Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative
Wendy B. Faris
Ordinary Enchantments investigates magical realism as the most important trend in contemporary international fiction, defines its characteristics and narrative techniques, and proposes a new theory to explain its significance. In the most comprehensive critical treatment of this literary mode to date, Wendy B. Faris discusses a rich array of examples from magical realist novels around the world, including the work not only of Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but also of authors like Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, and Ben Okri.
Faris argues that by combining realistic representation with fantastic elements so that the marvelous seems to grow organically out of the ordinary, magical realism destabilizes the dominant form of realism based on empirical definitions of reality, gives it visionary power, and thus constitutes what might be called a "remystification" of narrative in the West. Noting the radical narrative heterogeneity of magical realism, the author compares its cultural role to that of traditional shamanic performance, which joins the worlds of daily life and that of the spirits. Because of that capacity to bridge different worlds, magical realism has served as an effective decolonizing agent, providing the ground for marginal voices, submerged traditions, and emergent literatures to develop and create masterpieces. At the same time, this process is not limited to postcolonial situations but constitutes a global trend that replenishes realism from within.
In addition to describing what many consider to be the progressive cultural work of magical realism, Faris also confronts the recent accusation that magical realism and its study as a global phenomenon can be seen as a form of commodification and an imposition of cultural homogeneity. And finally, drawing on the narrative innovations and cultural scenarios that magical realism enacts, she extends those principles toward issues of gender and the possibility of a female element within magical realism.
Wendy B. Faris is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is the author of Carlos Fuentes and Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction, as well as co-editor of Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.
"For over twenty years, Wendy Faris has meditated deeply on the paradox of magical realism. And now the rabbit is out of the hat. Ordinary Enchantments brings critical clarity to a fictional world whose organizing principle is radical incongruity. It discovers a textual poetics for the grounded imagination. And it shows us why fiction that astonishes is inherently political fiction--a way of envisioning social equity within an overwhelmingly unequal world."--Stephen Slemon
"Over a generation since magical realism first levitated onto the global stage, the time is ripe for stock-taking, and nobody to date has taken stock more engagingly or authoritatively than Wendy Faris. Synthesizing postcolonialist insight, feminist critique, and narratology, Faris ranges widely across space and time, and her findings are as rich and strange as magical realist fiction itself. If the enchantments of magical realism are 'ordinary,' this book certainly is not."--Brian McHale
Read an interview
with Wendy Faris.
Wendy B. Faris
Wendy Faris, author of Ordinary Enchantments, explains why magical realism is so popular and talks about the spiritual underpinnings of the form.
Toward the end of your book, you talk a little bit about the ways in which magical realism has been co-opted by popular culture. When you compare a book like One Hundred Years of Solitude with a TV show like Charmed, aside from narrative complexity, what kinds of differences in the presentation of the fantastic do you see? Is it as simple as popular culture stripping magical realism of its politics?
The way I think of it is not really so much that magical realism has been co-opted by popular culture, but that they are both responding to what seems like a bit of a trend in the air at this time. I hint via a quote from Fredric Jameson about fundamentalism being a kind of unfortunate corrective to an American mainline hegemony of materialism that in a way, the religious aspect of fundamentalism and the spiritual dimension of magical realism may be two aspects of the same phenomena--the desire for something besides this age's focus on materialism. Unfortunately, I don't know the show Charmed. I'd be curious. I do mention AllyMcBeal and Northern Exposure, both now extinct. They both have little doses of magic within an otherwise realistic narrative environment. And perhaps they both duplicate the ""postcolonial"' or decolonizing agenda of magical realism in the sense that Ally is a woman in the traditionally man's world of lawyers and Northern Exposure is in a marginal region of North American, so magic helps those regions to be heard within the mainstream. So, they are not totally stripped of politics if one looks closely. The question may ultimately just be one of stylistic quality and there most of magical realism, like a lot of "high" in contrast to "popular" culture "wins" just because it is so well written. But those kinds of distinctions are increasingly difficult to make.
Would you consider Italo Calvino a magical realist?
Marginal, because of the greater quota of fantasy and the settings in near-science fiction-like environments in his fiction. But I'm not a real expert on him. I think I decided not to use him because of that reason. But it's a close call.
You draw connections between magical realism and shamanistic practices. When shamans journey, their goal is to heal, either by doing battle with evil forces while in the trance state or by bringing back information from the other world. Is it the author, the narrator, or the reader who is doing this kind of journeying with magical realist texts?
