This section contains 10,282 words
(approx. 35 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Ronald A. T. Judy
SOURCE: "The New Black Aesthetic and W. E. B. Du Bois, or Hephaestus, Limping," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 249-82.
In the following essay, Judy relates Du Bois's concept of black consciousness as expressed in The Souls of Black Folk to the New Black Aesthetic.
Such is Beauty. Its variety is infinite, its possibility is endless. In normal life all may have it and have it yet again. The world is full of it…. Who shall let this world be beautiful?… We black folk may help for we have within us as a race a new stirrings; stirrings of the beginning of the new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be;… and there has come the conviction that the Youth that is here today, the Negro Youth, is a different kind of Youth, because in some new way it bears this mighty prophesy on its breast, with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all mankind. (W. E. B. Du Bois)
In an ambitious 1989 essay, the novelist Trey Ellis tried to give a coherent expression to a way of thinking about authenticity emerging among an increasing number of young African American artists. The expression he found was New Black Aesthetic (NBA), an apt naming that performs a chief function of the way of thinking it refers to—parody. After all, the NBA is a way of thinking about artistic expression that while recognizing its indebtedness to the agitprop of the Black Arts Movement, and confidently employing the forms and themes of previous black arts, ironically parodies all claims of genealogical purity or continuity. Granted, as J. Martin Favor has recently argued, this parody still falls within the line of a particularly African American form of expression—signifying. Yet, as Favor also notes, this signifying is so thoroughly iconoclastic it problematizes any genealogy, compelling Favor to relate it to the postmodern practice of pastiche. This goes along with Ellis's characterizing the NBA as "cultural mulattos," who following in the steps of the "Third Plane" (artists like August Wilson, Richard Pryor, Toni Morrison, and George Clinton) expand and explode "the old definitions of blackness, showing us the intricate, uncategorizeable folks we had always known ourselves to be." The NBA is about understanding authentic blackness as a practice and not status. It is the practice of generating new signs that transgress dominant cultural norms, and recognizing that every new expression, no matter how subjective, is historically hybrid—it is related genealogically to all those utterances that came before it and are around it. This constitutes the collective enunciation of Black experience. In fine, being a cultural mulatto is being true to the black. Echoing Greg Tate, Ellis calls this a "postliberation aesthetic" that "somehow synthesizes … the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement," in its claim to be "separate but better" than the dominant culture. Ellis's expression of the NBA has gained currency, and his essay "The New Black Aesthetic," has become a manifesto of a new arts movement.
The synthesis of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement that Ellis refers to is that of avant garde modernism and Leftist vanguard agitprop, which Tate also claims as the basis for a popular black poststructuralism, in which "black consciousness and artistic freedom are not mutually exclusive but complementary." For both Ellis and Tate, "black culture" signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices, which is why the NBA "can feel secure enough about black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of its inheritance." On the face of it, this is a New Black Aesthetic because it has given up trying to work according to modernity's understanding of sign-value; that is, it no longer conceives of the truth of experience as a totality. From this perspective everything can be reinvented. In the world of highly mediated networks of disciplinary institutions and sign-systems that is transnational capitalism, none of the old categories of experience have any explanatory force, or progenitive capacity, least of all nationalism. What is required is critical intervention in the process by which [transnational] capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism. And in Tate's view such a viable non-cultural nationalist resistance is found in the "worldly-wise stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their wings and stay in the black." Or, as Ellis puts it, the NBA.
Although neither Ellis nor Tate make explicit reference to W. E. B. Du Bois, the characterization of the NBA as a "postliberated aesthetic" bears a striking resemblance to Du Bois's conception of a liberated black art that makes use of all the methods of creation available to realize beauty without necessarily abandoning the quest for liberation. Indeed, Ellis fends off accusations of naive optimism and political timidity, by insisting that with NBA we are witness to a collective project of "disturbatory art" that will take us to the next plane. In this he echoes Du Bois's assertion that the artist is
one upon whom Truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as one of the one great vehicle of universal understanding…. The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but his freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice. Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.
I've quoted Du Bois at length to leave little doubt about how the pastiche of idioms from the black masses (Houston Baker's vernacular) and elites that define the NBA, and which prompted Eric Lott to claim it to be "one of the only postmodernisms with a conscience," recalls Du Bois's understanding of art as the expression at the nexus of thought and practice. It would appear, then, that what the NBA pulls off is just the sort of grounding of black social praxis in authentic black thought that Du Bois strove for. Insofar as this is so, then the NBA is certainly more of a flash of resistant subjectivity than it is a popular movement of resistance to transnational capital. In other words, it is a form of modernism, rather than postmodernism, in its understanding of culture as the callaloo producing the authentically liberated subject. This is, perhaps, a harsh critique, depending on one's understanding of the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. It is, however, an arguable claim. Making that argument will require more careful elaboration of the resemblance between Du Bois's thought and that of the NBA. What interests me most about Ellis's giving expression to a new way of thinking about black artistic work as being in the van of cultural production, however, is how it echoes W. E. B. Du Bois's project of thinking black thought. A brief exhibition of the unifying themes at work in Ellis's expression will make more accessible the reasons why the NBA prompts this interest in Du Bois's epistemology.
The principal themes of the New Black Aesthetic Movement discernible in Ellis's essay are: (1) "black culture" signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices, with a peculiar capacity for generating new signs that transgress dominant cultural norms; (2) the power of black expression to reinvent experience, and enunciate a new world; and (3) this post-liberation aesthetic is being realized by a new black intelligentsia that synthesizes the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The first and second themes express the underlying necessary principle of the New Black Aesthetic, namely that human emancipation requires the recognition that democratic society is the work of humans, who are conscious of their institutive action. Or, in the language of critical theory preferred by Tate, "democracy creates itself through people's appropriation of their power of signification."
