George Ciccariello-Maher: Decolonizing Dialectics, Duke University Press, 2017, pp 256, paperback, $23.95, ISBN: 978-0-8223-6243-2.
Review by Benjamin P. Davis, Emory University
â€œFor too long,â€ George Ciccariello-Maher writes, â€œdialectics has not served to denote such moments of combative division that give its name, but instead the opposite: a harmonious closure often announced but rarely experiencedâ€ (1). From the very beginning of Decolonizing Dialectics, he argues against the ideology of harmony and closure and toward movements of struggle and differenceâ€”ruptures.
Ciccariello-Maher describes â€œdialecticsâ€ as â€œthe dynamic movement of conflictive oppositionsâ€ (2). Dialectics as such helps the thinker to consider historical questions about what to preserve and discard as well as how to move forward. By self-consciously posing these as live questions, he places himself against politically conservative readings of Hegel that emphasize not the becomings of engaging in dialectical struggles, but, rather, the being enmeshed in the dialecticâ€”in the singular, linear, progressive, deterministic, universal, and teleological. Ultimately, Ciccariello-Maher wants to subject the dialectical tradition itself to a â€œdecolonizing Aufhebungâ€ (6) by foregrounding opposition, particularity, separation, localization and contingencyâ€”the â€œindeterminacy of the futureâ€ (11). Priority goes to contestation in praxis, not unity in unconsciously carrying out the work of history. Ciccariello-Maherâ€™s book moves by taking up three figures who are critical of, but not outside, the dialectical tradition: Georges Sorel, Franz Fanon, and Enrique Dussel.
In chapter one Ciccariello-Maher engages the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, who provides a foundation of radical combat open to subsequent decolonization. Sorel sees necessary order, the resolutions of contradictions, and deterministic teleology as illusions. In his threefold dialectic, he (1) diagnoses an immobility of the present, (2) sees mythical violence as a means to sharpen class oppositions (of bourgeois force and proletarian violence), and (3) foregrounds creative and unpredictable violence that leaves struggle open-ended (28-29). Through (1) he stands deeply critical of reformers, whose erasures of class identity operate through both education for â€œunityâ€ (here a national false universal) and labor arbitration for mediation. Thus inequalities are both tempered and, through parliamentary mechanisms, legitimated. Through (2) he reverses the usual formulation of Marxâ€™s Klasse fÃ¼r sich and Klasse an sich; for Sorel, class-for-itself â€œprecedes and produces the class-in-itself, pressing history into motion subjectivelyâ€ toward a violence of rupture, destroying hierarchy in an undetermined manner akin to the â€œpure meansâ€ of Walter Benjaminâ€™s â€œlaw-destroyingâ€ divine violence (35-36). Sorelâ€™s radicalized dialectic opens onto a decolonized dialectics through its rejection of received dogmas, awareness of false universals (which often wear masks of ethics), understanding of ideology, insistence on deepening the diremption between classes, and a loosening of the determinism between the economic and the political.
Chapter two takes Franz Fanon as its central figure. In Black Skin, White Masks, through a description of lived experience, Fanon demonstrates that the path of access to universal humanity is closed to particular racialized subjects, in this case to Black subjects. Corresponding to Sorelâ€™s demonstration of the narrative of harmony halting dialectical motion, Fanon shows how the false universals of â€œemancipationâ€ and formal equality (50), alibis of white supremacy (64), conceal their oppression. In turn, for reasons more ontological than ideological, Hegelâ€™s presumed â€œshared basis for reciprocity and ultimately recognitionâ€ (53) is blocked from the outset, rendering dialectical motion inaccessible. In this contextâ€”against both Hegelâ€™s presumption of reciprocity and Sartreâ€™s imprisonment of race (through subsumption) within a predetermined class-based dialecticâ€”, Fanon asserts Black identity over and against determinism and illusory reconciliation. â€œFanonâ€™s predialectical struggle to enforce the basis for symmetry through combat, and the counterontological violence it entails, could therefore be best summarized in these three words: making oneself knownâ€ (58). As Ciccariello-Maher notes about the politics of colonial societies, including that of the United States, â€œDespite the fact that actual, concrete violence lay almost exclusively on the side of whiteness, Black resistance is always deemed violent whatever form it takesâ€ (61). â€œFor the racialized subject,â€ he continues, â€œself-consciousness as human requires counterviolence against ontological force. In a historical situation marked by the denial of reciprocity and condemnation to nonbeing, that reciprocity can only result from the combative self-assertion of identityâ€ (63). Indeed, it is precisely this violence that â€œoperates toward the decolonization of beingâ€ (63). Fanonâ€™s contribution, then, comprises the de-colonization of Hegelâ€™s approach not exactly from the ground up, but, more precisely, from the â€œsubontological realm to which the racialized are condemned,â€ gesturing toward the pre-dialectical and counterontological violence that dialectical opposition requires (70).