Since the authors are not shamans and are creating a text not performing a rite, I'd say it is not him or her. That the author creates texts that I maintain are similar to shamanic journeys--analogous in the realm of writing, that is, as I try to demonstrate with my idea of "'defocalized narrative"--then I guess I'd say that the narrative voice (which is not necessarily coexistent with the realistic notion of a real person narrator) metaphorically journeys between different worlds, and the reader follows that narrative voice. So the narrative itself, the narrative voice within the narrative, and the reader can be seen as journeying in this way. Thus the author has created an environment in which his or her text and the reader's experience of it can take that reader into a narrative world that resembles a shamanic journey. And that journey can accomplish various kinds of healing, especially in the realm of cultural conversations between different traditions or more personal ones between the actual world and some kind of different world, of the spirits, so it heals the gap usually experienced in modern secular life between those worlds. This is, then, as I've said, clearly a Western form of fiction, or at least as far as I personally know if it. I suspect, as I say somewhere in the narrative, that coming from the other direction, from the East, where spiritual traditions and the fictions that reflect them are much stronger, there are other types of magical realisms that combine the material and the spirit worlds in different ways. And a student of mine wrote a paper on the Bible as magical realism, and I thought it was pretty convincing. So... the possibilities are quite intriguing.
David L. Hildebrand
David Hildebrand, author of Beyond Realism and Antirealism, talks about how philosophy is entwined with real life and how real life issues affect philosophy, especially when the philosophers up for discussion are still alive.
Let's talk a little about the roles of philosophers in contemporary culture. One striking characteristic of your book is that you're wrestling with important ideas in innovative ways while furthering ongoing discussions by Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam about John Dewey. Yet, when most people think of philosophy, they don't think of intense, lively debates. In a perfect world, how much of a role would the philosopher play? Are you better able to critique culture from the margins or would you like to see some kind of philosophical equivalent of Dead Poet's Society or Good Will Hunting in terms of popular appeal?
In a perfect world, I'm not sure what role philosophers would play; but it's precisely the *imperfection* of our world that motivates the best writers and readers of philosophy. You're right to say that philosophers are marginalized, especially if you mean they're excluded from our society's mainstream forums of discussion. When it comes to economic justice, government spending, war, animal treatment, affirmative action, or any other "hot" issue, it is common to consult lawyers, politicians, political scientists, and even celebrities for their views, but it is uncommon to include philosophers. This is a situation badly in need of correction from both sides. Philosophers must not remain on the margins--they should devote more time and effort pushing for greater inclusion in public conversations. And the arbiters of those conversations--editors in radio, television, and the popular press--should strive to find ways to include philosophers in existing forums and devise new forums for them. The New York Times Magazine's column "The Ethicist"' has become hugely popular, while on radio WBEZ's show "Odyssey" and WBUR's "The Connection" have done a great job in getting philosophers on the air. These are good starts, but philosophers should keep in mind they're the exception, not the rule.
In your book, you engage and critique both Rorty's and Putnam's understanding of John Dewey. Do you find it invigorating to write about people who will be able to read your book and respond to your ideas or are you a little nervous about what they might say?
The possibility of a response is always invigorating, and, as Oscar Wilde quipped, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." Rorty and Putnam are now so famous that any extended response from them would be an almost unqualified plus--to be rebutted is to be taken seriously, and to be taken seriously by them would be an affirmation of my own scholarship. That said, I cannot say I'm nervous this will happen. Both men have acquired a long list of prestigious interlocutors over the years, and they're very selective in who they will respond to. I'd be thrilled if they criticized my views, but I don't expect it to happen anytime soon.
On page 149 you say, "The insight 'we can only start from where we are' may strike some as unconscionably obvious. Yet it is the absence of this insight that has led many to construct elaborate systems that, in the end, bear no significant relevance to human life." Can you give us an example of such an elaborate system and how it fails us?
