- Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis ed. by Katherine McKittrick
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015, 290 pp.
With Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, Katherine McKittrick sets out to put the analytical, creative, and intellectual work of Sylvia Wynter on the map. Wynter, a Jamaican writer and thinker, has put forth an extensive corpus of theoretical and creative texts in which she interrogates and challenges the currently hegemonic biocentric conception of the human and its seemingly inescapable order of knowledge. Writing from a decolonial perspective, she foregrounds the interrelations between the ongoing global dominance of the Western world, the origin narrative that considers the human to be a mere biological being, and matters of racial exclusion and violence. McKittrick aptly introduces Wynter's project as one that "patiently attends to the ways in which our specific conception of the human, Man, curtails alternative models of being, the fullness of our interrelated human realization, and a new science of human discourse" (2).
The scope of Wynter's writings is overwhelmingly extensive; she draws from and speaks to historians, sociologists, literary scholars, philosophers, anthropologists, and even neurobiologists in order to come to terms with what it means to be human. In the light of contemporary events, such as racial state violence in the US and the refugee "crises" in Europe, the question of the human has rapidly gained importance. And, as McKittrick implicitly and [End Page 133] explicitly puts forward with this book, so have Wynter's texts. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis thus forms a significant contribution both to the study of Wynter's oeuvre, and to contemporary debates about the reconceptualization of the human.
According to Wynter, rethinking humanness ought to be done cooperatively and collectively. To use her own words, "the struggle that we are confronted with cannot be in any way a one-person task" (18). As a collection of essays that all add "knots of ideas and histories and narratives" (2) to the network that Wynter creates in and with her texts, this book could be said to be practicing, or performing, that principle. Referring to up to forty of Wynter's texts (although McKittrick estimates Wynter's entire oeuvre at more than two hundred texts and presentations), each essay has its own entry points and connections. The diversity of topics is striking, ranging from black intellectual history (chapter 10) to urban planning (chapter 5).
Most prominent, though, is chapter 2 : McKittrick 's eighty-page "interview" with Wynter that is said to function as an extended prologue to the collection of essays that follows. Preceded by only a rather short and concise contextualizing introduction, this "dialogic text" (4) draws attention to the key themes and concepts in Wynter's work. The call-andresponse structure ref lects actual conversations and exchanges between the two, which adds a very welcome personal layer to the often complex issues that are discussed. Wynter repeatedly comments on McKittrick's readings and writings and now and again checks with her about whether they are "on the same page here" (49). The reader is implicitly invited to join in this intimate intellectual bond, which could be best described as a mentor-mentee relationship. Keeping up with the "conversations," however, could very well prove to be too much of a challenge, especially if one is unfamiliar with Wynter's work. McKittrick's notice that "[t]his conversation should be read with Wynter's earlier work in mind" (9) must be taken seriously. She does not intend to take her reader by the hand and provide definitions or straightforward explanations. Even though, as a result, the text is at times quite demanding of the reader, McKittrick could not have made a better decision. To "translate" Wynter's complicated thinking and writing into easily graspable pieces, if possible at all, would disregard the actual diff iculty of rethinking the human outside of the presently hegemonic system of knowledge.
In these "conversations," McKittrick basically gives Wynter free rein to present, extend, and reflect upon...