Alexander Weheliye on desiring for a different world
Interview by Henry Jacob, Yale 21'
Transcription by Rachel Blatt, Yale 23'
YHR: I first encountered your work in a graduate seminar on organicism. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human was the final reading and perhaps the most enlightening because it offered a new entry point for our class conversations on biopolitics. In the book, you build on Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers rather than Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben to demonstrate the limitations of prevailing discourses on the human. How do you seek to reframe theorizations of “Man” by turning to perspectives often excluded from these debates?
Alexander Weheliye: That's the big question. In terms of the reframing, I demonstrate how Black culture is central to Western modernity. Black thought, from the beginning of European colonialism and racial slavery up to the present, has significantly contributed to conceptions about what it means to be human. Growing up in Germany, I encountered Black thought and European critical theory at the same time and noticed a very deep resistance to thinking about the histories of colonialism, enslavement, and its afterlives in Western European theory and philosophy, which mirrored my everyday experiences as a Black German. In both theory and national politics, race, and therefore racism, are still an anathema, because European public and academic discourse positions these as problems located elsewhere, which produces a constitutive externalization and misrecognition of non-white Europeans as always already distant from Europeanness. In essence, though hardly ever articulated as such, it equates being European with being white. Agamben and Foucault stand as two of the many theorists with glaring historical and conceptual absences in their work. Blackness and Black thought are not external to Western Europe. They never have been.
YHR: Habeas Viscus responds to this willful forgetting by decentering prevailing conceptions of intellectual production in the West. You fill the gaps of contemporary theory by including the lived and remembered experiences of colonialism and enslavement within the story. Throughout these case studies, you analyze the suffering body not only as a locus of pain, but also of creativity. You seem to suggest that violence, though not generative, does not limit originality in thought or action. AW: Oftentimes it’s positioned as if there is a choice between the two. Violence doesn't extinguish creativity and life; they can--and frequently do--coexist. I've always tried to take that into account in my work. I try not to be absolutely celebratory or, on the other hand, only to focus on the violence imposed from without...