It's always dicey to pick on a famous philosopher, since someone somewhere has made it their life's work to champion that system. Still, I'd have to say that Kant's ethical system has always been more hindrance than help, especially if the test is teaching ethics to students. In Kant, we see the construction of a beautiful system that categorically separates emotion from reason, feeling from analysis, and animal kind from human (or rational) kind. We see exacting distinctions made between maxims, principles, and imperatives, and the exaltation of universalizability as the supreme logical criterion of human conduct. And yet, when it comes time to employ this system in the messy situations that comprise our lives, very few are able to use Kant's system with the precision he intended. Few of us can decide what counts as a maxim with the "proper" content, and the main logical principle of the whole system, universalizability, is hardly clear, let alone user-friendly. What's more, few contemporary people want to exclude consequences or character from moral evaluation, or accept the idea that emotion has *no* role to play in moral inquiry. Pragmatism and neopragmatism are both philosophies that reject these kinds of systemic dualisms, and so contain the basis for a more cogent and applicable ethical theory. My work describes how these dualisms are rejected, and what kinds of possibilities are opened by pragmatist criticism.
Beyond Realism and
John Dewey and the Neopragmatists
David L. Hildebrand
"David Hildebrand's attempt to restate Dewey's central message is intelligent, well-informed, and well-argued, as are his polemics against what he takes to be Putnam's and my own misunderstandings of Dewey."--Richard Rorty, Stanford University
"Beyond Realism and Antirealism packs a double punch. Mobilizing a meticulous study of early twentieth-century classical pragmatism, Hildebrand engages the key neopragmatic positions of Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Then, driving his own thesis home, he offers what he terms Deweys' 'practical stance' as a corrective to the limitations of the linguistic turn."--Larry Hickman, Director, The Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
"It is indeed ingratiating to discover a scholar who is not only aware of, but champions, the vital Deweyan conceptions of having vs. knowing, primary experience, and the centrality of inquiry."--Frank X. Ryan, Kent State University
"Pragmatism was 'revived' in the 1970s and 1980s and was led at once into philosophical dead ends that John Dewey had already skillfully dismantled. Now, David Hildebrand corrects the record; provides an informed, splendidly argued, indispensable part of the recovery of Dewey's analysis of realism-still hardly bettered by anyone today."--Joseph Margolis, Temple University
Perhaps the most significant development in American philosophy in recent times has been the extraordinary renaissance of Pragmatism, marked most notably by the reformulations of the so-called "Neopragmatists" Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. With Pragmatism offering the allure of potentially resolving the impasse between epistemological realists and antirealists, analytic and continental philosophers, as well as thinkers across the disciplines, have been energized and engaged by this movement.
In Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists, David L. Hildebrand asks two important questions: first, how faithful are the Neopragmatists' reformulations of Classical Pragmatism (particularly Deweyan Pragmatism)? Second, and more significantly, can their Neopragmatisms work?
In assessing Neopragmatism, Hildebrand advances a number of historical and critical points:
"The material presented in this volume reflects a kind of sea-change in Dewey studies. It is not so much that these essays are uniformly positive or uncritical, for they are certainly not that. Their importance lies rather in the fact that serious scholarship on Dewey's logic, building on the solid advances won over the years by Thayer, Kennedy, Sleeper, Burke, and others, seems finally to have reached a critical mass. Perhaps even more important, when taken together these essays establish an important way-marker along a road that Dewey hoped his students would follow. They seek to push Dewey's ideas forward: to work out the consequences of his logic--his theory of inquiry--for a living philosophy."--Larry A. Hickman, from the Foreword
Despite the resurgence of interest in the philosophy of John Dewey, his work on logical theory has received relatively little attention. Ironically, Dewey's logic was his "first and last love." The essays in this collection pay tribute to that love by addressing Dewey's philosophy of logic, from his work at the beginning of the twentieth century to the culmination of his logical thought in the 1938 volume, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. All the essays are original to this volume and are written by leading Dewey scholars. Ranging from discussions of propositional theory to logic's social and ethical implications, these essays clarify often misunderstood or misrepresented aspects of Dewey's work, while emphasizing the seminal role of logic to Dewey's philosophical endeavors.
This collection breaks new ground in its relevance to contemporary philosophy of logic and epistemology and pays special attention to applications in ethics and moral philosophy.
F. Thomas Burke is assistant professor
of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. D. Micah Hester is
assistant professor of biomedical ethics
at Mercer University's School of Medicine. Robert B. Talisse is
professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Read an interview
Robert B. Talisse.