The third theme is what situates this principle in the intellectual genealogy that is of interest here. By recognizing both the Black Arts Movement and the New Negro Movement of the Harlem Renaissance as the foundational sources of the New Black Aesthetic, Ellis provides a direct link to the thinking of Du Bois. Both these movements were explicit in citing the significance of Du Bois's work for any attempt to think rigorously about African American cultural production. In his afterword to the Black Arts Movement manifesto, Black Fire, Larry Neal credits Du Bois with providing the inspiration for delineating the parameters of the Black Aesthetic. The particular manifestation of this revived Du Boisian spirit that so moved the Black Arts Movement was The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Alain Locke credited Du Bois with producing the conceptual conditions through which the New Negro Movement "gradually gathered momentum." It is also Du Bois who gets the last word in the movement's manifesto, The New Negro, contributing the last chapter, which rehearses the key pronouncement of The Souls of Black Folk: "And thus again in 1924 as in 1899 I seem to see the problem of the 20th century as the Problem of the Color Line." That such antagonistic movements could both find their legitimacy in the same book of Du Bois warrants regarding The Souls of Black Folk as the principal in a long line of texts that attempt to delineate the genealogy of authentic collective African American enunciation.
So it is no surprise at all that in its conception of a politically committed avant garde black art, the New Black Aesthetic appears to have rediscovered the most ambitious aspect of Du Bois's program of racial uplift: the attempt to establish materialist grounds for total human emancipation. What makes it interesting, on the other hand, is that along with that rediscovery comes a particular problem of agency that plagued this program. Du Bois's commitment to the conception of democracy as the work of human reason, and his effort to understand theory as a praxis, led him to view a political episteme as the only agency for achieving justice. His conception of social revolution organized around the work of a vanguard intelligentsia (the talented tenth) was not only elitist, but it was antinomic to the concept of pluralist democracy he espoused in that it derived from an abstract universalization of reason. Du Bois eventually recognized the antinomy entailed in a conception of democratic society founded on rationalism as the method for the universal production of truth. Even so, he remained bound to it by his conception of racialism. Yet, in between the lines of Du Bois's argument for a black intelligentsia there is a permanent reminder of the indeterminacy of knowledge as a necessary condition of democracy. That is to say, when one reads The Souls of Black Folk carefully, one finds a conception of the historical emergence of black consciousness as a contentious process of cognition that resists resolution.
Understandably, this might pose problems for those of us who hypostatize black subjectivity. Nevertheless, Du Bois arrived at his understanding of black subjectivity from assumptions he viewed as hypothesis—i.e., those postulated points of reference necessary for any teleological judgment. The interrogation of those assumptions is, I think, crucial to any reading of The Souls of Black Folk that tries to come to terms with how his conception of black subjectivity is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy, and that tries to perceive the paralogism entailed in the play of figuration about the veil. In this regard, James Weldon Johnson's oft-cited description of The Souls of Black Folk as having "had a greater effect upon and within the Negro race in America than any other single book published in this country since Uncle Tom's Cabin," proves to be insightful, because it draws attention to the specific features of literary form that make Du Bois's book a paradigmatic instance of African American cultural critique. This is the cultural critique both Ellis and Tate claim for the NBA. At first glance, Du Bois's project was considerably more ambitious than that of the NBA. His stated aim in The Souls of Black Folk, after all, was to trace "the history of the American Negro;" while that of the NBA is to draw attention to the emergence of a new way of thinking about and making black art. More careful consideration of both projects will discover that the difference is not all that great. Du Bois's project, like Ellis's, is expressed in terms of three dominant themes: (1) the power of black expression to reinvent experience, and enunciate a new world, (2) intellectual, and cultural vanguardism, and (3) the repressive effects of capitalism. In combination, these three themes of The Souls of Black Folk define Du Bois's understanding of the function of art as intellectual work.
In pursuit of these three themes, let's recall that the focus of the following reading of The Souls of Black Folk is his concept of black consciousness as the presupposition of his understanding of intellectual vanguardism, and how that concept is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy. Interrogating Du Bois's concept of black consciousness will make more accessible the claim that it is paradigmatic for the NBA. Moreover, taking care of the relation between this concept of black consciousness and the antinomy of intellectual vanguardism and pluralist democracy will, at least, offer a glimpse of some of the reasons why it is still possible for the NBA to identify black intellectual vanguardism with societal change. That possibility has to do with precisely what is meant by consciousness in the concepts black consciousness and black experience.
Along these lines, Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk['s] significance stems from its being the most widely-read and definitive expression of what he took black consciousness to mean. Analyzing the text as a combination of philosophical, social, and quasi-religious discourses facilitates reading it as a strategic engagement with that order of knowledge called Geistesgeschichte. This interpretive arrangement of the text, although not reductive, draws attention towards the question of how black thought or consciousness is realized in the world as the paramount concern of Du Bois's book. Although the question of black consciousness is the frame of reference in The Souls of Black Folk, its explicit elaboration occurs chiefly in two chapters: "Of the Coming of John," which is the thirteenth, penultimate chapter; and "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," which is the opening chapter.
