BY Pablo Larios in Opinion | 11 AUG 20

What Can Philosophy Teach Us about Confronting Race?

Two philosophers, Achille Mbembe and Susan Neiman, on the possibility of historical comparison

BY Pablo Larios in Opinion | 11 AUG 20

In this year of enmity and societal exhaustion, even the most mundane tasks become unduly challenging. Each time we take out the trash or post a photo of a bread loaf, we also take a small philosophical leap: attempting to make sense of an unprecedented present. Even self-certain tasks with clear outcomes are haunted by the spectres of analogies – to constraint and flight, beginnings and endings, outbreaks and inlets. These are comparisons, images; but they are no less real for being so.

Metaphors, as the word’s etymology tells us, cross borders, provoke. (In Greek, it means 'to transfer'.) It was an analogy that nearly cost philosopher Achille Mbembe his reputation earlier this year. Scheduled to give a keynote at the Ruhrtriennial festival in Bochum, which should have taken place on 14 August this week, observers in Germany this April dug up past articles in which he compared (and contrasted) present-day Israel and apartheid South Africa. The implications of this analogy were enough to stir up charges of anti-Semitism. Many in Germany and elsewhere maintain that the Holocaust was a singular, incomparable catastrophe; from this it could follow, then, that Israel’s existence is not only exceptional but incontestable. Yet, is any catastrophe singular and how come? Is anything truly incomparable?

Achille Mmembe
Achille Mbembe, 2015. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Reconciling the particularity (of, say, human experience) with universality (of values, laws, norms) was the task of Immanuel Kant’s critiques. (Theorists such as Hannah Arendt identified the roots of totalitarianism in 19th-century colonial enterprises, showing that the death camps of Europe did indeed have historical precedent.) Many today take issue with this groundwork. As Mbembe writes in the Ruhrtriennale keynote just published by Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung: ‘Kant’s “eternal peace” remains, for many people, an illusion.’ Mbembe mentions a ‘new viral and pathogenic age’ in which central questions of political economy resurface: to what extent should any life be sacrificed? If sacrifice is necessary for the good of the whole, how is this quantified? Risks are impossible yet necessary to assess. Economists and policy-makers weigh, painfully, the risks of opening schools versus not opening them; each of us, awkwardly, whether to hug or remain lodged in ‘social distance’. We are all, then, confronted with the spectres of comparison, weighing, of finding derivatives on impossible certainty. As Mbembe’s speech reminds us, human life has no measurable price: ‘it is simply incalculable.’ We need tools to square this infinity with the calculations that present action requires. However, reducing humans to numbers is no such tool.

         Philosopher Susan Neiman’s 2019 book Learning from the Germans (which will be issued in paperback this fall) dares to speculate on the possibility of historical comparison. It’s a book about genocide and the extent to which historical memory is transferable. It asks: what can the US’s overdue racial reckoning learn from Germany’s imperfect Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, its ‘coming to terms with the past’? It’s a question that could be innocuous: shouldn’t we learn from each other’s mistakes? Yet, given the sense of ownership (and confrontation) that trauma and comparison beget, it’s a line of argument that’s not uncontroversial.

Susan Neiman
Susan Neiman, 2019. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

         Neiman, who lives in Berlin, directs an institution called the Einstein Forum (you can see her recent online talk with Noam Chomsky here; in another, also from July, with Jane Goodall and Wendy Doniger). When I met her on a sunny summer day in Berlin’s Neukölln district, she told me that when she arrived in Berlin in 1982, she wouldn’t ‘dare speak English’. ‘So much has changed here’, she urges, in terms of cosmopolitanism and openness. In other words, nations, like people, can change. Things can improve.

Learning from the Germans proceeds dialogically, through face-to-face conversations across Germany and the US with figures she sought out as she wrote a history of these countries’ very different reckonings with their genocidal pasts and presents. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the US is a country founded on slavery, a racist groundwork that plays out in the lives of (currently) hundreds of thousands of incarcerated and murdered Black people today. Germany’s 20th-century genocide was very different, but her book shows how Germany and particularly East Germany did, in part, set an imperfect blueprint for dealing (economically and in terms of its monuments) with their own genocidal crimes. Traveling from Berlin to Oxford, Mississippi, and back, her book shows how difficult and painful it is for both victim and perpetrator to face the past. Germans and non-Germans alike resist ‘learning from Germany’. Yet when I characterised her book as a ‘defence of universalism’, she smiled and agreed.

Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King, 1964. Courtesy: Wikimedia and New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection; photograph: Walter Albertin

Neiman is quick, curious and voluble. She asked: ‘Why do so many people in the arts bash the Enlightenment?’. Neiman knows that Kant is not fashionable in today’s iconoclastic spirit, which would like to dismantle the male, western canon. ‘Why can’t we make the canon larger?’ she offers. In one moving paragraph in her book, she writes that ‘it was the philosophers of the Enlightenment who first condemned Eurocentrism’, noting specific examples from Montesquieu, Christian Wolff, Kant and others. We spoke about Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963), which awed Neiman and I in its relevance, as King found himself caught between those who found him too radical and not radical enough. Just as Martin Luther King looked to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence – in a vastly different context – it should be clear that, by contrast, reductive particularity is just that: reductive. When I told her how I found it surprising that King quotes philosopher Martin Buber and his ‘I-Thou’ relationship, she retorted: ‘In Newark, New Jersey they’ll remind you: his name was Dr. Martin Luther King.’

It’s one thing to speculate in the abstract; it’s another to confront biases, face to face. In Mississippi, Neiman tells me, she ‘met some of the best people I know, and some of the worst.’ In her book chapter entitled ‘The Many Faces of Emmett Till’, she quotes conversations (among others) with Frank Mitchener, the co-chairman of Sumner, Mississippi’s Emmett Till Interpretive Center, who was at the trial of the men who murdered Till; and Reverend Wheeler Parker, Till’s cousin, who was picking cotton in Mississippi that summer and was present when two white men barged in one evening, looking for Till, kidnapping and brutally mutilated him, after Till’s family pleaded for them not to take him. She tells me how she spoke to them in person, in Mississippi, in 2017 just as the debate around Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) erupted.

James Meredith
James Meredith at ‘Ole Miss’ University of Mississippi, Oxford, accompanied by U.S. marshals, 1962. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In the book, she discerns many counter-examples to the fiction that historical events are too particular to compare; she encounters numerous characters of individual contradiction, such as James Meredith, the first Black man to attend ‘Ole Miss’ university in Oxford, Mississippi, prompting a riot in 1962 (he wears an Ole Miss hat when she meets him in his home). The book is a demonstration of the power, not of cancellation, nor of simple conciliation, but of the perpetual task of conversation, of challenging and learning from one another’s irreducible complexities.

About the US, she tells me: ‘Germans ask me: do you think America will turn into an authoritarian state? And I say this is not the question Americans are asking; look at Portland. When Nancy Pelosi tweets “Trump and his Stormtroopers must go”, we are having a debate about fascism.’ She asked me about the recent Harper’s Letter, which she didn’t sign, though she was asked to. When I asked her why, she agreed that it wasn’t the right moment. As we consider our political futures, it’s worth remembering how culture and politics interface; for instance, that post-war (West) Germany’s successful artistic institutions – such as Documenta – were set up as antiserums against nationalism. Anyone who has spent time in Germany will know that the Holocaust, far from being avoided en masse, looms over daily life. In 2004, Germany built a memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in the centre of Berlin; consider that it took the US until 2018 to build its National Lynching Memorial.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, 2006. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: K. Weisser

For all of us, what’s at stake today is recuperating a form of global action and speculation that doesn’t relapse into a patchwork of exclusionary clusters, nor the same corruption of universalism that led to 20th century catastrophes. This future might not look, as Mbembe writes in his speech, like the economic ‘globalisation’ of past decades. What’s worth remembering is that analogies, while risky, are not themselves crimes, but function antidotally. Without them, we’re lost. Ask yourself: do you really want a world of prelapsarian, Dark Age ignorance, where you fear to learn from the people across the mountain? Such isolation is neither desirable nor defendable.

Main Image: Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans, book cover, 2019. Courtesy: Allen Lane 

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.