Foreword by Larry A. Hickman
I. Situations, Experience, and Knowing
1. The Aesthetics of Reality: The Development of Dewey's Ecological Theory of Experience
2. Logic and Judgments of Practice
3. Experimental Logic: Normative Theory or Natural History?
4. The Logical Reconstruction of Experience: Dewey and Lewis
5. Dewey and Quine on the Logic of What There Is
II. Logical Theory and Forms
6. Prospects for Mathematizing Dewey's Logical Theory
7. Designation, Characterization, and Theory in Dewey's Logic
8. Dewey's Logical Forms
9. The Role of Measurement in Inquiry
10. Qualities, Universals, Kinds, and the New Riddle of Induction
III. Values and Social Inquiry
11. Achieving Pluralism (Why AIDS Activists Are Different from Creationists)
12. The Teachers Union Fight and the Scope of Dewey's Logic
13. Power/Inquiry: The Logic of Pragmatism
Robert B. Talisse
Robert B. Talisse, co-editor of Dewey's Logical Theory: New Studies and Interpretations, explains why he thinks philosophy has to be creative as well as critical and what surprising ideas about Dewey readers can find in the book.
What is it about Dewey's philosophy that appeals to you personally?
I think that Dewey's thinking at its best represents what is best in philosophical thinking generally, namely, a careful balance between criticism and creativity. Dewey's most impressive philosophical moments consist in the coordination of his trenchant critique of traditional ways of thinking with his creative vision for a new style of philosophy. The dual aspect of Dewey's work is captured in a term he employed in describing his intellectual project, "reconstruction." Some philosophers are exceptionally skilled in devising criticisms of proposed positions, and others are especially creative when it comes to generating new ideas; the problem is that the critical and creative endeavors are often taken as distinct activities. Dewey's "reconstruction" of philosophy attempts to see the two as continuous moments of a single activity. Accordingly, each is incomplete without the other. So in Dewey's best work, the criticisms play into and support the creative proposals, and vice versa. This integration is, in my view, the true philosophical aspiration. Dewey of course does not always succeed in achieving this goal, but when he does, the results are genuinely exhilarating.
Larry Hickman has some high praise for your book, saying that you (editors and contributors) seek "to work out the consequences of [Dewey's] logic -- his theory of inquiry -- for a living philosophy." For the lay-person, what is a living philosophy and why is it important?
Larry Hickman is the Director of the Center for Dewey Studies, and we are delighted by his praise for the volume. The key to understanding the idea of a "living philosophy" as it relates to Dewey is Hickman's clarification of the term "logic." On the face of it, it would seem ridiculous to say that a book on logic has relevant consequences for a "living philosophy," since logic, in its typical sense, can be such a dry, lifeless subject. Dewey's "logic" is not what's studied in Formal Logic courses in college. Dewey saw logic as the "theory of inquiry," the study of how proper thinking is conducted. Hence for Dewey "logic" is the area of philosophy which deals with questions of how we should go about forming our beliefs. It is important to note that, on Dewey's view, beliefs are not merely internal or psychological attitudes, they are habits of action. Consequently, logic is in a certain sense the study of proper conduct--it is a normative discipline, if I may use a philosopher's term.
Logic, in Dewey's sense, is an essential component of a living philosophy, if by "living philosophy" we mean a philosophy that maintains a close connection with life. Dewey's philosophy is "living" in this way: his intellectual starting point is always the biological phenomenon of life itself, which includes the organism, the environment, nature, and culture. Hence his masterful work on art and aesthetic experience, Art as Experience, begins with a chapter on "The Live Creature," his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry features an early chapter on what Dewey calls the "biological matrix" of thinking. This aspect of Dewey's thought marks a radical departure from the philosophical tradition, which typically takes something eternal, immutable, and unearthly as its fundamental category.
Yet this is not the only sense in which one might say that Dewey's philosophy in general, and his theory of inquiry in particular, is "living." Because Dewey takes the living creature as fundamental, every aspect of his thinking is implicitly focused upon the problems confronting the live creature: it must survive both materially and culturally. In this sense, Dewey's philosophy is saturated with a concern for thriving, flourishing, or, to use one of Dewey's own terms, "growth." Logical theory contributes to this philosophical project insofar as it deals with the issue of how our understanding of things, our intellectual engagement with the world, can improve and thus promote growth.
Finally, Dewey's is a living philosophy
in that it is a philosophy that
is unfinished. Dewey saw himself as setting out the groundwork
a continuing philosophical program. He is explicit about this in
Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. Dewey's philosophy does not
a closed system, but sets before us the task of perpetual
refinement, and revision.
