We can no longer afford that particular romance.
Brother Rickey halts me before I cross East
Capitol. He trumpets that we are at war.
I want to admit that I don’t believe in “white”
—in the manner that Baldwin did not—but Brother
Rickey would simply retort that my disbelief
is no immunity from the imaginations of those
who think themselves “white.” As we await
the stoplight’s shift—so I may walk and he may
holler “Final Call!” between lanes of idle traffic—I
think of race as something akin to climate change,
a force we don’t have to believe in for it to undo us.
I once believed in the seasons. (I fantasize
fall as Brother Rickey’s favorite—when
his suits, boxy and plaid, would be neither too hot nor
thin.) But we are losing spring and fall—tripping
from blaze to frost and back. And what’s to say
we won’t soon shed another season, one of these
remaining two, and live on either an Earth
of molten streets or one of frozen light? That’s when
worlds end, no—when, after we’ve eradicated
ourselves, we become faint fossils to be exhumed
by the curiosities of whichever life-forms follow
our reign? I still owe Brother Rickey two dollars
for the paper he last placed in my hand, calling me
“soldier.” I don’t have to believe that I am enlisted
in order to understand he’ll forgive my debt
so long as this idea of “whiteness” sorties above us—
ultraviolet, obliging an aseasonal, unending deployment.
Released by the signal, I advance—my head down,
straining to discern the crossfire from the cover.
KYLE DARGAN is the author of four collections of poetry—Honest Engine (2015), Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007), and The Listening (2004). For his work, he has received the 2019 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His books also have been finalists for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize. Dargan has partnered with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities to produce poetry programming at the White House and Library of Congress. He has worked with and supports a number of youth writing organizations, such as 826DC, Writopia Lab, and the Young Writers Workshop. He is currently an associate professor of literature and director of creative writing at American University, as well as the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine.
It’s December in Sweden and I’ve come to pick up Miss Morrison from the Nobel Banquet at Stockholm City Hall. I’m driving the washed and waxed black limo. I have on my vintage Pullman hat. My locks are tucked tight under the rim of the fifty-year-old brim. She won’t recognize me. She won’t remember our meeting many years ago when I stood in a very long line waiting for her to sign my hot-off-the-press copy of Song of Solomon. I had my first book, On Wings Made of Gauze, hiding under my arm as a gift. I wanted to show her evidence of what her words had helped me realize. An hour later when I finally reached her she stared at the front of the book for a minute then turned it over (a startling black-and-white photo stretched from top to bottom). She looked from the photo back to me, Look at you. Then added, You working? Her statement was Black woman familiar. Something one of my aunts might have said to encourage audacity. It was the question that startled me. Had I been waiting for a compliment and not a question about devotion? I never answered. The bookstore assistant pushed me along welcoming the next reader in line. I have kept the moment and the question over my desk for the last thirty years. The city hall doorman brings me back to the streets of Stockholm when he opens the car door for Miss Morrison. The ceiling light pops on and he helps her into the dark back. Of course, because she is who she is, she notices everything: my poking-out locks; the cool, nicely visible Pullman seal on the front of the hat. She seems to be staring at its reflection in the rearview mirror. Nice hat, she says without giving comment about the wayward lock. Thank you. The limo driver’s training course said not to speak unless spoken to. I don’t look her way. I’ve been practicing playing it cool for weeks. She calls Lois on her new Nokia 100. The latest in 1993 mobile phone technology. I’ve never seen one before—of course Miss Morrison would have one of the first. She raises the phone to her beautiful Howard U. dramaturge lips and leans into the backseat like a woman who knows good leather from bad, like a woman who has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature and left nothing worth hearing unsaid—for the moment. She’s relaxed and staring out the window into the world she owns. I can tell she’s tired of Swedes and caviar and just wants to get back to her Hudson River Drive. I say nothing and ease away from the traffic light into the starry frigid Stockholm night. I want to open my mouth and tell her the backstory about quitting my job and buying a ticket to Sweden and applying for this part-time job in order to drive her wherever she wants to go while she is in Stockholm to receive the greatest literary award in the world. But not even Toni Morrison would believe my long Afrogalaxy story that is absolutely true. I try to use only the side mirrors to see what I need to see and get us where we need to go because if she notices me looking at her in the rearview she’ll know I’m a fraud. First she’ll see the river banking in my eyes and next the ocean gathering in my face. The deep water of how grateful I am. I am here in Stockholm because I want to thank her for writing the books she needed to read and for making more than one copy. I don’t want her to see or ask me any questions about the journal book I have open and on the front seat. I don’t want her to ask what a Black woman with locks is doing driving a limo in Stockholm, two weeks before Christmas, one night after the sacred night of her Nobel Prize award. A coincidence? Hardly. You know how she likes to follow her questions out backwards all the way to the end. Red light. What a great Black woman laugh she has. Lois must’ve said something Lorain, Ohio–crazy. Miss Morrison’s laugh could make a Black man wearing blue silk take flight off the top of a hospital building and not look down. She tells Lois to hold on a minute and covers the speaker holes in the funny-shaped phone with her writing hand that sparkles with a one-of-a-kind blue sapphire. Well, look at you, Miss Pullman Porter, all these years and you still haven’t answered my question. Haven’t you heard how I don’t like to repeat myself. Maybe just this once. You working?
