Friday, July 31, 2015

Reading Coates, Part 1: WPRs, Westgate and Weak Atheism

I organized a reading/discussion group for Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me a few weeks ago and thought I'd post a few thoughts here as we go along.  By way of context, I'll note that our group is small (8-10 people) and we're a mixed bunch of (mostly, but not exclusively) academics-- from Philosophy, History, Africana Studies, Literature and Languages, Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies (or, for several of our members, some combination of the above).  We've planned three meetings, one for each of the three sections of the book.  Our first session was last Monday, and our next one is next Monday.

I'm writing this now only a couple of days after our first meeting, so what follows is going to be a loosely-organized and largely incomplete series of general thoughts/impressions.  They should not be taken to represent any other member of the group.


On (the experience of) reading Chapter 1
Putting aside the uninformed judgment and unwarranted vitriol of Cornel West's now-infamous "takedown" of Coates in a Facebook post, West did get at least one thing right:  Coates IS, without a doubt, a "clever wordsmith with journalistic talent" practically without equal today.  In fact, my initial impression, even within the first few pages of Between the World and Me (hereafter: BWM), was that Coates is a truly astounding writer, a master of poetic/prophetic prose, capable of excising Truths from experiences with a kind of expert surgical precision. I've been reading Coates' work for a long time and so was surprised at my own surprise at being so compoundingly impressed with his style, but this text really achieves a whole other level of excellence, and I say that as someone who needed no persuading that Coates is among the most excellent writers of my generation.

The first chapter of BWM is epistolary-- Coates' letter is to his 15yr old son-- a stylistic decision that effectively servers as a shibboleth in several important ways.  "Son," it begins, and in so doing shines a floodlight on the walls that separate identity-based existential positions from one another and remind us that experiences on one side of a wall will always remain to some extent unshareable with and untranslatable to those on the other side of that wall. This was a brilliant choice by Coates, I think, especially given the tendency of even well-meaning, liberally-minded folks in privileged positions to think that all experiences are in some manner implicitly universalizable.  (See: #AllLivesMatter)  As a white women, it was important for me to know from the get-go that BWM is not written to me or for me or anyone like me, it is not written to my real or potential child or anyone like my real or potential child, it will not draw on experiences that are like mine and whether or not I "get it," approve of it, agree with it or can identify with it is ENTIRELY BESIDE THE POINT.

I was immediately reminded of Frantz Fanon's account, in Black Skin, White Masks, of sitting in history class, a black child in French-colonial Martinique, reading about "our ancestors, the Gauls."  The profound existential dissonance of Fanon's experience is not, by and large, the experience of what I call White People Reading.  WPR's grow up learning to read history and literature, and learning to love reading history and literature, as readers for whom history and literature is written. As someone who has spent a good portion of her life researching, teaching and thinking about race theory, race history, racecraft, racial identities and race relations, I needed to be reminded that I am and have always been a White Person Reading.

This book was not written FOR me.  It was written IN SPITE of me.

Partly due to its epistolary style, partly because of Coates' poetic sensibilities, BWM for the most part reads fast and easy, like a conversation, for long and engaging stretches... until it doesn't.  Reading BWM is like running full speed through a winding, twisting labyrinth, picking up velocity as you go, propelled onwards at each turn by a kind of increasingly seductive confidence and curiosity, and then all of the sudden WHAMMO!! Coates' drops an absolutely perfectly-constructed Truth directly in your path, stopping you in your tracks as you full-force faceplant directly into that sentence.

One last general impression: Coates and I are basically the same age.  There's a lot of nostalgia in BWM: for being a child of the 80's and young-adult of the 90's, for the advent of hip-hop and rap culture, for a pre-9/11 America, for the pre-9/11 world.  Naturally, I suppose, my own nostalgia for much of the same was triggered.  But mine was a deeply troubled nostalgic identification, because growing up in the 80s and 90s as a black man is a horse of an entirely different color than growing up in that same period as a white woman.  So the nostalgia triggered in me was uncanny, like walking into a perfect replica of your own bedroom. This seems familiar, but it is strange. This is not my room, this is not my life, these are not my memories.  This is not my world.  And so, by the end of Chapter 1, perhaps my most searing, shaming (shameful?) realization was that "my world" is very likely the very thing that stands between THE world and Coates.