As a co-editor of this book, you certainly have a rich understanding of Dewey. What kinds of ideas or arguments presented by your contributors did you find surprising or illuminating?
When we were soliciting contributors for this volume, one of our central desiderata was to replicate in the selections the style of philosophical engagement manifest in Dewey's best work; that is, we wanted selections that struck the kind of balance between the critical and creative that I spoke of above. Each of the chapters in this volume attempts this in some way, and we are very pleased with that feature of the volume. In my view, the contributions which bring Dewey into constructive confrontation with other logical theorists are particularly exciting. Vincent Colapietro's contribution deserves mention here. Colapietro's essay deals with Charles Peirce's reaction to Dewey's work in logical theory. On the face of it, Dewey seems to be working out many of the principal elements of Peirce's own thinking, so Peirce's negative estimations of Dewey's work has long been a matter of interest among scholars. Colapietro brings to the question both philosophical and biographical concerns which are highly illuminating. I am also very enthusiastic about the essays which attempt to include Dewey in the conversations of contemporary philosophers. Here, Tom Burke's two contributions are exemplary. His first essay facilitates an encounter between Dewey's logical theory and current work in mathematical and formal logic with a view to establishing that the exchange can be mutually beneficial; the second sets up a similar dialogue between Dewey's logic and Nelson Goodman's notorious "new riddle of induction." Lastly, since my own philosophical work is focused upon political philosophy, and in particular upon democratic theory, I found the chapters in the volume's final section especially stimulating. John Capps deals in his contribution with a question that is in my mind central to any responsible social philosophy, namely, how does one uphold the value of pluralism and diversity without thereby sacrificing the ability to criticize extremist views? It seems that if social pluralism means anything at all, it must enjoin us to tolerate the views we are inclined to despise, but clearly there must be some limit to what we must tolerate. So where does this limit lie? In good Deweyan fashion, Capps employs real-life examples in his discussion of this question. The volume closes with what is, in my view, the most stimulating essay in the collection. John Stuhr's essay develops a crucial and powerful kind of criticism of Dewey's philosophy which draws from contemporary sources on the Continent, and especially from the work of Foucault. Dewey once identified philosophy with "criticism," and self-criticism is perhaps the most essential kind of critical activity. Stuhr's essay reminds us that if Deweyan philosophy is to continue in fruitful ways, we must never cease to honestly confront the strongest criticisms of our central commitments. Hence the volume closes by reaffirming that there is still work to be done, that there remains a task before us.
Cornel Ronald West (born June 2, 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma) is a prominent American scholar and public intellectual. Formerly at Harvard, West is currently a professor of Religion and African American studies at Princeton University. West's unique intellectual contributions draw from such diverse traditions as the African American Baptist Church, Marxism, pragmatism, and transcendentalism.
The grandson of a preacher, West was shaped from a young age by religious tradition and political struggle. As a young man, he marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized to demand black studies courses at his high school. West later wrote that in his youth he admired "the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party, and the livid black theology of James Cone."
He enrolled at Harvard University at age 17, and graduated in three years, magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and literature. He went to Princeton to complete his graduate education, where he was influenced by professor Richard Rorty, and specifically his dedication to the pragmatist school of philosophy. His dissertation, completed in 1980, was later revised and published as The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought. In his mid-twenties he returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow before becoming an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
In 1984 he went to Yale Divinity School, in what eventually became a joint appointment in American studies. While at Yale he participated in campus protests for a clerical union and divestment from apartheid South Africa, one of which resulted in his being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the university administration cancelled his leave for Spring 1987, leading him to commute between Yale (where he was teaching two classes) and the University of Paris (where he was teaching three).
He then returned to Union for a year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Afro-American studies program, which he revitalized in cooperation with such scholars as novelist Toni Morrison.
1993 saw the publication of Race Matters, a bestselling collection of essays, as well as his departure from Princeton to join the Afro-American studies program at Harvard, chaired by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who called West "the preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation"). In 1998, he received the prestiguous appointment of University Professor.
West's popularity was not, however, universal. Critics, most notably New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, charged him with opportunism, crass showmanship, and lack of scholarly seriousness. After Race Matters, he failed to produce any significant solo scholarship for several years and instead focused on slight, co-authored and edited volumes and on popularizations. Nevertheless, West remains a widely cited scholar. West never responded to Wieseltier's attack ("The Unreal World of Cornel West" (http://www.tnr.com/030695/wieseltier030695_print.html)).
