Pollitt on West

Daniel F. Vukovich vukovich at students.uiuc.edu
Thu Dec 31 15:41:21 PST 1998

At 05:08 PM 31-12-98 -0500, you wrote:

>If West wants to "dialogue" with the Nation of Islam (or mainly its
>leaders), because his academic stardom makes him feel out of touch with the
>"grassroots" of black America, perhaps what he has and is doing shouldn't
>be called "intervention." It's merely West borrowing the grassroots aura
>from a very small but well-known--and morst importantly,
>*ready-made*--constituency that the media loves. Nothing particularly
>"organic" (in the Gramscian sense) about it here.

No disgreement here that West is *not* an organic intellectual in the Gramscian, or in any "radical" sense. I did not mean to suggest that, it would be silly for a number of reasons. One of these would be the brute fact that this is not the early C.20 of Italy or of anywhere else. I have no idea what an "authentically" radical intervention would be these days, esp. in this case. I also think that "struggling," like all concepts, is a relative term.

It is not West's relative "academic stardom" -- and what in the hell is wrong with that anyway? -- which makes him "other" vis a vis the Nation of Islam. It is his class-position, and his cultural capital as a professional philospher and theologian. Neither of these things "taint" him, in my view. They bestow him with certain abilities and a certain "power," and they also -- on account of that a-moral thing, the social division of labor -- bestow him with certain "obstacles" or differences from such groups/movements as the NofI. It seems obvious that West is sincere in trying to make contact -- or dialogue -- with other, potentially if not actually, progressive groups. (He is also someone who has written about Gramsci and the organic intellectual, and I suspect the latter idea factors into his decsion to "go public"; or perhaps you do indeed have better access to his psyche, and he is just a glamour-queen). I guess I would prefer if West was out "dialoguing" with labor unions or feminist groups; but really I think it is not for me to judge the man. Let us stick with his ideas and his practices, and try to be sophisticated in this and all matters. Our collective problems -- even in terms of sexism, male dominance -- are not to be blamed on academic stars, or now on West in particular.

Something tells me our disagreement -- and perhaps Katha Pollitt's too -- has to do with whether or not we approve of the Nation of Islam. I myself am less interested in approving or disapproving it (or of any public "movement") than I am in understanding it, or moving it forward/leftward, or moreover trying to stop the rightward moving ones. I too know that Farakhan, and the organization as a whole, has bad, patriarchal ideas. Therefore his practice of dialoguing (or "struggling") with him, opens him up to critical suspicion; this is as it should be. If you want to say -- and I think this is the implied logic of that column -- that b/c of the NoI's patriarchal notions, West himself is committing sexism and/or backsliding, then that is all well and good. I think that is a bit reductive or is simply too easy, but still such a claim deserves respect and debate. But I think the NoI is also relatively progressive in re race, racism, and perhaps class/capital. Now, please, it is hardly radical or marxist on either account, but vis a vis the mainstream/culture I think it is so. For these and other reasons, I think it is perfectly understandable that West would want to step in and try and tweak them in a more progressive direction, etc etc. Someone needs to do it, methinks.

The U.S. as it *ought* to be, is a lot more radical, and a lot less patriarchally-structered; the U.S. as it *is*, is horribly conservative and retrograde, in re gender and everything else. To put it theoretically: we need to displace this opposition, this *analyzing* of the "is" in terms of the "ought." To put it more prosaically: there are few, if any, groups comparable in size or scope to the NoI, in terms of being at least potentially, authentically progressive in re racism (in re African-Americans). If this is true (and correct me if I am wrong), then again, it makes sense to me that West would want to dialogue/struggle with them. Perhaps West "ought" (!) to spend his energies and cultural capital on smaller, less influential, fledgling anti-racist groups. But this argument is not the one I have heard anyone make yet.

-- Dan

---------------------------------------------------- Daniel Vukovich English; Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory University of Illinois Urbana, IL 61801 vukovich at uiuc.edu ph. 217-344-7843 ----------------------------------------------------

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