NIKKY FINNEY is the author of five books of poetry, including Head Off & Split(NU Press, 2011), winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. She is the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. Finney has received the Art for Change Fellowship from the Ford Foundation and currently serves as an ambassador for the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Art for Justice Project.
So what does it mean to say that Blackademic Lives Matter?
Blackademic: A portmanteau of “black” and “academic.” My first literary encounter with the word was in Mat Johnson’s academic novel Pym, but I’m sure he was not the first to use it. It is a word that has long been floating around the internet as a term of solidarity among black students and professors. We all understand that no matter where we are located, even on majority-black campuses, we represent only a small portion of the professoriat. According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, African Americans account for 6 percent of full- time faculty in America’s postsecondary institutions (with black women accounting for half of that 6 percent).
Though my focus is on formal higher education, I have strived toward a conception of the academic that is not an exclusionary one. The history of black scholarship is a history of independent black intellectuals working on the margins of an academy that was often hostile toward and dismissive of their work. Despite the gripes of conservatives in the culture wars— which Ishmael Reed satirizes in his 1993 academic novel Japanese by Spring— it hasn’t really been that long since scholarship on African American literature, culture, and history has been taken seriously in academia. Black studies is hardly the dominant presence that culture warriors invent in their strident political screeds. I confess that there are times when maybe I conflate intellectual and academic more than I should, no matter how much I know I should contextualize the term with the help of Antonio Gramsci, bell hooks, Harold Cruse, and Jerry Watts. However, one thing that draws me to academic fiction is the way that this work affirms the importance of the college as a site for the institutionalization and dissemination of knowledge. Rather than retreating from the academy and declaring it a space for hopeless sellouts, these works constitute a documented record of how black intellectuals have brought the fight to the Ivory Tower and have insisted on making spaces for themselves, whether at black colleges or at white colleges that originally excluded them. They show why the fight for the university is a worthy struggle, even as they may hold on to doubts about its political efficacy as a site for liberation.
Lives: Being neither a biologist, cosmologist, nor theologian, I won’t claim to speak to the definition of life on those terms. But in the context of academia one finds in the literature various invocations of the term “the academic life.” Cynthia Franklin’s Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today is a study of the academic memoir, a genre very closely related to the academic novel (and some might say too closely related, since the dominant mode of “literary realism” in academic novels often means its authors use names of real professors and institutions, or use pseudonyms so thin they might as well be real names). To me, the word “life” in this academic context involves ideas of intention, purpose, and mindfulness. What does it mean to devote one’s energy and substance to this profession? What does it mean to make a choice to devote one’s finite time in this earthly form to the purposes of scholarship and teaching? I think one of the most eloquent statements about the academic life comes from the terminally ill Dr. Vivian Bearing, the professor of English in Margaret Edson’s academic play Wit, who speaks of “the contribution to knowledge” as the most profound act of her life.7 In her case that contribution included her scholarship, her teaching, and even the very substance of her body, which she gives over as a sacrifice to medical research on the aggressive ovarian cancer that would eventually take her life. There are similarly poignant stories of sacrifice in black academic novels, of people who gave their lives to the cause of education and uplift, for whom academia was not just a profession but also a calling and a critical site in a multigenerational struggle for equality and liberation.