In 2001, West became involved in a very public dispute with newly appointed Harvard president and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. (West was one of the 17 faculty members with the distinguished rank of University Professor. University Professor rank faculty report directly to the president on their research agendas.) Summers, in one of his meetings with West, allegedly accused West of devoting too much time and attention to political activities and less traditionally academic pursuits, such as producing a hip hop album (the critically-panned Sketches of my Culture) at the expense of his teaching and academic responsibilities. In 2002, West left Harvard to return to Princeton.
In 2003 West appeared as Councillor West in the science fiction films Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, and has recorded commentaries on philosophy for all three films in the Matrix trilogy for their DVD release.
The introduction to The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, entitled "The Making of an American Democratic Socialist of African Descent" is an autobiographical essay.
West was a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.
West, never satisfied with the world of academia, is unusually politically active for a scholar of his reputation. He describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (due to Marx's opposition to religion), and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join."
He has been involved with such projects as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and worked with such controversial figures as Louis Farrakhan (whom he has actively criticized), and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.
In 2000, West was a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. When Bradley lost in the primaries, West became a prominent endorser of Ralph Nader, even speaking at some Nader rallies. Some Greens had sought to draft West to run as a presidential candidate in 2004, but he refused, citing his participation in the Sharpton campaign.
West, along with other prominent Nader 2000 supporters, signed the Vote to Stop Bush statement urging progressive voters in swing states to vote for Kerry, despite strong disagreements with many of his policies.
West also serves as co-chair of the Tikkun Community. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization’s Task Force on Parent Empowerment, and participated in President Clinton's National Conversation on Race.
He has publicly endorsed In These Times magazine by calling it: "The most creative and challenging newsmagazine of the American left."
West, Professor of Religion and African
Studies at Princeton University, is one of America’s most
provocative, and important public intellectuals. Dr. West has won
awards, including the American Book Award, and has received more than
20 honorary degrees.
His work has been described as a “polemical weapon that attempts to transform linguistic, social, cultural, and political tradition to increase the scope of individual development and democratic actions.” West’s writing, speaking, and teaching weaves together the American traditions of the Baptist Church, transcendentalism, socialism, and pragmatism.
West’s best-selling book Race Matters (1993), which has sold 400,000 copies, changed the course of America’s dialogue on race, justice, and democracy. His writings, along with his frequent lecturing and preaching, has brought him widespread attention and honors. West’s first book, Prophesy Deliverance! (1982), advocates a socially concerned African American Christianity that draws from Marxism. His American Evasion of Philosophy (1989) engages the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the tradition of American pragmatism, especially the thought of John Dewey. Through the 1990s and into this decade West has continued to produce a steady stream of authored and co-authored books for academics and for a more general audience, including Breaking Bread (with bell hooks, 1991); Race Matters (1993); Jews and Blacks (with Michael Lerner, 1995 ); The Future of the Race (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1996); and The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 2000). His recent work also includes two important books he co-authored on public policy issues: The Future of American Progressivism (with Roberto Unger, 1998) and The War Against Parents (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 1998).
West has worked with numerous political and social organizations. He has been a long-time member, and now serves as an honorary Chair, of the Democratic Socialists of America. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization’s Task Force on Parent Empowerment. He is a co-chair of the Tikkun Community. He was part of President Clinton’s National Conversation on Race. He has joined Al Sharpton's Presidential exploratory committee (read article at gwu.edu).
West was an undergraduate at Harvard, where among his teachers was political philosopher John Rawls, receiving the AB Magna Cum Laude in 1973. He earned MA (1975) and PhD (1980) degrees from Princeton. From 1977 to 1984 and 1987-88 West taught at Union Theological Seminary, with an appointment at Yale Divinty School from 1984-87 intervening. From 1988 to 1993 West was Professor of religion and director of the Program in African-American Studies at Princeton. In 1993 West joined the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard Univerity, and became Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor in 1998.
In 2002 West returned to Princeton University as the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies (read articles at blackvoices.com, thecrimson.com, and hear West's own account).