These two chapters represent the oldest and newest writings in The Souls of Black Folk. Among the fourteen essays composing the book, seven were written and published previously, and five were published for the first time in The Souls of Black Folk. Among the seven, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" was the earliest, being substantially the same 1897 essay published in Atlantic Monthly as "Strivings of the Negro People." That essay was one of the earliest definitive public formulations of what Du Bois meant by black consciousness. The only earlier, equally precise public expression of that meaning occurred in "The Conservation of Races," delivered to Crummell's American Negro Academy in March of 1897, a piece we will have cause to consider later. By contrast, "Of the Coming of John" appeared for the first time in The Souls of Black Folk, and was Du Bois's first published generically fictional piece. The only such piece in the book, it is its most vivid portrait of double-consciousness. In fact, John Jones, the black protagonist in "Of the Coming of John," is Du Bois's archetypical figure of the traveler who is tragically caught up in the double-consciousness of being an American Negro. What is particularly pertinent about the story of John Jones is how double-consciousness appears to entail an unhappiness that renounces the intelligibility of human reality. But, it is imperative that a careful consideration of what is meant by double-consciousness be undertaken before grappling with this complicated question of renunciation. Such a consideration begins with a close reading and engagement with "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," where the concept of double-consciousness is first formulated in an oftcited passage:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
This passage is generally interpreted to mean that the African American is an essentially fragmented subject. Taken to the extreme, this reading construes the black body itself as a site of contestation and struggle between two heterogenous conceptual schemas that have it as their common percept. Here, the perception of the phenomenal black body is predicated on the dualism of mind (consciousness being understood as synonymous with mind) and body. The body may be something, but the mind is something else, and the givenness of the body as a meaningful object of consciousness is the act of the mind, which determines the possibilities of experience a priori. The difference between American consciousness and Negro consciousness is substantial, then. Not only are there two acts of perception, but each act is meaningful within and according to unique and different conceptual schemas: each perception-act entails the correlation object/subject, but each perception-act is also the correlate of a particular consciousness. This understanding of Du Bois's double consciousness, which lead Larry Neal and the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s to assert that there is something called black consciousness which is the correlate of black experience, is a sort of idealist psychology.
I propose another interpretation of Du Bois's double-consciousness as a particular (American Negro) instance of the fragmentation of subjectivity that is conterminous with modernity. In this reading, the difference is not between two incommensurate consciousnesses occurring in the same body, instead double-consciousness involves the awareness in one consciousness of being both a knowing subject and an abject object. In this reading, the "veil of the seventh son" functions as a "decoding" of the hierarchical structures that characterize the organization not only of society but of knowledge. That is to say, in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois seeks to decode the experiential facts of life as a specific order of knowledge in which the expression "I, a thinking black being," designates the object-matter of psychology.
Granted, the concept of two incommensurate consciousnesses occurring in one body was already an object of psychological study when Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk. Arnold Rampersad refers to the work of Oswald Kulpe, as one of the possible sources in psychology for Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness. In addition to this there was William Palmer's analysis of Mary Reynolds as a case of such double-consciousness, published in the May 1860 issue of Harper's New Monthly; and Alfred Binet's Alterations of Personality (1896) went some way towards establishing the phenomena as a legitimate object of psychology. It is not at all evident that Du Bois was familiar with this work, or made use of it in formulating his concept of double-consciousness. Williams James, however, is generally credited with having had the more significant influence on Du Bois's formulation of the concept of the Negro's double-consciousness. The time during which Du Bois had been James's student (1888–1892) James was teaching the non-existence of consciousness, or rather that consciousness is a function of knowing and not an entity or substance. Even without any recourse to speculation of James's influence, there is good cause in the text of The Souls of Black Folk for reading Du Bois to understand consciousness as a function of knowing, and not as an entity.
Admittedly, at first glance, Du Bois's formulation of his concept of double-consciousness does lend itself to understanding that two incommensurate consciousnesses inhabit the same body. To some extent, this results from his careless use of terms in describing double-consciousness. He begins by describing double-consciousness as the lack of unified consciousness, or "true self-consciousness," resulting from having no subjective sense of oneself. Then, it is a feeling of being twoness—American and Negro, which are described as being two unreconciled striving thoughts in one body. The situation is not helped by his subsequently asserting that the "history of the American Negro is the history of this strife [between two thoughts in one body],—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self."
What is at stake becomes more accessible when we recall that the description of double-consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk derives from Du Bois's autobiographical account of becoming aware that he embodied the Negro problem, and that this account is a first response to the suppositional question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" The awareness occurs at an unspecified age in childhood as a result of a specific rejection. Du Bois and his classmates decide to exchange visiting cards:
The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.
By itself, this passage equates the veil with social, and not conceptual difference. In fact, it explicitly remarks, in order to emphasize the traumatic pain, that up to and including the moment of rejection there was no difference of consciousness between Du Bois and his classmates. This emphatic portrayal of like consciousness is rhetorical. Du Bois introduces the experience of racial hatred from the perspective of a thinking feeling child, who up until the moment he is told he is different is unaware of this difference. In that first moment the child does not understand a difference in consciousness between him and his mates, only a sharp sense of unjust exclusion, an exclusion made all the more painful by the knowledge that he is conceptually the same as them. Not only is the world posited the same way for him as for them, but it is meaningful in the same way; it signifies the same things. The new awareness of difference is made all the more painful and traumatic, in that it doesn't entail a conceptual rupture.
I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. The sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them.
It is noteworthy that Du Bois's experience of himself is chiefly conceptual—no reference is made to physical differences between Du Bois and his classmates (in subsequent versions of this same story it is made clear that this is not because he did not look different, but in The Souls of Black Folk it is purely so). He is conscious of himself as a "little thing, away up in the hills of New England"; a knowing subject in the world of things, this is a conceptual thing, not a percept. That is to say, the boy Du Bois has a concept but no perception of his self. Of course, read in this way, Du Bois's description of his childhood consciousness is a psychologism at best: he has a contentless, pure soul. This is, to a certain extent, part of the rhetorical ploy of portraying childish innocence. But it is also pivotal in understanding the move Du Bois makes from social to conceptual difference. What happens with the girl's rejection is not her establishing for Du Bois that, for her, he is simply a percept—some material thing in the world. He was already that, being a body; and he was a perceived body for himself as well. The text is quite clear, the trauma resulted from a judgment—contempt. The problem with that judgment is that it is apophantic. This is not because Du Bois now knows himself as that which it is predicative of: Du Bois suffers the contempt of his classmates, and reciprocates—if they think they are better than me, then I think I am better than them. In other words, the girl's rejection of him does not compel him to conceptually experience himself any differently than he had previously. Whatever predicable she has in mind is just that, a concept in her mind.
