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  • Rhythm, or On Sylvia Wynter's Science of the Word
  • Katherine McKittrick (bio), Frances H. O'Shaughnessy (bio), and Kendall Witaszek (bio)

If you don't dance, make sure you got the rhythm Make sure that your heartbeat beats with the rhythm.

—Robyn Rihanna Fenty, "Dancing in the Dark"

The writings of Sylvia Wynter are, in part, animated by her difficult concept "science of the word." This concept identifies two overlapping themes. The first is Wynter's dislodging of our biocentric system of knowledge, one that conceptualizes the human under a Darwinist model of the natural organism and posits that we are purely and totally evolutionary beings.1 She argues that we are, as a human species, bios-mythois: the word (mythoi) conditions the study of nature (bios); mythoi and bios are enmeshed and, together, posit the human as a biological-storytelling species. For purposes of this short essay, bios-mythois is a rhythmic interplay between nature and narrative. The double-entwined assertion that we are, simultaneously, scientific (biologic) beings and narrative (storytelling) beings provides a rhythmic framework that refuses the linear teleology of "evolution," which hierarchically organizes—and evaluates—humans according to phenotype. Science of the word thus illuminates a genre of being human that rethinks the racial underpinnings of who and what we are by overturning a knowledge system—evolution and its economic-colonial ally, accumulation-by-dispossession—that justifies racism and other practices of violence.2 With this in mind, genre signals different kinds and ways of being human that are relational to one another and are, collectively, across geographies and racial identifications, bios-mythois. Put succinctly, genre uncodes and recodes humanity by centering that we are all bios-mythois. While we are all stifled by the Darwinian genre-specific version of the human, thinking in genres capaciously, conceptually troubles and unmasks this as a false narrative by offering a species perspective on humanity (different and relational kinds and ways of being, different and relational stories about who and what we are and how we came to be).3 The second theme that science of the word opens up is radical collaborations. Specifically, the [End Page 867] coupling of "science" with "word" is a methodology that insists we think across disciplines rather than rely on disconnected tracts of knowledge production. Wynter undisciplines discipline and offers radical interdisciplinarity: she shows us that the natural sciences cannot be bifurcated from the social sciences and the humanities; she demonstrates how the links between the hard sciences and other disciplines are generative sites of inquiry; and she thinks relationally, across a range of intellectual histories, disciplines, and interdisciplines. In sum, Wynter asks that we recognize the ways in which narrative is scientific (to enunciate stories is a physiological practice) and science is narrated (evolution is a socially produced origin story) while illustrating the potentiality of thinking and theorizing relationally.4

This is an undoubtedly complex reading of humanity and knowledge that we attribute, more generally, to scholars of the Caribbean and its diaspora. Movements and rhythms—the work of thinking across and with tracts of knowledge and reimagining humanity—can be found in a great deal of Caribbean scholarship; conceptual, geographic, and embodied interruptions—to Euro-modernity writ large—trouble a genre-specific and biocentric version of the human. Aside from Léopold Sédar Senghor, who lived most of his life in Senegal and France, the writers whom we center in this piece move through modernity from the axel and matrix of the Caribbean and its diaspora. Kamau Brathwaite describes the region as being caught in the center of an explosion—a cultural catastrophe.5 Relatedly, as Édouard Glissant notes, the Caribbean is a site of ruptures and relations, an experiment in aesthetic unbelonging.6 Many Caribbean intellectuals theorize humanity through the messiness of our global predicament; their ideas emerge from being in but not narratively of the "West." Wynter's work is exemplary of this kind of positioning, emerging from sites of modernity (chaos, catastrophe) to produce relational theories—uncomfortable but generative rhythms—that are in but not of the West. She theorizes across thinkers, disciplines, ideas, and histories, demonstrating that collaboration engenders her conceptualization of science of the...


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