TIME , SPACE, SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND RACE: A DU BOISIAN INTERVENTION

Existentialists have interrogated the modern European concept of time and progress. The natural sciences from relativity theory and quantum mechanics to evolutionary biology and population genetics, interrogate time as well. A very significant contribution to this is Stephen Jay Gould’s work, especially his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002). What I suggest about the particularity of space-time realities as they are encountered in socio-historical time and socio-structural time, Gould calls time tiering (see especially pp1320–1332 and the section “The Paradox of the First Tier: Towards A General Theory of Tiers of Time”). Gould’s recognition allows for both macro-structural and phenomenological levels of investigation. His point is that not only does time express itself differently dependent upon the structural level being investigated, but that we encounter distinct modalities of time in the course of scientific investigation.

Time tiering can be applied in understanding stratified and racialized social structures. In the fields of Africana social and human science , especially when examining polymorphous African Being we encounter multiple layers of time in the context of social and racial relationships. This might be termed social time tiering. From an Africana standpoint several, though not all, possible time considerations are macro historical and macro-structural time, existential and phenomenological time, mythic time, magical and surrealistic time. This engagement with time requires a new understanding of time, being and space within Africana social and human science; one that recognizes the multiple possibilities of space, time and being. But which understands that Being and Time interact with social structure and space in ways that in the case of Africans produces a type of polymorphous being, rather than an essentialized, consequently a historical being.

Polymorphism is a way to explain the structural complexity of African being in the world. Polymorphism is a transdisicplinary concept, meaning it can be applied in disciplines in the natural and social sciences. Polymorphism is the state of being where a social or biological species or a substance in chemistry or physics exists in multiple forms, varying as the external and internal situations within which it exists varies. In social and human relationships the conscious life world is the organizing center of all of these levels of Being. Social and historical polymorphism suggests the multiple structural forms African Being can take. And that African Being exists historically and is dynamic and fluid. It is this dynamism and multiple determinations of the concrete forms of African Being, which situates my way of thinking about African Being. African polymorphism is temporal, ontological, geographic and spatial.

Acknowledging this does not negate the fact that discrete structural levels and specific structuration processes adhere to distinct time modalities and rhythms. Time, then, is a complicated measure of socio-historical, structural formative, intersubjective, individual and existential movement. It is further complicated because it, conceivably, varies between groups based upon their place in the social system of domination and their status as oppressed or oppressors. To say this is to say that time, like social structures, potentially has infinite possibilities. Time conceived within the framework of polymorphous (many structured) Being requires that time be viewed as dynamic and plastic. Time as a measure of social Being, or better, African Time as a measure of African Being, suggests that with all things time is a variable quantity.

Logics of Social Structure and Race
The philosopher of history, Clarence J Munford (2001) proposes a way of examining the African world that he calls civilizational historicism. It is a macro-historical methodology that incorporates historical materialism and political economy into it. Munford eschews existentialism and other forms of methodological individualism and intersubjectivity for a robust historicism. Munford insists upon a scientific approach and the search for laws, patterns and regularities in history. These patterns can be found essentially at the large level of events as they manifest themselves macro-historically and macro-structurally. Besides macro-structural and macro-historical, one could define Munford’s project as methodological totalism or methodological holism, which views totalities as organically existing phenomena and thus begins investigation at the level of social and historical wholes.

