- Introduction:On Sylvia Wynter and the Urgency of a New Humanist Revolution in the Twenty-First Century
Empire's most powerful apparatus is the education system. It initiates us into a culture and knowledge system that instructs us to want to be of a specific ethnoclass of humanity. . . . The tragedy of this is that whilst this particular idea of being optimally human holds us together, as Americans, it can do so only in terms of the "us" and "the not us." . . . it is a version of reality in which the American White middle class, or the "Cosby-Huxtable" variants of this, as I wrote in my open letter after the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, is represented, or rather overrepresented, as the reference point for what a human is supposed to be. . . . We cannot give up writing stories about what it means to be human that displace those that are at the foundation of Empire. There is no order in the world that can exist or hold together, including an empire, without a founding story. Now the question for academia in the twenty-first century is, will you make space within it to be able to write a new foundation?—Sylvia Wynter
Sylvia Wynter's unrelenting advocacy of a new humanist revolution in the twenty-first century is inspiring critical scholars across the disciplines to continue confronting the limits of the humanisms that presently govern our political, economic, educational, and scientific institutions.1 A distinguishing feature of Wynter's scholarship since the 1970s is her view that academics are part of a modern professional intellectual class institutionally ordained as "grammarians" of our social order. She made this clear in 1977, when after becoming the first Black woman professor to receive tenure at Stanford University, she reminded her colleagues, "Every society codes you to perceive yourself in one way, and basically what we do in a university is to examine these codings."2 Her colleagues may not have considered this a revelation, but for Wynter, who had by then devoted virtually every bit of her professional life to decolonizing struggles staged in the Caribbean academe (during the 1960s) and the American academe (in the early 1970s), it was a point worth reiterating. She restated her position on the social importance of the academic again, even more fervently, in an open letter to her colleagues published in the wake of the LA uprisings, in the fall of 1992, in which she explains the [End Page 831] political motivation of all her scholarly endeavors in the form of a question: "If, as Ralph Ellison alerted us to in his The Invisible Man, we see each other only through the 'inner eyes' with which we look with our physical eyes upon reality, the question we must confront in the wake of the Rodney King Event becomes: What is our responsibility for the making of those 'inner eyes'? Ones in which humanness and North Americanness are always already defined, not only in optimally White terms, but also in optimally middle-class (i.e. both Simi Valley, and secondarily Cosby-Huxtable TV family), variants of these terms?"3 Her conclusion in that letter, as it has been consistently throughout her writings over the past five decades, is that academics and educators must "spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic . . . [for] it is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us—hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality."4 Wynter's aspiration for us, her colleagues in academe, is that we may play a key role in paving the way for a mass rebellion against the law-like ways that the desires, interests, and world-making ambitions of the "capitalist neoliberal and corporate financial bourgeoisie ruling class" are represented homologously as those of our species as a whole.
Since retiring from Stanford in 1995, Wynter has continued to underscore in numerous essays, lectures, and interviews the...