This is a significant point for two reasons. First, the Negro problem is not an object, but a proposition whose precondition is the distinction between reference and meaning—the Negro need not have a truth value (a reference) in order for it to be meaningful. Second, referential indeterminacy does not necessarily equate with semantic ambiguity, instead there is evidence of two incommensurate semantics of Negro. Accordingly, the split consciousness of the Negro is understood as a function of consciously experiencing this incommensurability. Yet, because the very precondition for this semantic incommensurability is the distinction of reference and meaning, whose own precondition is the possibility of object-ness—the positing of an object—it necessarily involves a synthetically unitary (transcendental) consciousness. Insofar as this unitary consciousness is meaningful only semantically (at the level of connotation), semantic incommensurability equates with incommensurate subjective consciousnesses. In other words, the Negro's split consciousness is a function of unfungible value—of having two meanings in incommensurate languages. What makes this incommensurability a crisis is the fact that both systems claim the same reference at the same time. The temporality of reference, however, raises the question of whether or not these unfungible values are indeed heterogeneous. That is, the "Negro problem" Du Bois draws our attention to is only at first glance that of confusing referentiality and meaning; on more careful consideration it becomes that of confusing knowledge about something with thinking on it.
After all, contempt is still not conceptual difference. On the contrary, it contains the risk of the afterthought: "suppose after all, the world is right and we [Negros] are less than men." Here is the rub, Du Bois is capable of having the same concept of himself that the girl has, and achieving the same apophantic judgment without forgetting his prior conceptual experience of himself. In reflecting on the rejection, Du Bois has come to understand that knowledge of self or consciousness is purely conceptual. Social difference becomes the index of conceptual difference. This interpretation, however, begs the question which Du Bois set out in his "Forethought" as the exploration with which he connects the fourteen essays in The Souls of Black Folk: What are "the strange meanings of being black?" It gets rephrased in the first chapter, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" as: "How does it feel to be a problem?" The question of the problem is about what it means to be always at minimum object-plus-subjects. Yet, in beginning to address this question, we still need to know what Du Bois means by consciousness.
Du Bois somewhat carelessly equates consciousness with thought, and understands the latter as something in his "dark body." For both Du Bois and his classmates, his body is a complex percept. For Du Bois, prior to the girl's rejection, that percept was related to his consciousness as a correlate object of it: this is my body, he would state. The statement "I am American" is slightly more complicated, in that American as a concept is also a correlate object of consciousness, and at the same time it is the conceptual correlate of the perceptual body. After the girl's rejection of him, Du Bois still knew his body as a perceptual object of consciousness, but it was also now a correlate of the concept Negro, which in turn was a conceptual object of consciousness. The two correlations, body/American and body/Negro, are objects towards which consciousness is directed: their experiences are intentional experiences. At the same time, the two different concepts, American and Negro, correlate to the same perceptual object—the dark body. There are two concepts and one percept.
Now, every intention has a structure, whose components, while themselves intentional, act in a synthetically unified intentionality. In other words, difference in intentionalities may indicate different moments of consciousness, but these differences act to constitute a unified being—they are changes in orientation of perspective within one stream of consciousness, which is nothing more than the conjunctive relation that provides a continuous associative lineage within the flow of experience. Following this, in asserting that the same object is turned or directed towards two different consciousnesses, Du Bois is asserting that there are two different intentionalities, two different cogitos. That is simply to say that two minds can know one thing. If this, however, is what Du Bois means by the Negro's double-consciousness, then he is maintaining an absurdity. Or else, he understands the Negro to be definitionally a multiple personality.
If consciousness is nothing more than the conjunctive relation that provides a continuous associative lineage within the flow of experience, then both the American and Negro are experiences of consciousness, and not consciousnesses. At this point, it seems clear that what Du Bois means by consciousness is identity. What Du Bois calls double-consciousness in the same mind is more rigorously understood as two disjuncted identities experienced within the stream of one consciousness. Identities are conceptual objects of experience, regardless of how they refer to or terminate in particular percepts. As such they are functions of consciousness and not consciousness itself. Whereas two incommensurate consciousnesses in one mind is an absurdity, two incommensurate identities in one stream of consciousness is not. As conceptual objects the American and Negro need not have a truth value (they need not correlate with aggregates of percepts) to be meaningful—they constitute aggregates of concepts. This reading enables us to gain some significant insights into Du Bois['s] psychology. Du Bois's double-consciousness is now recognized as a serious attempt to think about the American Negro as a particular case of the possibilities of experience in modernity rather than as an object for analysis. Insofar as he succeeds in that attempt he enables us to conceive of black consciousness as a function of experience and not the ground for experience. Black consciousness is a subjective mode of thought.
The possibility of intersubjective (collective) black identity issues from the critical engagement with the tension between the objective conditions of blackness and the subjective consciousness of blacks: other thinking creatures who look like me and have analogous experiences to mine think as I do. Based on his understanding of this tension, Du Bois recognizes black consciousness as a surplus value in the dialectic of the Negro's material abjection and black self-consciousness. In other words, Black consciousness constitutes a collective (class) critical understanding of historical change. Du Bois's proposal to engage the "darker thought,—the thought of things themselves" rather than encouraging us to determine once and for all the fact of blackness, leads our understanding away from the "natural" attitude of beings whose life is involved in the world of things to the transcendental life of consciousness. Taking that into account, his concept of double-consciousness is concerned with the question of essential authentic being, that is, with the very possibility of experience. This question of authenticity is ontological, it is concerned with genuine self-possessedness.
