Why did I get this book?
Primarily it seemed another interesting work making the argument that decolonization in Africa did not necessarily narrowly dovetail into nationalist constructions of sovereignty as the singular and only possible outcome. Crucial for Free Agency Ch. 6.
Is it what I thought it was?
Yes. Very smart, very challenging, profoundly useful both theoretically and at the level of the specific histories the book recounts.
What continuing uses might I have for it?
I could imagine using it in a few classes–the Honors seminar, possibly, if I switched in a few years to a corpus of nationalist or decolonizing texts. Maybe a course on decolonization or the global Cold War.
I will certainly be using it in both Free Agency and Rituals of Sovereignty.
Strikes me as an important “canonical” book that Africanists generally will come to know and cite within a very few years.
“They [Cesaire, Senghor, et al] attempted to transcend conventional oppositions between realism and utopianism, materialism and idealism, objectivity and subjectivity, positivism and rationalism, singularity and universality, culture and humanity. The resulting conceptions of poetic knowledge, concrete humanism, rooted universalism and situated cosmopolitanism now appear remarkably contemporary. Their insights, long treated as outmoded, do not only speak to people interested in black critical thought, anticolonialism, decolonization and French Africa and the Antilles. They also warrante the attention of those on the left now attempting to rethink democracy, solidarity and pluralism beyond the limitations of methodological nationalism and the impasses of certain currents of postcolonial and poststructuralist theory”. p. 3
“This conception of gratitude concedes too much at the outset–to Europe as wealthy benefactor and to a liberal conception of private property. For if modernity was a global process its concepts are a common legacy that already belong to all humanity: they are not Europe’s to give.” p. 11
Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints
One interesting thing is that it seems important to Wilder, Cooper and many others to locate an actually-existing alternative in African societies or among African, pan-African or diasporic intellectuals in the 1950s-1960s as a political rejoinder to the present. E.g., rather than Mamdani, who simply says: here is how we must resolve out the structural problems created by colonialism, Wilder et al feel it’s very important to say that the alternatives were actually thought of and possible.
What Wilder calls humanism or situated universalism is a bit of what I’m thinking of as vernacular liberalism–about what a ‘free’ society actually was in the aspirations or practices of African individuals and what it could be.
Very nice opening move on reclaiming universalism, etc. as not-parochially European. Aims straight at Chakrabarty and I think does so with great clarity.
One question it leaves hanging for me is what I mean to think about with “vernacular liberalism”, which is the extent to which these kinds of humanisms had any circulatory power beyond the master texts and key authors who occupy much of Wilder’s attention. This is almost an old-fashioned kind of intellectual history and theoretical analysis, which again makes sense if Wilder is looking to find a political imagination that’s actually situated in history that had a counterfactual or alternative understanding of decolonization’s possibilities.
I’m not sure Wilder recognizes what the limit condition on using the finely calibrated vision that he attributes to Cesaire, Senghor etc., which is precisely that it is so finely calibrated. Look in the quote above about how precisely he attributes the needle-threading here, as if anything that falls too much to one side or the other of liberalism, humanism, nationalism, etc. is tainted. Maybe this is really the problem with the contemporary left: it is not robust enough, it is too fragile–postcolonial and postmodern theory has produced a kind of fastidiousness in the political imaginary, a sense that all possible articulations of politics are notable first for their complicity in something. But that’s one of the things you can discover I think by re-reading this moment–there is not such a fastidiousness, not a sense of weariness and entrapment.