Those modalities, however, that look at phenomena at levels below the macro-structural or macro-historical are a vital part of explaining African Being. These are levels where the macro-structural phenomena are concretized; as in the lives of individuals, small collectivities, such as tribal groups or rural communities; and, for instance, in macro and meso level structures, like socio-economic classes, class and social fragments, such as the lumpen-proletariat, stranded populations, such as maroon communities, migrant populations and homeless communities and in institutions, such as the racialized state, the Black Church, Negro colleges, political, cultural, business and economic institutions. These structural levels and their structuring logics carry specific temporalities. Such angles of investigation are worked out in, among others, the theorizing of Franz Fanon (1967), Kyriakos M. Kontopoulos (1993), Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu (1977), Hortense Spillers (2003) and Lewis Gordon (1995). It is possible to discover moments of compatibility and common practical proposals for these levels of theorizing and robust macro-historicism. Science figures prominently in this project. At the macro-structural level it embraces three conventional commitments within science. First to truth as discoverable, secondly, to a materialist and objectivist concept of reality and thirdly, to a rationalist form of explanation. The historical a priori is that range of beliefs, values and social, economic and other structures that methodologically precede, yet are insinuated in and alter and altered by the historical moment to be investigated. The historical apriority are what could be called structuring structures. Most rationalist readings of the a priori are Kantian, yielding philosophical and sociological idealism, which reject the concrete and material as unknowable. They are ahistorical. For Du Bois the issue is not merely to explain the modalities of rational thought, as the rationalist tradition in European thought starting with Descartes and continuing through Kant set out to do, but to construct a practical way of discussing and explaining racial oppression. Ian Hacking asserts that the historical a priori is that which “points at conditions on the possibility of knowledge (2003:5).” Using a Du Boisian framework and extending his proposal concerning race, the historical a priori is race and white supremacy. Race, in the Du Boisian construal, is a condition for the possibility of knowledge about modernity. However , race is not an absolute essence. Race changes over history. It is concrete historical and thus subject to the same transformational and dialectical processes of all concrete objects. Race and white supremacy are conditions that make possible the structures of modern human relationships. On the other hand,, race as a category of knowledge, conditions the boundaries of explanation. That is what Bourdieu (1977) calls structuring structures, which overdetermine the conditions of knowledge. Putting this another way, understanding the modern world requires the concept race. Modernity is inconceivable without it. European social theory has therefore been limited in its capacity to explain modernity or its transformation. For instance, the anti-colonial struggles, the rise of Asian and African civilizations as competitors with the West, and other situations outside of the European conceptual universe cannot be explained from European philosophical and social theoretic groundings.

Kyriakos M Kontopulos’ The Logics of Social Structure (1993) is a seminal text in demonstrating the multiple levels and modes of analyzing and explaining social structure, structuration and mid and micro-level social structures. He points to the significance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, especially his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977). Bourdieu draws the attention of theorists to the possibilities of understanding the behaviors of socio-historical structures as heterarchical rather than solely hierarchical. Bourdieu does not privilege one level of social structure or one direction of structuration. Bourdieu, moreover, recognizes social structures as dynamic and bound to temporal conditions. He appropriates Marx’s idea in the Grundrisse of the multiple determinations of concrete historical reality. Marx’s formulation suggests a heterarchical determination of reality. There is a dynamic dialectic sense of things wherein the structuring process, or structuration, takes place through a dynamic process of multiple indeterminacies, in ways similar to what Heisenberg observed and theorized as the uncertainty principle. Hence, concrete reality is determined through indeterminacies. Structure is therefore process, is structuration and therefore dialectical. Even the deep structural level, the level of civilization, is a dynamic structure, which is subject to the logics of structuration and indeterminacy. Another way of conceptualizing this dynamic situation is in terms of the idea of many centers of equilibrium or stability within a system. Moreover, there are dynamics that are far from equilibrium. I early on called this state dialectics within dialectics.

Civilizational Historicism and Structural Explanation
Taking the work of Clarence J Munford as an example, the historical a priori is race. Race is the overarching or central dialectic in modern world history. Race is generative of other events and structures. Civilization, Munford’s deep structure, should be subject to the same possibilities of determination through multiple indeterminacies as are other structures. This possibility seems to be a necessary consideration if the possibility of revolutionary disjuncture is to become a possibility. Indeed, the moment of revolutionary rupture becomes possible at this precise moment of structural instability. This structural, or civilizational instability is a form of metainstability. Instability is when revolutionary change becomes a concrete necessity. It is also possible that before a radical disjuncture several transitional moments are historically necessary. For Munford race shapes explanation, setting rules for the explanation of events. Race is, in this regard, a structuring logic.

Jeffrey Schmidt’s History and Structure: An Essay on the Hegelian-Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History, speak to three levels of the interaction of structure and historical time. First, to history as critical to social inquiry. In other words Time and temporality are critical to understanding the dynamics of social structural and socio-historical processes. Secondly, the assumption that history precedes dialectically and that race, class, civilization or other macro historical phenomena and the conflict of contending forces are central to its understanding. Thirdly, history can be a science; meaning patterns, laws and regularities and cause and affect in history are discoverable. Rather than local, folk or micro-history, Munford believes that macro or global historical analysis is appropriate to a scientific African historiography and to coming forward with practical solutions to the global issues of races and civilizations. This epistemology of history differs profoundly from let us say existential phenomenological and psychoanalytical methods of doing history.