Even though it is Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness that leads us to this question of ontological authenticity, it is not a question he is prepared to address in The Souls of Black Folk. Throughout most of the book, Du Bois considers the meaning of being black—i.e., double-consciousness—in terms of the structures and relations between beings. He focuses on particular sets of social and moral behaviors. In this way the meaning of blackness is ontical, and not a question of essential authentic being. In other words, Du Bois never really does more than continually draw our attention to the "Negro problem" as a function of unfungible values, or referential indeterminacy, which legitimates his consideration of the meaning of being black, and not what the black is. Granted, his consideration is restricted to the ontical, but that is because what he strove to overcome was the positivist cynical disregarding of the Negro's conscious self in order to "gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes." Du Bois strove to overturn positivist sociology's narrow understanding of the Negro as merely a social phenomena, something to be objectively tabulated and studied.
For Du Bois, the only appropriate way to react to the connotation of the Negro as thing-laborer is the application of thought, to turn away from the body as being, from black people in the world as the collocation of phenomena, toward the inquiry into the constitution of the thought of black subjectivity as the ground of being. The "history of the American Negro" traced in The Souls of Black Folk is the projection of Negro being in thought, striving to achieve the annihilation of double-consciousness. It is the history of the dialectic interplay between knowledge and power: black thought emerges in the opposition of Will to the ordering of Ideas. Du Bois's recognizing the Negro as a real ontical being, rather than merely an object for positive scientific analysis, was an extremely radical departure from the established way of thinking. Even though it is not yet there, his departure is towards thinking the question of authentic ontological being. What is lost in the exchange of the empirical black, who was the object of sociological analysis, for the thinking black subject is the ability to unproblematically talk about blacks in the world. What is gained is the ability to think the authentic possibilities of being—the thetic.
This is not to deny the fact that there are Negroes, a fact that the girl's rejection drove home for Du Bois. Instead, it is to deny that the fact of the Negro defines the authenticity of Negro being. For all the limitations of Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness, this is the challenge it draws us towards, the challenge to think the Negro authentically. Thinking the authentic being of the Negro requires the constructive bringing to view of Negro being by projecting the free possibilities of being out of its particular structures. This projection requires, in turn, the deconstruction of that thinking about Negro being that correlates the perceptual and conceptual objects. The proper pursuit of this line of thought would call for a rather rigorous phenomenology of the Negro, which is far more than can be done at this moment. Even though it is Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness that has enabled us to discover the question of authenticity, pursuing it any further along these lines will take us a bit too far from the concern with which we began. That concern was with Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness as the presupposition of his understanding of intellectual vanguardism, and how that is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy.
Appreciating more clearly how Du Bois's understanding of the black intellectual vanguard presupposes his concept of the Negro as a real ontical being requires a more careful interrogation of his notions about the proper socio-political function of the black artist. Succinctly stated, that function was to create in different media as accurate as possible a representation of Blacks' unfailing moral strength in the face of the daily struggle with abjection at the hands of white America. Black artists should be ever mindful that given the historical, political, and social stakes of the division between black and white America, the relation of cultural object to group "being" matters. For Du Bois, artists, and especially literary artists, were ideologues, not as producers of false consciousness, but as the producers of a whole new body of knowledge derived from and constitutive of the lived experience of the Negro. Black art should serve black solidarity. Such a solidarity grounded in objective representation has to construe truth as correspondence to reality, requiring that there be formulated a special relation between belief and their objects, enabling the differentiation of true and false beliefs and thereby entailing the determination of specified procedures of justification of belief. Du Bois understood that relationship as duty: the obligation to know the difference between the best and the worst. Thus, artistic activity relies upon a determination of the nature of things; Du Bois's artist is a modern intellectual who requires that epistemology enable procedures of legitimation that are not merely social but apparently natural, issuing from the linking of human action to nature in general. Only those procedures of legitimation that lead to truth, to the correspondence of knowledge to reality, are truly legitimate under this view.
Furthermore, truth as the result of artistic/intellectual activity was an absolute to be pursued for its own sake, beyond the immediate desiderata and practical exigencies of one's self and/or community, which, again, should themselves derive from this understanding of the truth. As Anthony Appiah has observed, throughout his life Du Bois was concerned not just with the meaning of race but with the truth about race. Indeed, Du Bois's famous Atlanta Conferences were driven by the search after truth.
Prior to The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois sought this truth in social positivism. As he argued in "My Evolving Program," the "long term remedy [to racism] was Truth: carefully gathered scientific proof that neither color nor race determined the limits of a man's capacity or desert." Du Bois employed positivism to reveal the constructed and ideologically determined character of the "givenness" of Black inferiority. Du Bois's conception of the social sciences was that they were the theoretical understanding of existent social phenomena. On this view, science is instrumental, in the logical sense that its propositions are only conditionally heuristic or prescriptive and never absolutely so. This understanding of instrumental reason was the methodological basis for both his Philadelphia Negro and the Atlanta Conferences (1897–1910). As a result of the problems encountered in interpreting and translating into a program of action the data collected by the Atlanta Conferences, however, he concluded that privileging scientific sociology was not the best means for achieving black liberation. Confronted with the "startling reality" of the black's oppression, which called for immediate action to prevent social death (i.e., lynching), Du Bois perceived that positivism's conception of knowledge entailed a dangerous disjunction between theory and its practical consequences.