Matter: “To matter” is to make a difference, to have meaning and purpose. I am also thinking of “matter” and “life” in materialist terms related to the body and labor. The biopolitical history of America is one in which the black body is solely a material resource for white wealth extraction. In Thomas Jefferson’s infamous Query XIV in Notes on the State of Virginia he argued that blacks were essentially born to be beasts of burden, that they didn’t suffer in the heat, that they had animalistic sexual appetites, and that even if one of them, like the poet Phillis Wheatley, managed to become literate and attempt to write, at best her work could achieve only cheap imitation and never reach the intellectual accomplishment of imaginative literature. When black bodies were shipped to the Americas as part of a massive project of capitalist profiteering, the enslaved were not considered persons at all but raw material in this enterprise. The university was also part of that capitalist slave economy, and Craig Steven Wilder’s sobering 2015 book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities has shown the extent to which universities in their early years were funded by the transatlantic slave trade and functioned as the ideological wing of a racial capitalist enterprise. That raises the question— what does it mean to have black bodies in these same spaces that were built, in part if not in whole, for the perpetuation of racial capitalism? This is a concept that student activists are addressing now as they challenge their institutions to consider what it means to have their black students living and studying in buildings named for slaveholders and slavery apologists, such as the students of Middle Tennessee State University, who successfully protested to change the name of Forrest Hall, a building named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Since the days of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley, black writers have been writing against regimes of domination and dehumanization. Black academic novels not only participate in this tradition of using writing and education as tools of liberation but also call attention to the ways that practices of literary production have historically been bound up with racialized thinking.
In the pages that follow I show how and why Blackademic Lives Matter, why blackademic novels matter, and I share some of the lessons I’ve learned by spending time with these books. And to paraphrase something that the activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have argued, ceaselessly, against their most obtuse critics: to say that Blackademic Lives Matter does not mean these are the only lives that matter. I won’t even dignify the foolish argument that focusing on black people means I’m being antiwhite. More importantly, I do not wish to reify an elitist vanguardism of “the talented tenth,” an idea that privileges educated, respectable black people over other members of the group. Black academic novels deal with higher forms of education and therefore often deal with black people of academic achievement who move in elite spaces, but they also contain numerous criticisms of the respectability, elitism, and colorism that have afflicted black politics. One of the most valuable aspects of this project has been the opportunity to review the variety of strategies that black intellectuals have used to define their own political roles as intellectuals.
LAVELLE PORTER was born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi. He now holds a Ph.D. in English from the CUNY Graduate Center and a B.A. in history from Morehouse College. His writing has appeared in venues such as The New Inquiry, Poetry Foundation, and JSTOR Daily, and he is a blogger for Black Perspectives. He serves on the Board of Directors of the CLAGS Center for LGBTQ Studies. He has also worked as a licensed New York City walking tour guide, and has taught courses on NYC literature and history.
open and picked apart
the heart of America that beats too fast,
because if you don’t run quick enough,
you don’t know who will shoot you.
In Chicago, the cops look like gargoyles with guns for teeth
the land of long buildings and lost boys. Sometimes I think
there is no name for Chicago,
just a mother’s cry to the master of the earth bring my baby home, speak up, bring my baby home wherever he is, so I will breathe. For once.
Chicago is a rattling dashboard camera that fell off,
or broke, or maybe both.
The city of meticulous investigations,
where the people don’t talk about death,
they just pull out everything from their pockets
and spread them on the table,
thinking how much money can we bury a black boy in?
The windy city where boys dangle and sway and spin and sputter
until the pavement feels better to sleep on than their own beds.
Kara Jackson is 2019 National Youth Poet Laureate. Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2016 and 2017, Jackson is also a previous Youth Poet Laureate of Chicago. In 2018, she won the literary award at the annual Louder Than a Bomb finals selected by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Patricia Smith.
