4/14/2020: Sylvia Wynter

Today’s #AntiAbleistComposition feature isn’t a text or a work or a piece of scholarship. Today’s feature is dedicated to Sylvia Wynter, whose labor, love, and writing has shaped the course of Black feminist thought and Black feminist praxis for generations. Today’s feature will be a curation of Wynter’s work, which I find to be relevant now and always–particularly right now.

From Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis

The Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter is best known for her diverse writings that pull together insights from theories in history, literature, science, and black studies, to explore race, the legacy of colonialism, and representations of humanness. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis is a critical genealogy of Wynter’s work, highlighting her insights on how race, location, and time together inform what it means to be human.

Biographical Information from Encyclopedia.com

Sylvia Wynter was born in Cuba but grew up and was educated in Kingston, Jamaica. A series of scholarships took her to King’s College, London University, as well as to the University of Madrid. Her studies culminated in a B.A. (with honors) in Spanish literature (with a minor in English) and an M.A. with a thesis on Golden Age Spanish drama.

Wynter spent the next decade in London as a writer. She wrote screenplays for the BBC’s Third Program, as well as a novel, The Hills of Hebron, published in 1962. In 1963 Wynter returned to the then newly independent Jamaica and joined the faculty of the University of the West Indies (UWI). While teaching at UWI in Mona, she helped to establish Jamaica Journal, one of the premier Anglo-phone journals of Caribbean intellectual thought. During this time she also wrote several plays, including Maskarade and 1865: Ballad of a Rebellion, which were directed by Lloyd Reckord. In the context of the island’s postcolonial intellectual ferment, Wynter wrote “We Must Learn to Sit Down Together and Talk about a Little Culture: Reflections on West Indian Literature and Criticism,” an essay that set the stage for her rethinking of the belief system of race.

Coincidentally, at the time that she began to explore the theoretical question posed by Elsa Goveia in “The Social Framework” (1970) as to the why of the premise of black inferiority and of white superiority, a parallel order of intellectual questioning had begun to emerge in the United States to accompany the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. In the context of the call for black studies, Wynter was invited to teach at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). At UCSD Wynter was appointed to teach and to further develop a new interdisciplinary program, Literature and Society in the Third World. Three years later, at Stanford University, Wynter was appointed chair of the Program in African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) as well as professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. She served as chair of the AAAS program until 1982 and continued to teach at Stanford until her retirement as professor emerita in June 1994.

After coming to the United States in the 1970s, Wynter authored a series of major essays in which she put forward a unified theory of culture able to explain both the fifteenth-century rise of the West and the price that the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the enslaved black population would pay for the West’s global expansion and techno-scientific breakthroughs. By calling into question what she defined as our biocentric (as a reformulation of the feudal theocentric ) conception of being human, Wynter opened up a path for the elaboration of a new science of the human, one able to explain, she asserts, the “puzzle of conscious experience” (Chalmers, 1995).

Wynter argued that the issue of race, which had become a global status-organizing principle, could be understood only within the terms of the originally Judeo-Christian religio-cultural ground out of which it emerged. In the wake of the voyages of the Portuguese into newly discovered lands in Africa and of Christopher Columbus into the Americas, together with the rise of the natural sciences in the sixteenth century, the West would become the first culture to secularize (that is, “degod,” desupernaturalize) its order of knowledge. In the place of the earlier supernaturally ordained identity of the Christian, an increasingly (and by the nineteenth-century Darwinian revolution, purely) biological conception of the human, “man,” was instituted. In other words, the laity/clergy issue that structured the feudal order had been transformed into that of the black/white (as well as man/native) issue. At the same time, the belief system of spiritual caste, to which the former issue had given expression, was transformed into the modern belief system of race, in effect, of biological caste.

Wynter hypothesized that all humans must necessarily know their social reality in adaptively advantageous terms, able to ensure the realization of their specific mode or genre of being human, or of sociogeny (Fanon, 1967), as well as of the reproduction of the specific societal order, which is each such genre’s indispensable condition of existence. On the basis of Fanon’s redefinition of the human as hybridly phylogeny (the evolution or development of a kind or type of animal or plant) and ontogeny (the development of an individual organism) on the one hand, and sociogeny on the other (in Western terms, a nature/culture mode of being), Wynter put forward the idea of the sociogenic principle or code as the explanatory key, both to “the puzzle of conscious experience” (Chalmers, 1995) and to the laws that govern human behaviors. She does so in the context of Aimé Césaire’s 1946 proposal for a “science of the Word” (Césaire, 1982, pp. 24–25), as a science of the human able to complete what Césaire defines as the “half-starved” nature of the natural sciences, which for all their technological achievements have yet to come up with a scientific description of the reality of what it is to be human, that is, hybridly organic/meta-organic, gene and word.

Wynter’s Labor and Love

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