This is not to suggest that Du Bois abandoned a notion of truth as such, but rather that he began to question the validity of any procedure of rational justification that claimed to derive its legitimacy from determinate knowledge. As far as the social condition of blacks was concerned, there just wasn't enough time to determine the comprehensive grounds for knowledge. Epistemology was useful only insofar as it entailed a theory of action. In Du Bois's thinking, the social interests informing technological progress were inseparably linked to the function of hypothesis-ordering entailed in scientific inquiry. In effect, then, the facts that are most fruitful, including those of the knowledge already possessed, are those that have practical application to given circumstances. Knowledge must constitute theory in an absolute way, as though theory was grounded in the inner nature of instrumental knowledge itself. Or else theory must be legitimated in some other ahistorical fashion, such as the actualization of instrumental interests in nature. At this point, Du Bois's whole attitude toward the function of theory in the social sciences had to change—in the study of human beings and their actions, there could be no divergence between theory and social praxis.
In the course of this celebrated turn from positivism to pragmatism, Du Bois started thinking about the historical emergence of black consciousness as a contentious process of cognition that resists resolution. Du Bois called this crucial irresolvable contention the "dialectic of progression," whose two terms are natural law (necessity) and chance (indeterminacy). Gaining insight into this dialectic required that sociology be reformulated as a philosophy of science, whose work was to determine the relationship of indeterminacy to law. It also required just the sort of elaboration provided in The Souls of Black Folk of how self-reflective subjectivity comes to consciousness through experience. Du Bois's gesture is a calculated one, in which he redirects sociology back toward Kant's anthropology. In his own words, the object of sociology becomes to measure the "Kantian Absolute and Undetermined Ego."
In this context the "veil" of black consciousness functions as the metonymic statement of the unthought in its unthinkableness, whose purpose is to expose thinking as generating complexities and complications in its density, rather than resolving difference in its translucence. This is a restating of our earlier reading of Du Bois's "history of the American Negro" as the dialectic between knowledge and power. Only in this restating, it is far more clear what is at stake in understanding this to mean that black thought emerges in the opposition of Will to the ordering of Ideas. It means black consciousness is truth. The consequent relativization of knowledge is meant to clear a space for the introduction of a theory of value capable of problematizing the material basis for theories of social determinism and their concomitant legitimation of racism. This shift to theory of value notwithstanding, Du Bois does not altogether abandon the conception of an ultimate truth. On the contrary, truth is recognized as a teleology that discovers the essential homogeneity of humanity through the universality of relative values. Truth is preserved as a question that is unanswerable, except in terms of its specific localized expression—i.e., the truth of black consciousness—it remains always as the essential Absolute in which the cultural frame of reference is grounded.
Thus far, I have found it useful to talk about The Souls of Black Folk as Du Bois's presentation of the history of the American Negro. I have also shown how, as such, it is exemplary of his treating the American Negro as the paradigmatic case in his attempt to describe the production of collective identity in terms of discursive effect. I have done so to underscore the extent to which his investment in reasserting the priority of the epistemological subject over and against the ascendancy of the positivist methodology of the social sciences is predicated on his commitment to pluralist democracy. The history of the American Negro outlined in The Souls of Black Folk is a demonstration that truly pluralistic democracy is instituted through people's appropriation of their power of signification. Positivism resists that appropriation; in its asserting that the foundations of the social are determined by objective conditions, independent of human will, it makes foundational knowledge the special province of scientific methodology.
Du Bois recognized that such an exalted methodology, whose theory derives from purely logical or methodological sources, takes the place of religion in its dogmatic refusal to put into question the legitimacy of the status of its knowledge. His dialectic of progress is the desacralization of this knowledge, in which natural law is reconceptualized as a constructed frame of reference marking objective reality, and interacting with our indeterminate knowledge (which Du Bois at times refers to as being an autonomous dynamic). According to the dialectic of progress, liberating sociological analysis does not derive from purely logical or methodological sources, but can only be understood in the context of historical social praxes. Theory as intellectual work is a social praxis actively involved in the instituting of the social. In this way the dialectic of progression produces black consciousness as a principle of social democracy—i.e., the secularization of knowledge gets subjects who are conscious of their power of institution. In other words, whereas positivism saw sovereignty in the correct function of knowledge (i.e., methodology), Du Bois found it in the collective will, the consciousness of the folk.
Recall that in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois displaces the Negro as an object of positive scientific analysis for the Negro as a self-conscious thinking ontical being. The concept of double-consciousness enables this displacement because it calls us to think the Negro authentically. Even though this concept of double-consciousness leads to the ontological question of authenticity it fails to address it. Instead, it serves two strategic (in fact rhetorical) functions. On the one hand, it enables Du Bois to exhibit the Negro as a self-conscious thinking subject. On the other hand, it is the figure of collective psychosis, resulting from social injustice. By the same token, double-consciousness establishes the heterogeneous origins of Negro and American identity. The psychosis of double-consciousness is not the result of a prior unified identity becoming fragmented, it results from the failure to merge two heterogeneous consciousnesses into one identity. At this point, Du Bois is quite clear that pluralistic democracy dictates the annihilation of double-consciousness: "The history of the American Negro is … this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self." On the face of it, the argument is that pluralistic democracy requires the merging of the divided racial subject "into" the truer self of the American citizen. Yet, the very next sentence contradicts this, slipping from "into" to "with":
He [the Negro] would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.