Now, some lingering thoughts from our first reading group discussion

Westgate, or, On the So-Called "Facebook Takedown"
Because it was such a recent "event" at the time of our first session, our group spent a lot (probably too much) time talking about Cornel West's Facebook post.  (As the default moderator, mea culpa, since I introduced it as our first topic of conversation and couldn't find a way to get away from it once we got going.)  Still, that allowed for a productive discussion of what are the increasingly high-stakes criteria for entry into the Black Intellectual Pantheon, post-Obama.  I add "post-Obama" there partly because it permits things like (so-called) "post-racial" and (so-called) "politics of respectability" ideologies to be introduced into the mix, but also because West himself seems to have made criticism of Obama the sine qua non criterion for "authentic" Black Intellectual expression, if not also allegiance to and concern for black people themselves.

The collective sentiment among our group was equal parts baffled and disappointed by West's screed, and this is a group that is not at all unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to West's work and career as a public intellectual.  I'm sure this will all be unpacked a hundred times over on the Internet in upcoming weeks, but those of us in the reading group who have read Coates basically agreed with what has quickly become the prevailing judgment, namely, that West's "Facebook takedown" was grossly and obviously unfamiliar with Coates' actually published work. And also that it represented a kind of territorial battle for ownership/authorship of black intellectual and literary legitimacy that is, post-Obama, really and substantively contested.

As cliché as it may sound, the West-Coates dustup really does mark a generational shift in my mind. (To be fair, it's not wholly accurate to call it a "West-Coates" dustup, since West is the one who kicked up all the dust and Coates doesn't even seem to have been bothered with a cough.) There are, of course, many different ways to  mark this generational divide.  There's the now-standard "Civil Rights" generational division (sometimes simplified as "marched-with-King" vs "didn't-march-with-King"), but there's also the real, structurally- and existentially-determined "pre-redlining/War-on-Drugs/carceral-state" black generation vs. the "post-redlining/War-on-Drugs/carceral-state" black generation.  (And that divide is the very one that generated the bizarro "post-racial"/"politics of responsibility" discourses within American black intellectual life, which are far more ideological than generational, despite the fact that they are often incorrectly figured as the latter.)  More specific to academia, and with credit to West himself, there's also the pre-Race Matters vs. post-Race Matters generations--  generations in which both, curiously, West occupies a central position.  But none of these adequately describe the "generational shift" that I see exhibited in the West-Coates clash.

Rather, "West-Gate" is PRIMARILY (and pretty much straightforwardly, as far as I can tell) an instance of the digital divide.  What divides the digitally literate generation from the digitally illiterate one is partly temporal-generational (i.e., my grandmother doesn't understand how a computer works!), partly ideological (i.e., Neo-Luddism), but mostly economic (i.e., some literally cannot afford a computer, or Internet access). Only the former two apply in this case.  West has a Facebook page that he personally authors, but anyone who read his Coates status-update and who also knows anything at all about Facebook could tell that West clearly does NOT understand Facebook.  That's a temporal-generational point, I think. As a self-avowed public intellectual, West should AT LEAST understand Facebook, so the fact that he hasn't made the effort to do so seems to indicate an ideological (Neo-Luddite) resistance as well. But whatever the cause for his obvious lack of familiarity with Coates' arguments and positions, we can be sure that it is certainly NOT the case that West's economic position prohibits him access to the wealth of Coates' (mostly digital) work.

It's not clear from his (ahem) "critique"" that West has even read Coates' groundbreaking and discourse-shaping work in The Atlantic.  He clearly doesn't read/follow Coates' Twitter feed.  And the fact that those who do, and who are most familiar with Coates' work, are primarily familiar with Coates' through digital media is no small point.  Coates is, to my mind, demonstrably THE 21st century journalist, indubitably a 21stC "voice," and arguably a paradigm for the 21stC public intellectual, The latter of those honorifics gets to the heart of West's beef with Coates, as far as I can tell.  In the mid-90's, when Race Matters was published and, more importantly, before the social Internet, it was Cornel West who was the very model of a black public intellectual.  (I mean, he had cameos in The Matrix and 30 Rock!)  But, as everyone knows, the human social/political/economic and intellectual world basically pressed fast-forward sometime around the mid-90's and those who were there when it happened either grabbed a hand-hold made the quantum leap with it, or they didn't.

West, it appears, didn't.

On Monday afternoon, before our first session, I was sitting in a local bar with my colleague Chris Davidson (cramming to finish reading BWM at the last minute), and I stopped at one point and remarked to Chris how strange it was to read a (physical, published) book that recounted events that seemed so recent in my memory.  For example, when Coates remarks to his son in Chapter 1 I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes, I quite literally stopped reading, looked up from my laptop and said to Chris: "didn't that JUST happen?! How is it in a book already?!"  As we all know all too well, it did and didn't "just" happen, and it has and hasn't "just" happened many times since Eric Garner, but in the course of reading Coates' book it impressed upon me the increasingly narrow temporal space between events-as-we-live-them and events-as-they-are-recounted-back-to-us in literature.  I don't think there is anything about Coates' writing or public persona that does not appreciate that those are the hyper-compressed narrative contours of the world we all live in now.  I suppose I can still appreciate, in principle, those who want to insist upon extending the temporal distance between an event and its interpretation, but as a product of the same generation as Ta-Nehisi Coates, I'm also what one might call hermeneutically impatient, that is to say, constitutionally inclined to NOT wait on the Canon to decide what meaningful things mean.

