Making a case for the “power” of theory

This week in North Philly Notes, Grant Farred, editor of Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures, writes about the precarity of Black life.

The precarity of Black life. In the U.S. we are reminded of this every day. At least that is how it seems. Police shootings are the worst of it, but not the whole truth of it by any means. In the Black diaspora at large, a similar situation obtains. Unseaworthy vessels sink and African migrants drown as they go in search of a better life in Europe. If they survive, new modes of hostility await them. The stranger is not welcome.

To think a theoretical future for Africana Studies under these conditions seems, if not pyrrhic, then Wordsworthian in tenor. It would be dissembling to suggest that Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures was not conceived against precisely this backdrop, one which recalls the Romantic poet’s lament. Wordsworth writes:

The world is too much with us; late and soon

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

Against just such a world, where everything mitigates against Black life, Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures makes a case for the “power” of theory. That is because in this collection, theory is not understood as an abstraction or as a rarefied mode of thought. Instead, theory is mobilized in this collection as the work of imagining—of thinking for—a future for Global Black life where precarity is not the order of the day. Africana theory is providing, if not a blueprint, then a first sounding board for how combat the violence that so threatens Black life; a platform for not only resisting the onslaught against Black life, but for ensuring a future that can sustain and nurture Black life. Where Black life might even thrive.

The work of theory is thus to harness the “power” of Black thought in all its manifestations. This collection includes poetic reflection, philosophical contemplation, geo-political analysis and quasi-memoiristic recollection. The work that this collection assigns itself is to think for the futures of Black life. Futures rather than the singular future. That is, in order to create the conditions under which Black life might be sustainably lived there can be no one, single future that will speak to and address all Black needs. It is therefore necessary to think for the plurality of futures. To propose the logic of plurality rather than singularity is, a priori, to anticipate a series of new challenges in those futures. That is, the work of making a future(s) in which Black life can be sustained is, by its very nature, an incomplete project. Every new imagining of Black life, to say nothing of every new making of that life, will generate its own set of possibilities and difficulties.

It will thus always be necessary to develop new theoretical tools, to hone new philosophical skills, to produce new poetic insights, to imagine new geo-political formations and configurations, in order to sustain Black life. In this way Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures recognizes its historical location. It speaks out of, and for, a particular historical conjuncture. It understands its speaking as emerging out of the institutional facticity that is the 50th anniversary of Africana Studies in the American academy.

Rather than being declarative, then, the book offers itself as an invitation. The invitation to think for new theoretical futures, to produce new modes for Black being, to create new poetic articulations. The future of Africana Studies as a discipline is charged with always addressing the challenges that confront Black life, which history has shown to always be a condition overwritten by precarity—a way of being in the world that has always been “too much with us.”

Because Black life in the present is lived as an existential threat, the effect of such precarity is to lend urgency to thinking for theoretical futures. If nothing else, however, Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures reveals the many modes, the multiple registers, the variegated disciplines, in which this thinking might take place. And in this multiplicity, this collection makes evident, there is the imaginings of how Black lives might be lived.


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