This passage is one of the rare moments in The Souls of Black Folk where it's explicitly stated that the two juxtaposed consciousnesses are those of the Negro and the white, and not the Negro and the American. Even in The Souls of Black Folk, the Negro is a consciousness and American is an identity. Arguably, this is little more than Du Bois's revisiting the Jeffersonian idea of the difference between the private and public spheres. According to this concept polity is in the public sphere, and each and every citizen participates as an individual citizen in that sphere regardless of their affiliations or formations in the private sphere of culture or society. Participation in the public sphere does not require the renunciation of the citizen's private interests and affiliations; what guarantees access to the public sphere is the rule of law. The chief problem with this view is it fails to take sufficient care of the problems of movement between the two spheres. If any one corporate interest of the private sphere gains hegemony over the public sphere through its controlling the conditions in which the rule of law is interpreted, then the effectiveness of the distinction between the two spheres is lost. Of course, it was precisely such a hegemony Du Bois sought to problematize: the law defined the Negro as property in accordance with certain collective interests in the private sphere; that fact of law precluded the Negro's gaining direct access to the public sphere where, as free citizens, they could amend the law. The violent rupture of civil war precipitated the amendment of the law; yet since the war was principally a political, and insufficiently a private issue, the broader societal factors, the complex of private interests, that had enslaved the Negro legally, interpreted the law so as to maintain their hegemony.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois identifies the relationship between ideology and law when, writing about the failure of the Freedmen's Bureau to exercise its juridical function, he states: "Almost every law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the legislatures to reduce the Negroes to serfdom,—to make them slaves of the state, if not of individuals." Or again, writing about the possibilities of the Negro's participation in the public sphere, he proclaims: "The laws are made by men who have little interest in [the Negro]; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration." This interrelationship between ideology and law creates, in Du Bois's view, the circumstances in which "the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression." The rule of law has become the means by which the Negro is enslaved, the cause is in "the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil." Hence, the urgency with which Du Bois argues that the recognition and development of the Negro as a thinking subject as the prerequisite for complete democracy. For that matter, pluralist democracy is not possible in America as long as the racial subject is antinomic to the citizen. Merging the racial subject with the citizen is the solution called for in The Souls of Black Folk, the way of achieving this offered in "The Conservation of Races" is to formulate a legitimating collective narrative capable of transcending comprehensively the plurality of communities within the nation. That narrative is based on understanding the real meaning of race, which recognizes racial identity as a function of historical development towards the realization of absolute human spirit: "that one far off Divine event."
Recognizing that Du Bois thinks about race in terms of Identitätsphilosphie (identity-philosophy), is a sine qua non for understanding the idealism operating in his conception of race and its connectedness with his notion of social democracy. Race for Du Bois is Gemeinschaft, an assemblage of human beings according to common history, traditions and impulses, "who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life." The subject of race results from the authenticating genealogy or collective narrative of shared historical experience, giving rise to what Du Bois called culture. The conception of race as culture and not biology is fundamentally an argument for the discursive constitution of subjects. But in Du Bois's theory of the historical construction of collective identity, a fundamental and universal consciousness drives each collective identity in its specificity. Racial difference functions according to a dialectic of progression in which each race strives to realize the utopian movement in which the spirit of humanity will return to itself. As he puts it in "The Conservation of Races," the "full complete Negro message of the whole Negro race" is to be given to the world through "the development of Negro genius, of Negro literature and art, of Negro spirit."
Understanding the subject of race to be a specific expression of the essential, or Absolute, human entails taking the exclusionary legitimation of the American citizen to be the annihilation of the human. As Du Bois pointed out in his Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and later in Black Reconstruction, where the American citizen is the subject selected as the legitimate custodian of political will, it is selected as such in exclusion of specific other subject-constructions, specifically blacks. When the state invests in such a narrow definition of the citizen as its sole legitimate subject, it cannot bring the collective human will into full effect. Du Bois's corrective for this was a program of intellectual activity that reaffirmed the subject of race as the sole legitimate space for socialization. The merger of the Negro's double-consciousness into a truer self called for in The Souls of Black Folk is not so much a merger as the accommodation of the political will to racial identity. Positing the universality of the subject of race as an abstraction, Du Bois discovers the psychology of the Negro as the case for thoroughly calculating the generation and effect of cultural representations, and displacing the speculative interests of social positivism with the figure of the racial subject as the legitimate grounds for organizing the social. Accordingly, black intellectuals are the legitimate representatives of the race—race-men. Their election, however, is based on a propriety of knowledge that presupposes rightful participation in a public sphere that already excludes the Negro from civil society (which Du Bois came to identify with economy). The principal function of the talented tenth, then, is to engender an order of publicity, aimed at the inclusion of the Negro in civil society (hence Du Bois's insistence that an additional function of the tenth is incorporation in economic co-operatives). In other words, the legitimate work of the black intellectual is to both represent the essential humanity of black folk, and to create the conditions in which that humanity is recognizable as valuable to civil society.
Du Bois's argument that the development of the Negro subject was a prerequisite for complete democracy notwithstanding, having race monopolize legitimate socialization is antinomic to democracy precisely because it disassociates the political will from the social in such a way that social authority is the determinant of legitimate accesses to the public sphere. In the case of the black intellectual, social authority is a function of racial authenticity, which is acquired by defining the grounds of legitimate folk expression. In the movement from racial subject to citizenship that characterizes the merging of the Negro's double-consciousness into a truer self, the public sphere is not produced by the continuous conscious spontaneity of action on the part of free individuals under the rule of law; instead, it is the sphere of struggle between organic collective constituencies. Even as indeterminacy points to the limitations of prescriptive natural law, it reveals the subjugation of the political subject (the citizen) to racial identity. The logic of racial emancipation in differentiation is, thus, discovered in the socioeconomic and political totalitarianism of a patria. Here is where the antinomy of race and democracy I spoke of earlier strikes. Establishing the universality of the subject of race as an abstraction is the first step towards achieving the annihilation of the political subject. Having engaged in an anti-foundationalist critique of sociology in order to recognize that a condition for democracy is the indeterminacy of knowledge, Du Bois reaffirms that the foundations of the social are determined by objective conditions after all: the almost mechanistic dialects of race and bloodline.