What's God Got To Do With It?
Perhaps the most bizarre (to me) turn in our reading group's conversation has to do with (what I ultimately view as) a fixation on Coates' real or avowed "atheism."  Before I say anything else at all about this, I just want to say that I cannot even imagine any possible way in which a single sentence of TNC's first chapter as it is written would have been inflected with significantly different meaning if I knew that he did,  or did not, believe in God. That said, Coates does make a point of noting that he was not raised in a religious household, that he was not brought up breathing the air of religious beliefs, that he has no allegiances to a theistic account of the world, nor is he concerned with any, and on more than one occasion calls himself an "atheist."

I'm inclined to think (borrowing from Derrida) that he would have been better off saying something more like "I rightly pass for an atheist."

This sort of hair-splitting may only matter to philosophers, but even when Coates has straightforwardly said he's an atheist, which he did most famously (and, I think, firstly) in his 2013 Atlantic essay "The Myth of Western Civilization," it's always been explicated in the form of a set of negative (largely agnostic) claims and hardly ever in the form of a positive claim. That is to say, it's difficult to find a place in Coates' oeuvre where he posits "I believe that there is no God."  Pace the sloppy definitions of atheism that you may find on the Internet, my primary departure from our group had to do with this: technically speaking, atheists posit the non-existence of God.  Because, logically, it is impossible to prove a negative,  atheism in its most reductive sense is a fundamentally fallacious position.   Most people who do not believe in God really mean to say not that "I posit that there is no God" but rather something like "given the available data, I have no evidence to believe that there is a God" or "I have an enormous amount of evidence to incline me to believe that there is no God" (closer to Coates' position, in my view).  However, as any logician worth his or her salt will tell you, absence of evidence is not "evidence of absence."

This is a ticky-tack point, I get it, but Coates' (ultimately,"weak") claim to atheism is far more akin to an "absence of evidence" argument than to an "evidence of absence" argument,  (Though, I admit, there are times when he's sitting right there on the line that distinguishes the two,)  For this reason, I read Coates' "atheism" as a heuristic, primarily intended to prevent us from being distracted by The God Question rather than giving us reason to fixate upon it.  There's a really complex and fascinating ilk of existentialist materialism being assumed (and, in many parts, explicitly defended) to be found in BWM.  Parsing the details and implications of that position requires, I think, taking Coates at his word when he posits and performs the fundamental irrelevance of The God Question for his accounting of himself, his world and what stands between the world and him.

Sex/Gender/Sexuality
We only briefly touched upon the topic of gender near the end of our first reading group session, but I just wanted to note that my very first thought after finishing Chapter 1 was:  I wonder how differently this book would read if Coates were writing a letter to his daughter, rather than to his son?  I don't necessarily think asking that question constitutes a criticism of BWM; rather, it's just an acknowledgement of how deeply and thoroughly racial identities are shot-through with assumptions about sex/gender/sexuality identities.  BWM is a letter from an adult black American male to teenage black American male about being a black man in America.  Coates clearly understands that identities are intersectional, mutually constituting and mutually contaminating. In a couple of places, he straightforwardly addresses the implicature of "black masculinity," which always includes some implicit or explicit sexism and homophobic.  Those considerations are important and I'm glad they're in there, though it wouldn't take much for a more critical critic to convince me that those passages are more hand-waving than engaging.

Looking forward
I'll be interested to see the extent to which our group's foci are also Coates'.  Heading into Chapter 2, I'm probably most interested to see (what I referred to above as) Coates' "existentialist materialism" developed.  Coates' writes about the human world like a physicist writes about the natural world. (BWM is very reminiscent of Spinoza's Ethics, for those of you to whom that reference makes sense and matters!)  There are complex, for the most part "orderly" systems, governed by something like "laws," in which humans exist, move, act and are effected... BUT, because there is something fundamentally eleatic about the world, none of the systems that govern it and by which we understand it are "closed" systems.  Near the end of Chapter 1, Coates writes:
So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
I'm always envious of writers who possess the confidence or wherewithal to make sweeping, bold, even cosmic claims like that.  My intuition is that this account of the world makes sense and, going forward, I'm eager to see it (quite literally) "fleshed" out.

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