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Baby girls boom. Baby girls blow
and burn, skin balloons, booms.
Baby girls burn, boom. The Lord
dangles, festive and helpless.
Hymnals blacken while brown
baby girls pucker, leak. Blood jells,
muddles pigtail, makes lace stiff.
Baby girls blacken, crackle
in the vague direction of His hands
nailed still. Baby brown girl bodies
gap wide, wider, char and shut.
PATRICIA SMITH is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art, winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the 2017 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the 2018 NAACP Image Award, and finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; and Gotta Go, Gotta Flow, a collaboration with award-winning Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her other books include the poetry volumes Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns Big Talk, Life According to Motown; the children’s book Janna and the Kings and the history Africans in America, a companion book to the award-winning PBS series. Her writing has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, and The New York Times and in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, and Best American Mystery Stories. She co-edited The Golden Shovel Anthology—New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and edited the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir.
The fallout from our current crises has not yet settled. As we have adapted to online iterations of our work, we have also experienced a profound loss of life, paired with an unprecedented economic collapse. How these crises might affect higher education writ large is perhaps already glimpsed by present conditions of austerity. For Digital Humanities (DH), the uneven and combined effects of the crises could fundamentally alter our disciplinary practice.
Digital Humanities are an assemblage of academic tools and methods that demand intellectual evolution. This is, first, a fact of DH’s disciplinary formation–interdisciplinary and technologically driven–but one that is still frequently debated. Second, the demand to evolve is a political principle realized in DH’s practice. Among its many iterations, traits like collaboration, generative thinking, and making are centered, modeling an intellectual evolution meant to resist individualism in the rush to produce knowledge within larger structures of individual gain. How these disciplinary practices are distinguished from long-established modes of humanistic inquiry define DH as much as they create inevitable tension.
Despite its digital character, institutional space—particularly the laboratory space—is most often the control mechanism that allows DH to realize its disciplinary potential. The lab, and all of its attendant costs, provides the material conditions for DH to affect humanistic inquiry because it gives us space to occupy. The DH lab might mimic more traditional iterations of the space, but it is often housed within a communal space like a library, maximizing the lab’s interdisciplinary potential. The lab is the chapter house of DH praxis, tantamount to access, technology, affiliation, and so many more aspects of what DH scholarship assumes in its practice. But what happens when the lab is closed, in some cases, for good? The question is not new to our condition of crisis, but is certainly more pressing. Perhaps the most obvious consideration here is precisely how institutional closure will produce conditions of unequal access. The speed at which DH labs reopen and provide their participants with resources will be a marker of privilege—prestige institutions stand to widen an already far-reaching gap between land-grant and teaching institutions of various sizes. For many of us, if not the majority, re-creating the resources and experience of the lab in our apartments or via Zoom is an impossibility. Even DH’s minimal iterations, which often offer the best examples of collaborative DH work, are likely to be inaccessible to most in our isolated and fragmented experiences of a global pandemic.
Perhaps the less obvious consideration of DH’s disciplinary evolution lies outside its preferred institutional space. Perhaps it’s not a question of space at all, but of method. Consider David M. Berry and Anders Fagerjord’s argument in their coauthored Digital Humanities: DH “needs to become more self-reflexive and, yes, theoretical in its approaches, to widen its intellectual breadth and depth” (11). Theory’s status in DH work remains marginal. Feminist and postcolonial interventions in DH are our most visible theoretical incursions, but Berry and Fagerjord’s argument aims to center incursions like these and expand them, “deepening [DH’s] critical reflexivity about the work and methods of its subject area” (18). It could be, to echo bell hooks’s “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” the formation of a disciplinary disposition where “our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation”; a condition where “no gap exists between theory and practice” (2).
This is precisely where my book, Guerrilla Theory: Political Concepts, Critical Digital Humanities (Northwestern University Press, February 2020), models an approach to theory-driven DH work. The figure of the guerrilla, once commonly invoked in discussions over DH’s disciplinary formation, serves as a heuristic for theorizing the discipline’s continued evolution. My book is motivated by three future-oriented tasks: to (1) identify productive agonisms internal to DH praxis; (2) forefront disciplinary antagonisms to clarify DH’s disciplinary formation; and (3) position DH within a larger constellation of intellectual work that refuses to exclude the material realities of radical difference from their conceptual lineage (50). In this way, theory does not signify a return to individualism, nor a panacea to crisis, but rather an alternative practice for realizing collective goals.
