U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To praxis, with love.

Over the last several weeks I have been loving Eran’s series of interviews with scholars working on the early American history of race and racist ideas. Content aside – which has been excellent – I find the conversational and easy flow of interviews a deeply satisfying and engaging form of being introduced to a new argument, perspective, or discovery. I’ve also been listening on and off to the podcast The Viking Age, for no other reason than personal enjoyment. Podcasts, too, are a slightly more personalized form than many mediums designed to educate; even audio books are not quite the same, as they are written primarily to be read and not spoken aloud and, more often than not, are not read by the author themselves.

What is it about interviews and podcasts that make absorbing information so much more stimulating? Perhaps it is how they replicate the experience of a conversation, even when, in the case of podcasts, there is no immediate talking-back. Podcasters typically read from a script, but such scripts are often written as though the listener is a warm acquaintance and the setting is not a competitive space – there is no professor who will ultimately issue grades pacing before students in a large hall – but rather a cozy, semi-personal one; perhaps the inside of a car or a sunny table outside a coffee shop.

I’ve read so many books in my life that have opened my eyes, thrilled my mind and touched my heart. But my friends and comrades far outstrip any single source of knowledge I’ve encountered, and deserve the most gratitude for my intellectual growth. The words that eventually wind up stacked up on the computer screen are rarely disconnected from my memory’s film reel of faces, glasses, cigarettes, music, laughter, and occasionally anger and tears. When we formally compose our thoughts and arguments – particularly in an academic setting – there is a spontaneity and earnestness that almost inevitably gets lost. Not because the written form is necessarily duplicitous, but because professional writing commands us to focus – to maintain a certain affect, tone, and tenor so first and foremost the information, rather than all the circumstances in which it stewed, is communicated. There are all sorts of reasons for these rules, and some of them are good ones. But the more thinking, living, and loving I do the more unsatisfying this form of intellectual engagement becomes.

As a scholar and a citizen I am supposed to be producing knowledge and perspectives to enrich the public, however you may wish to expand or narrow that category. But what is the meaning of producing thought if we are not simultaneously engaging in praxis? Praxis – an idea made most famous by Gramsci – can perhaps be most simply expressed through the cheesy expression, “be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s incredibly reductive, of course; but, perhaps the definition most academics and even activists churn around inside their heads is not reductive enough to be helpful. Because praxis – for me, at least – isn’t just what petitions you sign, marches you attend, or boycotts you participate in. It’s what you do when your back is up against a corner during a politically charged departmental dispute. It’s how you show your support for the marginalized and oppressed in contexts and spaces not explicitly about their second-class status. And it’s also about friendship, and the obligations we have towards those we call comrades. This means it can also be incredibly difficult; at times you’re so unsure what the right action is that it tears you apart. But that’s how you know you’re breathing life into your vision for a different world; there’s no praxis I recognize as such without angry outbursts, mutually validating bouts of shit talking, painful disagreements and loneliness-annihilating reconciliation. To really do praxis, in other words, you’ve got to find the courage to be human, to be honest, and to place your politics in the same place in your heart where you relish your love for others.

There’s little to no place for that kind of thinking within the bureaucracies of the formal academy, where the admonishment of Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin – to keep the notion of love out of the practice of politics – seems to reign supreme.[1] And yet a yearning for something like this rolls along underground; you can see it and hear it at the hotel bars of conferences – when all the papers are given, and all the Q&As politely conducted – packed with people who pounce on an opportunity to talk shop while also joking, flirting, boozing. But, some might say, all this is merely gossip, cocktail conversation – not to be placed side by side with finished manuscripts and carefully footnoted analyses. Therefore, so much of it goes unrecorded, dismissed, and discarded; and in place of this cacophony we form images of meaningful thought being born in quiet spaces of isolation: libraries, archives, offices.

And so, when I think of all the praxis I’ve seen, and that memory reel keeps rolling in the back of my mind like the rhythm of a rocking train, I wonder: how much of our heritage has been lost to us?, here on the left – how many unrecorded nights of high spirits and high hopes have faded away into the cigarette smoke?

[1] I have to thank Kevin Shultz for this nugget of information, which he mentioned in his paper on his upcoming book on James Baldwin at the OAH Conference this year.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Especially the latter part of this post, on the importance of informal conversation, relates, albeit somewhat obliquely, to a decision I made w/r/t my recent post on the Harrington book.

    Parts of that book consist of somewhat informal political and other reflections that he recorded as he was traveling in India, E. Africa, and Mexico (among other places). Included are discussions of his conversations w various experts, the occasional person on the street, and also e.g. his interview w Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. And he talks about human reactions, spec. how his own capacity for empathy has limits, e.g. at least part of his reactions to beggars in India were like those of any affluent Westerner who finds them annoying and wishes they would stop besieging him.

    I don’t know if these sections are examples of praxis exactly, but in some ways they’re more interesting than the other, more conventional parts of the book, and I had originally written something about them in the post. I decided however that it was getting too long, that relatively few people are willing to slog through a blog post of more than say 1400 or 1500 words, and so I cut out stuff and in the end just referred to those sections of the book briefly in passing. Apart from perhaps revealing my biases (for lack of a better word), I’m not sure what the moral of this is, but thought I’d mention it anyway.

    P.s. The other thing that occurs to me in connection w the latter part of your post is the importance of oral history, which presumably captures at least some of the otherwise “unrecorded nights of high spirits and high hopes” — experiences, perhaps it should be added, that are not a unique possession of people on the left, much as they (we) might sometimes like to think so.

    • Really interesting! As for not knowing the “moral of this,” I often have the same feeling — it’s not always clear to me what I am finding so compelling and sometimes posts like this are a part of me working my way through that.

      You’re absolutely spot on to mention oral history; actually another way I wound up with this subject matter was thinking about folk music, or the lack thereof, both on the left and the broader culture. Why isn’t song a central element of protests anymore, for example? That seems like such an important question to me but, not being a cultural historian or steeped in the theory to answer it, all I have are half-baked ideas about why that might be.

      I did stop and think about taking the “we on the left” portion out of the end there, as you’re absolutely right that it’s a human thing writ large — but since the post was about how that universal human thing intersects, or definitely needs to at least, with any socialist or radical political imaginary, I decided to stick with it. But point taken, totes.

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