Chapter three focuses on Fanonâ€™s Wretched of the Earth, beginning from the observation that in colonial societies, â€œDivision already exists and is undeniable; it is embedded in the architectural makers of everyday lifeâ€ (81). The dialectical response to this division is not unity, but violence, â€œthe essential precondition for national identityâ€ (86) and also a â€œtrustworthy vaccineâ€ (95) for the decolonial nation against the dual threat posed by the insidious â€œpostâ€ of â€œpost-colonialâ€: the trap within â€œthe simplistic nationalism that had been its initial motorâ€ and the absorption into â€œthe neocolonial continuity of the capitalist world-systemâ€ (91). Moving through his emphasis on violence, Fanon opens the decolonial nation outward onto â€œa unified decolonial struggle of global proportionsâ€ (97).
Chapter four looks to Enrique Dussel to elaborate on the nontotalizing motion of Fanonâ€™s decolonial nation. For Dussel, totalitarianismâ€”under which the Other suffers differentially and disproportionatelyâ€”always lurks behind totality. In response, Dussel works through Hegelian dialectics and Levinasian exteriorityâ€”a move toward the â€œoutsideâ€ he calls â€œanalecticsâ€â€”while shifting terminologically from Fanonâ€™s â€œnationâ€ to el pueblo (the people, a category of both unity and division). El pueblo operates, Ciccariello-Maher explains, by â€œallowing us to stitch together many of the identities discussed so far (class, race, and nation) into a multiplicity of overlapping microdialecticsâ€ (104). This is a move whose oppositions are inward as much as outward, emerging through the â€œself-activity and rupture by the (internally) oppressed alongside the (externally) excludedâ€ (121). In regard to el puebloâ€™s both/and (of both the oppressed and the excluded), Ciccariello-Maher argues that Dussel â€œsituates analecticsâ€”the turn toward the Other, the outside, and the beyond, understood in concrete historical terms rather than ethical termsâ€”as a moment in a broader dialectical progressionâ€ (104). Against Hegel (and with Fanon), Dussel suggests that the master-slave dialectic is not possible under colonial conditions because the slave disappears from the horizon through death (107). Against Levinas, Dussel refuses abstraction in his insistence on the concrete establishment of the position of the Otherâ€”â€œthe paradigmatic case of exteriority is precisely hungerâ€ (111). In this concrete way, Dussel expands a dialectical vision â€œwith exteriority providing not only the foothold for motion but also the leverage to pry open an indeterminate futureâ€ (115). This response to exclusion rejects positing inclusion as a â€œsolutionâ€ or closure. On the contrary, it foregrounds â€œthe radical breaching and outward expansion of that totalityâ€ (207, from p. 111, n. 22).
In chapter five Ciccariello-Maher turns to contemporary Venezuela, where â€œthis dynamic fusion of internal oppositions and decolonial appeal to excluded exterioritiesâ€ currently plays out (8). He criticizes Hardt and Negri for their Eurocentric reading of the people as â€œa closed unity, both homogenous and homogenizingâ€ (124). The colonized cannot simply choose an identity, such as the Multitude, but â€œare instead condemned to choose among condemnationsâ€¦ the one that will best harness mass struggleâ€ (127). And that chosen identity is el pueblo, a decolonized popular unity, â€œa unity against, a unity premised on antagonistic ruptureâ€ (137), seen in the emergence of Chavismo, committed to subjective combat (with Sorel), grounded in temporality (with Fanon), and expanding toward exteriority (with Dussel) (145).
Just as there is no teleological end of history and no deterministic end to struggle, there is no conclusion per se to his book. Invoking the figure of Frederick Douglass, the final section of Ciccariello-Maherâ€™s book gestures to a time â€œprior to where [he] beganâ€ (153). His title names neither the finished â€œdecolonizedâ€ nor the (singular) â€œdialectic.â€ Decolonizing Dialectics is active and multiple, rupturing and spiraling page after page. My sense is that, after my above review of his chapters, enumerating a few of my criticisms of his project in the usual way would conclude in a way too petty for the ambitions of the textâ€”a kind of betrayal both of critique in its active ability to demonstrate conceptual limits and possibilities and of dialectics in their open-ended motion that self-consciously takes up particular commitments. â€œ[A] philosophy which privileges the generative effects of social structures can only remain in the contemplative mode for so long before it must transcend itselfâ€ (73). The same should be said about the philosopher.