In short, a theoretical turn in DH praxis is a dialogical act that demands participation and remakes our disciplinary conditions. Further, the self-reflexive work that theory offers us is a means of engaging with DH praxis absent heavy reliance on institutional funding, space, or expensive tools. Guerrilla Theory takes these propositions seriously, as it also signals a political turn with which to situate collective responses to radical institutional and disciplinary change.
In his writings on the philosophy of history, the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) described crises as “accelerations of historical processes.” According to him, historical crises such as wars or political revolutions did not entail a complete breakdown of historical developments, but rather, an increase in their intensity.
The historical process is suddenly accelerated in terrifying fashion. Developments which otherwise take centuries seem to flit by like phantoms in months or weeks and are fulfilled.
Interestingly, Burckhardt compared crises to “epidemics” where “infection flashes like an electric spark over hundreds of miles . . . the message goes through the air . . . things must change.”
As I am writing this blog in April 2020, the COVID-19 epidemic has become a global pandemic. Particularly in the Western world, the situation resembles the moment of crisis described by Burckhardt. Everything is accelerating at a phenomenal pace: existing technologies in teleworking are being adopted; new forms of online teaching are being put to use; many are trying to find new ways to connect with their loved ones from a physical distance. Amazon is hiring one hundred thousand new employees to cope with the incredible surge of demand for online deliveries.
In global politics also, the coronavirus epidemic has intensified, rather than transformed, many ongoing developments. What we are witnessing is indeed a resurgence of the nation-state as a continuation to the increased protectionism of the 2010s and the overall deterioration of a rule-based system in the age of Trump and Brexit. International institutions such as the WHO are simply weaker and unable to generate a joint response at the national level. Borders and walls are in the making.
Life, learning, and leisure—all are changing at a rapid pace.
The German philosopher Edmund Husserl also wrote in a time of crisis. Following the devastating experience of the First World War, Husserl’s philosophical project—phenomenology—went through a radical reorientation both in style and substance. In contrast to his earlier works, focusing on themes such as meaning and subjectivity, Husserl’s post-1919 works were defined by a heightened interest in questions of normativity, communality, and history. All of these topics crystallized in Husserl’s reflections on Europe from the early 1930s onwards.
In my book Husserl and the Idea of Europe (Northwestern University Press, 2020), I argue that for Husserl, this postwar crisis was not simply a negative experience. Instead, the crisis provided an important incentive to rethink the basic principles of modern rationality and its ostensible collapse in an age of havoc and national egoism. This was due to the fact that Husserl understood crises not so much as destructions of meaning but as their “emptying”: we realize that we have been living according to beliefs and convictions that we cannot fully justify.
According to Husserl, the very idea of rationality had gone through such an emptying. Following the triumph of the modern natural sciences, rationality had lost many of its normative or ethical connotations, becoming primarily a tool of control and calculation. This did not mean, however, that rationality ought to be abandoned. Instead, reason was to be conceived again in its full sense as the overarching responsibility for one’s cognitive, practical, and political judgments.
Here, the problem of community turned out to be of particular importance. Already in his writings of the late 1910s, Husserl began to emphasize the role of other subjects at the most fundamental levels of apprehension: our ability to constitute an objective world is intimately tied to an awareness that there are others who possess similar perceptual capabilities. What I am as a person and how I constitute the world is fundamentally dependent on others.
This was not simply a theoretical observation. Ethical thinking, too, was to be rethought on the basis of this fundamental interconnectedness of subjective viewpoints. Following the vocabulary of his time, Husserl called this social ethics. We cannot judge our actions simply on the basis of the idea of an isolated subject making rational choices. Instead, we need to understand ethics as a fundamentally communal practice of mutual assistance and critique.