At the macro-structural and macro-historical levels a muscular and globalist approach to history is demanded. At lower levels of explanation historical analysis need not be as robust and muscular. Epistemologies such as Cornel West’s (1989) prophetic pragmatism, the discursive relativism of Molefi Asante (1998) and Lucious Outlaw(1996), the Black existentialism of Lewis Gordon (1995) or the psychoanalysis of Hortense Spillers (2003) fall among those epistemologies that permit either ahistoricism or mild historicism. Historical time is most often not a central dimension of investigation or is linked only in passing to their investigations. They usually are discourses on oppression without suggesting logics and praxes to change it. (see Gould on case study and ahistoricism in the field of evolution) Munford, in attempting to overcome the problem of theory without praxes, seeks to link theory to ideology and social transformation. He eschews methodological individualism and existential phenomenology and asserts the centrality of historically constituted structures and collectivities. In social theoretic terms Munford engages historically constituted structures as the object and subject of history and historical transformation.

This approach I would identify as a level in the Du Boisian approach within historiography and history writing. However, Du Bois also developed a phenomenological and contingent historiography that augmented his macro-historicism. Du Bois’ transdisicplinarity saw him combining the macro historical with concrete studies of the African life world. Hence, historical studies are augmented with ethnographic and cultural studies and narratives from Black people. He has a unique way of connecting the macro historical and macro structural with the day-to-day events of black life. His enormous literary abilities allowed him to do this almost seamlessly. Totality in this Du Boisian sense included the linking of multiple levels of interpretation and analysis of the Black historical and lived experiences. These matters were presented in chapters two, three and four. Du Bois did not merely navigate the terrain of historical facts and events, but was concerned with their organization, interpretation and critique. This is nowhere better demonstrated then in his Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Yet, we see this linking of multi levels of social historical, ideological and individual experience in his autobiographical writings, especially Dusk of Dawn, which he subtitles, the Autobiography of a Race Concept. This notion of the Autobiography of a Race Concept as the autobiography of Du Bois, of Africans in America and of the modern world is a unique way of doing both genealogy of ideas and the autobiography of his attempt to understand race. He is shaped in the history of race and his efforts t to explain it. In another instance we see this in John Brown, an interpretive biography of the radical white abolitionist. Du Bois’s epistemology was restless and located on the margins of mainstream and hegemonic discourses. He from the very beginning of his public career identified his project and epistemology as African. In a 1904 review of his The Souls of Black Folk, he argues he wrote the work as an African. Du Bois, as became clear, not only thought about the world as an African, building an African epistemology, but thought about what it meant to be an African in the world; a changing and evolving identity, subject to multiple determinations. For instance, what it means to be an African in the contemporary world is today different than the time that Du Bois wrote. This he considered not just from the standpoint of the individual scholar, but being Africans in a European dominated world. He grappled with the problem of making epistemology practical and anchoring it to actual worlds of Africans. It centers itself in African Being and Time. In my “Being an African in the World: The Du Boisian Epistemology” (2000) I attempt to demonstrate how Du Bois shaped his scholarship as investigations of African Being and African Time. I have argued this represented a transgressive intervention into traditional metaphysics and ontology. Du Bois was attempting to make epistemology practical and to undermine Europe’s racist metaphysic. This linking of epistemology to social change for Du Bois occurred through concretizing it and though Du Bois did not state it in this way, linking it to ideology. Du Bois for instance argues that history is propaganda. I take his use of the word propaganda to mean at the level of knowledge and knowledge production what we would call ideology.

He used this African anchorage to organize the field of investigation. This lens situates the investigator in the historical situation of Black oppression and sought to link the researcher to a historical body of ideas and methods of investigation that opposes Black oppression. However, W.E.B Du Bois was not a theorist whosae focus was exclusively oppression; he was a theorist of African agency, liberation and empowerment. He consciously asserts that Africa is foundational to his understanding of himself and the world. Furthermore, Du Bois’s foundationalism commits him to proceed from stated assumptions (in the main the centrality of Africa and African civilization to the construction of Aframerica and modernity), a discrete worldview (African civilization is the origin of world civilization and Africa continues through resistance to give its gifts to humanity) and a stated ideological stance (the crucial dimension of African and African American liberation to human liberation). Lastly, Du Bois based on this grid invents a multi-layered approach to knowledge, attempting to capture the multiple determinations of concrete African realities. This notion of the multiple determination of the concrete is taken form Karl Marx’ Grundrisse (1973). It is worth noting that the turn from a concern with the concrete or the material world as it were and a turn to primary concern with the subjective and psychological is a modality of doing the human sciences most associated with post structuralism, surrealism, magical realism and certain forms of existentialism. It represents a certain suspension of the concrete in order to better understand the subject of history. An important aspect of this turn is the linguistic turn and hermeneutics.

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
This entry was posted in LOGIC , METHODOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY, Race , class and sociological studies and theories, W.E.B DU BOIS AND HUMAN SCIENCE. Bookmark the permalink.

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