, and will do, but also what we might have done and may do. Making up people changes the space of possibilities for personhood" (2002, 107). By and large, deliberate human action depends on the possibilities of description afforded to the human beings in question. As Foucault (1990, 43, 101) points out, particular lifestyles, interpersonal relationships, taboos, social norms, and specific forms of discipline were inconceivable prior to the making of the categories of "homosexual" and "heterosexual" in the late nineteenth century. A similar claim can be made about modern racial categories, which were only fashioned in the eighteenth century. New possibilities are envisioned as new descriptions are articulated (Hacking 2002, 108).
Robert Gooding-Williams, in "Race, Multiculturalism, and Democracy" (2006, 93), applies Hacking's dynamic nominalism to racial classification and identity. First, Gooding-Williams distinguishes between "being black" and "being a black person." Being black is understood as a consequence of a practice of racial categorization to which blacks have been subjected (Gooding-Williams 2006, 91). Being black is thus socially constructed and imposed—the product of a rule-governed social practice [End Page 173] of racial categorization, based upon visual and cognitive identification (Gooding-Williams 2006, 91–92). As such, "being black" expresses a third-person perspective (Gooding-Williams 2006, 92). In contrast, "being a black person" expresses a first-person perspective. One is a black person only if one (1) classifies oneself as black and (2) makes choices and formulates plans in light of one's identification of oneself as black. Gooding-Williams has thus deftly separated the imposed aspect of race from racial self-identification. We can now recognize the historic and structural oppression of "being black" while undermining essentialist conceptions of "being a black person." And this, in turn, allows people to assume whichever first-person identity they find prominent and meaningful.
On this view, there is no authentic way to be a black person. Being authentically (or inauthentically) a black person "makes no sense" (Gooding-Williams 2006, 95). Our sense of ourselves and of our possibilities is a function of the descriptions available (Gooding-Williams 2006, 93). Given new descriptions, myriad ways of being a black person are rendered possible (Gooding-Williams 2006, 95). Some of these descriptions may be liberating. Descriptions that evince insurrectionist character traits may create new ways to challenge antiblack racism. New descriptions that feature the perseverance and audacity of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, or "the Martin Luther King, Jr. who calls for some form of constructive coercive power (i.e., a higher synthesis beyond moral suasion and violent rebellion)" may counter the camel spirit, the compliant submissiveness that is expected of oppressed populations (King 2010, 137).
Let me offer a personal example. I am named after my father, and he was named after his father; I am the third in a line. There is some pride in such things. But that is not the full story. As a boy, I was raised believing a tall tale. I was told that my (black American) great-great-grandfather had killed his slave master, escaped to freedom, and changed his name. This story, I learned much, much later, is spurious. Apparently, the genuine story is that my black great-grandfather was treated unjustly at the general store (in the Jim Crow South) by one or several white men—the accounts vary—and a fight ensued. As this story is told, my great-grandfather bested one or more white men and promptly fled Mississippi to evade the lynch mob that was assembled and sent after him. Once he made it to safety, he changed his surname to McBride and gave his children Irish names. My name, in this sense, is an alias—un nom de guerre. In any case, the stories I was told afforded me descriptions of proud, indignant black [End Page 174] forefathers. When met with racism or injustice, they took a posture of resistance; they challenged the racial apartheid, the racist terrors of the time (McBride 2017a, 230). Whether true or fictional, such descriptions opened new possibilities for me. They allow me to imagine myself a lion spirit, more confident and less afraid to flare with indignation when met with injustice.
Of Nietzsche, Georg Simmel writes: "It has frequently been stressed that Nietzsche's doctrine is in opposition to his personality: a rude, warlike, and yet bacchantic cry erupts from an extremely sensitive, quiet, introspective, and loveable man. Certainly this does not constitute an argument against the doctrine's validity. Often a philosopher expresses in his doctrine the opposite of what he is, supplementing his shortcomings in a personal dialectic and compensating for the desires he has never realized, thereby striving for full humanity" (1991, 179–80). Many of us do in fact think and write to enhance one aspect of our own personal dialectic, to supplement our shortcomings and thereby strive for a fuller instantiation of ourselves. (I do.)
The descriptions and scripts we inherit through enculturation and tradition affect our comportment. If Hacking and Gooding-Williams are right, new descriptions offer new possibilities. For people who are oppressed, new descriptions could be extremely liberating. As Megan Craig (2015, 181; this volume) points out, through imaginative projection, doors can open to modes of agency previously unrecognized, unimagined (cf. McBride 2017b, 90). The approbation of insurrectionist character traits would affect demeanor, the manner in which the oppressed person carries or conducts him- or herself. In other words, it makes bold comportment possible in oppressed populations. This bold comportment opens new avenues of resistance, new articulations of one's self and potential coalitions, new imaginative scenarios of emancipation (McBride 2013, 40; 2017a, 232).
Dialectical Conflict and Plural Descriptions
I began this article with a discussion of dialectic. I, along Jamesian lines, see a dialectical movement in things. This suggests that there is tension or conflict imminent in any settled situation. Any settled situation is ripe for dogging by its negation. This postulate about the pervasiveness of dialectical conflict was meant to serve as the backdrop to the subsequent discussion [End Page 175] of the tension between those who are compelled into a meek, immobilized mode of comportment and those who take on a bold, assertive mode of comportment as a means to destabilize the previous, oppressive mode of being. In addition, I attempted to appropriate an insight from Hacking—"If new modes of description come into being, new possibilities for action come into being in consequence" (2002, 108). It is here that I think that we see a vital "task of philosophy." Philosophers are needed to conceive new descriptions and create new possibilities for action. Philosophers seem well situated to clearly articulate and critically assess the descriptions of oppressed groups that contribute to those groups remaining disempowered, timid. Philosophers are needed to creatively articulate new descriptions that offer new possibilities and direct oppressed groups toward liberation.
But, of course, we are not all situated in the same way. Not everyone is oppressed. Many of us who are oppressed are not oppressed in the exact same ways. For this, intersectionality remains significant (Collins 2011, 2012). But I can imagine that some people will fail to see the oppression of stigmatized groups. This seems to suggest that we may need to articulate more than one set of descriptions. We may need to present the dominant groups among us with descriptions of attentive and empathetic comportment (Gallegos de Castillo, this volume; Hamington 2004, 68; Seigfried 1999, 91). We may also need to present the subordinated with clear and persuasive descriptions of audacious and insurrectionist comportment. In other words, we may need to articulate different descriptions for different groups—one set for those who do not recognize the oppression and another set for the oppressed. ([x] and [the negation of x].)