Is not something similar at stake with our responses to COVID-19? For decades, our thinking about health—particularly in the Western world—has been conducted on the basis of an individual, even isolated subject. We carry the responsibility and the risk primarily for those decisions that we make by ourselves. I can increase my health by doing the right things. In contrast, by smoking cigarettes I am primarily hurting myself; through unhealthy eating it is I who suffer . . .
All of this has major political implications. Institutions such as insurance companies then calculate risks on the basis of our personal situation. The older I am, the unhealthier my lifestyle is, the bigger the insurance premium.
Epidemiological crises, however, are of a different sort. They are far less dependent on the individual choices of individual persons. None of the restrictions make sense if they are only followed by a small number of people. As in the case of vaccinations, for instance, in order for measures to be effective, more than 90 percent of the population needs to follow them. Moreover, the risks are distributed unevenly: those who take the biggest risks (for instance, by not following recommendations for social distancing) are not necessarily those who suffer the most.
The COVID-19 crisis necessarily entails a communal response. The problem is, however, that these kinds of responses are incredibly difficult to coordinate. This especially concerns liberal-democratic societies that rely on fundamental rights to conduct one’s life according to one’s wishes. But even in the most totalitarian societies, it is simply impossible to monitor hand hygiene or control every single human encounter.
In the age of epidemiological crises, we need trust—both in institutions and other human beings.
As I show in my book, Husserl’s heightened interest in problems of community did not take away the idea of individual responsibility. Instead, the new dynamism between the individual and the community led him to reconceive the scope of individual responsibility to encompass a wider horizon of other subjects. I am not simply responsible for my own beliefs, deeds, and judgments, but also for creating and promoting a society in which everyone is able to do the same: to reflect on their beliefs and actions freely.
And, as Husserl argued, this was what philosophy had been about already since its inception in ancient Greece: a radical practice to reflect on our convictions in the spirit of mutual assistance.
What is perhaps reassuring for our own situation is that these phenomena of trust and communal cooperation are not universal constants. They vary according to historical circumstances, and they are dependent on social models and political institutions. And it is exactly the moment of crisis that can help us to reflect on how well our current institutions serve us.
Welcome to Northwestern University Press where we mark this year’s University Press week with the theme: “How to speak up and speak out?” It’s an apt question that highlights why we’re here.
In a publishing environment that increasingly favors middle-of-the-road, low-risk, high-return books, university presses are among the few publishers that find, tell, and highlight important regional stories that would otherwise go untold. An example here at NU Press is Lee Bey’s Southern Exposure.
The book is an insightful and illustrated guide to the glories of Chicago’s South Side’s built environment. Often dismissed or derided as a place of abandonment and violence, the South Side is the origin of many of the most iconic elements of Chicago culture and home to many of its most storied architectural landmarks.
In the book, Bey, a former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic who also served as deputy chief of staff for urban planning under Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, traces the story of the South Side, which despite decades of disinvestment, is home to many architectural treasures that await rediscovery by travelers to Chicago and architecture aficionados.
The cover features the D’Angelo Law Library on the campus of the University of Chicago. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the building has graced Hyde Park since 1959. Another mid-century classic is the Chatham neighborhood’s Pride Cleaners (right), an unforgettable example of bold, futuristic style. Designed by Gerald Siegwart, the building’s hyperbolic parabaloid concrete roof continues to attract fans and admirers at the corner of Seventy-Ninth Street and St. Lawrence Avenue.
In addition to numerous classic and innovative businesses, the book also tours public parks and beaches, homes and residences, and places of worship. A fascinating example is the First Church of Deliverance at 4315 South Wabash. Originally constructed at a hat factory, in 1939 Walter Thomas Bailey partnered with black structural engineer Charles Sumner Duke to remodel and expand the building. They doubled the building’s width, added a second story, and refaced the façade in white terra cotta.
In Southern Exposure, Bey and Northwestern University Press celebrate the vibrant and resilient culture of Chicago’s South Side, offering a luminous example of how university publishing can spotlight unsung stories from our shared history.
Below NU Press is pleased to reprint the introduction to Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology by David Morris, professor of philosophy at Concordia University and author of The Sense of Space.