This careful retracing of the tortuous turns in Du Bois's critical theory was undertaken in order to understand how Du Bois's theory of intellectual vanguardism presupposed his concept of black consciousness, and how that concept is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy. Simply put, the black intelligentsia are race-men, whose authority derives from their ability to define black consciousness as the only authentic mode of being in which the Negro can enter the public sphere. Such a consciousness is antinomic to pluralist democracy because it subordinates the political subject to the racial. The need to understand this was prompted by the New Black Aesthetics' offering us a return to racial vanguardism as the means of affirming social democracy. More is at stake here, however, than simply establishing that Du Bois's concept of black consciousness is paradigmatic for the NBA. The more crucial issue is how is such a conception of black consciousness as key to social change still possible, given the absurdity inherent in its formulation. As stated earlier, that possibility has to do with precisely what is meant by consciousness in the concepts black consciousness and black experience.
Black consciousness, for Du Bois, is a function of experience and not the ground for experience. It is a mode of thought that emerges in interplay between knowledge and power. As such, the concern of Black consciousness is authenticity as genuine self-possessedness. The thing is, in Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness, the question of authenticity is misconstrued. Rather than being the concern with genuine self-possessedness as the very possibility of experience, The Souls of Black Folk is concerned with the socio-political meanings of Black consciousness. What this means is that the question of authentic Black being is presupposed by the concept of double-consciousness, but never addressed. This failure to address authenticity proves critical, for in order to establish the Negro's consciousness Du Bois is compelled to ground it in an unsubstantiated notion of exceptionalism: "[The Negro] would not Africanize America, for America has much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world."
The self-conscious parody and ironic signifying of Ellis's NBA—i.e., the idea of the "cultural mulatto"—is best understood as a form of this same exceptionalism, only with a deft modernist spin to it. Like Du Bois, the NBA understands culture as a field of human activity that although historically related to material economic conditions transcends those conditions. Again, as with Du Bois's thinking, the NBA defines black identity in terms of culture. Culture is not simply derivative of what used to be referred to as political economy; it does not represent the system of the material socio-economic relations that regulate the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the material socioeconomic relations in which they live. That is to say, individuals live in the moment of their imaginary relations to the material, and this is culture.
There is an acute sense of the present as a constitutive element of aesthetic experience in Ellis's conception of the NBA as a postliberation aesthetic. This is underscored in his emphasizing its being the synthesis of past aesthetics (the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement) that rearticulates them into a representation of the present. We have not adequately addressed the question of time in Du Bois's and Ellis's conceptions of aesthetics. A beginning gesture towards addressing this question—which is all there is time for in this closing summary of resemblance—would be to note the permanent parabasis (the stepping aside) prevalent in so much NBA work, such that it constitutes the narrative structure of Ellis's Platitudes, and Darins James's Negrophobia, as well as being expressed musically in sampling and scratching. Permanent parabasis, so Friedrich Schlegel defined irony, and irony, for Ellis, is a constitutive element of the NBA.
The idea of the cultural mulatto is, after all, the idea of the permanently self-conscious narrator, whose enunciations continually discover the temporal predicament of the "now": the mere coincidence of material reality and the reality of enunciation. There is a sense of Baudelaire's driven and harassed man (imitant la toupie et la boule) in Ellis's characterization of the New Black Aesthetic as "neobarocco." In other words, the cultural mulatto is caught up in an unrelieved vertigo, in which identification and stability exist only in the symbolic power of the mind. Thinking about irony in this way is to think, again, like Baudelaire, for whom irony was the absolute comedy in its tendency towards hyperbole.
To suggest that the New Black Aesthetic is a form of absolute comedy, is not to dismiss it, but, instead to remark on its relationship to Du Bois's Romantic idealism in its understanding of aesthetics. This is the end of an already complicated and conceptually burdened essay, and so it is not the moment to embark on an elaboration of the etymology of "aesthetics." What can be stated sensibly at this juncture is that in claiming for the NBA a transforming robust spirituality—Ellis calls it the attitude of liberalism—with global implications, Ellis understands aesthetics to be sentimental. This means that the disturbatory expression of the NBA is focused on the interiority of the new black, cultural mulatto consciousness. Hence, the overemphasis on formalism in Ellis's descriptions of what makes the NBA "new." Thing is, this understanding of aesthetics becomes the basis for a supremacist sense of black cultural difference. Ellis asserts that the NBA dominates popular culture because it is separate from and better than the dominant culture. This claim for the NBA catches it in a vexing dilemma. How can the NBA be an anti-aesthetic when it persists in seeing culture as the terrain of subjective formation? Auto-parody leads to a stasis of thought when the NBA can proclaim that "'that other culture is definitely spent,' while black people have yet to see the best days of our race," and still claim to be "an attitude of liberalism rather than a restrictive code." The notion of cultural exceptionalism is also intimated in Tate's arguing that it is the "worldly-wise stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups" who embody the viable non-cultural nationalist resistance to transnational capitalism. Tate's parody of Du Bois's concept of the talented tenth keeps him caught up in Du Bois's concept of thinking humans as the agents of historical change. For the NBA, as well as for Du Bois, there are thinking subjects who collectively enunciate society.
To hold culture as the grounding of the triad culture/subject/society so that culture describes thought—as in black culture black thought—is to still work according to modernity's understanding of sign-value: to hold the truth of experience as a totality. Tate, more than Ellis, has some sense of this when he calls for a form of resistance that doesn't aim for transcendence of corporation into some mythical liberated zone of authentic identity, but for critical intervention in the process by which transnational capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism. Doing this becomes possible, however, only by letting go of a certain way of thinking about thought in relation to society, an abandoning of the Hegelian dialectic of recognition lurking in the identification of beauty and truth with which this essay begins. This, of course, is an altogether different question of authenticity.
This section contains 10,282 words
(approx. 35 pages at 300 words per page)