A website devoted to West, which offers sound clips and photos, is Prisoner of Hope, by Rob Elder (1998). Africana.com and Africanpubs.com provide biographies, and washingtonpost.com covers West’s recent activities. West’s own account of his intellectual debts and formative years is in “Introduction: The Making of an American Democratic Socialist of African Descent” in The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991), pp. xv-xxxiv; reprinted in The Cornel West Reader (1999), pp. 3-18.
Books about West
Cornel West and Philosophy by Clarence Sholé Johnson (Routledge 2002)
Cornel West: A Critical Reader edited by George Yancy (Blackwell 2001)
Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism by Mark David Wood (University of Illinois Press 2000).
Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption by Rosemary Cowan (Polity, 2003).
CORNEL WEST ON THE WEB
Progressive Politics and What Lies Ahead with Roberto Unger (1998)
On Architecture (1991) Lecture at Harvard published by Appendx in 1997, with an interview with West.
CLS and a Liberal Critic (1988)
Interviews and Online Commentary
"Respect": Whither the Black Public Intellectual and the Recent Saga of Cornel West, by Waldo Martin (2002)
An Interview with Cornel West, with Michael Lerner (2002)
Cornel West and the Struggle for Social Transformation, by Andreas Saugstad (2002).
Lifestyles of the Rich and Tenured, by Mark Anthony Neal (2002)
A Time to Break the Silence on Dr. King's Final Mission and Message: A Conspectus on Drs. King, Du Bois, and West, by John H. McClendon (2001)
Sketches of a Scholar: Q&A with Cornel West, interview by Jessica Green (2001)
Go West: Professor-prophet Cornel West takes his sermon to the streets, Professor-prophet Cornel West takes his sermon to the streets, by Nina Willdorf (2001)
C-SPAN Interview (2001)
Paula Gordon Show (2000)
C-SPAN Booknotes interview with Brian Lamb about The Cornel West Reader (2000).
Review of The War against Parents, by Mary Van Leeuwen (1998)
A Brief Analysis of Social Analysis and a Social Analysis of Cornel West's Contributions, by Theodore Walker, Jr. (1997)
Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, or, Richard Wright's Revenge, by Ralph Dumain (1996)
The Unreal World of Cornel West, by Leon Wieseltier (1995)
Review of West, Prophetic Fragments by Michael Eric Dyson (1989)
Search FindArticles for West
A sampling of recent lectures and speeches
January 2003 Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Northwestern University
November 2002 Speaker at "Sidney Hook Reconsidered: A Centennial Celebration," City University of New York
April 2001 Kegley Memorial Lecture at California State University, Bakersfield.
March 2001 The Inaugural Lecture in the John Dewey Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of Louisville.
Fall 2000 Coalition of Essential Schools, Fall Forum.
November 1999 Lecture on "Restoring Hope" at Williams College
March 1998 Speaks on the politics of race relations at the University of Maryland.
January 1997 "Race Matters" at Dartmouth College
February 1996 Lecture at Chico State University
November 1995 Lecture on Black-Jewish Relations at Yale University
Books and Projects
Cornel West appears in The Matrix sequels, playing a Zion Elder called Counselor West. He was invited by Larry and Andy Wachowski, the movies' writer-director team, who'd read West's philosophical writings and wanted to incorporate him into the script.
West and Derek 'D.O.A.' Allen produced a CD titled Sketches of My Culture in 2001, "a poignant yet inviting depiction of the African American experience that begins with the rich African heritage to and through the black American experience." (read articles at africana.com, bet.com, and newsreview.com)
Democracy Matters. New York: Penguin, 2004.
The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999.
The War Against Parents, with Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
The Future of American Progressivism, with Roberto Unger. Boston: Beacon, 1998.
Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America, edited by Kelvin Sealey. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
The Future of the Race, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America, with Michael Lerner. New York: Dutton/Plume, 1996.
Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, with Michael Lerner. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.
Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Beyond Eurocentism and Multiculturalism. Vol. 1: Prophetic Thoughts in Post-Modern Times. Vol. 2: Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1993.
Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Reissued in hardcover with new introduction, 2001.
Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, with bell hooks. Boston: South End Press, 1991.
Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought. New
York: Monthly Review Press, 1991.
Prophetic Fragments: Illuminations of the Crisis in American Religion and Culture. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988.
Prophesy Deliverance! An African American Revolutionary Christianity. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster Press, 1982
Pragmatism asks its
usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what
concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life?
will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from
which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the
cash-value in experiential terms?"
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