Sense, Development, and the Phenomenology of Nature
“Nature thus interests us neither for itself nor as a universal explanatory principle, but as an index of what, within things, resists the operations of free subjectivity, and as concrete access to the ontological problem. If we refused to grant any philosophical meaning to the idea of Nature, and if we reflected directly on being, we would risk placing ourselves immediately at the level of the subject- object relationship, which is an elaboration and secondary, and we would risk missing an essential component of being: brute or wild being which has not yet been converted into an object of vision or choice. It is this that we would like to rediscover.”
—Merleau-Ponty, “Nature or the World of Silence” (“NMS”), 53
“‘What is the world?’ or, better ‘what is being?’— these questions become philosophical only if, by a sort of diplopia, at the same time that they aim at the state of things, they aim at themselves as questions— at the same time that they aim at the meaning “being,” they aim at the being of meaning and the place of meaning within Being.”
—Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 119– 20/160
This book articulates three overlapping philosophical themes— sense, developmental ontology, and the phenomenology of nature— that, I argue, are crucial to Merleau- Ponty’s philosophy, even if Merleau- Ponty did not in his lifetime succeed in fully elaborating these themes himself or do so under precisely these headings.
In a nutshell, sense is Merleau-Ponty’s concept of meaning as manifest within being itself, versus meaning as an ideal or nominalist imposition on being. It is one of his earliest and greatest discoveries, and the problem of the being of sense pervades the rest of his philosophy. What I call developmental ontology is, I argue, entailed by the being of sense and is implied by Merleau- Ponty’s own work. This is an ontology in which the fundamental term is not, for example, substance, matter, or idea, but a movement I call development, through which being engenders determinate, interrelated differences, together with their differential context, thereby enabling a sense within being. Phenomenology of nature is my name for a deepening of phenomenological method demanded by the problem of sense.
This new method is required because, as Merleau-Ponty increasingly realized, philosophy is liable to misconceptualize sense, a meaning manifest within being, if it reflects on being from above, from within subjectivity. Philosophical reflection must be radicalized, which for Merleau-Ponty means that philosophy must reflect on its own roots in being (its radix, the Latin word for “root”). This also means grasping that reflection is not solely or purely an activity of philosophers but is an operation of the being in which reflection arises. Reflection thus involves passivity, a theme already implied in Structure of Behaviour, that permeates the Phenomenology, and becomes ever more pervasive in Merleau-Ponty’s later work. The phenomenology of nature is a methodological strategy for addressing this issue, for letting nature lead the way in reflection. It proceeds by studying nature— being as the manifest domain in which we find ourselves and through which we access being— so as to glean conceptual insights as to how being operates, thereby correcting philosophical prejudices. Merleau-Ponty often pursues this sort of strategy. The phenomenology of nature aims to reveal nature participating in reflection, and reflection participating in nature, such that reflection is deeply radicalized and revealed as an operation in and of being, as older than ourselves and our philosophical traditions. In the first epigraph above and other passages Merleau-Ponty urges that this deepening of radical reflection is necessary if our task is rediscovering brute, wild, or raw being making sense in its own way, before we have converted being to the cause of making sense to us and our philosophical and scientific demands. This book’s phenomenology of nature follows Merleau-Ponty’s effort to return to things from within nature, but it takes advantage of recent empirical and conceptual advances in science not available to Merleau-Ponty, thus resuming his critical engagement with science and learning new things from it.
Excerpted from Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology by David Morris, published as part of the SPEP series, Anthony J. Steinbock, General Editor. Available in cloth, paperback, and ebook editions. Please visit www.nupress.northwestern.edu, independent bookstores with robust philosophy collections, and online retailers.
This week, NU Press travels to Pittsburgh for the annual SPEP meeting, where we’ll introduce 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology. Edited by Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon, the book is attracting an unusual amount of attention. “Anyone who questions the vitality of contemporary phenomenology as a site of radical questioning,” said How to Read Sartre author Robert Bernasconi, “will find the perfect antidote in Fifty Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology. The rich variety of marginalized perspectives represented here is a valuable corrective to so many works of philosophy that have gone before.” In response to the interest in the book, now on sale on our website, from online retailers, and bookstores with exceptional philosophy collections, we’re pleased to offer below the table of contents to this rich collection.